Romuald lived in the last half of the 900s and the start of the 1000s, in Ravenna–a major city in what is now Northern Italy. He grew up wealthy, in a family of dukes, and learned to love the soft life. Butler writes that Romuald “grew every day more and more enslaved to his passions” only to repent in tears, wish that he were a hermit instead, resolve to do better, and then right back to “softness and the love of pleasures.”
It took being forced by his father (under threat of disinheritance) to watch his father kill a relative over a dispute about an estate for Romuald to break entirely from his way of life and to move out and away to pursue a more religious, more holy existence among a group of lay-religious. Romuald took no comfort in knowing that he was “only” a bystander in the face of such familial brutality (over land, no less, of which they all had plenty), and he left Ravenna, knowing that he was turning his back on money, prestige, and a life of ease.
Romuald then became passionate about being as austerely holy as he had previously been self-indulgent. Like many a former smoker, Romuald even made himself unpleasant to other religious seekers not only by his example of pure living but by his constant nagging (reproving, exhorting, edifying–whatever the word, it was nagging) of others to raise their own personal standards of holiness. Eventually, he had to move again.
What is most interesting to me in Butler’s accounts of Romuald are the varied and very person-specific nature of the temptations that assailed Romuald. Butler speaks of how the devil sought out Romuald’s weaknesses from the first moment he left home–first, by how the devil “directly solicited [Romuald] to vice”; then, by reminding Romuald of what comforts and wealth he had given up by leaving Ravenna and his family. Next, the devil preyed upon Romuald in an even deeper, more nuanced way–by prompting thoughts in Romuald about how his ungrateful (and murderous) relatives would be back home wielding iniquitous influences that Romuald–were he still there–could have prevented! Then the devil would ping-pong Romuald’s soul back and forth, at one point telling him that his choices were not in accord with God’s plans and, at another, that he had undertaken too much for a mere mortal. Finally, the devil would take to virtual earthquakes when Romuald was at prayer to try to divert his attention through fear that the walls might tumble in upon him.
Whether the source is the devil, the “tapes playing automatically in our heads,” what Julia Cameron calls our “internal censor,” or any other similarly active voice with which we must contend–Romuald’s story is illustrative: the things that distract us from leading our authentic lives are astoundingly specific and tailored to each of our situations. Just reviewing Romuald’s list, we see–appeals to one’s lower nature, appeals to one’s desire for security, appeals to one’s higher nature, appeals to self-doubt, appeals to self-pity, appeals to self-preservation. And here’s the difficulty in which we can take comfort: it took Romuald five years of sustained effort to move beyond these assaults before he could break through to a place of clarity and certainty, to a peace that transcends comprehension (though you know it when you have it).
To let go…what a challenge! To let go of judging ourselves in a comparison to some external standard of worse or better, to let go of needing financial and familial security for the future, to let go of worrying if we’re doing “the Right Thing,” to let go of self-doubt AND self-pity AND a yearning for (illusory) self-preservation…this is in all respects as worthy of being one’s life’s work.