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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.
It is always with some regret that I come to the end of the Prologue of the Holy Rule. It contains so much. It calls forth so much. I feel that, in spite of my best efforts, and even after so many years of meditating the Prologue, I have not yet begun to mine its riches. The last portion of the Prologue is among those texts of the Holy Rule that a novice ought to commit to memory.
What did Saint Benedict have at heart in establishing a school of the Lord’s service if not to offer servants to the Lord? One enters the monastery to be schooled in the service of the Lord. The Blessed Virgin Mary saw herself as the servant of the Lord. Ecce ancilla Domini, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) We say in Psalm 85: Da imperium tuum puero tuo, et salvum fac filium ancillæ tuæ, “Give thy command to thy servant, and save the son of thy handmaid” (Psalm 85:16). Monsignor Knox translates this somewhat imaginatively, but rightly: “Rescue, with thy sovereign aid, one whose mother bore him to thy service!” We are, all of us, sons of the Handmaid of the Lord. He who calls Mary his mother cannot but follow her into the service of the Lord.
The Latin word servitium can mean servitude or enslavement; it can also refer to a body of servants. Saint Benedict’s school of the Lord’s service is, I think, more about the latter than the former. Servitude or enslavement is suggestive of harsh treatment and forced labour. Consider the cruel enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt:
And they made their life bitter with hard works in clay, and brick, and with all manner of service, wherewith they were overcharged in the works of the earth. (Exodus 1:14)
Now after a long time the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel groaning, cried out because of the works: and their cry went up unto God from the works. And he heard their groaning, and remembered the covenant which he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Exodus 2:23–24)
God, seeing His people in servitude, revealed Himself in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush to Moses at Horeb, and said:
I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of the rigour of them that are over the works: And knowing their sorrow, I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land, into a land that floweth with milk and honey . . . . For the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have seen their affliction, wherewith they are oppressed by the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:7–9)
Saint Benedict does not envisage a school of hard labour. On the contrary, he says that in his school of the Lord’s service he is resolved to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous. It must be so, because the Master in this school is Christ, who says:
Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light.(Matthew 11:28–30)
The word service has another meaning in the Bible, a noble one, quite different from servitude or enslavement. In the book of Numbers, when the Lord God speaks to Moses concerning the Levites, He says:
I have chosen them out from the rest of the people to be at the disposal of Aaron and his sons, to do me service in the tabernacle and offer me prayer on Israel’s behalf. (Exodus 8:19)
From the time of the Exodus, the word service came to be associated with the sacred duties of the Levites. The tabernacle was the sign — a kind of sacrament — of the presence among the people of their invisible King; the Levites were the royal guard that waited exclusively and perpetually on Him. In the Septuagint the word word λατρεία is used to refer to the service or worship of God according to the requirements of the levitical law. In the New Testament, the word λατρεία occurs five times; it means divine service, as in, for example Romans 12:1:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the same word describes the divine service offered by the priests in the temple:
Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the divine services. (Hebrews 9:6)
From the biblical λατρεία, referring to the exclusive and perpetual service of God, we can, I think, come to a better understanding of what Saint Benedict means when he speaks of the dominici schola servitii, the school of the Lord’s service. Saint Benedict would school his monks in view of their primary dedication to the Divine Service:
At the hour of Divine Office, as soon as the signal is heard, let every one, leaving whatever he had in hand, hasten to the Oratory with all speed, and yet with seriousness, so that no occasion he given for levity. Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God. (Chapter XLIII)
The first question put to the man who seeks admission to Saint Benedict’s school is whether or not he is sollicitus ad opus Dei, eager for the divine service. I have often quoted Dante’s marvelous words; for him the monk is disposto a sola làtria (Paradiso, Canto XXI), for latria alone set apart. Saint Benedict gives the first place to the Divine Office, and so makes of his monastery a school in which men are prepared for lifelong service in the praise of the glory of God, and for the great work of unbroken adoration and intercession. In writing of English Benedictine monks and their churches in the Middle Ages, Abbot Gasquet gets it right:
