This is a dangerous posting. So many people have fallen into hedonism and selfishness that to write about not being vigilant and strict with one's self all the time may seem inappropriate. However, I want to caution some of my traditional friends on being too harsh with themselves. Perhaps my perspective is so Benedictine, a way which always considers the weak, that I write this cautionary tale from St. Anthony Abbot: A desert hunter saw Anthony Abbot “horsing around” with his fellow monks. The hunter expressed shock, even scandal, when he saw the monks enjoying themselves at some recreation. Anthony Abbot told the hunter to string his bow and shoot at a near target. The hunter did so. Then, the Abbot told the hunter to shoot another arrow. The hunter did so. When the Abbot asked the hunter to shoot a third, the hunter replied, “If I bend my bow so much at a time, it will break.” Anthony Abbot replied. “So it is with my monks. If I do not give them rest and recreation, they will break.”
The point of this story is relatively clear. But I think the larger question has to do with the works of piety and prayer. Christ warns us not to pile on repetitious prayers one after another. He decidedly does tell us to pray and fast. Fasting is ignored for the most part today. And, so much fasting is what I call “token fasting”, such as giving up luxuries, such as chocolate or going out to dinner. Such is the wealth of the States, that fasting resembles ordinary life for the rest of the world.
However, there is a stage wherein the great words of St. Benedict apply to all. When he writes of the balance of work, study and prayer, he indicates that all three activities are important in a day for a person pursuing holiness. An entire day of prayer is not natural for us lowly humans. The necessity of work and the need for study, such as the reading of Scripture daily, create a rhythm of activity, all focused on Christ. To omit one is folly and shows a lack of appreciation for the needs of the human, who is body and spirit. Above all rules, that of St. Benedict reveals an understanding of what it means to be an organized, healthy human being.
That Anthony Abbot recognized the needs of his community shows the Holy Spirit working within the Church in all ages.
St. Thomas More wore a hair-shirt and he said when in prison that he wished he had been harder on himself in order to prepare for his martyrdom. His example were the Carthusians being stretched on hurdles and taken to Tyburn, singing in the mud and grime. If one is called to such serious penances, one must have a spiritual director. But, for the lay person, the joyous accepting of daily sufferings without complaining may be enough penance. May we all realize that complaining is a sin and if we refrain, we change our entire outlook on life to one of gratitude and joy.