Nothing that is harsh or rigorous (Prologue 8)

7 Jan. 8 May. 7 Sept.
We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous. But if anything be somewhat strictly laid down, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult. But as we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments; so that never departing from His guidance, but persevering in His teaching in the monastery until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers of His kingdom. Amen.

In this final passage of the Prologue, a text so rich in spiritual teaching, our father Saint Benedict sets forth a great principle to which he will return again and again in the Holy Rule: “We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous.” Nihil asperum, nihil grave. This principle in no way contradicts what he says in Chapter LVIII with reference to a man newly come to the monastery: “Let all the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God be set before him.” Hard and rugged things there are and there always will be, but these things come not from the Holy Rule but from a man’s own resistances to the work of grace in him. Did not Our Lord say to Saul on the road to Damascus: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. It is hard for thee to kick against the goad” (Acts 9:5).

To the man yoked to Christ in love, nothing is burdensome or too heavy to bear. “My yoke,” says Our Lord, “is sweet and my burden light” (Matthew 11:30). But for the man who has cast off the yoke of Christ, that is, union with Him in faith, hope, and charity, the monastic observances are grim and oppressive. There are two words of Our Lord that a monk must hold always in his heart: “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5); and “My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

If Saint Benedict admits that it may be necessary to lay down certain things a bit strictly, this is done according to the dictates of sound reason, to correct vices, or to preserve charity. Here there is nothing despotic, nothing arbitrary. Should a brother feel the pinch of certain arrangements, or be tempted to judge the observances too confining, he must know that whatsoever is laid down corresponds to three criteria: sound reason; the necessary correction of bad habits; and the preservation of charity. A brother may argue that such measures do not apply to him because he does not see in his own life any vices to be amended nor any threat to charity. Such a brother must understand that the whole community readily embraces whatever measures the abbot judges necessary and reasonable for the correction of bad habits and the preservation of charity, even if the offenders in these things are few and their offenses not known to all. It is sometimes necessary for the whole community, out of charity, to work together for the healing and conversion of a few, or even, of a single brother. What does the Apostle say?

And if thy brother’s peace of mind is disturbed over food, it is because thou art neglecting to follow the rule of charity. Here is a soul for which Christ died; it is not for thee to bring it to perdition with the food thou eatest. (Romans 14:15)

Charity obliges all to embrace restrictions that may be necessary for the salvation of only one. Similarly, it may be necessary at times for all to accept the accommodation of certain observances to the weakness of one brother if, by that accommodation, the brother will be saved.

Saint Benedict says that there will be temptations to run away. “Do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, which can only be narrow at the outset.” Before Saint Benedict, the Desert Fathers spoke of such temptations. Often these temptations present themselves in a guise of zeal for virtue, or else they proceed from a spirit of despondency.

Abba Palladios says, “Once when I was feeling very sluggish, I visited Abba Mark and said to him: ‘Abba Mark, what should I do, for I am afflicted by thoughts that tell me, “You are doing no good, leave this place’?” The most holy Mark replied to me” Tell your thoughts, ‘I am guarding the walls for the sake of Christ.'”

Saint Euthymius says:

If someone thinks he cannot practice virtue here, let him not suppose that if he goes elsewhere he will succeed more easily in his purpose; for the accomplishment of good does not depend on the nature of the place, but on our intention. For monastics, what is contrary to this is wrong, and can lessen the intensity of their efforts and make them unfruitful in virtue, just as a plant can never produce fruit when it is continually transplanted.

And Saint Synkletike, with her characteristic homespun wisdom, says:

If you are in a cœnobium, do not change your location, fr if you do, you will cause yourself great harm. Just as a bird who rises from her eggs makes them addled and barren, so also the virgin or monk who moves from place to place freezes and kills the faith within him.

Saint Benedict closes the Prologue with a message of hope: “But as we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments.” One might translate this, “But as we grow old in the monastic life, and so go forward in faith, our hearts shall lose their narrowness and expand, all bitterness being replaced by the unspeakable sweetness of love, giving wings to our feet and allowing us to race along the way of God’s commandments.” It is a beautiful thing to grow old with a dilated and peaceful heart in the cloister. Saint Benedict echoes here the prophet Isaias:

It is he that giveth strength to the weary, and increaseth force and might to them that are not. Youths shall faint, and labour, and young men shall fall by infirmity. But they that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall take wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaias 40:29–31)

Saint Benedict describes the old monk who, after staying the course and persevered in the monastery, can say with the Apostle: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Such a man has not strayed from the guidance given him each day by the Word of God dispensed in the sacred liturgy; nor from the Holy Rule, nor from the teaching of his abbot, nor from the observances of the community. Such a man can say, “I have, in spite of all my weaknesses and sins, persevered in following the teaching imparted to me.”

If any one of you, at the beginning of his monastic journey, were to ask Saint Benedict what lies ahead of you, he would say this: “Before you lies a participation by patience in the Passion of Christ and, at the end, the gift of eternal companionship with Him in His kingdom.” The Prologue of the Holy Rule ends on an apocalyptic note. What does it suggest?

And the Lord of hosts shall make unto all people in this mountain, a feast of fat things, a feast of wine, of fat things full of marrow, of wine purified from the lees. And he shall destroy in this mountain the face of the bond with which all people were tied, and the web that he began over all nations. He shall cast death down headlong for ever: and the Lord God shall wipe away tears from every face, and the reproach of his people he shall take away from off the whole earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. And they shall say in that day: Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord, we have patiently waited for him, we shall rejoice and be joyful in his salvation. (Isaias 25:6–9)

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