“Your hope of fulfillment should be centered in God alone. When you see any good in yourself, then, don’t take it to be your very own, but acknowledge it as a gift from God. On the other hand you may be sure that any evil you do is always your own and you may safely acknowledge your responsibility” (St. Benedict’s Rule, Chapter 4).
What does it mean to be fulfilled? Etymological nerd that I am, I looked it up. It comes from the Old English word fullfyllan. The word “full” hasn’t changed. It meant then what it means now. “Fyllan” means to fill.
:What?" you say! Fulfill’s root words are, “Full and to fill? So…to fill to the full?" Ummm, exactly. (As far as I can tell.)
So now’s where I give you the definitions I’ve found (from freedictionary.com): To bring into actuality; to carry out (an order, for example); to measure up to, satisfy; to bring to an end; to complete.
In Christian culture it’s sort of taboo to say that you’re not “fulfilled” because having a relationship with Christ is supposed to make you completely satisfied, right? That’s what all the worship songs say. The moment you threw your life in with Jesus, everything was supposed to fall into the correct categories: Things that matter (eternal) and things that don’t (earthly).
It took me a long time to admit that most of my Christian life I’d been pretending that I was fulfilled, that my contentedness was based only on my faith in Jesus and his faithfulness to me. Because, I don’t know about you, but I get confused between our churchy definitions of happiness versus joy (joy is there even when life is hard and happiness comes and goes). In some respects that’s true, but when I’m happy, when things are good and sweet and full of grace, joy feels a whole lot easier.
My friend Christina who is never one to pretend, told me last week that she had an entire conversation with her husband about whether or not Christians are supposed to be happy. She was shocked that he thought they ought to be.
For the record, I don’t necessarily think that the discussion ought to be happiness versus joy; I think it ought to be happiness versus fulfillment, or my new favorite word, wholeheartedness. When life is lived wholeheartedly, cynicism is weaker than earnestness, faith is braver than doubt, and hope trumps discouragement. I believe wholeheartedness is a synonym for fulfillment. To be whole is to be filled up, entirely filled—not with a passing sort of Happy or an emotional sort of Jesus experience, but with a deep-rooted belief that all is grace, that God is good to me, that this life is beautiful because it is a gift.
Benedict says we have a “hope of fulfillment,” not an automatic fulfillment like our Christian culture tends to imply. We have to learn to be fulfilled. Remember how Paul said he had “learned to be content in every circumstance”? (emphasis mine). So how do we practice the hope of fulfillment? How do we practice wholeheartedness?
Can I stop here and say I love how simple Benedict makes things? He doesn’t require more prayers or less dance party music. He doesn’t condemn his monks for not having had fulfillment by this point. Instead he points softly toward this notion: We should be centered on God alone.
In the midst of the crazy of every day—the demands in the office, using our minds too much or not using them enough, walking your preschooler to his room because you warned him if he joked about poop again there would be a time out, the exhaustion of life stood over the kitchen sink or life stood over the washer and dryer—there is something we can hold central, a gleaming orb in our chest, a light that seeps out into our fingers and touches all we touch.
Then, as Benedict says, we begin to recognize that the good in us is coming from that gleaming orb of light inside, because God’s goodness if filling and filling and filling us up. We recognize that the evil in us every attempt we make to snuff that light out and we believe the truth that we’re responsible for the snuffing. We are always responsible for the snuffing.
We have a hope of fulfillment, everyday. We get to choose what is central. And we choose it by what we hold in our minds. We choose it by grasping for gratefulness and recognizing grace and believing that God’s goodness is here in this moment. And then we hold out our offering—this baby’s sticky hands, these folded t-shirts, this sales-call, this lesson on prime numbers, this dinner made with love—and we believe there is full life in this, enough life to complete.