Finding the Portal to Paradise
Counsel from St. Benedict and St. Teresa that leads to unity with God
Susan Muto Comments Off on Finding the Portal to Paradise
The apostle Paul confirms that to follow the narrow gate leads us to the full glory of union with God, that we “may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:18-19).
Priests accept “with all the holy ones” that life on earth is not merely a place to eat, drink and be merry but a portal to paradise. Guidelines regarding the pursuit of our true end appear throughout Scripture, as well as in the writings of the masters of spiritual formation. The question placed before priests and the People of God is whether or not they will enter through the narrow gate that leads to eternal life or follow the broad road that forecasts destruction.
How to evade that seductive path and pursue life’s destined end is the topic of Chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict (480-547). In it, he outlines 12 steps to facilitate a priestly vocation from the beginning stages of following the narrow way to the fullness of life everlasting. Also aiding priests is the sage advice of another spiritual master and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-82). In her book “The Way of Perfection,” she describes three counsels pertaining to Christian maturity that facilitate discipleship and prevent its demise.
St. Benedict tells his monks and priests that their journey must begin with holy fear. On this first step, they must maintain the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom (cf. Prv 1:7). Keeping awe for God’s splendor always before their eyes helps them to make decisions that align their will with God’s will for them. They know that their actions cannot be hidden from God’s sight. To live in holy fear is also to acknowledge that, without God, one can do nothing leading to the cessation of every pernicious adherence to power, pleasure and possession as ends in themselves.
Surrendering their will is the second step. It reminds priests, who in turn remind God’s people, that they must resist the urge to satisfy selfish desires rather than what God asks of them. Not loving their own will makes them less vulnerable to being entrapped by self-centered motivations and cut off from reliance on God’s guiding grace.
Obedience is the third step. It requires submission to legitimate authority (to a bishop or an abbot). As we read of Jesus in Philippians 2:8, he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.” His action counters the notion of personal autonomy and the egocentric assumption that “I am the master of my fate or the captain of my soul.” All such illusions erode the obedience essential for entering through the narrow gate.
Endurance in suffering, exercised in favorable as well as unfavorable conditions, is the fourth step on which priests embrace life’s crosses with patience. Rather than manifesting impatient control and resisting the challenges posed by the vicissitudes of daily life, they embrace them with trust and docility, confident that God’s mercy is always greater than their misery.
Unguarded confession, the fifth step, reminds priests not to conceal from their confessors sinful thoughts and wrongdoings. St. Benedict says that a humble confession, full of integrity, allows monks, as Psalm 37 says, to commit their way to the Lord and to trust in him, to let their “righteousness shine like the dawn, / [their] justice like noonday” (Ps 37:5-6). Then, too, Psalm 32 reminds priests that they will experience God’s forgiveness to the degree that they acknowledge their faults and offenses, cultivate compunction of heart and follow the dictates of their conscience.
Contentment in humiliation is the goal of these first five steps. That is why, on the sixth rung of the ladder of humility, priests ought to feel content to do the lowest and most menial tasks. What they may once have found to be annoying or tedious brings them closer to the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth. They are no more than “unprofitable servants” (Lk 17:10). By neither grumbling when they do not get their way nor blaming others for their problems, they learn to accept unfair treatment and misunderstanding with a gracious heart without losing respect for themselves or others.
Self-abasement and utter dependence upon God’s providence is the seventh step. It deepens the truth that priests know so well: they depend on God for everything and they promise to declare in words and witness in action what the psalmist says: “It was good for me to be afflicted, / in order to learn your statutes” (Ps 119:71). Instead of seeing themselves as better than others, they welcome instances of persecution and misunderstanding as blessings that enable them to let go of self-centeredness and put on the mind of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 2:16).
Avoiding singularity and living the common ways of community life is the eighth step of St. Benedict’s ladder of humility. It reveals a penchant in every priest’s heart to foster a wise blending of solitude and togetherness, of silence and speaking, of worship and work. Priests adhere to the common ways of liturgy, word and sacrament and do not compromise their calling in the hope of receiving privileges and special treatment. In short, on this step, they try not to draw attention to themselves since they are content with the ordinary blessings of everyday life.
