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Saint Benedict’s wise words on avoiding “the zeal of bitterness”

Although the Church is in the middle of several emergencies, the point of crisis is one in our individual hearts: whom shall we serve?

Detail from "Life of St Benedict, Scene 7. Benedict Instructs the Peasants" (1505-08) by Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) [WikiArt.org]

“Sicut est zelus amaritudinis malus qui separat a Deo et ducit ad infernum, ita est zelus bonus qui separat a vitia et ducit ad Deum et ad vitam aeternam.”  – Regula Benedicti, LXXII.

Just as there is a bad zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal, which separates from vice, and leads both to God and eternal life.  – Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter LXXII (72). 

For at least a century or so, it seems that whenever the media wants to present a troubling problem in society they have made ever increasing use of the word “crisis”—a word as overused as it is misunderstood.  The noun “crisis” is derived from the Greek κρισις, a term used by ancient Greek doctors such as Hippocrates or Galen to denote the pivotal stage in the course of an illness when the patient would either overcome and begin the return to health, or decline and die.  As it has been borrowed in English for at least five centuries, it has always been used to indicate some sort of decision or turning point.  In its etymology, then, the word “crisis” has a sort of internal dynamism: it is not an immobile noun, but one which explicitly means that a turning point has been reached, or is close at hand.

Unfortunately, most people do not use the word in this sense, but rather as a substitute for the word “emergency” or something similar.  That is to say, some situation or nexus of problems which reaches an acute gravity, as something which demands immediate attention.  The difference between a true crisis and an emergency is extremely important.  For instance, a person having a stroke is having a true emergency, and that is why, even in the context of medicine, such a person would go to the emergency room and seek immediate medical care.  However, the time of crisis technically may or may not be at that moment.  It may be during or after surgery, or the administering of medicine, or some point when it becomes clear that the patient will either recover or be lost.

Nearly every emergency has some moment of crisis: but not every crisis is an emergency, or happens in the context of an emergency.

In the midst of all this talk of “crisis” is a constant and often overt feeling of frustration and helplessness among many writers and commentators, and indeed, among the engaged lay faithful in general.  These feelings of frustration and helplessness are completely understandable, yet like most forms of frustration, tend to invite maladaptive and unconstructive compensatory behaviors and strategies to fill the void where leadership and patient, constant determination are necessary.

In this vein, it is helpful to return to the concept of zeal, which is the typical virtue invoked by reformers in every age, the majority of them invoking the archetypal example of Christ clearing out the money changers from the temple.  Yet Church history is replete with such personages, who, if they are unable to link their zeal to truth and charity, become completely unhinged and ultimately become catalysts for further breakdown and destruction.  The lesson of history is fairly clear: if anyone should assume the mantle of reform, he or she must be very careful not be crushed under the weight.

This is why the words of Saint Benedict, so richly rooted in Sacred Scripture and in Christian spirituality, have a particular relevance in regard to what we commonly call zeal, because he clearly understands that there is, as quoted above, a bad zeal which leads to damnation, and a good zeal which leads to God and eternal life.

Interestingly, St. Benedict characterizes the bad zeal as being the zelus amaritudinis, which quite literally is the “zeal of bitterness”.  Reading several Benedictine commentaries on the meaning of this Rule for their communities and spirituality, what is clear is that the core of what St. Benedict calls a “zeal of bitterness” is a tendency toward the dissolution of common life.  The person who is full of this zeal has a fundamental impatience with the faults of the people around him, which is a diabolical distraction from the real locus of combat, which is within.  This zeal proceeds not from an other-centered focus on growth and union, but rather a covertly egocentric fixation based upon one’s resentments, disappointments, and deep pain, even if those feelings proceed from genuine wrongs.

The true motivation of the bitter zeal is not reform for the sake of the souls of the wrongdoers and the common good, but rather for the removal of pain and the feeling of outrage.  This is extremely subtle, and perhaps controversial: it is similar to a parent who may pray for the conversion of a wayward child, but along the way becomes embittered because the prayer proceeds more from a desire for the removal of aggravation and worry than the true spiritual and human good of the child.  All of us are susceptible to this very subtle temptation.

Of course, human beings, even Saints, can often have mixed motivations, and so it is very likely that a person may possess, despite their best efforts, both of these ‘zeals’ at the same time. Yet, the question is which zeal we wish to feed, and wish zeal we wish to ultimately dominate our thoughts and behavior.  That makes all the difference.

