Winning Essay by Charlie Sheil

‘‘If St Benedict had written his rule for students, what would he have said about the Good Zeal they should foster and the Wicked Zeal they should avoid?’’

By Charlie Sheil, Glenstal Abbey School, Limerick.

‘‘Since the sixth century the Rule of St Benedict has provided a sure spiritual guide for countless numbers of monks, nuns and oblates. Composed in an age beset by violence and instability, it became one of the foundational texts of Western Society, guiding Christians in their efforts to create a civilization of love. In our own age the spiritual riches of the Rule inspire and sustain men and women of goodwill, crossing boundaries of gender, race, denomination and calling while still remaining the bedrock of those whose primary vocation is to the cloister’’[1]

St Benedict granted us a lot of wisdom in one of the most influential texts in Western civilisation. He has a lot to say about zeal, which is defined as ‘‘Great energy or enthusiasm in the pursuit of a cause or an objective’’. St Benedict says that an evil zeal ‘‘leads to hell’’ (72:1) and that a good zeal ‘‘leads to God and to everlasting life’’ (72:2). Good zeal raises up a community and wicked zeal tears it down. The Rule not only applies to people of faith, but to all people of goodwill and so it is entirely appropriate to examine the issue of zeal in the context of a Benedictine boys’ boarding school.

Of course there are some major differences between the life of a monk and that of a modern student. Most students wouldn’t spend as much time at prayer as Benedictine monks do, nor is theirs a lifetime’s commitment, but the same principles can be applied to a student’s everyday life. Some of the ‘tools of good works’ that the Rule provides can be applied to everyone, of all beliefs, even agnostics. Although young boys are more competitive and careless with their words, and may not be as disciplined or respectful as a community of monks, the same principles apply to their daily lives in the school community.

The most the important element of good zeal, for those blessed with the gift of faith, is prayer. It is the central activity of monks and inspires fourteen of the seventy-three chapters in St Benedict’s Rule.  ‘‘the eyes of the Lord are keeping watch over the good and the bad in every place’’ (19:1) can be applied to all aspects of life, monastic, school, even secular occupations. It is for this reason, in awe of his almighty power, that the devout seek God in prayer. God’s teachings apply to everyone, from all walks of life. As prayer is essential to monastic life, so it is also essential to the life of students. Each morning and evening, students in Glenstal Abbey School assemble in their houses for prayer. Each week the  whole school community gathers around the altar to celebrate Mass, as I am sure other Benedictine schools do also. We meet to give thanks to the Lord because; ‘‘by the grace of God, I am what I am.’’ (PR: 31). We give him thanks for our virtues for he made us what we are; ‘‘If a man must boast, let him boast of the Lord’’ (PR: 32).

St Benedict would have urged students to avoid the wicked zeal of arrogance. He teaches us to practice humility instead ‘‘Everyone who makes himself great will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be made great’’ (7:1). He enjoins us ‘‘Not to be arrogant’’ (4:34). Students who excel in sport or academia may slip into arrogance. This must be avoided and replaced with humility. He writes that a priest living in the monastery, highly qualified and trained in theology, must not be arrogant because of his talents and education, but ‘‘let him rather give examples of humility to all’’ (60:5). Humbling the mighty like this certainly has an application for students, both in their school life but, more importantly in adult life, lest they leave the school full of arrogance, to get a shock in the world of work and relationships.

.The next destructive tendency St Benedict urges students to avoid is competitiveness.  This is linked to the previous bitter zeal of arrogance. St Benedict urges us ‘‘Not to indulge in rivalry’’ (4:67). Rivalry, by its nature, must have a loser and a winner, who may become arrogant. Benedict however teaches us  ‘‘To shun pride’’ (4:69). Pride breeds illusions  of superiority, although the Church teaches that we are all equal under the eyes of God. Benedict is so opposed to pride that he goes as far as to say ‘‘Should one among them pride himself on his mastery of the craft, let such a person be removed from the craft, nor let him undertake it, unless perhaps he humbles himself’’ (57:2). He is in favour of humility, outlining the twelve steps to humility in chapter seven.  The opposite of humility is arrogance and pride, thus he challenges students to avoid the wicked zeal of competitiveness, which leads to arrogance and pride, fostering humility instead.

