CHAPTER LVIII. Of the Discipline of receiving Brethren into Religion
11 Apr. 11 Aug. 11 Dec.
Let a senior, one who is skilled in gaining souls, be appointed over him to watch him with the utmost care, and to see whether he is truly seeking God, and is fervent in the Work of God, in obedience and in humiliations. Let all the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God be set before him.
We come today to the ultimate criterion by which the Master of Novices can measure a man’s suitability for the monastic life. After having verified that the novice is truly seeking God, that he is faithful and unstinting in the Work of God, and that he is sollicitus, — attentive, eager, passionate — with regard to obedience, Saint Benedict comes to the last and, in some way, determining criterion, and it has to do with humility. Si sollicitus est ad opus Dei, ad oboedientiam, ad opprobria.
In defining opprobrium, Lewis and Short refer to reproach, scandal, disgrace, and dishonor. Abbot Hunter–Blair, following most translators of the Holy Rule, renders opprobria as humiliations. What are these opprobria? Saint Benedict refers, first of all, I think, to lowly tasks, to the work that, in his day, would have been given to slaves. In late antiquity, manual labour was reserved to slaves. For a free man to do the work that, outside the monastery, would have fallen to slaves, was a humiliation, a labor improbus, an unsuitable toil. In Chapter II, Saint Benedict says:
Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery. Let not one be loved more than another, unless he be found to excel in good works or in obedience. Let not one of noble birth be put before him that was formerly a slave, unless some other reasonable cause exist for it.
Once a man enters the monastery, he must work at the tasks assigned him, promptly, diligently, and cheerfully, even if he thinks that such tasks are below his station, or unsuited to his qualifications, or better carried out by someone else. No novice is excused from the wash–up after meals, from the cleaning of toilets, and from the tasks of housekeeping. In fact, brothers unaccustomed to doing such tasks in the world need most to be assigned to them in the monastery. The brother who, from the beginning, bristles when presented with a scrubbing brush, a mop, or a broom, is not sollicitus ad opprobria. It has long been customary in monasteries (in both East and West) to assign novices to the most humble labours.
It sometimes happens that a brother accustomed to a delicate or more comfortable standard of living in the world proves inept at the simplest manual tasks in the cloister. Such a brother should not become discouraged nor should he ask to excused from the things in which thinks he is incompetent. Lowly tasks can provoke anxiety in some brothers. The brother washing pots and pans, or scrubbing a toilet, or cleaning out the chicken coop may be surprised by the vehemence of the thoughts that arise in him: pride first, then impatience, insubordination, anger, rash judgment, self–pity, aggressiveness, daydreaming, temptations to instability, doubts about one’s vocation, and sadness. Such a brother must not let his anxiety control his thoughts. He has, rather, to set to work armed with courage, simplicity, and a sense of humour. Unwelcome thoughts of pride, rebellion, and resentment may assail him, but he must not hold conversation with them. He must trust that by working away at the very thing he judges a labor improbus, he will grow in humility and, therefore, in all the other virtues.
Saint Benedict’s opprobria may also be taken to refer the paternal corrections of the abbot and seniors. No man likes to be corrected. No man likes to be told that he has acted wrongly, or transgressed in some way, or failed to carry out what was asked of him. No man relishes being advised, however kindly, that he is proud, lazy, presumptuous, untidy, inattentive, self–centred, impatient, gluttonous, or lacking in personal hygiene. Such corrections can be, nonetheless, an occasion for growth in humility, and therefore, as I said, in all the virtues. Similarly, it is humiliating to kneel down before the abbot and brethren and own up to one’s own faults; humiliating, but also salutary.
One is faced with another kind of opprobria when, after a few months in the monastery, one discovers that one is not as virtuous or as holy as one thought. Some examples will illustrate what I mean. Brother Birinus thought himself charitable; and now he is discovering that he can be mean–spirited, self–centred, harsh, and vindictive. Brother Mansuetus thought himself humble, and he is discovering that he can be full of hubris, judgmental, critical, condescending, and arrogant. Brother Tancred thought himself detached, and he is discovering that he is gluttonous, greedy, possessive, and miserly. Brother Angelico thought himself chaste, and he is discovering that he is subject to bouts of lust, impure imaginings, and pining after worldly pleasures. Brother Horace thought himself pious and reasonably advanced in the ways of prayer, and is discovering that he reacts with annoyance to the bell for the Divine Office, that he cuts short his lectio divina and his adoration, that he dawdles over distractions, and finds the time in choir too long. All of these brothers are obliged to draw the same conclusion: “I am not the man I thought I was. I had a high opinion of myself in the world. I thought the purgative way was far behind me and judged myself well advanced in the illuminative way. I thought it only a matter of time before I would the cross the finish line into the unitive way. After that, what would be left for me but to wait for my holiness to be recognised. And now, after three, or six, or nine months in the monastery, I see nothing but my defects, vices, and miseries”. This, of course, is where real holiness begins.
Finally, illness, infirmities, and even psychological anomalies are forms of opprobria that can dispose one to great triumphs of grace. In the 19th and first half of the twentieth centuries, when tuberculosis stalked so many cloisters and threatened so many young religious, there was a great flowering of holiness among souls who accepted that being reduced to do nothing was a magnificent opportunity to let God do everything, not by falling into a languid quietism, but by embracing His adorable will in the state of illness. Some years ago I translated a text written in 1950 by Père Louis Beirnaert that I found particularly helpful in this regard:
The psychologically rich individual will be tempted to the end of his life to be complacent in his qualities; the psychologically poor individual will tempted to the end of his life to revolt or to make a display even of his misery. The one like the other must go through the same death . . . because for the one as for the other, it will come, in the end, to the same renunciation of pride and self–sufficiency.
There are saints with unattractive and difficult psychological profiles: the troop of the anguished, aggressive, and flesh–bound, driven by the unbearable weight of their compulsions. There are “born failures” whose heart will never be anything but a nest of vipers, unfortunate persons with an unattractive face, boys who could never identify with their father. There are saints who will never charm the birds or caress the wolf of Gubbio. There are those who fall and who will fall again and again. There are those who will shed tears right up to the end, not because they slammed a door a little too energetically, but because they are still committing a sordid unavowable fault. There is the immense crowd of those whose sanctity here below will never glow with mental health, and who will have to wait for the last day to shine in perpetuas aeternitates. These are saints without having the name.
God sometimes exercises a severe and tender mercy by allowing the great rolling waves of his justice to demolish the ornate sand castles of our perfection. He first reduces to nothing the soul whom He would raise to union with Himself. He makes use of everything in order to humble us and make us see that of ourselves we can do nothing. Much of the work of the noviciate and of the first years of profession is demolition. Demolition, often by means of humiliations suffered, brings a man very low, closer and closer to the ground, and this, all the saints tell us, is where it most pleases God to deploy His grace.