CHAPTER LXXIII. That the whole observance of Perfection is not set down in this Rule
May. 31 Aug. 31 Dec.
We have written this Rule, in order that, by observing it in Monasteries, we may shew ourselves to have some degree of goodness of life, and a beginning of holiness. But for him who would hasten to the perfection of religion, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the following whereof bringeth a man to the height of perfection. For what page or what word is there in the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments, that is not a most unerring rule for human life? Or what book of the holy Catholic Fathers doth not loudly proclaim how we may by a straight course reach our Creator? Moreover, the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, and the Rule of our holy Father Basil – what are these but the instruments whereby well-living and obedient monks attain to virtue? But to us, who are slothful and negligent and of evil lives, they are cause for shame and confusion. Whoever, therefore, thou art that hasteneth to thy heavenly country, fulfil by the help of Christ this least of Rules which we have written for beginners; and then at length thou shalt arrive, under God’s protection, at the lofty summits of doctrine and virtue of which we have spoken above.
For us monks the Holy Rule is not a remote historical reference. It is the very form of the holiness to which God has called us “in the church, and in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:21). For this reason, the daily chapter remains a primary and indispensable element of our observance. It is the abbot’s duty to present and to represent the pure doctrine of the Holy Rule with freshness and conviction each day, in line with Saint Paul’s injunction to Timothy:
Preach the word, dwelling upon it continually, welcome or unwelcome; bring home wrong-doing, comfort the waverer, rebuke the sinner, with all the patience of a teacher. (2 Timothy 4:2)
The abbot, in presenting the Holy Rule, must make his own the words of the Apostle: “My little children, of whom I am in labour again, until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Christ will be formed in us to the degree that we allow ourselves to be reshaped by the faithful and persevering observance of the Holy Rule.
Saint Benedict’s goal is not unattainable. He refers to his Rule as “this least of Rules which we have written for beginners.” He speaks very modestly of our coming to “some degree of goodness of life, and a beginning of holiness.” A man is not reshaped simply by putting on the habit; it is the work of a lifetime marked by the dura et aspera per quae itur ad Deum, “the hard and rugged things by which a monk makes his way towards God” (Chapter LVIII). It is a work that each monk begins over and over again ex caritate, confidens de adiutorio Dei, “out of charity, trusting in the help of God” (Chapter LXVIII). Monastic holiness is not improvised. It is not re-invented every five or ten years. It is not re-interpreted, updated, or rewritten. The great grace of being a monk is that we have before us an objective pattern, an ideal in the best sense of the word, a clear vision of the holiness to which God calls us, and of the way to attain it.
For each soul, and for each family of souls, there is a particular form of holiness by which God is glorified. Blessed Abbot Marmion puts it this way:
The perfection assigned to us is of a definite type. In the same way as the baptismal vows are the initial point of our supernatural holiness, so monastic profession is the first impulsion towards our Benedictine perfection. It is not, in fact, either a Dominican perfection, nor a Carthusian perfection which is to arise from our profession: it is a Benedictine perfection; for our vows have in view the practice of the Rule of Saint Benedict and of the Constitutions which govern us. . . . The Rule, interpreted by our Constitutions — and not the Rule of another Order, or the constitutions of another Congregation — is what we have vowed to observe. The Rule contains moreover all that is necessary for our perfection and holiness: it is in giving themselves to God by the bonds of this Rule that so many monks are made holy and come to the highest perfection, to the summit of sanctity. (Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, p. 116)
The Holy Rule itself springs from Sacred Scripture. For this reason, Saint Benedict would have his monks stay close to the source.
But for him who would hasten to the perfection of religion, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the following whereof bringeth a man to the height of perfection. For what page or what word is there in the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments, that is not a most unerring rule for human life? (Chapter LXXIII)
The Word of God shines from every page of the Holy Rule; it is this that makes the Holy Rule so luminous, so ageless, and so sweet. Psalm 118 comes to mind:
The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls: the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones. The justices of the Lord are right, rejoicing hearts: the commandment of the Lord is lightsome, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is holy, enduring for ever and ever: the judgments of the Lord are true, justified in themselves. More to be desired than gold and many precious stones: and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. For thy servant keepeth them, and in keeping them there is a great reward. (Psalm 118:8–12)
Saint Benedict is not only the man of the Word of God; he is the man of tradition and the faithful disciple of the Holy Fathers who went before him:
What book of the holy Catholic Fathers doth not loudly proclaim how we may by a straight course reach our Creator? Moreover, the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, and the Rule of our holy Father Basil – what are these but the instruments whereby well-living and obedient monks attain to virtue? (Chapter LXXIII)
With Saint Paul, Saint Benedict knows that, “all have sinned, and do need the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). On this last day of the year, the realism of Saint Benedict in the final chapter of the Holy Rule is sobering. Who can say that he has not been slothful, and negligent? Who can say that he has not lived badly? Measured against the Sacred Scriptures and the lives and doctrine of the Fathers, our own life is a cause for rubor confusionis, “red–faced shame”. Saint Benedict does not leave us to dwell on these things. In the school of Saint Benedict there is nothing morbid, nothing that casts one into the despondency of self–absorption. For Saint Benedict, there is always Christ: the Face of Christ, the Word of Christ, the grace of Christ. For Saint Benedict, there is always the providence of the Father: the Father’s might, the Father’s design, the Father’s devoted care of the least of His children.
Whoever, therefore, thou art that hasteneth to thy heavenly country, fulfil by the help of Christ this least of Rules which we have written for beginners; and then at length thou shalt arrive, under God’s protection, at the lofty summits of doctrine and virtue of which we have spoken above.
The Holy Rule ends on a note of immense hope: Adiuvante Christo, perfice, et tunc . . . Deo protegente, pervenies. Amen. “With Christ’s help you will carry through and then, in due time, with God stretching His cover over you, you shall arrive. Amen.” I cannot read these last words of the Holy Rule without thinking of the Exodus, and very rightly, I think, for what is our monastic life but a life-long exodus, a passage from ourselves to Christ, and a passage in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ to the Father?
And the Lord went before them to shew the way by day in a pillar of a cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire: that he might be the guide of their journey at both times. There never failed the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, before the people. (Exodus 13:21–22)
As we go forward in our Benedictine life of perpetual adoration we shall, I am certain, discover more and more that our pillar of cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night is the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. The Host is a pillar of cloud, in that It conceals the real presence of God and assures us that we are not alone; it is also a pillar of fire, in that It reveals the real presence of God and draws us into Its radiance.
Yet thou, in thy many mercies, didst not leave them in the desert: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day to lead them in the way, and the pillar of fire by night to shew them the way by which they should go. And thou gavest them thy good Spirit to teach them, and thy manna thou didst not withhold from their mouth, and thou gavest them water for their thirst. (Nehemias 9:19–20)