Regular Observance (XLIII:2 and XLIV)

CHAPTER XLIII. Of those who come late to the Work of God, or to table
23 Mar. 23 July. 22 Nov.

If any one, through his own negligence and fault, come not to table before the Verse, so that all may say this and the prayer together, and together sit down to table, let him be once or twice corrected. If after this he do not amend, let him not be admitted to share in the common table, but be separated from the companionship of all, and eat alone, his portion of wine being taken from him, until he hath made satisfaction and amends. Let him be punished in like manner, who is not present also at the Verse which is said after meals. And let no one presume to take food or drink before or after the appointed hour: but should a brother be offered anything by the Superior, and refuse to take it, if he afterwards desire either what he before refused, or anything else, he shall receive nothing whatever, until he hath made proper satisfaction.

CHAPTER XLIV. Of those who are excommunicated, how they are to make satisfaction
24 Mar. 24 July. 23 Nov.

Let him, who for graver offences is excommunicated from the Oratory and the table, prostrate himself at the door of the Oratory, saying nothing, at the hour when the Work of God is being performed: lying prone, with his face upon the ground, at the feet of all who go out from the Oratory. Let him continue to do this until the Abbot judge that he hath made satisfaction: and then, coming at the Abbot’s bidding, let him cast himself at his feet and at the feet of all, that they may pray for him. After this, if the Abbot so order, let him be received back into the choir, in such a place as he shalt appoint: yet so, that he presume not to intone Psalm or lesson, or anything else, in the Oratory, unless the Abbot again command him. And at all the Hours, when the Work of God is ended, let him cast himself on the ground, in the place where he standeth, and so make satisfaction, until such time as the Abbot bid him cease therefrom. But let those, who for lighter faults are excommunicated only from the table, make satisfaction in the Oratory so long as the Abbot shall command, and continue so doing until he bless them and say it is enough.

One of the chief points of a good regular observance is punctuality. Saint Benedict insists on it and obliges those who come late to choir and to the table to repair by public penance what is, at bottom, a public offense against both the Divine Majesty and the good order of the community. Saint Benedict does not have in mind circumstances by which an official of the monastery, such as the abbot, the cellarer, the guestmaster, or the infirmarian may be detained by reason of his duties. For such things, Saint Benedict is characteristically generous and understanding, although, even for the officials of the monastery, lateness must not become habitual. Saint Benedict condemns the tardiness of the brother who, having failed to stop his work at the appointed time, or having ignored the signal for the Divine Office, shows by his conduct that he prefers his own activities and interests to the Opus Dei, the great corporate work of the monastery, or to the common table. If a brother should arrive late at any community function, he should enter the place immediately and, at least, show himself inside the door, and not compound his offence by tarrying outside. Thus, does Saint Benedict say, “If they were to remain outside the Oratory, some one perchance would return to his place and go to sleep, or at all events would sit down outside, and give himself to idle talk, and thus an occasion would be given to the evil one” (Chapter XLIII).

One of the most common reasons for tardiness is the compulsion to do “just one more thing.” It is easy to think that one can squeeze something in after the five minute bell, but this is faulty thinking and will lead inevitably to a bad habit. The reason for ringing two bells—one fifteen minutes before the Divine Office and the other five minutes before—is to give time after the sound of the first bell to lay aside the work in which one is engaged, to change out of work clothes if necessary, to attend to the necessities of nature, and to stand ready for the second bell, after which it is permitted to do nothing more. The habit of working or of conversing past the five minute bell is one of those faults that must be identified and eradicated, lest it become habitual and so pull down the regular observance of the whole community. Does this principle ever admit of exceptions? Yes, there may be exceptions in special circumstances, especially for the abbot and other officials. The monk is not a mindless cog in a great machine. But the exceptions must be rare, objectively justified, and sincerely regretted.

The regular observance is a beautiful thing: it supports life and is a kind of conduit of joy flowing through every hour of the day and every activity. The psalmist says, “The stream of the river maketh the city of God joyful: the most High hath sanctified his own tabernacle” (Psalm 45:5). The regular observance is a current of divine joy running through the life of a monk. It is a current driven by love. It is the configuration of concrete practices by which the Holy Ghost irrigates the life of a monastery and makes the cloister an habitation of joy.

Monasteries in which the regular observance has gone into decline are sad places. There is a marked absence of direction, of alacrity, and of zeal. Where there is little direction, alacrity, and zeal there will be little joy. A whiff of decay hangs over the community in which the Benedictine esprit de corps is waning. A slackening of the regular observance leads to individualism, to self-absorption, and to a breakdown of the corporate identity. This particular danger looms large in monasteries where the development of external works has led to a weakening of the observance of enclosure. Saint Benedict says in Chapter LXVI:

The Monastery, however, ought if possible to be so constituted that all things necessary, such as water, a mill, and a garden, and the various crafts may be contained within it; so that there may be no need for the monks to wander abroad, for this is by no means expedient for their souls.

We are blessed to have had from the very beginning the support of our Bishops for our choice of the enclosed monastic life in which the integral regular observance cannot be mitigated in favour of external works or pastoral activities. I remember well that when our founding Bishop, Dr Smith,  spoke to Dom Benedict before ordaining him to the diaconate, he made a point of saying that ordination ought never become a pretext for engaging in parochial work. To be sure, there has been in the course of history a legitimate development of other expressions of Benedictine life in which missionary work and the care of souls is combined, in some degree, to the regular observance of the Holy Rule. For us, however, such a development will never be legitimate. It is our vocation, by a joyful fidelity to the regular observance within the enclosure of the monastery, to assure the regular heartbeat of the Divine Office for the Diocese of Meath and for the whole Church.

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