7 Jan. 8 May. 7 Sept.
We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous. But if anything be somewhat strictly laid down, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult. But as we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments; so that never departing from His guidance, but persevering in His teaching in the monastery until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers of His kingdom. Amen.
Saint Benedict proposes to establish a dominici schola servitii, a school of the Lord’s service. The precise meaning of this phrase has long fascinated monastic philologists. It seems to me that the word schola must be refered back to what Saint Benedict says at the beginning of the Prologue: “Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thine heart.” A man comes to the monastery to be schooled in the service of the Lord, and this in the company of others who are like sons to their master and like brothers one to another. In Chapter XIX, Of the Discipline of saying the Divine Office, Saint Benedict will use the verb servire in reference to the liturgical worship of God and, specifically, in reference to the psalmody: Ideo semper memores simus quod ait propheta: Servite Domino in timore, et iterum: Psallite sapienter,”Let us, then, ever remember what the prophet saith: ‘Serve the Lord in fear’; and again, ‘Sing ye wisely.” Moreover, in Chapter L, Saint Benedict will refer to the Hours of the Divine Office as the monks’ servitutis pensum, “obligation of divine service.”
While one can admit of different meanings of the word servitium; the internal logic of the Holy Rule suggests that, even here, in the Prologue, when Saint Benedict speaks of the dominici schola servitii, the school of the Lord’s service, he is referring to a school of divine worship. Given that in Chapter XLIII Saint Benedict will say, “Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God,” it is altogether likely that he should want to say something about the Work of God in the Prologue. The word servitium had, already in Saint Benedict’s time, taken on the meaning of solemn public worship offered to God. A whole constellation of Greek and Latin words can be linked to Saint Benedict’s use of servitium: it refers to the sacra synaxis, liturgical assembly; to the cultus Dei, the worship of God; to the officium divinum, the divine office; and to the opus Dei, the work of God. The same word, servitium, can be related to the Greek λατρεία, which means the service rendered to God, and to λειτουργία, which means sacred (priestly) service to the Lord. Saint Benedict’s school of the Lord’s service is a school of adoration in spirit and in truth.
But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him. (John 4:23)
I would refer again, in this regard, to Dante’s evocative phrase in Canto XX of the Paradiso, when he speaks of the monk as being disposto a sola latria, wholly given over to pure worship. In coming to the school of the Lord’s service, a man forsakes every other ambition, every other goal and finality. He comes for the service of the Lord alone, disposto a sola latria. This voluntary renunciation of all that, in the eyes of the world, and even in the eyes of certain churchmen, makes life worth living, can be disorienting and even dizzying at times. Why am I here? What am I doing? What have I to show for so many hours spent in praising God? The candle sheds light at the cost of disappearing beneath the flame. The grain of incense gives forth its fragrance at the cost of burning itself out on the live coal. Not for nothing is Saint John the Baptist, the Friend of the Bridegroom, the great model of monks. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The monk, like Saint John the Baptist, is to be both fire and light. Ille erat lucerna ardens et lucens, “He was a burning and a shining light” (John 5:35). This the monk does by spending himself in the praise and adoration of God without counting the cost, and without seeking the human satisfaction that comes from being able to measure and evaluate the worth of his labour in the school of the Lord’s service.
Pope Pius XI’s Apostolic Constitution of 8 July 1924, Umbratilem, while addressed primarily to the Carthusians, affirms nonetheless the irreplaceable role in the Church of all those who, as the Second Vatican Council says, “offer a service to the divine majesty at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery” (Perfectae Caritatis, art. 9). Pope Pius XI writes:
For, if ever it was needful that there should be anchorites of that sort in the Church of God it is most especially expedient nowadays when we see so many Christians living without a thought for the things of the next world and utterly regardless of their eternal salvation, giving reign to their desire for earthly pelf and the pleasures of the flesh and adopting and exhibiting publicly as well as in their private lives pagan manners altogether opposed to the Gospel.
And there are perhaps some who still deem that the virtues which are misnamed “passive” have long grown obsolete and that the broader and more liberal exercise of active virtues should be substituted for the ancient discipline of the cloister. This opinion Our predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII, refuted, exploded and condemned in his Letter Testem benevolentiæ given on the 22 of January in the year 1899; and no one can fail to see how harmful and baneful that opinion is to Christian perfection as it is taught and practiced in the Church.
It is, besides, easy to understand how they who assiduously fulfill the duty of prayer and penance contribute much more to the increase of the Church and the welfare of mankind than those who labor in tilling the Master’s field; for unless the former drew down from heaven a shower of divine graces to water the field that is being tilled, the evangelical laborers would reap forsooth from their toil a more scanty crop.
