Today’s Gospel speaks of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These were the three aspects of piety that were most highly esteemed in Jesus’ day. Almsgiving was particularly important at that time when poverty was widespread, when the lot of the poor was hard … a time much like our own when many ordinary and hard working Australians are finding it difficult to feed and house themselves — when we should not be talking about tax cuts for the rich, but be thinking instead of imposing some kind of surcharge on the more well-off to relieve the lot of the poor; a kind of mandatory almsgiving, if you like. Such an impost would certainly obviate the need for the secrecy that Jesus speaks of as a way of avoiding any public display of a person’s generosity in their support of the poor. (C.f.: Mark 12:41ff)

Jesus insisted on this secrecy as a means of protecting the integrity of the act, where an ostentatious show risks turning it into an act of self-aggrandisement. This becomes more obvious in the other aspects of piety that Jesus speaks of, the prayer and the fasting. For prayer, which is meant to be for communion with God, when done with a sideways glance to see who else is looking, ceases to be communication with God, turning it instead into communication with those whom we’re trying to impress. If we impress them, says Jesus, we have succeeded in what we were trying to do. But, he tells us, do not expect anything further from it. For God has seen what we’re trying to do, that we are not really talking to him, and so he will not respond. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:18) “But when you pray,” says Jesus, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:6) The secrecy keeps it as a conversation between me and God alone, between out two selves (c.f.: Matthew 18:15), which is what it is meant to be.

These three things, the almsgiving, the prayer and the fasting, are what we call Good Works. They do not exhaust the range of Good Works — indeed, St Benedict has a whole chapter filled with Good Works that we are meant to put into practice. (Rule of St Benedict 4:1ff) They are meant to be part of the service that we are to offer to God. Today’s Gospel more or less repeats the same instruction three times, once for each of the Good Works mentioned. From this we can say that it is a teaching that applies to any and all of the Good Works, not just these three: And when you do a good work, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love ‘to practice their righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.’ (Matthew 6:1) Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you do a good work, try not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. In none of his instruction does Jesus mention anything about frequency, occasion, or method; these are not his concern. But what is implicit in it is that we will do Good Works — that we will give alms, that we will pray, that we will fast, and so on; they are not optional. For our piety needs to be expressed. Jesus’ concern in all of them is only for our motive. If in doing these things our motive is to be seen to be holy, then we will hear Jesus say to us: Truly, I say to you, you have received your reward. But, as Benedict puts it, ‘Do not aspire to be holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so.’ (Rule of St Benedict 4:62) In Jesus’ instruction is a call to practice our righteousness in secret, to keep it between ourselves and God.

In becoming a monk, we have entered the ‘school of the Lord’s service.’ The service we perform here, the Good Works we do here, is our offering to God. We can think of our enclosure in the monastery, our separation from the world, as a way particular to us of keeping what do secret from the eyes of others, as a way of preventing us from parading our holiness before them that we might get on about the business of being holy. We have come here ‘seeking God.’ Our concern must be to ‘show eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials,’ as Benedict has it. (Rule of St Benedict 58:7) By these he mean only all those things that characterise life in the monastery; they are the service we perform, the service we have to offer. The eagerness called for, at least in regard to obedience, Benedict expands on in his Chapter on it: ‘The disciple’s obedience must be given gladly, for God loves a cheerful giver. If a disciple obeys grudgingly and grumbles, not only aloud but in his heart, then, even though he carry out the order, his action will not be accepted by God, who sees that he is grumbling in his heart. He will have no reward for service of this kind.’ (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 5:16-19) This could be said of all that we do here in the monastery.

Then, in Jesus’ teaching on Good Works, he speaks of God as ‘our Father who is in secret.’ The secrecy we are called to cultivate has something to do with the Hiddenness of God — that is why we must ‘seek God.’ It is really only there in that private place where we make our humble offering to God of all that we try to do (c.f.: Rule of St Benedict 49:5-6), that we will hear him say to us in prayer: “Once you have done this, 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.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:18) Our secret place, is the place of encounter. If we fill it up with all kinds of others, God our Father who is in secret will not be there. We need to protect the private place that is our heart.

In his teaching Jesus speaks of ‘our Father who sees in secret rewarding us.’ (c.f.: Matthew 6:4, 6, 18) Here we can come to understand that the reward for doing all these Good Deeds as an offering to him in secret is simply the pleasure of being with him, a most excellent thing beyond what we can hope to aspire to. As Benedict has it: ‘We shall never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds.’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:22. C.f.: Prologue:39) But with St Paul we do also say, “I do not understand my own actions. … For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15, 18-19) And so Benedict counsels: “We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. What is not possible for us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:40-41) Our prayer, then, is what prepares our hearts and bodies ‘to run and do now what will profit us forever,’ to do now what is necessary for us to come ‘dwell with the Lord in his holy tent’ on his ‘holy mountain,’ as Benedict has it. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:23, 44) We need to pray, especially deep in the privacy of our heart where only our Father hears all we say in secret. Prayer, especially in the secrecy of our hearts where ‘the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words’ (Romans 8:26-27), is what brings our ‘yearning for life and our desire to see good days’ to fruition. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:15) This we must cultivate.

All that said, the secrecy demanded is not meant to rule out doing things communally. Fasting is an act that needs to be done over a period of some time, such that (unless we are a hermit) we will be fasting in the presence of others. So Jesus counsels us on how to keep a private affair between ourselves and God: “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:17-18) In this way, though we are with others, no one need know we are fasting. Similarly, there are times when we are called to gather together publicly for prayer. Here our habit of private prayer, in which we have learnt to talk to God alone, will help us to be mindful of what we are doing, help us to keep our eyes fixed on God alone and to forget the plaudits of those others around us. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 19:6-7) In this way we can make our own the public prayers we say. And in our almsgiving, especially with those whose poverty forces them to live on the streets, our act of charity may necessarily have to be a public act. For all can see us. But if we are mindful of what we are doing, keeping our eyes fixed on the person we are trying to help so as not underscore their poverty by our giving, we can somehow manage to keep it as something between our two selves, between me and my neighbour. (C.f.: Mark 1: 41, 44; Rule of St Benedict 4:1-2). In this way we will not embarrass the poor person in his neediness, and making of it such a sweet offering to the Lord who has such great love for the poor.

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO