An example of humility to all (LX)

CHAPTER LX. Of Priests who may wish to dwell in the Monastery
14 Apr. 14 Aug. 14 Dec.

If any one in priestly orders ask to be received into the Monastery, let not consent be too quickly granted him; but if he persist in his request, let him know that he will have to observe all the discipline of the Rule, and that nothing will be relaxed in his favour, according as it is written “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” Let him, nevertheless, be allowed to stand next the Abbot, to give the blessing, and to say Mass, if the Abbot bid him do so. Otherwise, let him presume to do nothing, knowing that he is subject to the discipline of the Rule; but rather let him give an example of humility to all. And if there be a question of any appointment, or other business in the Monastery, let him expect the position due to him according to the time of his entrance, and not that which was yielded to him out of reverence for the priesthood. If any clerics should desire in the same way to be admitted into the Monastery, let them be placed in a middle rank: but in their case also, only on condition that they promise observance of the Rule, and stability therein.

It is significant, I think, that we are reading this chapter while listening to the biography of Blessed Columba Marmion in the refectory, and while Father Matt is still here among us. Dom Hildebrand and Brother Gregory have already come to terms with what Saint Benedict sets forth today. There is a passage in the Life of Saint Pachomius that expresses how the early monks viewed the priesthood:

When a feast day required that they should participate in the holy mysteries, they asked presbyters from neighbouring villages to come and celebrate the feast of spiritual joy for them. For the old man would not allow any of their own number to perform the duties of the clergy. He maintained that it was much more fitting that monks should not seek for pre-eminent honour and glory, and that opportunities of that sort should be rooted out of coenobia, for they are often sources of futile strife and jealousy among the brothers.

Just as a whole year’s harvest can be destroyed if a spark falling into the fields is not quickly extinguished, so a deadly thought in the mind of a monk, ambitiously desiring leadership as a cleric, can destroy the modesty he has acquired so laboriously, if he does not forthrightly drive from his heart the incendiary nature of such a suggestion. So the communicants of Christ should respect the clerics in the church with all meekness and sincerity; it is not right that they should wish for any religious preferments themselves. “But if anyone among the monks has been previously ordained by a bishop,” said Pachomius, “let us welcome his ministry. We find in the old Testament that not everyone was allowed to take clerical office; only those born among the tribe of Levi were allowed to offer the sacrifices. So if a brother of undisputed priestly status comes in from elsewhere, let us not denigrate him as if he were trespassing into sacred areas and had no right to exercise his ministry. How could we possibly think that about him, when at the same time we earnestly request him to celebrate the heavenly Sacraments for us? It is much more fitting that we respect him as a father following the footsteps of the Saviour, and who is doing what we have requested him to do, and that he should not cease from offering the sacrificial gifts to God, especially if his character is known and approved by all.

At Lérins, according to the Rule of the Four Fathers, from the beginning of the 5th century,, clerics were admitted into the monastery not as monks but as guests, and as “servants of the altar.” They were allowed to say the concluding prayer of the Offices while visiting the monastery, but were not granted entrance as monks. In general, the early monks recognised their need for the sacramental services of priests, but were cautious about allowing priests to become monks. There were priest-monks, even among the Desert Fathers, but when this is noted, it seems always to be exceptional.

Saint Benedict is not closed to the possibility of admitting priests into the monastery. On this point, the Rule of Saint Benedict differs from other earlier monastic rules. As with laymen come to be monks, Saint Benedict says that priests shall not be welcomed into the community too readily. Priests come to be monks are granted no privileges, exceptions, or dispensations from the common rule. Saint Benedict applies to the priest monk, the word of Our Lord addressed to Judas in Gethsemani: “Friend, whereto art thou come?” (Matthew 26:50). Later, Saint Bernard would take the same word of Our Lord and address it to himself: Bernarde, ad quid venisti? “Bernard, for what hast thou come?”

The priest who enters the monastery is not reduced to the lay state. Saint Benedict says that  he is “allowed to stand behind the Abbot, to give the blessing, and to say Mass, if the Abbot bid him do so.” “Otherwise,” says Saint Benedict, “let him not presume to do anything, knowing that he is subject to the discipline of the Rule; but rather let him give to all an example of humility.” Et magis humilitatis exampla omnibus det. This phrase sums up what Saint Benedict asks of the priest-monk.

It is altogether fitting that humility should be the characteristic virtue of the priest-monk, given that he, more than anyone else in the monastery, finds himself each day nearest to the humility of God when he handles the very Body and Blood of Christ. It is this privileged closeness to the Sacrament of the Divine Humility that communicates to the priest monk something of the meekness of the Lamb, and obliges him to manifest the humility of the Lamb when, descending from the altar, he takes his place among the brethren.


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