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The Instruments of Good Works

“Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they have been applied without ceasing day and night and approved on judgment day, will merit for us from the Lord that reward which He hath promised: ‘The eye hath not seen, nor the ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9). But the workshop in which we perform all these works with diligence is the enclosure of the monastery, and stability in the community.”

The Benedictine Monastery, in addition to being a school, is also a workshop. I have visited monasteries that were also apiaries, nut farms, wineries, and publishing houses. The workshop is essential to the sustainability of the monastery’s life. It provides an income, as well as food for the monk and the poor alike. For several years, I would take a yearly retreat with the Trappist community in Vina, California, built on the site of Leland Stanford’s winery and ranch. These monks not only raised almonds and walnuts, but made very excellent wine. The town of Vina only has about 237 residents according to the last census, and 30 plus of those are monks. Ask anyone in town - the monastery is the lifeblood of the community. The monks regularly provide for those in need. They feed the hungry and, on occasion, pay medical bills. Their way of life means that they very rarely get sick. They eat a steady diet of homegrown vegetables and, in addition to the wine, get occasional shipments of the fruits of their beer-brewing collaboration with Sierra Nevada Brewery. Eat a bowl of their cheesy broccoli, and you’ll want to stay for the rest of your life!

The point is, work is essential to the monastery being what it is. It is self-sustaining and able to sustain a wide variety of good works.

Benedict never wanted monasteries and the monks living in them to forget that the tools and works of the Christian life are not just pitchforks and shovels, but works like fasting, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, burying the dead, the avoidance of anger and lust, refraining from overindulging in food, and avoiding murmuring and gossip. These he calls “the Instruments of Good Works.” Tools play a major role in the Rule. The cellarer (tasked with keeping the wine and root cellar) must treat the implements of the cellar as the sacred vessels in the sacristy. Any monk who breaks a tool must beg the forgiveness of the community after vespers. Benedict has aimed, quite simply, at a culture that exercises care and piety in the cultivation of produce as much as the cultivation of spiritual fruit.

It needs to be said: stewardship is not just about our own financial affairs or the financial affairs of a parish church. It’s about stewardship of good works as well. If a parish can have a balanced budget, that alone is often considered a success. But what about other things? What about the support of missionaries, or really taking stock into the state of our families and people - what does ministry and spiritual fruit look like in our lives? These are, as Benedict calls them, the instruments of “the spiritual art.” What a joy it is that he uses that word art, for the word carries with it manifold meanings. It is possible that he not only means tools to work the spiritual earth, as it were, but weapons to fight the spiritual battle. If the Church is to assault the gates of hell, every Christian must be equipped, not just with defensive armor, but with weapons. For Benedict, the prime weapon is Holy Scripture. This is the reason that the Rule is really just Scripture arranged so as to form a rule for the monastery. In our own time, we need people to be so deeply formed in Holy Scripture that they can not only fend off the enemy, but rack up the score.

For years, our diocese has had a singular mission, quoting the words of Saint Paul to the Ephesians: “To equip the Saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). When Paul uses that term equip, he’s meaning something very much like a quartermaster would pitch tents, gather weapons and armor, and make a camp ready for troops. He could also be referring to the motion one might make to silence an army prior to giving instruction. A parish church, in many ways, serves as the quartermaster’s depot for the Church, a place of equipping, refueling, and commissioning for good works. Paul had previously written to the Ephesians “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). See what is happening here? Paul is saying that God has prepared the camp, equipped it with weapons and tools, so that we may have victory.

I have been so pleased through the years to see our vestry take the lead in providing all that is needed for our parish to succeed in this ministry of equipping the saints. I am often blown away by how ministry priorities and not maintenance dominate our discussions. This is Christian stewardship in action: when we’re not so concerned about how the parish church serves our needs as we are about how the parish church is used by God to equip us for every good work. As we continue this discussion of the Rule of Saint Benedict, this will come into sharp focus. How is it that a parish church can equip the saints, just as a monastery and the abbot in charge of it, equip the monks for good works?

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