One particular vice which St Benedict detests is murmuring or destructive criticism. Sadly, this is rife in schools and so his condemnation of this wicked zeal is all too relevant to students. Bullying is also a very real problem for many 21st century teenagers, eroding the dignity with which St Benedict insists all should be treated. In 2010, this bitter zeal of bullying led to the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a young Irish student. He implores us ‘‘Not to return insult for insult’’ (4:32).If this wicked zeal had been shunned, the bullying wouldn’t have occurred and this poor girl would not have met her tragic end. St Benedict says himself that ‘‘Death and life are in the hands of the tongue’’ (6:5). This is echoed in Irish culture too, as the old Irish proverb or ‘seanfhocail’ goes ‘‘Is minic a briseann béal duine a shrón’’, translated as ‘‘It is often a person’s mouth that breaks their nose’[2]’ This has particular significance in the classroom. Education shapes a person’s being, and their relationship with their teacher reflects the education they shall receive. The teacher has a huge influence over students, and is an important figure in a student’s life. This relationship is achieved by not being critical of things going on around them, as St Benedict says, ‘‘guard my ways so as not to sin by my tongue’’ (6:1).

A successful and happy student needs to show respect: for teachers, for school staff, for peers.  St Benedict directly tells us ‘‘To respect everybody’’ (4:8). We must give respect. This will earn us respect. Being respected as a person will result in a happy, productive student. Again we see the importance of good conduct in the classroom. We must respect the teacher and the tasks they assign us if we are to benefit from their teaching. We must give them silence and obedience if they are to impart their wisdom upon us, for ‘‘To speak and to teach, indeed, befits the master; to be silent and to listen becomes the disciple’’ (6:6). If we want to have good friends, we need to treat them well by respecting them. Here St Benedict takes his teaching straight from the gospels of St Luke and St Matthew, saying ‘‘not to do to another what one does not wish done to oneself’’ (4:9). So if you don’t want someone to harm you, don’t harm them. If you want people to be nice to you, be nice to them. In this way we can ‘‘hate nobody’’ (4:65) and be happy by fostering the good zeal of respect.

The very purpose of school is to work hard. It sets us up for our working lives. We need ‘‘To discipline the body’’ (4:11). If we do not discipline ourselves, we can become ‘‘enamoured of soft living’’ (4:12). We cannot become lazy. There is no point in getting even a top class education if we are not willing to work and use what we have learned for the good of ourselves and of others. Being lazy defeats the purpose of all the time and effort that gets invested in students by their teachers and parents. This is why St Benedict would urge students to be ‘‘Not lazy’’ (4:38). By being lazy we are throwing away the gifts and talents that God gave us, letting them decay and languish in the shade.

The last virtue which St Benedict wishes his followers to foster is forgiveness. It is important in the life of a student that we do not hold grudges. People make mistakes from time to time. If we hold a grudge against everyone who ever wronged us, we wouldn’t have very many friends left. This is why it is important ‘‘To make peace with an opponent before sunset’’ (4:73). We are told ‘‘not to reply wrong with wrong’’ (4:29), but to adopt humility and ‘‘suffer patiently wrongs done to oneself’’ (4:30). Forgiveness is one of the most important teachings of Jesus. He forgave everyone. We need to do the same. We ‘‘never despair of God’s mercy’’ (4:74), so we should try to never let others despair of our mercy, by forgiving them all their trespasses against us.

Thus any follower of Benedict – monk, student, layperson – must shun the wicked zeal of arrogance, competitiveness and negative criticism, while fostering the good zeal of prayer, respect, hard work and forgiveness. The wisdom of this sixth century “little rule for beginners”  is so great that it is still relevant to a twenty-first century agnostic like myself. I am grateful to The Father of Western Civilisation for reaffirming my own zeal for these tools of good works.


[1] The Rule of St Benedict, trans. Fr Placid Murray OSB (Glenstal Abbey,  2012). All references to the Rule are taken from this edition.

[2] I owe this reference to my colleague Eoin Ryan.

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