Words on the Word

Sts Simon and Jude

One of the apostles we celebrate today, Simon, is know to us as Simon the Zealot.

There was in first-century Palestine a political movement known as Zealots, but there is nothing to suggest that the epithet points to signed-up membership. More probably, it is a character description.

St Jude, commemorated alongside St Simon, as El Greco saw him.

Now, to call a man a ‘zealot’ is a mixed compliment. In day-to-day speech, when we say of someone, ‘He (or she) is very zealous’, we shudder a bit. The zealous person is officious and singleminded to the point of obsession, having little time for the sensibilities of others. To live alongside zealots can be an ordeal.

Complementing this suffocating zeal, there is, though, a good zeal, beneficial and attractive. St Benedict devotes the penultimate chapter of his Rule, its near-conclusion, to this kind of zeal. It is a zeal, he tells us, ‘that separates from vice while leading to God and life eternal’. He exhorts monks to practise it with ‘most ardent love’, ferventissimo amore. Thereby he distinguishes it from the zeal that judges and condemns. The zeal to which we aspire as Christians must always be a function of charity.

It is helpful to see how St Benedict itemises manifestations of this zeal. He links it, first, to patience, telling us to bear long-sufferingly all infirmities of body and character, first our own, then those of others. This alone is a life-long challenge. Next, he tells us to ‘compete earnestly’ in obedience to one another. We are to honour each other. We are to pursue, not our own good, but the well-being of others.

Three kinds of love are prescribed: the pure love, cleansed of self-interest, due to our brothers; the ‘loving fear’ we owe God, awesome in his majesty; then, ‘unfeigned, humble love’ with regard to the abbot, himself a poor man, who depends on his brethren’s affectionate support to accomplish the task they have entrusted to him. ‘Above all’, St Benedict concludes, ‘let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.’ That is what it is to be a Christian zealot.

The apostle we commemorate must have embodied these qualities. So aflame with love was he that he laid down his life for his Lord and for his friends. As we keep this joyful feast, let’s not forget that we are called, you and I, to exactly the same high standard. Let us thank God for the confidence he has placed in us by calling us to be his disciples, and let us pledge our resolve to be faithfully zealous, zealously faithful, to the end. Amen. 

A scene from daily Benedictine observance, at Solesmes. The proof of good zeal is in fidelity to one’s tasks in the ‘obscure, laborious, and ordinary‘ reality that constitutes monastic life – and, in fact, most human lives.