I cannot move away from Benedict’s phrase, “the labor of obedience.” Here are some further thoughts.
Nearly twenty years ago, one of my friends was retiring. One morning he said to a group of us, “It never gets easy.” Unfortunately, he was saying that out of a kind of depression which caused him to view his retirement as a kind of “termination”—the end of the line. He was describing his struggle to let go and move into the next chapter of his life.
But God used the words to speak another word to me—an abiding word. “It never gets easy.” We misunderstand faith when we think that if we really have “it” (whatever “it” is), life will smooth out and unfold in ever-increasing blessedness. This happens when we treat faith as an eventual “graduation” into a higher state of existence.
Sometimes when I travel, the airplane takes off in a fog, or on a cloudy day. But sooner or later, the plane will “break through” the clouds and rise above them into a spectacular sunshine. I still enjoy the moment when that happens. Unfortunately, we can think of faith like this—that no matter how much “fog” there is at the moment, if we keep “gaining altitude” we’ll eventually break through and leave it all behind.
But…..”it never gets easy.” The lives of the saints shows us that the deeper we go into Christ, the more we share in his sufferings. There is no magical “break through” that detaches us from problems and pains. As long as we live in this world, Jesus said, we will have tribulation.
Benedict is trying to tell his would-be adherents, “It never gets easy.” He is not speaking from a state of depression, but rather with a note of realism. Spiritual formation is a labor of obedience—from first day to last. Somedays our formation feels like flying; other days we feel like we’re slogging through the swamp. It never becomes “automatic”—there is no “graduation day.” One of the surest ways to tell we are on the wrong path in spiritual formation is when we ask, “When does this end? When can I coast?”