MAY THE BROTHERS PREFER NOTHING TO CHRIST, AND MAY HE LEAD US TO ETERNAL LIFE


Feast of St. Benedict- Chapter


Christ Our Glory

MAY THE BROTHERS PREFER NOTHING TO CHRIST, AND MAY HE LEAD US TO ETERNAL LIFE (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 72). As he brings his Rule to an end, Benedict brings together in a brief chapter some advice that he considers to be the most important points for monks to keep in mind. He entitles this Chapter "Concerning the Good Zeal Monks Should Have." In effect it is an exhortation to practice ardent charity in all community relations and to make the love of Christ the motivating force in all things. Moreover, he raises the vision of his monks to the attainment of eternal life, giving an eschatological perspective to the whole of his Rule. Only in light of eternity can the monk properly interpret and practice the way of life set out in this Rule for Monks. The monastic life is a life of faith that is ordered to the Kingdom of God; the measure of its achievement is the creation of a community marked by sanctity and united in the loving knowledge of the Father in Christ.

Scattered throughout his Rule is a concern for order and tranquility in the functioning of the monastery. In four earlier chapters (2, 47, 60 and 62) he mentions it explicitly, but beginning with chapter 63 On the Order of the Community, Benedict relates the question of Order explicitly to the promotion of charity among its members. Here, in fact, he began to give more prominence to the place and role of affection and charity generally in his treatment of community. This emphasis stands out all the more when this chapter of the Rule is compared with the place where the Rule of the Master treats the issue of order in community life. Commentators of Benedict's Rule have come to consider the section from Chapter 63-72 to be a form of appendix, written later in life, after Benedict had a longer experience of treating with men and affairs as abbot. There is reason to believe that Benedict himself envisaged the question of rank in close relation to issues of fraternal charity. Fr. Garcia Colombas, OSB, sums up his view of this section of the Rule in these words.

Towards the end of his Rule St. Benedict felt the need to complete his manuscript by adding a series of chapter that nuanced his thought. Above all, he gave to the life of the community a more human orientation, one that is more affectionate, more careful to respect the diverse personalities of the brothers among whom he ties bonds of charity that are more concrete and close than in the rest of his work…. To this group of chapters pertains, precisely chapter 63, "On the Order of the Community" whose second part presents very notable analogies with chapter 72, "On Good Zeal"(La Regla de San Benito, 473).

In dealing with the order to be observed in relations among the brothers, Benedict ignores the Master, who prefers to avoid any firmly established order so as to encourage emulation among the brothers. Nor does he leave the question to the decision of the Superior as does St. Basil; rather, he follows the lead of Saints Pachomius (as presented by St. Jerome in the preface to his Latin translation) and Augustine. These legislators choose a definite principle for establishing rank in the community, namely the date of entering the monastery (for these and other pertinent data cf. Adalbert de Vogue, La Regle de Saint Benoit, 422 ff; also Terrence Kardong, Benedict's Rule, 516, 523 ff.).

The seemingly minor matter of rank proved, in the course of history, to be far from insignificant in terms of values and human relations. Kardong is not the only commentator who observes that it turned out to be revolutionary. For one thing, in practice it had a democratic influence in a society that was strongly socially stratified. Benedict insists that nobles and peasants are equally acceptable; neither has an advantage before the Lord. Implicitly it teaches that priority is determined by the grace of Christ's call, not by worldly station, wealth, learning or influential connections. Further, it helps to diminish the natural tendency of men to enter into competition for rank. At the same time, it provides for that order among the members of the community which gives a sense of place that inserts one within the group and imparts a certain dignity to all participants in its activities. No matter if a man is the last one to come to the monastery, still he has a definite place that situates him in relation to all the others. St. Paul had already made the point that Christian assemblies should function in an orderly way for God is not of disorder but of peace (1Cor. 14:33). St. Augustine too in his Rule for Monks considers good order to be an important factor in creating a healthy community (cf. The Rule of St. Augustine, tr. T. van Bavel, ch.6.3 N.Y. 1986, 22).

Our modern democratic society here in the USA is rather disinclined to hierarchy at any rate as a formal system of organization on the social level. The capitalist world of business, on the other hand, is decidedly hierarchical with salaries as an index of relative position and power. Wealth and education certainly create clearly demarcated social stratification that is manifested in highly visible ways. Housing, neighborhood environment, schools, health care and places of recreation are all manifest expressions of a hierarchy of wealth and culture. The system is marked by a certain permeability of boundaries so that talent and ambition are rewarded with access to the sources of higher culture, riches and power. At the borders of social classes there is considerable interaction between higher and lower elements that allows for upward and downward mobility. Even though stratification is relatively fluid and the boundaries are blurred yet it is real enough and results in consequences that mark each of its members. It is then significant that we still maintain Benedict's principle of dating seniority from the date of entry, not on the kind of education, or social status prior to taking the habit. However, we now apply rank in a more flexible way than had been the case in the past. Seating in chapter, choir and the refectory is no longer according to seniority in our community; people feel more at ease with a casual arrangement. Still it turned out after a while that there was a decided preference for having a definite place assigned in choir and refectory, and most regularly choose the same seat in chapter. There is something in our human nature that spontaneously seeks out a place for oneself. Possessing such familiar places establishes a certain sense of order and continuity that is more congenial to our functioning and relating to others. Absence of such a personal, relatively fixed place in a community is characteristic of the visitor, guest or stranger and makes one feel less than a fully participating member.

