A Calm Spirit?
Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. fr Robert Gay uses the rule of St Benedict to reflect on the temptation to murmur.
Some years ago, in a last ditch attempt to develop some sort of competence in Latin, I spent a considerable amount of time reading and translating the Rule of St. Benedict. One of the features that stands out in the text is Benedict’s passionate dislike for what he calls murmuratio – which we might translate as murmuring, or perhaps grumbling. This is an interior restlessness and discontentment which makes its way effortlessly from the heart to the lips, and out into the surroundings and into the ears of anyone unfortunate enough to be standing close by. Murmuratio is very infectious, and has the potential to spread from one monk to the other, until the whole monastery becomes a cauldron of discontent. Benedict is in no doubt that this is one of the most destructive things in a monastery – perhaps even an eighth deadly sin for a monk. I remember thinking at the time how difficult it is must be to live a life without grumbling –especially since Benedict wouldn’t even have allowed for the odd muttered word about having to do Latin homework. And I thanked God that Dominicans follow the Rule of St Augustine, which makes no explicit mention of murmuratio.
However, Benedict’s rule is just one in a long list of anti-murmur texts. Right towards the beginning of the Old Testament, we read of the people of Israel who murmured in the desert when they were tired of eating the manna God gave them. They knew exactly what they wanted, and when they didn’t get their feast, the grumbling started. Moses responded by rebuking them, and reminded them that God had given them all that they needed – their task was to get on with the journey to the Promised Land. In today’s first reading Elijah is at it too. He’s been doing the will of the Lord day and night, and it has brought him nothing but trouble. He is fed up with his lot and he complains to God out of self-pity, and he gives up and falls asleep. And just in case we were in any doubt about how infectious the murmuring bug is in our Gospel reading the people of Israel are murmuring again, because they are disturbed by what Jesus has said. They already know about God, and the last thing they need is an upstart who makes what seem like exaggerated claims.
So what is wrong with murmuring? It’s a problem because it leads us to forget who and what we are, and more importantly, leads us to forget where we are heading. Let’s take the completely random example of the Dominican student trying to learn Latin. If that Dominican student had given in to murmuring, then he might have forgotten that learning Latin is not an esoteric exercise – but a key to unlocking a whole world of theological riches that would have otherwise remain unknown to him. Or we might wish to take Elijah as an example. His murmuring against the Lord puts his prophetic vocation on hold. He is tired and fed up, reluctant to accept the cake that God offers him. If we read on in the book of Kings, we discover that at the end of his journey, he experiences the presence of God in the still small voice on mount Horeb. His journey was worth it in the end, but without that persevering angel he might not have made it.
The Jews in today’s Gospel murmur because they claim to know Jesus – he is the son of Joseph. And furthermore, they know the Law and the Prophets. They murmur because knowing all this makes Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven incredible. They have it all figured out – they think they know who they are and where they are heading. But they are challenged by Jesus, because they haven’t got it right. They know the Law and the prophets alright, but their murmur-induced myopia has made them forget that the message that they bring is more than an identity badge or a way of life for here and now. It is a message that points to eternal life. In their restlessness they have missed the fact that the Law and the Prophets point towards Jesus, who is God’s offer of eternal life for those who are drawn to him. It is an offer not only to those who were standing there in front of him, but to all who are willing to be taught by God. But they cannot learn anything unless they are willing to be quiet and allow themselves to be taught about the way to eternal life. And neither can we.
If we give ourselves a break from our murmuring, then we allow ourselves to move forward, towards the ends that we desire, whether they are short term goals or long term goals. Attaining short term goals might mean, for example, dusting off Kennedy’s Latin primer after a considerable hiatus, and having the courage to open the cover again. Of course, our ultimate goal is a life with God in heaven. And today’s Gospel shows us that this comes through Christ, and is an offer open to us here and now. So let’s put aside our murmuring, and clear the way so that we can receive that gift which is the life of God, the gift which leads to eternal life.
Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8|Ephesians 4:30-5:2|John 6:41-51