CHAPTER XXXVII. Of Old Men and Children
16 Mar. 16 July. 15 Nov.
Although human nature is of itself drawn to feel pity for these two times of life, namely, old age and infancy, yet the authority of the Rule should also provide for them. Let their weakness be always taken into account, and the strictness of the Rule respecting food be by no means kept in their regard; but let a kind consideration be shewn for them, and let them eat before the regular hours.
Today’s Chapter XXXVII, Of Old Men and Children, continues Chapter XXXVI,Of the Sick Brethren, not in the sense that old age and boyhood are conditions of sickness, but insofar as both old age and boyhood are characterized by certain states of weakness. An old man does not have the physical strength and endurance of a thirty year old man. A boy does have the physical strength and endurance of a man a thirty year old man. Characteristically, a young man grows stronger with the passing years. His physical strength peaks somewhere between eighteen and forty–five years of age. From forty-five years until sixty–five a man is in his middle age period. After sixty–five years a man begins to experience the effects of aging.
Saint Benedict would have the authority of the Rule provide for his monks from entrance into the monastery until death. The very young and the very old do not fall outside the scope of the Holy Rule. Consideretur semper in eis imbecillitas. Lewis and Short define imbecillitas as weakness or feebleness and give infirmitas as a synonym. Infirmitas means want of strength, weakness, or feebleness. While these terms are more often used to designate the weakness of the body, there is also the infirmitas mentis manifested in want of spirit, want of courage, fickleness, and inconstancy. Such weaknesses must always be taken into account without falling into permissiveness and laxity on the one hand, and unbending rigourism on the other. Saint Benedict says that the strictness of the Rule respecting food must by no means be observed with regard to the elders and youths of the community, but the principle extends beyond food to such things as sleep, work, and study. It is here that Saint Benedict uses the beautiful expression pia consideratio, kindly consideration. The abbot will act with kindly consideration whenever he is obliged to dispense a brother from certain points of the observance.
There is a monk at Prinknash who, though well into old age, admirably continues to make rosaries. He has his work. A monk must never be allowed to fall into idleness, or be dispensed altogether from the observances under the pretext of old age or youth. The abbot is the judge of all such things. He will want to consult the infirmarian. He will also listen to the brothers concerned without, however, becoming indulgent and permissive. Here too, the principle of Saint John must be applied: “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits if they be of God” (1 John 4:1). It sometimes happens that a brother, under the influence of depression, or discouragement, or fatigue, may think himself less capable of following the observance than he really is. It may also happen that a brother, driven by feelings of shame or unenlightened zeal, may think himself more capable of following the observance than he really is. The abbot must always encourage elderly, young, and infirm brothers to do a bit more than they think they can do, lest by doing too little, they the lose the strength they still have. He must also limit what certain elderly, young, and infirm brothers may want to do, lest by taking on too much too soon, they fall back into a worse state of health.
It is normal that, with the onset of old age, a monk should want to spend more time in quiet prayer than he did earlier in his life. As eternity approaches, a monk wants to prepare for it by doing here what he hopes to do eternally in heaven. In many monasteries, the elders assure the longer watches of adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament. The example of Père Jérôme of Sept–Fons comes to mind. At the same time, a monk cannot expect to pray more in his old age if he has not prayed much in his youth and middle age. Old age is not improvised, it is prepared over a lifetime.