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Saint Benedict, the Devil, Pinocchio, and Me!

When unpacking new shipments of olive wood carvings from the Holy Land, I am always excited to discover what is inside. Unlike the streamlined Just-In-Time (JIT) inventory management of western retail businesses, we operate on a “Just-In-Surprise” (JIS) basis. Each olive wood carver has their own specialty that they produce in their woodworking shop set up on the floor level garage of their family home. The artists spend their time carving and don’t usually have websites. So, when my husband orders from a local Christian artist in Bethlehem, we don’t know exactly what we will get. He simply makes a phone call and tells them basically what he needs. What's inside is a big surprise!

This time, I was delighted to find a new style of olive wood crucifix with the medal of Saint Benedict. Though I knew Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-547 AD) to be the father of western monasticism, I was not familiar with the meaning of his medal. Conveniently, the small St. Benedict cross necklaces we received contained a pamphlet deciphering the cryptic Latin letters in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese (I think…).

The front of the Saint Benedict Medal has the Latin letters “C S S M L – N D S M D” in the shape of a cross. This Latin acronym translates to “May the Holy Cross be my light. Let the devil not be my leader.”  The letters “V R S - N S M V - S M Q L – I V B” are around the edge of the front of the Benedictine Medal which means: “Get behind me Satan. Don’t persuade me of wicked things. What you are showing me is bad. Drink your poisons yourself.” On the back of the medal is an effigy of the Saint holding the cross in his right hand and "the Rules" in his left hand. The Latin words around the side mean, "He defends us in our death with his presence."

My first impression was, “Wow. Saint Benedict must have been a rock-star!”  Then I remembered an acquaintance handing me a pamphlet titled, “A Little Rule for Beginners: Selections from the Rule of St. Benedict.” I realized this little gift from St. Meinrad Benedictine Monastery in Indiana, a short 2 hours from my home, had sat unread in my bedside drawer for nearly 2 years. I realized I probably ought to read it.

It can be tricky knowing how to apply the guidance of monastic life to ordinary life, but Saint Anthony of Egypt (251-356 AD), the founder of monasticism and a predecessor of Saint Benedict, recognized holy matrimony as equal to monasticism in its potential for heavenly transformation. The goal of monasticism, like a Christian marriage, is holiness (not necessarily momentary happiness) and union with God, cultivated through lifelong vows and a commitment to selflessly love others. With this context in mind, I began reading selections from the Rule of St. Benedict, inserting “my spouse” in place of “the Abbot” and "family" in place of "the community." Here are a few sections that caught my attention:

Freely accept and faithfully fulfill the counsel of a loving father so that you may return by the hard work and obedience to God from whom you had pulled away because of the inertia of disobedience.

Therefore, I address my words to you, whoever you are: Renounce your own will, take up the powerful arms and shining armor of obedience, and fight for the Lord Christ, our true King…

The community should offer their various opinions with all humility and should not defend their opinion stubbornly. Rather they should let the matter rest with the Abbot so that all may obey whatever he considers the better course to follow.

The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This obedience is characteristic of those who hold nothing more precious than Christ…

Obedience (and the humility it requires) is clearly put forth as a critical virtue for attaining union with God, peace with others, and the “highest joys of heaven.” What was my honest inner reaction to reading some selections from the Rule of St. Benedict? 

I am Pinocchio!  "Obey? But I don’t want to obey!”

In the first 30 seconds of this video from Guillermo de Toro's Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket explains to the wooden boy that he must obey his father, to which Pinocchio gleefully replies, "Obey? But I don't want to obey!" The cricket pleas, "Well, you must try your best, and that's the best anyone can do." Ironically, Pinocchio justifies his disobedience “by going to church.”

I have no problem with idea of complete obedience to God, but I’m not so keen on the idea of obeying other people in this same way. Yet, this is the ideal put forth not only the Rule of St. Benedict, but also in the scriptures. We are to obey governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and our supervisors at work (Ephesians 6:5-9). We are instructed to obey our spiritual leaders and elders within the Church (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5). Similarly, within the family, children are to obey their parents, and the wife is to defer to her husband (Colossians 3:18-20; 1 Peter 3:1). Finally, everyone is supposed to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21) and "humbly consider others more important than oneself" (Philippians 2:3). This is all fine and dandy so long as I deem that other person to be qualified, informed, altruistic, and of the same point of view as myself...

While I trust that God is perfect and omniscient, it is clear people are not. This is what makes the virtue of true obedience so difficult. It doesn’t make sense. What if that other person is wrong?  What if their idea isn’t the best? What if they don't understand me? It’s hard to entrust yourself to the judgement of another fallible person. Yet, this is what Jesus Christ did with us. He entrusted Himself to the care of His teenage mother, the Blessed Mother Mary. He entrusted Himself to the maritime skills of His disciples, while He slept through a raging storm. He entrusted Himself to the sentence of Pontus Pilot without rightly defending Himself. Time and time again, Jesus put His Life in our hands. And by doing so, He demonstrated His absolute trust and dependence upon God. Jesus' life is an example for us to live by, not just a lofty ideal to admire from a distance.

For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His footsteps: ...When they heaped abuse on Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats, but entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21, 23)

Though it may seem illogical, the basis of our obedience to other people is based on total faith in God who "works all things together for the good of those who love Him" (Romans 8:28). Even if another person makes a poor decision, we trust that God is working through it someway, somehow. We cannot claim to obey God if we refuse to simply defer to the ideas and opinions of those nearest to us. We cannot claim to obey God if we are constantly defending our own point of view or arguing about a decision. We can only claim to trust God insofar as we are willing to humbly entrust ourselves to the judgement of other people, whether they deserve the honor or not. And here I find myself relating to Pinocchio once again.

"I'm a GOOD Christian!"

After Pinocchio disobeyed by going to church and the parishioners accused him of being a demon, he began to defend himself by saying, "I'm a real boy!" Since this was not true, his wooden nose sprouted a branch. But, Pinocchio wasn't intentionally lying. He just didn't see himself according to reality. And more often than I'd like to admit, neither do I. I don't think of myself as a disobedient person, but when I take time to introspect and measure myself against the humility of Christ, the lives of the saints, and the scriptures, I realize I fall far short of the virtue of obedience on a daily basis.

Olive Wood Saint Benedict Crucifix

The declarations on the medal of Saint Benedict may seem a little extreme for those of us living an ordinary life outside of a monastery, but they aren't. Fighting the Devil doesn't usually feel like facing Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, but more like confronting our own willful (and gleeful) inner Pinocchio by having the courage to see ourselves in the light of Christ. Every single day we are tempted to do things our own way, to insist on the superiority of our own opinions, to trust our own knowledge or emotions, to break or bend the rules in our favor, or dismiss those who have lost our respect.  If we insist on our own way, we will soon find ourselves estranged from the love, joy, and peace that come only from communion with God, just like Pinocchio ended up enslaved to the greedy and cruel Stromboli. The Medal of Saint Benedict with Jesus on the Cross is a reminder of how to handle our own Pinocchio ego so that we might find true freedom and peace that comes only through obedience to God by renouncing our own will for the sake of loving other people.

“May the Holy Cross be my light. Let the devil not be my leader.  Get behind me Satan. Don’t persuade me of wicked things. What you are showing me is bad. Drink your poisons yourself.” 

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