CHAPTER LXXIII. That the whole observance of Perfection is not set down in this Rule
1 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.
And so, once again, we come to the last chapter of the Holy Rule. In some way, I think, alongside of the liturgical cycles of feasts and seasons, our life is measured by the reading of the Holy Rule three times yearly.
All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. (Ecclesiastes 3:1–2)
How many times will a monk have heard the reading of the Holy Rule over a lifetime? Saint Benedict tells us why we read and re–read the Rule, and why, spontaneously, we make it our first reference: “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”. Saint Benedict speaks here with the profound modesty and discretion that characterise him: “some degree of goodness of life, and a beginning of holiness”. Here there is no feverish exaggeration, no inflated idealism, no spectacular feats of ascetism; there is rather the humble and patient realism of the Gospel:
So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the earth, And should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not. For the earth of itself bringeth forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, afterwards the full corn in the ear. (Mark 4:26–28)
Saint Benedict would have us complete the reading of the Holy Rule with an assiduous recourse to Sacred Scripture and to his own “holy Catholic” fathers in God: Cassian, Saint Basil, and the other monastic fathers. We fulfil this injunction of Saint Benedict by a faithful application to lectio divina, and by reading Saint John Cassian each evening in community. The Rule of Saint Benedict cannot be understood apart from Cassian.
Saint Benedict seems, at first glance, to take a rather dim view of our monastic struggle such as it is: “To us”, he says, “who are slothful and negligent and of evil lives”, the writings of the Fathers “are cause for shame and confusion”. Immediately upon saying this, however, he corrects it, lest we be “overwhelmed by excess of sorrow” (Rule, Chapter XXVII), or utterly “despair of the mercy of God” (Rule, Chapter IV). To the very end of the Rule, Saint Benedict shows himself consistent with his own teaching in Chapter XXVII: “The Abbot is bound to use the greatest care, and to strive with all possible prudence and zeal, not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him. He must know that he hath undertaken the charge of weakly souls, and not a tyranny over the strong”. And so, calling his Holy Rule “the least of Rules”, and addressing us as little ones, as “beginners”, he adds:
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. (Rule Chapter, LXXIII)
The two key phrases in this passage are, without any doubt, “by the help of Christ” and “under God’s protection”. Christ Jesus is ever present to those whom Saint Benedict calls “beginners”. Like Saint Peter, walking on the waves, the monk keeps eyes fixed on the face of Jesus, confident in His help and in the protection of God.
But seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying: Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt? (Matthew 13:30–31)
At every stage of the monastic journey, the monk needs to receive from the mouth of Christ the words given through the prophet Isaias:
Thou art my servant, I have chosen thee, and have not cast thee away. Fear not, for I am with thee: turn not aside, for I am thy God: I have strengthened thee, and have helped thee, and the right hand of my just one hath upheld thee. Behold all that fight against thee shall be confounded and ashamed, they shall be as nothing, and the men shall perish that strive against thee. Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find the men that resist thee: they shall be as nothing: and as a thing consumed the men that war against thee. For I am the Lord thy God, who take thee by the hand, and say to thee: Fear not, I have helped thee. (Isaias 41:9–10)
We conclude our reading of the Holy Rule on the first day of the novena in preparation for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the dawn of salvation, the entrance of joy into the world. She whom we ask to pray for us “at the hour of our death” is also Our Lady of New Beginnings. She will speak to us tomorrow morning in the lesson at Holy Mass:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. (Proverbs 8:22)
It is not too soon to entrust to the Mother of God the fresh, new reading of the Holy Rule that we shall begin tomorrow. The monk who gives to Mary all his beginnings will not be deprived of her consoling presence in the end.