Closely bound up with rank in the community are attitudes between different groups. In particular Benedict encourages the young to honor their elders and the older monks to love the young. Whether it is a matter of seniority or of superiority these are the proper relations to cultivate in the monastic community. The words expressing honor occur more frequently in this context than the vocabulary of love. In fact, honor itself is one of the forms that love assumes. St. Benedict cites a passage from St. Paul that urges his readers to "be the first in honoring one another." De Vogue thinks it likely when he wrote this he had in mind the words that immediately precede this exhortation: "be kindly disposed to one another in fraternal affection (Romans 12:10)." At any rate, St. Paul considers that showing respect for others flows spontaneously from practicing fraternal love, as is evidenced by the very next words of this text: "be forward in showing honor to one another". We do well to reflect on this connection. The more familiarly people live together, the more close and frequent their association and contacts with one another, the more important it becomes that they cultivate and express mutual respect and honor. Familiarity so readily leads to taking others for granted, becoming insensitive to their tastes and their interests and their legitimate need for recognition. Attention to the good of others, concern for their welfare and happiness is the work of true love and is the fruit of that respect which is the fruit of all real charity. The manner of displaying regard and respect for others varies considerably with individuals and social circumstances. St. Benedict mentions a few that are still observed in monasteries, such as greeting one another when passing nearby, being prompt to acknowledge the presence of a neighbor who takes a place next to one, using the proper title and name, not a nickname. In general, considerateness of the feelings of others, being on time for appointments, responding to notes promptly are ways of showing due regard for their personal dignity and contribute, when consistently practiced, to a sense of worth and of being held in esteem.

Signs of respect for the community as a whole are also inculcated by the Rule in various places. Showing up for the community offices on time is an important one. Monks who arrive late regularly, perhaps do not realize that this conveys a lack of due regard not only for the office but also for the assembly. To derive fuller benefit from the office it is advisable to come to choir at least five minutes early so that we are recollected, as a good number here have made it their practice to do so. Another significant practice is maintaining silence in the common places and at work except when necessary to speak. Again some few have begun to ignore that practice fairly readily, thus giving the wrong message to those in formation. Speaking appropriately and quietly so as to preserve a sense of recollection in the monastery is another sign of respect and consideration for others.

Benedict, followed by all the monastic writers who treat of monastic observance, gives a certain prominence to such attention to recollection and silence. Community morale is strengthened by the consistent observance of such practices. A sense of worth and dignity gradually and unconsciously establishes itself as the monk contributes to maintain such an environment, one that witnesses to the seriousness of a life dedicated to constant prayer. We do not readily advert to the relationship between such attentive concern for the communal atmosphere of our house and the practice of fraternal charity. But the relation is a very real and significant one.

This principle applies to all human groups, not only to monks, of course. Family relations, professional dealings, whether secular or religious, all profit or suffer from the manner in which members of the group have concern for contributing to a friendly and yet respectful and disciplined tone in their dealings with one another and with others with whom they come into contact. After a very short time in a hospital or a doctor's office an experienced observer can form a rather accurate impression of the level of competence of the staff. A guest at a family dinner who is alert to such matters can often form a reliable judgment as to the quality of personal relations and the style of instruction that takes place in the home. I recall an experience of this sort I had when as a student I was traveling through Milan to Rome when Cardinal Montini, who later became Paul VI, was the prelate of that city. I went to the Milan Duomo to say mass, and was immediately struck by the order and discipline evident in the bearing of the altar boys, the sacristan and of all those present in the room. They communicated a sense of self-respect and of pride in their service. No unnecessary words passed, but all that was appropriate was swiftly and efficiently carried out. One felt the presence of the Cardinal's personality and values; the bearing of his staff was a witness to the seriousness of his commitment to the Church.

While in the earlier chapters of his Rule, Benedict gives a larger consideration to order and discipline, as he brings his work to an end he makes love, affection and charity his dominant concerns. De VoghJ's remarks on these final chapters are quite helpful in understanding the proper relation between these chapters. Benedict does not abrogate the rules he gave earlier regarding rank and the deportment proper to the seniors and juniors; rather, he came to see that charity is not only the summit of monastic striving, but should also permeate all community relations. The manifestations of honor and respect are in the service of fraternal charity and unity of spirit. Just as in treating of humility he had pointed out the need to begin with fear of the Lord in order to climb to the heights of perfect love that casts out fear, so also in the matter of community relations he stresses good order, considerateness and respect as ways that culminate in ardent charity (cf. de Vogue, op. cit., pp. 428-430).

St. Benedict

St. Benedict has been justly recognized as manifesting a healthy sense of measure and balance. Such virtues were native to Roman culture in good part and no doubt were enhanced by his meditation on the Bible and his own long experience as a monk. What has been less frequently commented upon is his zeal. He began his monastic career as a very austere hermit. He ended it convinced that what truly matters in the end is ardent love. As his life drew to a close he saw more clearly that all aspects of monastic life are in the service of a love that is the perfection of the human person. As he concludes his Rule he gives a brief and forceful expression to that conviction. Significantly he uses in these few lines three different words for love: amor and charitas each twice and adding diligere as well. It is as in the end of life he had the same conviction that St. John of the Cross later on was to express: "In the evening of life we shall be judged by love." Perhaps the best approach to understanding the Rule of Benedict is to read first, not the Prologue but this final chapter but one and to read the whole document in the perspective it establishes. We will profit most from the practical wisdom of our Father Saint Benedict, monk and teacher of monks when we are guided by these words.

…there is a good zeal that separates from vices and leads to God and to life eternal. Let the monks then practice this zeal with a most ardent love…. Let no one follow what he considers useful for himself but rather for another. Let them display charity for the brotherhood with a chaste love, let them fear God and love their abbot with a sincere and humble charity; may they prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life (Rule, chapter 72).

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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