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Rule of St. Benedict: Chapter 64: On Constituting an Abbess, April 21, 2017

April 21, August 21, December 21

Chapter 64: On Constituting an Abbess

Once she has been constituted,

let the Abbess always bear in mind

what a burden she has undertaken

and to whom she will have to give an account of her stewardship,

and let her know that her duty is rather to profit her sisters

than to preside over them.

She must therefore be learned in the divine law,

that she may have a treasure of knowledge

from which to bring forth new things and old.

She must be chaste, sober and merciful.

Let her exalt mercy above judgment,

that she herself may obtain mercy.

She should hate vices;

she should love the sisterhood.

In administering correction

she should act prudently and not go to excess,

lest in seeking too eagerly to scrape off the rust

she break the vessel.

Let her keep her own frailty ever before her eyes

and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken.

By this we do not mean that she should allow vices to grow;

on the contrary, as we have already said,

she should eradicate them prudently and with charity,

in the way which may seem best in each case.

Let her study rather to be loved than to be feared.

Let her not be excitable and worried,

nor exacting and headstrong,

nor jealous and over-suspicious;

for then she is never at rest.

In her commands let her be prudent and considerate;

and whether the work which she enjoins

concerns God or the world,

let her be discreet and moderate,

bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said,

“If I cause my flocks to be overdriven,

they will all die in one day.”

Taking this, then, and other examples of discretion,

the mother of virtues,

let her so temper all things

that the strong may have something to strive after,

and the weak may not fall back in dismay.

And especially let her keep this Rule in all its details,

so that after a good ministry

she may hear from the Lord what the good servant heard

who gave the fellow-servants wheat in due season:

“Indeed, I tell you, he will set that one over all his goods” (Matt.

24:27).

Some thoughts
 
St Benedict’s Rule asks a lot of abbots and abbesses. Their role must have resembled walking a tightrope between keeping strong discipline and showing mercy, so that each member of the brotherhood or sisterhood would be able to come to ‘prefer nothing before Christ’.
 
The quote from Jacob speaks powerfully to me: “If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all die in one day.”
 
I could feel quite envious of the sisters who could rely upon their abbess to impose a balanced schedule, which included hard work, but also made allowances for the weakness of ill health or age, so that no one was forced to work beyond their physical ability. The difference, I suppose, is that the abbess was so aware of the humanity of the sisters; they weren’t just tools with which to perform tasks. ‘She should love the sisterhood’, says the RB; some of *our* leaders and managers appear to have little sense of love towards those they lead or manage.
 
How different some of our working environments might be if our supervisors and managers had to study the RB during their management training! 🙂
 
What truly beautiful words these are:
 
“In administering correction
she should act prudently and not go to excess,
lest in seeking too eagerly to scrape off the rust
she break the vessel.
Let her keep her own frailty ever before her eyes
and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken.”
 
This instruction could just as well be applied to parents, teachers, church ministers, work bosses and others in authority, as to abbots and abbesses. The RB does have relevance for life in the secular world.

Rule of St. Benedict: Chapter 63: On the Order of the Community

April 18, August 18, December 18

Chapter 63: On the Order of the Community

Let all keep their places in the monastery

established by the time of their entrance,

the merit of their lives and the decision of the Abbot.

Yet the Abbot must not disturb the flock committed to him,

nor by an arbitrary use of his power ordain anything unjustly;

but let him always think

of the account he will have to render to God

for all his decisions and his deeds.

Therefore in that order which he has established

or which they already had,

let the brethren approach to receive the kiss of peace and Communion,

intone the Psalms and stand in choir.

And in no place whatever should age decide the order

or be prejudicial to it;

for Samuel and Daniel as mere boys judged priests.

Except for those already mentioned, therefore,

whom the Abbot has promoted by a special decision

or demoted for definite reasons,

all the rest shall take their order

according to the time of their entrance.

Thus, for example,

he who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day,

whatever be his age or his dignity,

must know that he is junior

to one who came at the first hour of the day.

Boys, however, are to be kept under discipline

in all matters and by everyone.

Some thoughts
 
It must have been quite a hard life for boys in the monastery – and here’s another example: ‘Boys…are to be kept under discipline in all matters and by everyone.’
 
