April 30, August 30, December 30

Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: ‘They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other’ (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what they judge better for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of sisters and brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.

In communal relating perhaps zeal is a continuum. At one end there is a way of being in love that is fostered in the life of all as they grow in living with fervent love. This chapter of the rule describes this way of being in love as a way of other centredness that is exemplified by respect for the other, not just patience but “the greatest patience” for another’s weaknesses of character and behaviour, as well as the practice of an intuition that sees first what is best for another rather than a way of thinking that begins and ends only with what is best for me. In the rule, obedience to each other has as its foundation an obedience to love.  

At the other end of the continuum of zeal there is the ‘full flowering’ of bitterness: a human life twisted with fear, resentment, hostility, and unhealed pain. It is the result of a pride-filled egocentricity lost in the illusion of its own alienation. Bitterness becomes the gall with which this person poisons themselves and, perhaps, the communal life. A heart full of bitterness is a heart cut off from the love life of God within it.  

Egocentricity often has as its roots in our hurts, our wounds, the injustices of our lives. To lose egoism enough we need enough of our life hurt to be healed. This is the crux: we avoid our own healing because it is hard, and yet we deeply long for the life that healing can bring. Be in community long enough and our own healing can become increasingly harder to avoid. Good zeal is the fruit of healing.

Movement back and forth along this continuum of zeal can continue all our lives. The movement toward being in love happens via an ongoing daily conversion, or transformation, of our lives by God.  Sometimes we resist this, other times we embrace it. Each day we are invited to decide, once again, for it. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, and that’s okay.

The jewel of this chapter is found in its last line: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.” Here the way forward, away from bitterness and into being in love, is set out for us: be simply focused first on Christ. Christ is the fullness of being in love already with us inviting our whole humanity to be in union with him.

Other-centredness is the fruit that grows from this focus on Christ. In this way, other-centredness is not an act of persistent and determined will that only some have the temperament for. Other-centredness, with its respect, great patience, and intuition, is the natural consequence of a genuine focus on the person of Christ. Focus first on Christ and other-centredness will follow. This is what we do as we meditate.

If meditation is the inward focus on the life of Christ, community life is the outward focus. Community life is where our inner movement away from bitterness and into love is incarnated.

There can be enemies in community, in family, in any place where there is an investment in relating. Often they remind us of what we hate in ourselves. These enemies carry our projections so that we may continue oblivious to the shadow in us.

It is these enemies, those that challenge the flavour of our zeal, who can be our guides into self-knowledge, of grace-filled healing. Abba Zosimas says:

Why do you say that the other person has caused you suffering? That person has actually brought you cleansing. Moreover, you should think of that person as a healer, sent to you by Christ. You ought to suffer for the sake of that person (Acts 9:16), and you should regard that person as your benefactor[1].  

If the experience of community brings us cleansing via the people we would prefer to dislike (even hate), then in meditating with these same people, we are inwardly healed so that we might continue to grow in love for them. Communal life then asks us to put into practice this inward healing. If we can keep meditating together, then there is every change we won’t give up on each other and on ourselves – on all who make up whatever community we find ourselves in.

You have stripped off your old personality with its practices, and you have put on a new personality which is being renewed in true knowledge in accordance with the image of its Creator; where there is no Greek and Jew, no circumcised and uncircumcised, no barbarian and Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:10-11, RNJB)

[1] Abba Zosimas, Reflections III. a.