All this is in line with the fundamental humanitas and penetrating understanding which is so outstanding in the Rule and psychology of Saint Benedict: it was clear to him that in a community, rebuke and correction has its place, but that one must be very careful not to destroy by pushing too hard.  In this vein, he speaks of the zeal of the good Abbot:

Let him be convinced that it becomes him better to serve than to rule.  He must, therefore, be versed in the divine law…let him be chaste, sober and merciful, and let him always exalt ‘mercy above judgment’, that he also may obtain mercy.  Let him hate vice, but love the brethren.  And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence and not go to extremes, lest, while he aims to remove the rust too thoroughly, the vessel be broken.  Let him always keep his own frailty in mind, and remember that ‘the bruised reed must not be broken’.  In this we are not saying that he should allow evils to take root, but that he cut them off with prudence and charity, as he shall see it is best for each one, as we have already said; and let him aim to be loved rather than feared. (Rule, LXIV)

In an era when the deeds and misdeeds of people half a world away can fill our screens with bad example and thus our hearts with moral panic, it is fundamentally important to firstly withhold judgment, because none of us are possessed of all the facts of any case.  At the very least, it is important to be aware that in terms of what touches the needs of the Universal Church, God does not require of us our judgment, but our prayers and charity.  We should pray that God gives our leaders wisdom, and we should make known to them, as best we can, the matters of grave importance that affect our lives, (see CIC, 212, 3) all the while making clear our desire to be of assistance in the remedying of these evils.  All throughout our lives, we will all experience various emergencies which may constitute a severe trial.  However, before we encounter these emergencies, we have a choice to forego the stress and drama of crisis, in the sense that we will have already made an interior choice in favor of charity and truth.

The Church on earth will always endure her emergencies, her combats with the great adversaries of the flesh, the world and the devil.  But in a sense, although the Church may endure a crisis in regard to what to do in response, she is never at a doubt as to how to act: always with more fidelity to Christ, and with a deeper commitment to holiness of life.

It is well known from psychology and spirituality that peoples and individuals who constantly lurch from one ad hoc reaction to another in response to challenges often will find themselves frustrated and depleted.  Ultimately these feelings can lead to bitterness and cynicism.  What is most important is to transcend these challenges by adopting a proactive, thoroughly Christian point of view and commitment.  Any course of action which savors of Alinskyite-style activism or secular, humanistic criteria for what is just, true, and loving must be avoided and actively resisted.

I fear sometimes that in the name of speaking truth about the failures of some bishops, priests and laity alike may fundamentally undermine the legitimate authority of all bishops.  I fear that in decrying the moral and spiritual ills of the age, very few devote themselves to the “renewal of [their mind]” to which St. Paul urges us (Rom 12:1).  Unable to suffer the imperfection and hurts in the body politic of the Church, some may choose to “opt out” entirely in search of greener pastures.  They will not find them.

If reading the news constantly fills you with anxiety and dread, perhaps it is best to turn off the television or the computer, and seek ways not to stress out about the matters you cannot control, but to be a holy influence in the matters to which you can offer your indispensable, necessary presence.  Although the Church is in the middle of several emergencies, the point of crisis is one in our individual hearts: whom shall we serve?  If we are possessed of that good and holy zeal, our response will not be loud clamor and inordinate anger but our ancient weapons: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.

Finally, we must never despair. God is with us, and he will come to our assistance.  As St. Benedict reminds us, it is the last “instrument of good works”, that is to say, a principle which guides holy living, that we should “never despair of the mercy of God” (IV, LXXII). The mercy of God, that of renewing us and raising us from the stain of our sins, only remains as far as we hold it, and remains as close as we cherish it.  May God so grant that we may receive it for ourselves, and for the Church that we love.

(This post originally appeared on the Scutum et Lorica site in a slightly different form.)

About Aquae Regiae 3 Articles
Aquae Regiae is the Nom de plume of Fr. Michael, a Catholic priest in the United States. He is the founder and main editor of Scutum et Lorica. He has two earned Masters Degrees in Divinity and Arts.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you Father, for these wise and timely words, taken from Saint Benedict, and presented by yourself. Words are so important and can be used as weapons. It was good to have the difference explained: between crisis and emergency. I know I’m definably carrying both types of zeal. Exactly what the balance is, God only knows. Hopefully it’s not tipping too much in the way of bad zeal. One thing I find to be so important, is reading the O.T Prophets. Especially the passages where God pledges to restore Israel, His first born son, after yet, another round of infidelity. The passages proclaiming God’s spousal love for Israel, are also among the most beautiful in Scripture. Even the verses where Israel is accused of playing the harlot, show that God wants a spousal relationship with His people. For myself: Sacred Scripter is true food for the soul and, a great source of comfort. The whole Bible is a wonderful gift to the Church. However: I find it helpful to have a variety in what to read. Your essay is much appreciated.
    Stephen in Australia.

  2. St. Benedict’a teaching is both true and necessary. I know of a deeply devout and orthodox Catholic who undertook to pray for a pro-abortion politician during one Lent. After a couple of weeks she had to give up: every time she prayed for him, she became so angry it disrupted her prayer. “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.” (Heb 12, 14-15)

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