As it turns out, everything!
My family and I have begun watching Father Michael Gaitley’s excellent DVDs, where he makes the point that we have a distorted image of God — we think of him as a tyrant micro-managing us, when he is really a lover who is courting us. The Song of Songs and the Book of Hosea makes this very clear.
That should make us think of sins differently — they are like hurting a spouse, not like ticking off a boss. It should also make us think of our Christian life differently. It should make us think of it more as St. Benedict thought of it.
The Mass for the day starts out like the Church wants to tell us a story. It does.
“There was a man of venerable life,” it says, “who, leaving home and patrimony and desiring to please God alone, sought out the habit of holy loving.”
It sounds like a love story — like a man leaving mom and dad for a wife. It is. And it is a love story that corrects our misunderstandings about love.
There used to be a helpful distinction made in love poetry between “cupidity” and “true love.” Cupidity is the pie-in-the-sky love that Chaucer lampooned in his Knight’s Tale, where two knights are ready to fight to the death for a woman they have only seen at a distance.
The knights are not in love with the woman — they are in love with their idea of the woman, and the rituals of courtly love. They are like us when we fall in love with the trappings of religion but have only a vague idea about who Jesus Christ is.
Real commitment to a spouse involves a lot of emotional drudgery and tedious work — it requires the very opposite of “romance.” In the same way, loving God does not mean sighing and swooning with a fluttering heart. Real love of God involves the terrible suffering of tedium as we die to ourselves and shape our souls to God.
In other words, it means a “habit of holy living” — doing God’s will not just in “decision moments” when we choose a vocation, or decide between one job or another, but hour after hour after hour.
The Rule of Saint Benedict is the story of Benedict’s love for God. It is better than his biography, wrote his biographer. “If any be curious to know further of his life,” wrote St. Gregory, “he may understand all his manner of life and discipline in the institution of that rule.”
St. Benedict didn’t believe in cupidity — endlessly flirting with God. He believed in actually loving him. One constant theme of the Rule is that we love God by what we do, not what we say.
“We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.,” he said in one place. In another: “The Lord is waiting every day for us to respond to his holy admonitions by our deeds.”
Abbots, he wrote, should “show them all what is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words.”
That works with your spouse, too. Saying “I love you” is important. Showing “I love you” is more important.
That’s not to say that Benedict didn’t see that vocal expressions of God’s love are important.
“What, dear brothers, is more delightful than the voice of the Lord calling to us?” he asked.
“Prayer ought to be short and pure,” he said, but allowed one exception: “unless it be prolonged by the inspiration of Divine grace.”
The Vatican II document on the Contemplative Life says “the specific and definite commitment which is assumed in the cloistered life cannot originate from, and still less thrive in, any ephemeral type of fervor whatever.”
That’s true for the cloistered, it’s true for the married, and it’s true for our relationship with God.
Romance alone won’t sustain our love for a human being — and it certainly won’t sustain our love for God.
St. Benedict, pray for us!