The strongest kind of monks (I)

CHAPTER I. Of the several kinds of Monks and their way of life
8 Jan. 9 May. 8 Sept.

It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first are the cenobites: that is those in monasteries, who live under a rule or an Abbot. The second are the Anchorites or Hermits: that is those who, not in the first fervour of religious life, but after long probation in the monastery, have learned by the help and experience of many to fight against the devil; and going forth well armed from the ranks of their brethren to the single-handed combat of the desert, are able, without the support of others, to fight by the strength of their own arm, God helping them, against the vices of the flesh and their evil thoughts. A third and most baneful kind of monks are the Sarabites, who have been tried by no rule nor by the experience of a master, as gold in the furnace; but being as soft as lead, and still serving the world in their works, are by their tonsure to lie to God. These in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, shut up, not in the Lord’s sheepfolds, but in their own, make a law to themselves in the pleasure of their own desires: whatever they think fit or choose to do, that they call holy; and what they like not, that they consider unlawful.

The fourth kind of monks are those called “Girovagi,” who spend all their lives-long wandering about divers provinces, staying in different cells for three or four days at a time, ever roaming, with no stability, given up to their own pleasures and to the snares of gluttony, and worse in all things than the Sarabites. Of the most wretched life of these it is better to say nothing than to speak. Leaving them alone therefore, let us set to work, by the help of God, to lay down a rule for the Cenobites, that is, the strongest kind of monks.

Although Saint Benedict describes four kinds of monks, there are only two that meet with his approval: the anchorites and the cœnobites. With regard to the former, Saint Benedict makes it clear that they are seasoned veterans of the cœnobitical life; that they have been purified of their vices and become skilled at unmasking the illusions and deceits of the devil. They are capable of engaging in combat against the vices of the flesh and their evil thoughts in the solitude of the desert, far from the support of others. Authentic eremitical vocations are rare. It is not uncommon that senior monks, after having been allowed to experience the eremitical life for a time, return to the cœnobitical life after recognising that they still need the structure, discipline, good example, and fraternal support that it provides. Other would-be hermits, after making an enthusiastic start in solitude, become lukewarm and lazy, and so begin to neglect the Hours of the Divine Office, fasting, and the discipline of the horarium. Such men risk becoming soft and self-indulgent and would do better to admit humbly that they are not capable of sustaining the rigors of the eremitical life. A true hermit, however, is a treasure hidden in the heart of the Church.

Ideally, in our own observance, the office of reparator falls to each monk once a month or once every fifteen or twenty days. This becomes, effectively, a day of solitude. The reparator remains in adoration during the principal meal of the community, and goes to the refectory for the second table. The rest of the day is spent, insofar as possible, in solitude and silence. Mother Mectilde somewhere compares the reparator to the emissary goat described in Leviticus: “But that whose lot was to be the emissary goat, he shall present alive before the Lord, that he may pour out prayers upon him, and let him go into the wilderness” (Leviticus 6: 10). The emissary goat or scapegoat is a type of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The reparator, by placing the cord on his neck, identifies himself with all who are burdened by sin, and with souls who are unwilling or unable to believe, to hope, to love, and to adore. The reparator does this out of charity, knowing that, “the greatest love a man can shew [is] that he should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). For us, the brother who undertakes the office of reparator will be especially mindful of the souls of priests: those of our own diocese of Meath and of all Ireland, those of our dioceses of origin, and those priests who are locked in spiritual combat. The reparator will know that he represents before the Face of Christ all those priests of the Church who, out of weariness, or defeated by the combined forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil, have forsaken prayer and forgotten that Our Lord waits for them in the tabernacle, where He is ready to receive them into the embrace of His divine friendship.

Saint Benedict speaks of cœnobites as the strongest kind of monks. The reasons for this are many: the opportunity to practice fraternal charity and to benefit from it; the boon of obedience and of salutary correction; the good example of one’s fathers and brothers; the regularity of the Divine Office and of the common discipline; the healthy companionship that keeps a man from falling into a dangerous isolation; and the many opportunities to practice mercy, patience, kindness, forgiveness, and self–denial that are inherent in life together.

The last sentence of Chapter II sends us, in fact, to Chapter LXXII, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Each novice ought to copy out Chapter LXII in his own hand, review it frequently, use it as a guide to preparing his confessions, turn it to prayer, and even learn it by heart:

As there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separateth from God, and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal, which keepeth us from vice, and leadeth to God and to life everlasting. Let monks, therefore, exert this zeal with most fervent love; that is, “in honour preferring one another.” Let them most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind. Let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinketh good for himself, but rather what seemeth good for another. Let them cherish fraternal charity with chaste love, fear God, love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all alike to life everlasting.

The ancient practice of having novices copy out the Holy Rule in their own hand and learn certain portions of it by heart retains all its value. Every brother should, in the first years of his monastic life, at least copy out the Prologue, Chapters IV, V, VI, and VII, Chapters XIX and XX, Chapter LII, and Chapter LXXII. There is great value in copying out certain texts during the time of lectio divina. A text copied out by hand may be said to travel up one’s arm and so come to lodge itself in one’s heart.


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