“Zeal for your house has consumed me.”(Psalm 69:10, 119:139)
Of the Good Zeal which monks ought to have. (RSB 72)
So here I am, thousands of miles away from home, its 5:40 in the Morning, I have flown over 12 hours to get here, two trains from Munich and a kilometer walk to the Monastery. I am tired, I am exhausted, and I am thrilled to tears to be here. Must I be mad? It is a question that I ask myself many times during the year. When I pause midday to do prayers online, when I ride my bike miles just to go to a mid-week Mass to take communion on my day off, when I plug in my earphones and watch the weekly Sunday broadcast of “Gottesdienst”, the Lutheran or Catholic live transmission after having celebrated three Eucharists myself in the morning in my own parish.
What is this passion? What is this drive? What is it that brings me to such craziness?
The zeal that goes beyond mere interest or liking towards a thing. It is what fills Concert Halls and Football Stadiums, It is what drives people to go that “extra mile”.
Aquinata Böckman in her book ‘Perspective on the Rule of Saint Benedict, expanding our hearts in Christ.” Speaks of this Monastic Zeal, this Religious fervor. “‘Zeal denotes intensive striving, referring to the power of motivation in a person. If zeal is directed to virtue, to what is good, it is good. If directed to evil, succumbing to envy and jealousy, it is destructive and evil.” P.55 on Chapter 72 RSB
Of Good Zeal and Bad Zeal
We live in Zealous times. We experience this first hand during election years, elections of Bishops in the Episcopal church, in the work place and during our commute home at night. Zeal can be bitter, divisive, jealous, and destructive. But it can also be uplifting, supportive and unifying. “Augustine speaks of a two fold love: one is holy, the other is impure; one is looking for the community, the other for self; one is concerned about the well being of all…. The other subjects the common good to itself and usurps, and dominates; one is subject to God, the other is jealous of God, one is calm, the other restless; one is peaceable, rebellious….” P. 54
Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict contrasts these two kinds of Zeal when he speaks ‘of the good zeal which monks ought to love.’ One zeal separates us from God and leads to damnation. What he calls a zeal of bitterness. But the other zeal is good zeal which distances us from evil and leads us to God and fullness of life. It is the power of ‘good zeal’ that moves us toward God.
New Monasticism, is an attempt to recover that ‘good zeal’ that has been lost in the world today or quickly dwindling both on a personal and on a social level. Sister Aquinata admits that for many of us, “we have experienced more evil zeal in our world.” P. 53. Good zeal must be fostered individually, but also in community if we are going to find ourselves. New Monasticism is an attempt at recovering the ‘good zeal’ that we are so much in need of personally, socially, politically, and religiously. It is in some ways, an imitation of God’s zeal for the created order. “God is a jealous, and sometimes angry God, for God is holy and has a heart full of love.” P.55.
I have for many years found it difficult to express my enthusiasm for God and the religious life. Perhaps because I see so much ‘bitter-tasting’ zeal in the religious ambience. Loud and brash street preachers on the corner of the train station, hyper loud speakers bleating out music and sermons from store front churches around the block from the Starbucks where I stop for coffee on Sunday mornings. Long faced and grim religious talk show hosts on cable religious channels downgrading local politicians , fighting cultural wars, and promising pending doom. Is not this the zeal that Benedict says, ‘separates from God and leads to hell’? RSB 72:1
I want to think that monastic Zeal is something different than “witnessing to Christ” on a street corner or knocking at the door early Saturday morning.
Sister Aquinata hits the nail on the head when she reminds us that true Zeal is about radical love. She writes, “it is not a bourgeois, well-functioning monastic life that can give answers to the profound longings of human beings, but a life that is marked by ‘the most ardent zeal’ (72:3), by radical living of the Gospel, by love of God and neighbor.” P.50
This kind of zeal knows no limits, no perimeters. It does not exclude but includes, it does not condemn but welcome.
It is what Benedict calls ‘most ardent love’ (zelus ferventissimo amore).
I finally found an answer to a deep question I have been grappling with for many years. What keeps my faith alive? What keeps me going in the face of so much despair and bitter-tasting zeal that surrounds us?
It is the Good Zeal which monks ought to strive for and have. It is a radical passion that permeates everything, and knows no half measures. It is a Zeal for what Sister Aquinata calls a ‘Zeal for Gods affairs.’
I knew a bishop I respected greatly that had a scripture verse on the bottom of his letterhead that appeared on every official letter he ever wrote. I always wondered what would be that scripture verse that I would like on my letterhead if I had that chance. I think I have finally discovered it.
“Zeal for your house devours me”
May we never lose this deep interest and love for God and Neighbor. May our craziness be seen but gently by those who know us. May we not fear to follow the power of good Zeal, of love that moves us toward God.