Good works, humility, and obedience (II:3)

12 Jan. 13 May. 12 Sept.
Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery. Let not one be loved more than another, 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, and let the same discipline be imposed upon all according to their deserts.

The abbot is to have the heart of a father for all of his sons without distinction. This is both caritas (self–giving love) and pietas (fatherly devotedness). For Saint Benedict, it is not enough that the abbot should love his sons; he must also strive to make himself lovable and worthy of their love: “Let him study rather to be loved than feared” (Chapter LXIV). He will  have a special love —dilectio or predilectio— for  the brothers who excel in good works and in obedience, because such brothers, being men of virtue, can help him carry the burden of his office. The abbot will cherish the brothers who excel in good works and in obedience, because it is of such as these that the psalmist sings, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 132:1). Brothers so cherished return a like love to their abbot, thereby fulfilling what Saint Benedict prescribes in Chapter LXXII: “Let them love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection.”

The abbot’s love for brothers who excel in good works and in obedience has three components. Saint Thomas identifies these as habits proper to friendship: concordia, benevolentia ,and beneficentia. Concordia is the union of wills which allows us to go forward in the monastic journey as a body. Concordia means not only that we will the same things, but also that we have made and continue to make the same choices. I do not mean by this that we all choose peanut butter over strawberry jam, or sandals over shoes. Concordia is not conformism, nor is it uniformity. Concordia is that oneness of mind of which the psalmist speaks and to which Saint Augustine refers in the beginning of his Rule:

The main purpose for your having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God, with one heart and one soul (Acts 4:32).

Saint Augustine joins here Acts 4:32 with Psalm 67:7.

Deus qui inhabitare facit unius moris in domo.
This is God who maketh men of one manner to dwell in a house.

Multitudinis autem credentium erat cor unum et anima una.
And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul.

One of the characteristics of monastic friendship or, if you prefer, of dilectio, is that it springs from the habit of choosing the same things or, to use the words of Our Lord at Bethany, from the habit of choosing the same One Thing Necessary:

Maria optimam partem elegit, quæ non auferetur ab ea.
Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:42)

Benevolentia is the expression of charity by which one wills all that is good for one’s friend. In Italian, to express affection we say, Ti voglio bene, “I wish you all that is good, all that will make you happy.” The abbot will cultivate the habit of benevolentia towards all his sons, but towards those who “excel in good works or in obedience” it is an expression of dilectio.

Beneficentia is the expression of charity in deeds, in doing concrete things for the well–being and for the joy of one’s friend. The abbot practices beneficentia towards all his sons, but again, towards those who “excel in good works or in obedience,” beneficentia is an expression of dilectio. I am reminded of the words of the Apostle: “For my own part, I will gladly spend and be spent on your souls’ behalf, though you should love me too little for loving you too well” (2 Corinthians 12:15). Ego autem libentissime impendam, et super impendar ipse pro animabus vestris.

Brothers who excel in good works or in obedience, and who surpass others in good works and in humility, are in a special way the object of the abbot’s dilectio. Every father takes pride and joy in the son who responds to his teaching and fulfils what his father hopes for him. We see an example of this in Saint Benedict’s relationship with his young disciple Maurus. It is not a question of the abbot having favourite sons; it is, rather, part of the normal development of charity in the monastery. Dilectio thrives wherever one finds concordia, benevolentia, and beneficentia.

The brother who has a pattern of making choices at odds with what is set forth in the Holy Rule and taught by the abbot is detrimental to concordia. The brother who closes himself off to the good things that the abbot desires to see in him, impairs the circulation of benevolentia. The brother who does not receive graciously deeds of kindness, compassion, and generosity blocks beneficentia. In all three cases, the root vice is pride. It is pride that impairs the circulation of charity. The prideful man is an obstacle to concordia (singleheartedness); he resists benevolentia (the good that the abbot desires for him), and cannot bring himself to accept beneficentia (the good that others would do for him) simply and gratefully. The humble man, in contrast, seeks always the things that make for unity; he is open to the good things that the abbot desires for him; and accepts simply, and with gratitude, whatever anyone does for him.

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