By everyone! It’s not always easy being under the authority of just *one* person, but to have to be under the authority of *every*one else in the community?
 
On the other hand, people of a certain age are wont to comment that the lack of discipline of boys (and girls) these days and their failure to accept authority from anybody, parents or teachers or other authority figures, is a major cause of the rise in crime. Certainly many of the children I observe in the library, supermarket, and in the street seem to have scant respect for their elders.
 
Thinking about it, it’s hardly a child’s fault if he is not disciplined, is it? The responsibility lies with the people who ought to be dispensing discipline, guidance and good example. St Benedict addresses his rule to the community, meaning ‘keep the boys under discipline’, not to the boys themselves, saying, ‘stay under the discipline of the community.’
 
Clearly, the fact that the boys were under the discipline of the adults in the community in no way rendered them second-class members of it: they took their place regardless of their age, and the examples of noted ‘boys’ in the Bible are given to ensure a scriptural basis for not treating the boys as subordinate to the adults – unusual, I would imagine, in St Benedict’s day.

Rule of St. Benedict: Chapter 61: How Pilgrim Monks Are To Be Received, April 15, 2017

April 15, August 15, December 15

Chapter 61: How Pilgrim Monks Are To Be Received

If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires,
provided she is content
with the customs of the place as she finds them
and does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands,
but is simply content with what she finds.

If, however, she censures or points out anything reasonably
and with the humility of charity,
let the Abbess consider prudently
whether perhaps it was for that very purpose
that the Lord sent her.

If afterwards she should want to bind herself to stability,
her wish should not be denied her,
especially since there has been opportunity
during her stay as a guest
to discover her character.

Some thoughts
 
“…provided she is content with the customs of the place as she finds them”
 
“…but is simply content with what she finds”
 
‘Content’… what a lovely word. I’m feeling very content right now. Not so much because I’ve had a delicious and satisfying meal and have a day of solitude planned, but because I’ve had the opportunity to discover new joy in a relationship that started 21 years ago at our first Knit Together.
 
I don’t want to go ‘off topic’ here, but there are several reasons for being content with ‘what I found’, which do probably have echoes within a monastic community.
 
I discovered that even though we’ve known each other for years, there are always deeper insights to share; that we can still learn from one another and encourage one another. Excitingly, there is *more* to our identities, and more to our relationship as we grow older – not less; nothing is shrinking; friendship and trust expand as we explore our separate experiences and confide the wisdom we’ve gleaned from them.
 
We pictured our friendship as a river that started high in the mountains 21 years ago as a mere trickle; over the years it grew into a stream and then a small river and even now there is still time and space for the river to flow broader and deeper. It’s the same river but now there’s so much more of it; **and there will be more still.**
 
Surely a community must have a similar experience of growth among the individuals that comprise it, and thus the community itself grows in Christlikeness; and our relationship with God, too, is not static or fixed. There are times when the river becomes a waterfall or a rapid or gets stuck behind a dam…but, in the end, a river always reaches the ocean, a destination that the mountain spring dreamed of but could not visualize.
 
So… let the visitor or newcomer be content; and yet, if they point out something with due humility, let it be considered; perhaps this is why God brought this person into the community (or into our lives). To keep us flowing and growing.
 
How open are we to an outsider’s view?
 
How shall we reveal our own perceptions in humility and charity?

Rule of St. Benedict: Chapter 58: On the Manner of Receiving Sisters, April 12, 2017

April 12, August 12, December 12

Chapter 58: On the Manner of Receiving Sisters

When she is to be received

she promises before all in the oratory

stability,

fidelity to monastic life

and obedience.

This promise she shall make before God and His Saints,

so that if she should ever act otherwise,

she may know that she will be condemned by Him whom she mocks.

Of this promise of hers let her draw up a document

in the name of the Saints whose relics are there

and of the Abbess who is present.

Let her write this document with her own hand;

or if she is illiterate, let another write it at her request,

and let the novice put her mark to it.

Then let her place it with her own hand upon the altar;

and when she has placed it there,

let the novice at once intone this verse:

“Receive me, O Lord, according to Your word, and I shall live:

and let me not be confounded in my hope” (Ps. 118[119]:116).

Let the whole community answer this verse three times

and add the “Glory be to the Father.”

Then let the novice prostrate herself at each one’s feet,

that they may pray for her.