Pope Pius XI, in the same letter, compares the prayer and penance of monks to Aaron and Hur (Exodus 17:9–13) who held aloft the arms of Moses, in order that he might intercede whilst Josue waged battle in the plain below. Saint Benedict says that in his school of the Lord’s service there is to be nihil asperum, nihil grave, nothing that is harsh or rigorous. There is, nonetheless, a effectively penitential component in our Benedictine life: certain observances, set forth propter emendationem vitiorum vel conservationem caritatis, “for the amendment of vices and the preservation of charity” turn a man from himself to God, open in him what is closed to grace, restrain in him what is inclined to vice, and render him more and more capax Dei, that is, fit to receive God. While we, with Benedictine discretion, eschew the more extreme forms of self–denial, we embrace the little way of daily and hourly fidelity to our conversatio morum. This implies acts of self–denial that are effective and precious in the sight of God in proportion to their littleness and hiddenness: gratuitous acts of kindness, obedience to the sound of the bell, silence, exact fidelity to the horarium, joyful observance of the little practices that make our life together “good and pleasant” as the psalmist says.
Saint Benedict knows well that men at the beginning of the monastic journey will, at certain seasons and hours, be tempted to run away. The beginnings will be strait, that is narrow, and difficult. There is no escaping “all the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God” (Chapter LVIII). Where is the novice who has not felt dread at the prospect of spending the rest of his life in the same place, looking daily at the same horizon, and at the same faces, and doing the same thing, in the same way, day after day? Temptations against stability occur at every age, but they are, I think particularly pointed at the very beginning of one’s monastic life and then, again, around midlife. Saint Benedict would have his monk go forward in faith, with his eyes fixed on the face of Jesus, like Peter walking upon the waves of the stormy sea. The monk who loses sight of Jesus will flounder and begin to sink.
But the boat in the midst of the sea was tossed with the waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking upon the sea. And they seeing him walking upon the sea, were troubled, saying: It is an apparition. And they cried out for fear. And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying: Be of good heart: it is I, fear ye not. And Peter making answer, said: Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee upon the waters. And he said: Come. And Peter going down out of the boat, walked upon the water to come to Jesus.But seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying: Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt? (Matthew 14:24–31)
One need not take great, athletic strides; it is enough that one go forward slowly but steadily, praying with every little step. Over time, one will find that Our Lord has, almost imperceptibly, enlarged one’s heart, that is, increased one’s capacity for faith, hope, and love. With this dilation of the heart, there comes the indescribable sweetness of a mature and tested love. It is the love concerning which Saint Paul writes:
Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? or distress? or famine? or nakedness? or danger? or persecution? or the sword? (As it is written: For thy sake we are put to death all the day long. We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.) But in all these things we overcome, because of him that hath loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35–39)
There comes a time in the life of the faithful monk when, after years of struggle and repeated failures, he begins to run in the way of God’s commandments, not fainting, nor labouring, nor giving into weariness, but, rather, with the distinctive Benedictine virtue of alacritas, that is, an eagerness and joy that come not from one’s own merely human resources but from grace.
Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel: My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Knowest thou not, or hast thou not heard? the Lord is the everlasting God, who hath created the ends of the earth: he shall not faint, nor labour, neither is there any searching out of his wisdom. It is he that giveth strength to the weary, and increaseth force and might to them that are not. Youths shall faint, and labour, and young men shall fall by infirmity. But they that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall take wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaias 40:27–31)
At a certain point in the monastic journey, things once difficult and well nigh impossible become habitual and sweet. Saint Benedict will speak of this very thing in treating of the twelfth degree of humility in Chapter VII:
Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, casteth out fear: whereby he shall begin to keep, without labour, and as it were naturally and by custom, all those precepts which he had hitherto observed through fear: no longer through dread of hell, but for the love of Christ, and of a good habit and a delight in virtue which God will vouchsafe to manifest by the Holy Spirit in his labourer, now cleansed from vice and sin.
Even in the last sentence of the Prologue, Saint Benedict puts us on guard against the temptation against stability, the temptation to withdraw one’s neck from the sweet yoke of Christ. Saint Benedict encourages each one to persevere in clinging to the teaching of Christ in the monastery, and this until death. The monk who does this will have shared, by patience, in the sufferings of Christ and will, in the end, be a partaker of His kingdom. Saint Benedict closes the Prologue with the liturgical Amen. It is as if he wants to close the Prologue with a reference to the last words of Sacred Scripture:
He that giveth testimony of these things, saith, Surely I come quickly: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. (Apocalypse 22:20–21)