Dear brothers and sisters – Someone once said that monastic life isn’t all that difficult, it’s just relentless. One of the biggest dangers in monastic life, at least for me, is the loss of zeal. The practices we once were eager to embrace become onerous, the daily schedule seems oppressive, our brothers seem to be as lackluster as we seem to ourselves, God seems distant or even absent. These feelings are probably not unique to monastic life. People experience certain phases in life, no matter what path one chooses. A new home becomes a tiresome expense, an exciting relationship becomes humdrum, the job of one’s dreams becomes a slog. When this happens, the solution for some is to change, move to a better place, begin a new relationship, change jobs or careers.
But there is another response to this loss of our first fervour. The greatest monastic virtue is not, as you might think, chastity, or obedience, or poverty, though these are very fine monastic virtues. The queen of the virtues, for us monks, is perseverance. We may not enter monastic life expecting there to be long dry periods and times when we don’t live up to our own ideals, but with the years, we realize that these are not aberrations from some ideal constant upward journey, but part and parcel of our life in the monastery. I suspect that couples who have persevered in marriage have discovered the same principle. This does not mean that we have lost our way, or that monastic life or marriage is not worth the trouble, but that our understanding of the spiritual life is deepening. We might try various remedies to get us out of this state: pull up our socks, have an attitude of gratitude, redouble our monastic practices, and so on. And these may do the job. But if we simply persevere, we sense a change in our spiritual attitude. Instead of expecting a series of increasing highs, we may adjust ourselves to expect our dry periods and our occasional listlessness and accept them as a kind of progress even if we can’t see any. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but to be ourselves, who we were made to be. In accepting this part of monastic life, we experience a new acceptance of ourselves and of God’s role in our lives. In a marriage, you may think that your partner is not the person you married, and that your love for him or her has faded. But your love is simply entering another stage – by persevering, you begin to love your life partner for who he or she is, as God made him or her, not for who you might have thought them to be or want them to be. This is a deeper love, a more realistic, dependable love.
In the gospel today, we have a premiere example of perseverance. The widow might be tempted to think that there is no chance whatever that she will get the judgement she wants. She might be tempted to give up. But she doesn’t. She keeps coming back, day after day, and eventually the judge gives her a just judgement, if only so that she will stop pestering him.
The letter to Timothy recommends knowledge of scripture to assist in the sometimes fruitless task of reaching out to those who have not been evangelized. In proclaiming the word of God, the letter says, “be persistent, whether it is convenient or inconvenient,” meaning that we must persevere, even when the outcome does not seem to be immediately positive, or what we expect.
In our first reading today, the Israelites decide to battle against their enemies, the Amalekites. They do this with the firm belief that God is on their side and that they will win the battle. Moses is there with the staff of God in his hand. How could they lose? But Moses is elderly and he has trouble keeping the staff raised up. Whenever he droops, the Israelites begin to lose. His companions, his brother Aaron and Hur, one of the prominent men of the tribe, alertly sit Moses down and hold up his arms, one on each side, and Israel wins a great victory.
But on a second look, this is an odd story. Did God intend that Israel’s victory would depend entirely on the strength of Moses’ arms? This seems rather arbitrary on God’s part. The victory did not depend on Israel being the chosen people, or their ultimate justice in waging the battle, or the bravery of the men doing the fighting, but on Moses being able to keep up his hands for hours on end while holding a heavy staff. What’s this all about?
Well, fitting in with the theme of the day is the absolute importance of perseverance. If Moses simply gives up, the battle is lost. But perseverance alone does not do the job. Would having an attitude of gratitude or redoubling his efforts have kept Moses’ hands in the air? Probably not. But Aaron and Hur are with him, and they sit him down and support his hands. But I can hear some of you asking, “But Fr. Lawrence, where is God in all this? It’s just by a lucky chance that Aaron and Hur were nearby to lend a hand. Why, if they weren’t there, the whole battle would have been a complete disaster!” But that’s the point. They were there. And God was there through them. Their hands were God’s hands, supporting Moses, ensuring the victory for the Israelites.
The same principle applies to us. As we persevere in the monastic life, or in marriage, we come to a deeper understanding of our relationship to ourselves, to each other, and to God, but we don’t, and can’t, reach this understanding entirely on our own. We would be like Moses, trying to keep our hands in the air, taking all the responsibility for overcoming our own loss of enthusiasm. We need help. Fortunately, we are surrounded by Aaron’s and Hur’s. In a marriage, you have your partner, your immediate family, your larger family, and your friends, all of whom can help, all of whom represent God’s hands in your life. In the monastery, we have our brothers, who can support us when we find it difficult or even impossible to support ourselves. Our whole life is oriented toward prayer, our horarium keeps us on track, the psalms and our lectio help to encourage us. Our work reminds us that we don’t live for ourselves, but for the community. Although we might pray and hear no direct answer, and persevere in our monastic practices and make no apparent progress, that doesn’t mean that God has left us alone on the hill holding up our hands all by ourselves. God is all around us, in our daily eucharist, in our prayer, and most of all in our brothers. With all this help, the Amalekites, those parts of us which discourage us and resist spiritual progress, don’t stand a chance.