Avoid All Unnecessary Comforts
This morning at Matins we heard how St. Siard, a Norbertine abbot of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, kept himself focused on the one necessary thing: “listening, meditating, loving the Lord Jesus alone, the only Word of the Father, from whom the soul necessarily receives both life and rest.” This focus was particularly impressive in the life of this saint of our Order, for St. Siard is also the example of a religious dedicated to fruitful labor; no task was too humble for this man set above all his community.
For us who are given over to one apostolate or another, the cares and concerns, the worries and anxieties, even if not overwhelming, can be a constant source of distraction, preoccupation, and interruption—a siren song luring us away from times of prayer, or from focus on Christ when we are praying. We deceive ourselves into thinking that if we give our mental attention to solving a particular problem in front of Christ then we are therefore praying to Christ, although our minds don’t really ponder Christ, nor do we ask for his light. We placate our consciences by saying that this task is important or urgent enough to leave prayer or to skip it altogether, when really it is a matter of sloth, of not wanting to put forth a different kind of effort, of prideful preference for completing my own agenda rather than interrupting it for the work of God.
As we peer over the mounds of work that are never finished, and hear about an abbot who worked in the fields and fed the poor with his own hands, all the while ruling over a monastery, and who still mounted the heights of prayerful intimacy with the Lord, we might well be intrigued to know what key it was that unlocked the door between the contemplative and apostolic aspects of his life, so that we might do the same.
At the very beginning of the passage we heard from the Life of St. Siard, in a throwaway line, Abbot Sibrand says that St. Siard avoided “all unnecessary comforts”—such a simple phrase, but so challenging in its import. We could look around our lives and see all sorts of comforts that we hold dear, comforts and entertainments and diversions we instinctively and vehemently assume to be necessary and not optional. We set them up as cushions and barriers between the major tasks of our lives, rationalizing to ourselves that what we do would be impossible without them, or, "I just couldn’t take it if I didn’t have this or that." In all likelihood, the things themselves that we prize so highly are really small, but we place great value on them. Yet it is that very rewarding of ourselves that not only forms an attachment to this earth but also strips us of a manly sense of austerity and penance and thus prevents our hearts from soaring to the heights of heaven, like the bird caught fast by the slenderest thread.
How is it that St. Siard found time to govern an abbey and work with his hands? Because he avoided “all unnecessary comforts.” Not one or two of them, which would amount to avoiding those he didn’t really care about anyway, but all of them, every last one. Such a spirit of detachment is impelled by a longing to serve God alone, and self not at all. We would do well to move in such a direction today, perhaps marking out but one unnecessary comfort for destruction, or more profoundly asking God for the grace to move our hearts to despise them all.
Once I came across this prayer by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, though it could have been penned by St. Siard: “Lord, teach me to know the obstacles that, consciously or unconsciously, I am placing in the way of thy grace in me. Give me the strength to put them aside, and if I am negligent therein, vouchsafe thyself to remove them, howsoever I may suffer thereby. Grant that I may not stand in the way of the grace which through me should be poured out upon other souls to give them light and life.” Amen.