And from that day forward

let her be counted as one of the community.

If she has any property,

let her either give it beforehand to the poor

or by solemn donation bestow it on the monastery,

reserving nothing at all for herself,

as indeed she knows that from that day forward

she will no longer have power even over her own body.

At once, therefore, in the oratory,

let her be divested of her own clothes which she is wearing

and dressed in the clothes of the monastery.

But let the clothes of which she was divested

be put aside in the wardrobe and kept there.

Then if she should ever listen to the persuasions of the devil

and decide to leave the monastery (which God forbid),

she may be divested of the monastic clothes and cast out.

Her document, however,

which the Abbess has taken from the altar,

shall not be returned to her, but shall be kept in the monastery.

Some thoughts
 
I’d like to highlight these words from today’s reading: “Then let her place it with her own hand upon the altar;”
 
 
These words reminded me unexpectedly of a repentance service I attended in church a few years ago.
 
It was an evening service and the church was deliberately darkened. All the lights were off and there was a real atmosphere of shadow and alienation.
 
Then a reader delivered the opening words of St John’s Gospel. As he read “He shines as a light in the darkness”, a candle – standing on a plain tray on the altar – was lit.
 
On the top step of the chancel, before the altar stood a bowl of salt water, and everyone in the congregation was given a tiny square of cloth. Our snippets of cloth represented the particular sin we repented of. We were invited to come one by one to the chancel step, dip the cloth in the bowl of salt water (to symbolize our tears of penitence) – and then kneel, if we wished, at the altar rail, for as long as we needed, in silent prayer.
 
When we were ready, we approached the altar, and, with our own hands, laid the wet sackcloth onto the tray, where the light of the candle – symbolizing, of course, the Light of Christ – brought it out of the surrounding darkness. It had been confessed; now each person, when ready, returned to their seats, and when all were settled, we said together the absolution prayer.
 
Of course, no one **had** to take part in this symbolic rite – but in fact, all present chose to do so.
 
After the service a number of people said what a difference it had made to them, having that symbol of their repentance, and being able – with their own hands – to lay it on the altar and see it taken up into the light of Christ. Deeds of evil, St John tells us, are done in darkness. Exposed to the light, the sin and temptation lost their power.
 
‘With their own hands’ seemed to be a key to the sense of relief and the reality of absolution that people received that evening.
 
I know the Reading today is talking about commitment, and perhaps a service of repentance is something different: and yet, what is repentance if not a turning around to make a fresh commitment?

Rule of St. Benedict: Chapter 58: On the Manner of Receiving Sisters, April 11, 2017

April 11, August 11, December 11
Chapter 58: On the Manner of Receiving Sisters
When anyone is newly come for the reformation of her life,
let her not be granted an easy entrance;
but, as the Apostle says,
“Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
If the newcomer, therefore, perseveres in her knocking,
and if it is seen after four or five days
that she bears patiently the harsh treatment offered her
and the difficulty of admission,
and that she persists in her petition,
then let entrance be granted her,
and let her stay in the guest house for a few days.
After that let her live in the novitiate,
where the novices study, eat and sleep.
A senior shall be assigned to them who is skilled in winning souls,
to watch over them with the utmost care.
Let her examine whether the novice is truly seeking God,
and whether she is zealous
for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials.
Let the novice be told all the hard and rugged ways
by which the journey to God is made.
If she promises stability and perseverance,
then at the end of two months
let this rule be read through to her,
and let her be addressed thus:
“Here is the law under which you wish to fight.
If you can observe it, enter;
if you cannot, you are free to depart.”
If she still stands firm,
let her be taken to the above-mentioned novitiate
and again tested in all patience.
And after the lapse of six months let the Rule be read to her,
that she may know on what she is entering.
And if she still remains firm,
after four months let the same Rule be read to her again.
Then, having deliberated with herself,
if she promises to keep it in its entirety
and to observe everything that is commanded,
let her be received into the community.
But let her understand that,
according to the law of the Rule,
from that day forward she may not leave the monastery
nor withdraw her neck from under the yoke of the Rule
which she was free to refuse or to accept
during that prolonged deliberation.

Some thoughts
 
Firstly, this shows that it is no easy or ill-considered matter to enter the novitiate. There’s a whole year of experiencing life under the Rule before the final decision is permitted to be made.
 
