“Be careful not to forget the Lord, your God, by failing to keep his commandments and ordinances and statutes which I enjoin on you today.” (Deuteronomy 8:11)
The longest chapter in St. Benedict’s Rule is chapter 7 on humility, a virtue he considered fundamental to the Christian monastic life. He used the image of twelve steps of a ladder in describing the various aspects of humility. The first step of humility is for one “to set the fear of God always before his eyes, and utterly avoid all forgetfulness” (RB 7:10).
We may find this a strange way of speaking. What forgetfulness are we to avoid? St. Benedict draws on a familiar theme of the Old Testament: “Be careful not to forget the Lord, your God, by failing to keep his commandments and ordinances and statutes which I enjoin on you today” (Deuteronomy 8:11). What would make someone forget the good God who has brought his people out of slavery into a place of freedom? “Lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built fine houses and lived in them, and your herds and flocks have increased . . . you then become haughty of heart and forget the Lord, your God” (8:12-14).
In Scripture, encouragement is given for mindfulness, in the instruction to give time off to slaves on the Sabbath: Be mindful of what God has done for you, because “you too were once slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, brought you out from there with a strong hand and outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
According to St. Benedict, mindfulness of God is the basis of the spiritual structure. The Latin word oblivionem is translated “forgetfulness.” We all know the danger of “spiritual oblivion” and how easy it is to slip into it, especially when things are going well. We forget that God is holding everything together and that we are helpless without him. Sometimes he “opens [our] ears through oppression” (Job 36:15). Psalm 106 portrays the history of Israel as a series of waves of remembering followed by waves of forgetting.
Why is fleeing forgetfulness fundamental to humility? Because it is essential to the fear of God, which puts me in the proper relationship to God, bringing me to realize that God—no one else—is my master, all the time. Whenever I am forgetful of God, I put someone or something else ahead of him, at least momentarily, and whoever or whatever that is becomes my God and for that period receives my obedience (I fear this person or thing, instead of God).
St. Benedict exhorts us to remember that “the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked” (RB 19:1). Early in The Rule, he quotes the wonderful promise of God: “My eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me, I will say to you: Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9, quoted in Prologue, verse 18). The monks’ day is punctuated by gatherings for the Divine Office, where “beyond the least doubt we should believe” (RB 19:2) that God is present.
What St. Benedict is combating here is what is often described today as practical atheism—professing faith in God but living as if God doesn’t exist or as if God’s existence is irrelevant. Do I live any differently because of my faith? Are my choices during the day and the way I treat and respond to people affected by my consciousness of the presence of God? If I were brought into court on the accusation of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me?
St. Paul has another way of talking about fleeing forgetfulness when he says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This statement has worried people who see this as an admonition to be constantly in church or reciting prayers under their breath as they do their work. St. Augustine says it simply means to live with a constant desire for God and heavenly life. Times devoted to prayer are moments when that desire comes to consciousness, so prayer can be there all the time.
Another way to understand praying without ceasing is to compare it to the experience of falling in love or meeting someone we want to know better. Our daily labor becomes a kind of distraction from the person dominating our imagination.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a way to flee forgetfulness of the gift of salvation. The celebration of the Eucharist is the center and pivot of our worship and of our mindfulness. It is a memorial, but in the rich Hebrew sense of making present again. Everything we do can be an echo and fulfillment of Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).
This is a selection from Is God in My Top Ten? by Jerome Kodell, OSB (The Word Among Us Press 2018). Available at wau.org/books