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 continue today our meditation of Chapter LVIII. Saint Benedict would have the senior appointed to watch over the novice take the utmost care in verifying, first of all, if the novice is sollicitus, that is, faithful and unstinting in the Work of God. Then, Saint Benedict, would have the senior verify if the novice is also sollicitus, — attentive, eager, passionate — about obedience. By placing the three criteria of a monastic vocation in this order: the Opus Dei (Divine Office) first, then obedience, and finally humiliations; and by qualifying all three by the one adjective sollicitus, Saint Benedict sets forth a complete program of monastic holiness.
The Divine Office comes first because it is that to which “nothing else is to be preferred” (Chapter XLIII). Saint Benedict places the Divine Office before obedience. Why? It is because when the Opus Dei is celebrated perseveringly and generously, God, over time, works in the monk to produce in him what Saint Paul calls “the mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
The Opus Dei engages a monk in two things simultaneously. The first is that the Opus Dei, little by little, and almost imperceptibly, detaches a monk from himself and sets him on a straight trajectory towards God. This is the whole movement of the Fourth Gospel:
Exivi a Patre, et veni in mundum: iterum relinquo mundum, et vado ad Patrem.
I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and I go to the Father. (John 16:28)
The second is that the Opus Dei, acts, over time, like a course of water rushing over a stone, leaving it, in the end smooth and polished. This requires, of course, that a man consent to the divine action. If he hardens his heart and resists the work of God in him, the Divine Office will not be for him the place of his inner transformation. On the contrary, the Divine Office will begin to irritate and bore him. He will look for ways to escape from this meeting with God eight times a day, knowing full well that, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Or, even if he goes to choir routinely, he will make himself rigid and surround his heart with a hard shell, lest perhaps the Word of God one day pierce him and leave him wounded. This, however, is the very thing that must happen: one must go to choir expecting and wanting to be pierced by the Word of God, and left wounded.
God’s word to us is something alive, full of energy; it can penetrate deeper than any two-edged sword, reaching the very division between soul and spirit, between joints and marrow, quick to distinguish every thought and design in our hearts. (Hebrews 4:12)
God purifies a monk in the Divine Office; He sets him on a straight trajectory towards God. He also, I said, works in the monk, through the Divine Office, to produce in him what Saint Paul calls “the mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). What is this mind that was in Christ Jesus? This mind was manifested in the sacrificial obedience of Christ, and in His utter humiliation, His self–emptying, His exinanitio, or ennothingment. This is where the teaching of Mother Mectilde de Bar on anéantissement (ennothingment) meets the Rule of Saint Benedict at the deepest level. Certain critics were surprised when Dom Joseph Rabory (1870-1916), a Catalonian Benedictine of the Solesmes Congregation, who studied the writings of Mother Mectilde de Bar, numbered her among the most profound interpreters and theologians of the Regula Benedicti. Dom Rabory’s affirmation becomes clearer when we begin to enter deeply, not only into Chapter VII of the Holy Rule, but also into this key sentence of Chapter LVIII: Et sollicitudo sit si revera Deum quaerit, si sollicitus est ad opus Dei, ad oboedientiam, ad opprobria.
You can see, I think, why Saint Benedict puts the Opus Dei first, then obedience, and finally humiliations. The Apostle tells us that the man who has in him “the mind of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) will follow the humble Christ, first of all, by participation in His sacrificial obedience:
You must never act in a spirit of factiousness, or of ambition; each of you must have the humility to think others better men than himself,and study the welfare of others, not his own. Yours is to be the same mind which Christ Jesus shewed. His nature is, from the first, divine, and yet he did not see, in the rank of Godhead, a prize to be coveted; he dispossessed himself, and took the nature of a slave, fashioned in the likeness of men, and presenting himself to us in human form; and then he lowered his own dignity, accepted an obedience which brought him to death, death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3–8)
Saint Paul also speaks elsewhere of this transformation of the mind:
And now, brethren, I appeal to you by God’s mercies to offer up your bodies as a living sacrifice (victim), consecrated to God and worthy of his acceptance; this is the worship due from you as rational creatures. And you must not fall in with the manners of this world; there must be an inward change, a remaking of your minds, so that you can satisfy yourselves what is God’s will, the good thing, the desirable thing, the perfect thing. (Romans 12:1–2)
This inward remaking of a man’s mind by means of the Divine Office is continued and perfected in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The monk who receives from the altar the Body and Blood of the immolated Lamb, the Christus Passus, will find himself following the Lamb, obediently and meekly, along the via crucis of self–emptying love. Similarly, the monk who places himself before the Host will, slowly and over time, after hours and days of self–emptying adoration, become, in some way, like the Host, “a living victim consecrated to God” (Romans 12:1).