It was all real and true to them, for it sprang out of their strong belief that in the church they had “the House of God” and “the Gate of heaven,” into which at the moment of the solemn dedication “the King of Glory” had come to take lasting possession of His home. For this reason, to those who worshipped in any such sanctuary the idea that they stood in the “courts of the Lord” as His chosen ministers was ever present in their daily service, as with the eyes of their simple faith they could almost penetrate the veil that hid His majesty from their sight. (Abbot Gasquet, English Monastic Life)
There is also in the Latin word servitium the idea of keeping one’s attention wholly fixed on another. We see this in the Virgin of the Annunciation when she says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:48); and we see it also in Mary of Bethany, who sitting at the Lord’s feet, gave all her attention (audiebat) to his word. The attention of Martha was scattered over many things. Seeing this, Our Lord said:
Martha, Martha, how many cares and troubles thou hast! But only one thing is necessary; and Mary has chosen for herself the best part of all, that which shall never be taken away from her. (Luke 10:41–42)
The same Latin word servitium can refer to staying, keeping watch, or standing guard. We have a resonance of this meaning in the third psalm we sing at Compline:
Ecce nunc benedicite Dominum, omnes servi Domini: qui statis in domo Domini, in atriis domus Dei nostri.
Behold now bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord: Who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. (Psalm 133:12)
The Blessed Virgin Mary, Ancilla Domini, can never be out of the sight of one who has come to the monastery to be schooled in the service of the Lord. Saint Benedict admits that, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, it may be necessary for certain things to be somewhat strictly laid down, quickly adding, “Do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation”. Novices, and even seasoned old monks, are sometimes tempted to “to fly in dismay from the way of salvation”. For this kind of temptation the surest remedy is to fly, not in dismay, but in confidence, to the Holy Mother of God. Many a monastic vocation hanging in the balance was saved because, at the last minute, a monk had recourse to Mary.
Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genetrix. Nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus, sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper, Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.
We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.
The monk who perseveres, not in being strong, but in remaining weak, and in entrusting his weakness to the Blessed Virgin Mary, hour by hour and by day, will, at length, find his heart enlarged — that is, capable of the very things he thought impossible — and, through Mary, will begin to taste in receiving the Body of Christ, in attending to the Body of Christ, in adoring the Body of Christ, and in serving the Body of Christ, something of the unspeakable sweetness of love “that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
When one remembers that the Latin word servitium can refer to staying, keeping watch, or standing guard, one better understands why in this last portion of the Prologue, Saint Benedict enjoins us never to depart from the guidance of Christ, and to persevere in His teaching in the monastery until death. In these expressions, never to depart and to persevere until death, Saint Benedict sets before us the perfection of the service for which we entered the monastery. For the monk, as for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the service of the Lord means the ascent to Calvary and participation by patience, that is, by an allotted share of suffering, in the sacrifice of the Cross. The summit of Mary’s royal service was her vigil at the foot of the Cross, and the fulfilment there of Simeon’s prophecy.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen. (John 19:25)
And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed. (Luke 2:35)
It seems to me that the Epistle of the Mass of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is a kind of counterpoint to the conclusion of the Prologue. It is Our Lady’s address to those sons of hers whom she has guided into Saint Benedict’s school of the Lord’s service:
As the vine I have brought forth a pleasant odor, and my flowers are the fruit of honor and riches. I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope. In me is all grace of the way and of the truth, in me is all hope of life and of virtue. Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits; for my spirit is sweet above honey, and my inheritance above honey and the honey-comb. My memory is unto everlasing generations. They that eat me, shall yet hunger: and they that drink me, shall yet thirst. He that heakeneth to me, shall not be confounded, and they that work by me, shall not sin. They that explain me, shall have life everlasting. (Ecclesiasticus 24:23–31)