Custody of speech and keeping silence, the ninth degree of humility, concerns the importance of restraining one’s tongue and keeping still until, let us say, one needs to answer questions or offer counsel to others. St. Benedict agreed with the proverbial truth that “where words are many, sin is not wanting” (Prv 10:19). This step cautions priests not to engage in empty, idle chatter nor to give in to the inclination to fill up silence with noise. They watch their words and use the gift of speech for the purpose of edifying others. As the apostle James warns, the tongue can be “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:8).
According to Matthew’s Gospel
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.”
— Matthew 7:13-14
Engaging in derisive laughter or cynical humor is an all too common fault. It may even tempt priests to underestimate how essential it is for everyone to follow the narrow way. Such derision is as foolish as it is unbecoming. It can condone gossip and discourage sober, realistic commitment to Christ. Gentle humor, rooted in humility, fosters mutual encouragement and replaces murmuring and complaining with patience and modesty.
Dignified comportment means that the more priests learn to speak without sarcasm or cynicism, the more they behave as disciples of Christ. They preach the Gospel by their presence, and, in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, they may or may not need to use words. Having banned all depreciative patterns of speech, they carry themselves on this 11th step with dignity, respecting others and communicating words of wisdom that are becoming to them and to all those entrusted to their care.
Walking with reverence of heart in the truth of who one is, this is the reward of reaching the 12th rung. In both thought and action, priests reveal how ready they are to do what God wills in daily life. Because they try their best to manifest humility, they may be able to dispel in others the illusion of self-sufficiency. To paraphrase St. Benedict’s prayer in Chapter 72: May we value nothing whatever above Christ himself and may he bring us all together to eternal life. The inspiration prompting priests to enter through the narrow gate is that they might “steady [their] feet in accord with your promise; / do not let iniquity lead [them]” (Psalm 119:133).
St. Teresa of Ávila complements the guidance received from St. Benedict by identifying three counsels by which one enters through the narrow gate and walks the path to paradise with Jesus.
First, love for one another, not tainted by selfishness, is a hallmark of priests who live in imitation of the selfless love of the Savior, who commanded every follower of his to “love one another” (Jn 13:34).
Second, detachment from created things guards one against becoming so overly absorbed by them that they block obedience to the Father’s will. Priests freely choose to live in union with the Lord through whom they gain all that is good. They seek detachment from any lesser good as absolute. Without poverty of spirit and purity of heart, one is likely to become a victim of worldly ambitions and erratic impulses that cause one to forget, in St. Teresa’s words, “God alone suffices.”
Third, humility is the foundation of love for others and detachment from what can never fill the “hole” in one’s heart that belongs “wholly” to God. It guards priests against temptations to follow the dictates of pride and the vain reasonings that lead to an endless search for self-fulfillment. Great progress on the way to perfection occurs when they take on ordinary tasks; avoid the privileges of rank and power; disengage themselves from excesses of praise or blame; and bear, as God allows, with dishonor, ridicule and misunderstanding. Only then can priests model their lives on the humility displayed by Jesus, not wavering from entering the narrow gate but weighing whatever they say and do in keeping with what God asks of them.
Living these three counsels signifies their transformation “from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). To avoid the broad road that leads to the destruction of their inner and relational life, priests pledge never to violate the God-given integrity of self and others. Instead, they practice ways of loving that are freeing, not forced; compassionate, not coercive.
Susan Muto, Ph.D., shares additional insights on the narrow way that Jesus describes as the path to heaven in the book “Enter the Narrow Gate: Saint Benedict’s Steps to Christian Maturity” (OSV, $15.95).
By the same token, they grow more patient with their personal struggles and empathize with what others have to endure. They cease being so judgmental of human faults and failings and submit them to God for forgiveness, thus creating around them an atmosphere that encourages trust in the Lord. They rely on his saving power to convert even the most hardened of hearts.
Love, detachment and humility help priests to find inner peace and to choose to imitate Christ in their decisions and deeds, knowing over a lifetime that “[they] have done what [they] were obliged to do” (Lk 17:10).
SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Enter the Narrow Gate: Saint Benedict’s Steps to Christian Maturity” (OSV, $15.95).