CHAPTER XXXIII. Whether Monks ought to have anything of their own
11 Mar. 11 July. 10 Nov.
The vice of private ownership is above all to be cut off from the Monastery by the roots. Let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot, nor to keep anything as their own, either book or writing-tablet or pen, or anything whatsoever; since they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power. But all that is necessary they may hope to receive from the father of the Monastery: nor are they allowed to keep anything which the Abbot has not given, or at least permitted them to have. Let all things be common to all, as it is written: “Neither did anyone say that aught which he possessed was his own.” But if any one shall be found to indulge in this most baneful vice, and after one or two admonitions do not amend, let him be subjected to correction.
For the ancient Fathers, disappropriation, or the renunciation of all personal ownership, was so fundamental to the monastic state that it was assumed implicitly as soon as a man was clothed in the monastic habit, or laid his charter of profession upon the altar, or received the monastic tonsure. Saint Benedict nowhere speaks of the vow of poverty, not even in the formula of monastic profession in Chapter LVIII. For Saint Benedict, the renunciation of all personal ownership is a consequence of the monk’s attachment to Christ. This Saint Benedict expresses in the 21st instrument of good works: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ”. The man who would make his life with Christ must forsake all else for Christ.
A man ran up and knelt down before him, asking him, Master, who art so good, what must I do to achieve eternal life? Jesus said to him, Why dost thou call me good? None is good, except God only. Thou knowest the commandments, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not wrong any man, Honour thy father and thy mother. Master, he answered, I have kept all these ever since I grew up. Then Jesus fastened his eyes on him, and conceived a love for him; In one thing, he said, thou art still wanting. Go home and sell all that belongs to thee; give it to the poor, and so the treasure thou hast shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. At this, his face fell, and he went away sorrowing, for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked round, and said to his disciples, With what difficulty will those who have riches enter God’s kingdom! (Mark 1o:17–23)
A great number of monastic vocations have been lost because of attachment to possessions. In every age there are rich young men who go away sorrowing, because they are incapable of leaving all to follow Christ. Even after long years in the cloister, the possibility of coming into money can lure a man away from his First Love and cause him to forfeit his treasure in heaven. Every monk must accustom himself to repeating, from the heart, the words of the psalmist:
For what have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever. (Psalm 72:25–26)
The renunciation of personal ownership is a constitutive element of the apostolic life. In practicing disappropriation, the monk imitates the Apostles who, leaving all, followed Jesus.
And passing by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother, casting nets into the sea (for they were fishermen). And Jesus said to them: Come after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And immediately leaving their nets, they followed him. And going on from thence a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were mending their nets in the ship: And forthwith he called them. And leaving their father Zebedee in the ship with his hired men, they followed him. (Mark 1:16–20)
Saint Athanasius tells us that he Father of all monks in East and West, Saint Antony of Egypt, understood from the very beginning that Our Lord was inviting him to renounce ownership of everything for love of Him alone.
Not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers—they were three hundred acres , productive and very fair—that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister’s sake. And again as he went into the church, hearing the Lord say in the Gospel ‘be not anxious for the morrow,’ he could stay no longer, but went out and gave those things also to the poor. Having committed his sister to known and faithful virgins, and put her into a convent to be brought up, he henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline , taking heed to himself and training himself with patience.
For Saint Benedict, the drive to acquire things, to possess and claim them as one’s own is a vice to be cut out of the monastery by the roots. What is a vice? A vice is a sinful disposition reinforced by the repetition of concrete actions to the point of becoming habitual and pervasive. The inclination to stand over something and call it “mine” is incompatible with the monastic way of life.
To the vice of a proprietary spirit Saint Benedict opposes the virtue of a radical disappropriation: “Let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot, nor to keep anything as their own, either book or writing-tablet or pen, or anything whatsoever; since they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power”. It is interesting that in his list of possessions, Saint Benedict puts books first. Monks have always been tempted to be proprietary over their books. We are not permitted to build up and keep personal libraries. A monk enjoys the use of whatever books are necessary for his own prayer, instruction, and work, but once such books are no longer needed, they must be returned to the common library. Second in Saint Benedict’s list of possessions are the writing tablet and pen. Today, the monk’s writing tablet and pen is his laptop computer. Here again, a monk must be vigilant lest he become proprietary of his laptop computer. The computer is today as necessary a tool as the writing tablet and pen were in Saint Benedict’s day; it must be used with detachment and inner freedom.
The monk renounces ownership even over his own body and his own will. This is the profound meaning of the Suscipe (Psalm 118:116) that, with empty hands raised towards heaven, and standing before the altar, the monk sings on the day of his profession:
Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum , et vivam; et non confundas me ab expectatione mea.
Take me up unto Thyself, O Lord, according to thy word, and I shall live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope.
For Saint Benedict, the monk is a man offered, an oblation, a victim made over to God in sacrifice. By monastic profession, a man places himself upon the altar together with the oblations of bread and wine. Doing this, he becomes, according to the teaching of Saint Augustine a sacrificium.
A true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. And therefore even the mercy we show to men, if it is not shown for God’s sake, is not a sacrifice. For, though made or offered by man, sacrifice is a divine thing, as those who called it sacrifice meant to indicate. Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God. (The City of God, Book X, Chapter VI)
The highest expression of Benedictine disappropriation is found, then, in that sacrificial victimhood by which a monk is mystically (that is really, but in a hidden way) configured to Christ, the Lamb of God, “the pure victim, the holy victim, the immaculate victim” (Roman Canon).
It is precisely this chapter that contains the sentence that best expresses and sums up Mother Catherine–Mectilde de Bar’s reading of the Holy Rule: They are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power. Saint Benedict’s radical uprooting of the vice of proprietorship, far from being a merely negative list of prohibitions — Let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot, nor to keep anything as their own, either book or writing-tablet or pen, or anything whatsoever — leads to an oblative poverty, to the disappropriation by which a victim laid upon the altar, a hostia, a sacrificial lamb, is made over to God. Herein, according to Saint Augustine, lies the essence of sacrificium.
The core sentence of Chapter XXXIII—They are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power —cannot be understood apart from the very words of Jesus on the night before He suffered, “This is my body, which shall be given up for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24), nor apart from the first priestly utterance of the Word upon taking flesh in the sanctuary of the Virgin’s womb: “Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldest not: but a body thou hast fitted to me” (Hebrews 10:5), and again, “Behold I come: in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do thy will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7).
The monk who, according to Saint Benedict, has not even his own body and will at his disposal, has entered into the way of a mystic configuration to Jesus the Host, the Victim, the sacrificial Lamb. With Jesus, the Benedictine Monk of Perpetual Adoration learns to say, day by day and hour by hour, “This, O Father, is my body given up to Thee in Christ, the body thou hast fitted to me, that I should do thy will”.
It is in contemplating the Host—the Christus Passus, according to Saint Thomas, that is, Christ in the state of sacrificial victimhood—that the monk begins to learn the depth of what Saint Benedict says when he prescribes that monks are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power. The monk has nothing, not even his body and his will, because, by receiving the Body of Jesus daily in Holy Communion, he is drawn into the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice, becoming as the liturgy says, “one same victim with Christ Himself.” This mystic victimhood is the ultimate meaning of Benedictine disappropriation as expressed in the lex orandi.
Haec munera, Domine, mediator noster Iesus Christus Tibi reddat accepta; et nos, una secum, hostias Tibi gratas exhibeat.
May our mediator Jesus Christ, O Lord, make these offerings acceptable to Thee; and together with Himself may He present us to Thee as victims. (Secret of the Mass of Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest)