One in Christ (II:4)

12 Jan. 13 May. 12 Sept.
Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery. Let not one be loved more than another [Non unus plus ametur quam alius], unless he be found to excel in good works or in obedience. Let not one of noble birth be put before him that was formerly a slave, unless some other reasonable cause exist for it. But if upon just consideration it should so seem good to the Abbot, let him arrange as he please concerning the place of any one whomsoever; but, otherwise, let them keep their own places; because, whether bond or free, we are all one in Christ, and bear an equal rank in the service of one Lord, “For with God there is no respecting of persons.” Only for one reason are we preferred in His sight, if we be found to surpass others in good works and in humility. Let the Abbot, then, shew equal love to all [Ergo aequalis sit ab eo omnibus caritas], and let the same discipline be imposed upon all according to their deserts.

The abbot is not to introduce worldly criteria of distinction into the monastery. Should the man of prestigious background and impressive academic credentials be preferred to the man of humble background and the simplest education? Should the man of robust health and unflagging physical strength be preferred to the man of frail constitution? Should the man who entered the monastery with a large bank account be preferred to the man who entered nearly penniless? Should the handsome man exuding charm be preferred to the man of quite ordinary appearance and retiring demeanour? The abbot will recall what the Lord said to Samuel: “Look not on his countenance, nor on the height of his stature: because I have rejected him, nor do I judge according to the look of man: for man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Again, the Lord says, “But to whom shall I have respect, but to him that is poor and little, and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at my words?” (Isaias 66:2). The abbot will love his sons with a fatherly love, seeing in each one the natural gifts and weaknesses waiting to be transformed by grace. If he is to have any preference at all, it must be for the least lovable of the community, for the man who alienates others and reacts like a threatened porcupine when approached.

The conflict over questions of rank and privilege that one sometimes encounters in religious groups is a mark of the man who is afraid of being overlooked, discounted, or diminished. The underlying emotion is the fear of being abandoned. Changes in society and in the configuration of families and, especially, the loss of the father’s presence at home, has caused boys to grow up apart from their fathers. In a rural, agricultural, and artisanal society, the son works alongside his father until he reaches maturity and becomes sufficiently autonomous to begin his own family. Even then the father remains the reference and, with the arrival of successive generations, becomes the patriarch. Such societies are marked by the stabilising presence of the father, whereas contemporary society is destablised by the absence of the father. It has become normal for the father to leave the house for work early in the morning, to return in the evening, and, especially since the invention of television and the internet, to communicate little or poorly with his household. In traditional cultures, if the father leaves the house for the hunt, or to work in the fields, or to ply his craft in a workshop, his son accompanies him and learns from him. The loss of formative years spent alongside the father has contributed to a society of men who are insecure and fearful of abandonment. Monastic vocations today do not come, for the most part, from homes in which the father is present and fully engaged with the son who grows up alongside him. As a result, most men enter the monastery with a certain deficit of paternal presence and attention. Such men are fearful of being abandoned, easily threatened, and unsure of their standing in the community. There will be monks who require constant reassurance. There will be others who become fearful of losing their rightful place. Even among the Apostles who, as we know from the account of the call of Peter in Matthew 4:21–22, worked alongside their fathers, there was rankling over questions of priority and rank.

And there was also a strife amongst them, which of them should seem to be the greater. And he said to them: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that have power over them, are called beneficent. But you not so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is the leader, as he that serveth. For which is greater, he that sitteth at table, or he that serveth? Is not he that sitteth at table? But I am in the midst of you, as he that serveth. (Luke 22:24–27)

The rite of the Mandatum, or footwashing, that we carry out when a man is received as a novice turns all our worldly notions of distinction and rank upside down. Each one of us kneels before the newest arrival to kiss his feet, freshly washed by the abbot. Each brother kneels and bows low before the man who has just arrived from the highways and byways of the world. Every time a new man is received as a novice and clothed in the holy habit, we recall the words of Our Lord:

Then, when he had finished washing their feet and put on his garments, he sat down again, and said to them, Do you understand what it is I have done to you? You hail me as the Master, and the Lord; and you are right, it is what I am. Why then, if I have washed your feet, I who am the Master and the Lord, you in your turn ought to wash each other’s feet; I have been setting you an example, which will teach you in your turn to do what I have done for you. Believe me, no slave can be greater than his master, no apostle greater than he by whom he was sent. Now that you know this, blessed are you if you perform it. (John 13:12–17)

Saint Benedict uses this compelling phrase: “We are all one in Christ.” The holy patriarch is quoting the Apostle, who says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). At an even deeper level, Saint Benedict is, in effect, inviting the Abbot to lead his monks into the depths of Our Lord’s priestly prayer in the Cenacle:

That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, as we also are one: I in them, and thou in me; that they may be made perfect in one: and the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast also loved me. (John 17:21-23).

Who, then, is preferred in the sight of God? The little soul who bears fruit while remaining humble. “So you also, when you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do” (Luke 17:10). While the same discipline must be imposed upon all, so too must all be treated with the same mercy, the same kindness in the face of weakness, and the same compassion in the hour of suffering.

Whereas Saint Benedict begins this portion of his chapter with the verb to love (amo, amare), he ends it by speaking of charity: Ergo aequalis sit ab eo omnibus caritas. Amor designates a love that is subjectively conditioned. Amor arises from a certain natural attraction and from the pleasure derived from the sight or company of another. Caritas, on the other hand, has its origin in God; it is closely allied to pietas, the devotedness of a father towards his son, and of a son towards his father. “The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us”; Caritas Dei diffusa est in cordibus nostris per Spiritum Sanctum, qui datus est nobis (Romans 5:5).  And pietas is a gift of the Holy Ghost. It is a participation by grace in the relationship of the Father with the Son, and of the Son with the Father. The gift of pietas is a most effective remedy for the deficient relationships with the father from which so many men suffer. The gift of pietas brings with it a healing of many of the wounds of one’s childhood.

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