The 4th Friday in Ordinary Time
In the 1st book of Samuel, the Lord describes David as “a man after his own heart”. And in the first reading this morning, Ben Sira tells us what that means: “With his every deed David offered thanks to God. With his whole being he loved his Maker”. A man like that “keeps watch over his heart, since that’s where life starts” (Prov 4:23), and where attitudes are formed.
Today’s Gospel tells us about the suffering of another man of God, John the Baptist. His imprisonment and beheading make us wonder about our attitude to suffering and evil in our own lives. A monk is engaged in a lifelong contemplation of reality which brings us to God because God is behind everything. Everything is because he has either willed it or permitted it. And if the evil permitted by him frightens us, there is still some good underneath it all, and it is that good that God wills. Even when we contemplate the reality of suffering and evil in our lives, there is something of God’s will – and therefore of his Love – hidden at the root of everything. A monk is someone who may not always find but does truly seek God’s Will and his Love. Like David, “with his every deed, he offers thanks to God”.
St Benedict describes this monastic attitude in the fourth degree of humility when he says that the monk’s “heart quietly embraces suffering”, and that monks “are so confident in their expectation of reward from God that they continue joyfully and say, ‘But in all this, we overcome because of him who so greatly loved us’”. Monks are the successors of John the Baptist, not in the sense that they shed their blood for Christ, but in the sense that they give their lives for Christ, and thank the Holy One in all their activities, even in their sufferings and trials. Faithful monks are firmly rooted in God, in love or in suffering, no matter what God may choose to give or take away. They do not place too much importance on their own monastic practices; if they prove helpful to their spiritual life, well and good.
But God in his love may shatter our foundations, as happened to many people during the Covid pandemic. Those of us who tested positive found that we could not do some monastic practices. If we wanted to go to Mass, we had to isolate in our cell. If we wanted to eat with the community, we had to eat after those who tested negative, and then only one monk to a table. In ways like these, everything we were counting on crumbles away, and we were brought face-to-face with our bare nothingness, just as John in prison had to face his own powerlessness. But having experiences like these shows us how totally we depend on God, and we learn to thank him with a pure and simple faith, with no other support to sustain us. Monastic observances turn out to be important, but not so important as the attitude with which they are done.
It’s the same way with our attitude to suffering. The fourth degree of humility teaches us to praise God in everything – in our thoughts and works and in everything that happens, even in suffering and trials.
The monk who can praise God in everything finds that suffering is the way to joy, just as death – or mortification, which is death to self – is the way to life. Like John the Baptist, the humble monk accepts what he cannot change, remaining serene under the cross. It is not to the cross that we turn our face, but to the One who carried it before us and for us, and who carries it with us still, because he so greatly loves us, from the depths of his infinite Heart.