Note that there’s no picking and choosing about what to keep and what not to keep in the Rule – it is to be kept in its entirety. This makes it a **huge** commitment.
 
Thinking of other commitments we make in life… a new job, marriage perhaps, or a promise to do something faithfully day by day, I know I’ve not been in the habit of considering it at length, or questioning whether I have the physical or moral strength to persist in what I’ve undertaken. I’ve become far more cautious of late because it upsets me to let people down.
 
It’s difficult outside of a religious community for people to honor commitments they’ve made; in modern secular society, there’s always a way out – we can resign; we can divorce; we can explain that we can’t keep our promise for a multiplicity of reasons.
 
This makes it hard for us to trust or be trusted by other human beings. Perhaps this is what makes it hard for us to trust God’s promises to us, or to accept that he’s still reigning supreme in heaven, in earth, and in our lives when we’re experiencing ‘the hard bits’. Of all my many relationships – daughter, sister, friend – I can only see **perfect** commitment, a covenant relationship, in and from God (which I want to reciprocate fully but frequently fail to do so.)
 
Without commitment, there will inevitably be times when we are hurt badly, and when we damage others who trusted us. No wonder St Benedict was so firm about a year of deliberation before entering the novitiate.

Rule of St. Benedict: Chapter 57: On the Artisans of the Monastery, April 10, 2017

April 10, August 10, December 10
Chapter 57: On the Artisans of the Monastery
If there are artisans in the monastery,
let them practice their crafts with all humility,
provided the Abbot has given permission.
But if any one of them becomes conceited
over his skill in his craft,
because he seems to be conferring a benefit on the monastery,
let him be taken from his craft
and no longer exercise it unless,
after he has humbled himself,
the Abbot again gives him permission.

If any of the work of the craftsmen is to be sold,
those responsible for the sale
must not dare to practice any fraud.
Let them always remember Ananias and Saphira,
who incurred bodily death (Acts 5:1-11),
lest they and all who perpetrate fraud
in monastery affairs
suffer spiritual death.

And in the prices let not the sin of avarice creep in,
but let the goods always be sold a little cheaper
than they can be sold by people in the world,
“that in all things God may be glorified” (1 Peter 4:11).

Some thoughts
 
 
For those of us who practice crafts of any kind, this passage might ring some alarm bells. Humility in one’s skill is important because our skill comes to us as God’s gift. If we are proud or vain about what we produce, we are refusing to give the glory that’s due to the Lord in all that we do.
 
Yet God is the Creator and we are made in his image; creativity is natural to human beings. It takes many forms, not just the most desired or praised like being a Mozart, a Monet or a Milton, which most of us can’t aspire to.
 
What sorts of things would the monks and nuns have used their gifts to create and then sell?
 
Perhaps the scribes illuminated beautiful parchments; perhaps the gardeners grew excellent vegetables; perhaps the cellarers made delicious wine; perhaps the herbalists made medicines and the kitchen monks made soup? Perhaps the sisters made cloth or did fine needlework?
 
The monastic community was supposed to be self-supporting and would make their own soap, clothing, shoes, baskets, spun wool, wove it, and if they had extra, they could sell it.
 
The communities were glad, no doubt, of the extra income, even though they charged less than the ‘going price’ in the world. Perhaps conceit was a very real temptation – to think one was contributing more than the others to the community’s well-being when one’s creations sold well…
 
It is kind of comforting to feel one is ‘paying one’s way’, ‘doing one’s bit’, and ‘not being a burden’… but community life is inter-dependent life, neither independent nor dependent life. Quite a sobering thought really.

Rule of St. Benedict: Chapter 56: On the Abbess’s Table, April 9, 2017

April 9, August 9, December 9

Chapter 56: On the Abbess’s Table

Let the Abbess’s table always be with the guests

and the pilgrims. But when there are no guests,

let it be in her power to invite whom she will of the sisters.

Yet one or two seniors must always be left with the others

for the sake of discipline.

Some Thoughts:

Hospitality first!

And I wonder how it felt to be a monastic who was invited to the superior’s table? And how it felt to be a monastic who was not invited, who felt overlooked?

Would the superior have invited them rotationally so as to treat all equally? I think so. I think each would have a turn.