So what’s wrong with pleasures? Why not chase after them? Does Benedict want his monks to be miserable?
It may sound like that at first, but the longer you live by Saint Benedict’s advice, the more sense it makes. When you take pleasure in something (food, music, art, film …), the experience is agreeable but temporary. There’s nothing wrong with seeking out such experiences. In fact, the Bible recommends it: “I commend enjoyment, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and enjoy himself” (Eccl 8:15). So clearly there’s nothing wrong with having fun. But take note of that crucial stipulation, “under the sun.” Presumably, there are things even more worthy of seeking beyond the sun – like Heaven, virtue, truth, and above all, God. When we start to chase after pleasures, we confuse our priorities and become “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:4).
Think for a moment of the rich young man whom Jesus tried to recruit in the Gospel of Mark. He went away sad, Mark tells us, because he had many possessions (10:22). The guy in the story refused a direct request from Jesus Himself simply because he was too preoccupied with his stuff.
The students at my school often ask me why I quit being a beach lifeguard. Wasn’t that more fun than being a monk? Well, yes, in some respects. But in defense of my decision, I can say this: there’s nothing more depressing than a 40-year-old lifeguard. Everyone comes to a point in his life when he must choose between fun and joy. And to choose the former over the latter leads to a whole lot of emptiness. These decisions aren’t always life-changing, but they do have a cumulative effect; and they are often very difficult because joy takes work. Ironically, the rich young man went away sad because he threw in his lot with fun. When it comes to the bigger life decisions, we must have the wisdom to choose joy, no matter how fun the alternative.
Excerpt taken from Humility Rules: Saint Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem, by J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. (Ignatius Press, 2017), From Step 6: Serenity, “Serenity in Deed,” pp. 95-97. (Book is based on Saint Benedict’s 5th-century guide to humility, The Rule – ancient wisdom which translates into advice for ordinary people of any era).
J. AUGUSTINE WETTA, O.S.B. is a monk of Saint Louis Abbey. He serves as the director of chaplaincy at the Saint Louis Priory School, where he teaches and coaches rugby. During his spare time, Father Augustine supervises the juggling team, cultivates carnivorous plants, raises carpenter ants, and surfs.