This past week, we discovered a nest in our backyard containing three baby birds. They must have hatched very recently because they are at the stage where they are still quite ugly—no feathers, huge heads, and gaping mouths. Our two boys are absolutely delighted, and they express their excitement by running around the yards shouting, “Baby birds, baby birds!”
When you lean over the nest, the little hatchlings lift their oversized heads and pop their mouths open as if they are spring loaded. Of course, we have nothing to give them, but they can’t really see and don’t know that. It’s pretty funny to watch. If we give them enough space and are patient, we can usually see the mother bird come and drop food into the chicks’ waiting mouths.
St. Romuald’s Brief Rule
Why do I mention all this? Because oddly enough, it reminded me of the rule of life of a great saint and mystic, St. Romuald. Yeah, I’m kind of weird. Bear with me!
To provide some context, St. Romuald was an eleventh-century Italian monk who revived the ancient practice of eremitic life—that is, living as a hermit to pursue God in isolation from the outside world. In his day, Romuald was very influential, helping to form other great contemplative saints like St. Peter Damian (who, by the way, is more relevant than ever). Eventually, St. Romuald founded the Camaldolese order, an off-shoot of Benedictine monasticism that was focused primarily on pursuing contemplation by living as a hermit.
During his life, St. Romuald taught his disciples a brief rule consisting of 7 simple precepts. It is perhaps the shortest rule of life ever codified! Here it is:
1. Sit in the cell as in paradise;
2. cast all memory of the world behind you;
3. cautiously watching your thoughts, as a good fisher watches the fish.
4. In the Psalms there is one way. Do not abandon it. If you who have come with the fervor of a novice cannot understand everything, strive to recite with understanding of spirit and mind, now here, now there, and when you begin to wander while reading, do not stop, but hasten to correct yourself by concentrating.
5. Above all, place yourself in the presence of God with fear and trembling, like someone who stands in the sight of the emperor;
6. destroy yourself completely,
7. and sit like a chick, content with the grace of God, for unless its mother gives it something, it tastes nothing and has nothing to eat.
Did you notice the last one? That’s the one I thought of. Seeing those blind, helpless, and rather ugly chicks waiting, mouths open wide, for food, brought this precept vividly to life.
Waiting on God
You see, in the spiritual life, our work consists primarily in waiting on God’s grace and saying Fiat, “let it be done unto me…”, to his work in us. For all real spiritual transformation is a work of grace, and like the chicks in the nest, we are completely helpless to do anything on our own. The Council of Trent goes so far as to say that even the desire to prepare our hearts to receive God’s grace is itself a gift of grace.
The problem is, we don’t want to acknowledge the reality of our helplessness or do the hard work of waiting. We want to be mighty eagles, soaring the heights by our own strength. But it won’t work, and when we can’t soar, we get frustrated and impatient.
The beauty of St. Romuald’s simple rule is that it reminds us that, while we can prepare the soil of our soul to receive grace through prayer and meditation, it is ultimately God who plants the seed of spiritual life and causes it to bear fruit. The hardest thing we have to do is wait.
Believe me, our Father does want you to be a mighty eagle, soaring the heights towards him. But he knows that only grace can give us the wings we need. Like the caring mother chick, God brings us the graces we need each day. But the question is, are we waiting, spiritual mouths open wide to receive it? Do we learn well what he is trying to teach us? Do we cooperate with the graces he sends us? Or do we squander them in our impatience?
Brothers, the spiritual life is not the work of a moment or even of a day. It is the long, often grueling labor of patiently waiting on God. The good news is, patience is not without its reward, for as Scripture reminds us, “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”The Catholic Gentleman.