The Reception of Brethren
I am often struck at how appropriate to the circumstances and events of daily life the appointed passage of the Holy Rule can be. Today we are reading the first part of Chapter 58: The Discipline for the Reception of Brethren. This just happens to coincide with Ben’s arrival for another visit.
The Difficult Entrance
“When anyone newly cometh to be a monk, let him not be granted an easy admittance; but as the apostle saith: Test the spirits, to see whether they come from God.” Today, more often than not, admittance is made difficult not so much by a lack of encouragement coming from within the monastery, as by criticisms, discouragements, and challenges coming from without. There is nothing prestigious about coming to be a monk. The world often deems the monastic way of life useless, a flight from responsibility, a sign of mental imbalance, emotional maladjustment, or religious obsessions. There is, more often than not, a whole chorus of voices saying, “Do something useful. Make a contribution to society. Don’t bury your talents. What are you running away from? Why are you afraid of having a wife and family? Maybe you just need counseling. You are really exaggerating this whole God thing.” Or again, there are voices saying, “Stay where you are. Don’t take such a foolish risk. You can know, love, and serve God in the world. At least be a parish priest, a missionary, or a teacher. What if it doesn’t work out? It’s only a passing phase; you’ll get over it.”
Sacred Scripture, on the other hand, says:
My son, if thy mind is to enter the Lord’s service,
wait there in His presence,
with honesty of purpose and with awe,
and prepare thyself to be put to the test.
Submissive be thy heart,
and ready to bear all;
to wise advice lend a ready ear,
and never be hasty when ill times befall thee.
Wait for God, cling to God and wait for Him;
at the end of it, thy life shall blossom anew.
Accept all that comes to thee,
patient in sorrow, humiliation long enduring;
for gold and silver the crucible,
it is in the furnace of humiliation men shew themselves
worthy of His acceptance.
Trust in Him, and He will lift thee to thy feet again;
go straight on thy way,
and fix in Him thy hope;
hold fast thy fear of Him,
and in that fear to old age come thou.
The Treasure Hidden in the Field
One called by God to the monastic life realizes that it is “a treasure hidden in a field” (Mt 13:44). Having been led to it, or having discovered it, for the joy thereof, says the Gospel, a man goes, sells all that he has, and buys the field. Setting out in monastic life is a costly decision. It does mean “selling all that one has.” It means leaving what is familiar, in some way comfortable, and secure, and taking the frightful risk of a new beginning.
The Pearl of Great Price
Or again, the monastic vocation is like finding a pearl of great price (Mt 13:46). The practiced merchant recognizes its value, sees its beauty, can’t get it out of his mind. And still, in order to make it his own, he must risk selling all that he has to buy it. If a man called to monastic life hesitates, debates within himself, or delays his decision, he may be forfeiting the grace of the moment, a grace that will never again be offered in quite the same way.
The Father Master
Saint Benedict would have the novices be in the care of a Father “skilled in winning souls.” His task is win the soul of the new brother, not for himself, but for Christ alone. The Father Master (as novices would address him) is, like Saint John the Baptist, a friend of the Bridegroom. He rejoices at the Bridegroom’s voice, and trains his young disciple’s interior ear — the ear of the heart — to recognize that voice, to hold fast to the words it utters, and, renouncing himself, to obey them. The Father Master willingly decreases, by claiming nothing of what belongs to Christ alone for himself. Thus does Christ increase in the heart of the man newly come to be a monk, and in the monastic community as a whole.
Dura et Aspera
The Father Master is not to sugarcoat the hardships and trials by which a man travels to God. The journey is long and, more often than not, the road is rocky. A healthy realism goes hand in hand with an unshakable confidence in the grace of Christ. The monk is traveling to God in company with other travelers. Itur ad Deum: this expression of Saint Benedict hearkens back, I think, to the first chapter of the Rule of Saint Augustine, in which the Bishop of Hippo describes his monastic community as being “together on the way to God.” By traveling to God in the company of brothers, one will more easily fight off the wild beast who prowls about seeking the ruin of souls, and the marauders and brigands who prey on the weak, and sometimes leave them half-dead by the side of the road.
What does Saint Benedict look for in one seeking admission to a monastery? First of all, that he “truly seek God.” The Benedictine quest for God is not the search of the pantheist who identifies God with every blade of grass, with the leaves of every tree, the sands of the seashore, and the stars of the firmament. In all these things, the Benedictine monk sees the handiwork of God, displaying His glory and revealing His wisdom; but for all of that, they are no more than creatures, brought into existence and held in being by the Creator who alone is God. There is more. Nor does the Benedictine monk equate his search for God with the philosopher’s application of human reason to the exploration of what is true, and good, and beautiful. Again, there is more.
The Face of Christ
The monk, being, first of all, a Christian, a soul illumined by Divine Revelation, vivified by sanctifying grace, and, in some way, “reaching God” by mean of the theological virtues, is one who has discovered “the knowledge of the glory of God shining on the Face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). “It is Thy Face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not Thy Face from me” (Ps 26:8) is the prayer-song of his heart by day and by night. The monk seeks the Face of Christ and, in the contemplation of that Face — the Human Face of God — discovers the secrets of His Sacred Heart. In our Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle, in addition to the means of seeking God common to all Benedictines, we give a privileged place to the contemplation and adoration of the Face of Christ hidden beneath the sacramental veils in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Secondly, Saint Benedict would have the would-be monk demonstrate an effective zeal for the Sacred Liturgy, the Work of God. This, the novice will do, not by entertaining a fascination with rubrics, vesture, and the niceties of ceremonial — seldom do sacristy rats make good monks — but by embracing the manly discipline of fidelity to choir, and by eschewing a spirituality that, being subjective and fanciful, rises and falls with one’s moods and sentiments. A Benedictine loves choir because it is the place and means of his communion with the filial and priestly prayer of Christ to the Father.
A Host for the Oblation
Finally, the aspiring monk will not shrink from obedience and humiliations. In fact, he will be eager for them, for by obedience and humility he is certain of being configured to Christ in the mystery of His victimhood. One comes to the monastery to become a hostia, that is, a host, a victim, an oblation, a lamb for sacrifice. Like the wheat that is ground into flour, then mixed with water, and baked in a fire in order to become a host for the Holy Sacrifice, one who would follow Christ as a monk is eager to be ground into a pure wheat, moistened with living water and, then, baked in the fire of the Holy Ghost. He makes his own the words of the martyr Saint Ignatius of Antioch: “Frumentum Christi sum, I am the wheat of Christ.” The monk is ground into a fine flour, not between the teeth of wild beasts, as were the martyrs of old, but by the obedience and humiliations that are never lacking to one who has set his face toward Jerusalem.