CHAPTER LVIII. Of the Discipline of receiving Brethren into Religion
11 Apr. 11 Aug. 11 Dec.
To him that newly cometh to change his life, let not an easy entrance be granted, but, as the Apostle saith, “Try the spirits if they be of God.” If, therefore, he that cometh persevere in knocking, and after four or five days seem patiently to endure the wrongs done to him and the difficulty made about his coming in, and to persist in his petition, let entrance be granted him, and let him be in the guest-house for a few days. Afterwards let him go into the Novitiate, where he is to meditate and study, to take his meals and to sleep. Let a senior, one who is skilled in gaining souls, be appointed over him to watch him with the utmost care, and to see whether he is truly seeking God, and is fervent in the Work of God, in obedience and in humiliations. Let all the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God be set before him. And if he promise steadfastly to persevere, after the lapse of two months let this Rule be read through to him, with these words: “Behold the law, under which thou desirest to fight. If thou canst observe it, enter in; if thou canst not, freely depart.” If he still stand firm, let him be taken back to the aforesaid cell of the Novices, and again tried with all patience. And, after a space of six months, let the Rule be again read to him, that he may know unto what he cometh. Should he still persevere, after four months let the same Rule be read to him once more. And if, having well considered within himself, he promise to keep it in all things, and to observe everything that is commanded him, then let him be received into the community, knowing that he is now bound by the law of the Rule, so that from that day forward he cannot depart from the Monastery, nor shake from off his neck the yoke of the Rule, which after such prolonged deliberation he was free either to refuse or to accept.
I am conscious, in saying something about Chapter LVIII, that I am speaking in a particular way to Lucas, and Father Matt, and Jesse, and Jack. By this, I do not imply that anyone of us has moved beyond this chapter of the Holy Rule. Its message has as much bearing on the life of the man with decades of monastic profession behind him as it has on the life of the man with years or, in the case of Brother Thomas Aquinas, days before his monastic profession.
Saint Benedict describes the man who knocks at the door of the cloister and asks to be admitted, as veniens ad conversationem, “coming to change his life.” A man, upon entering the monastery, must not expect to continue the trajectory of his life as he knew it. The monastery is not a kind of finishing school. A man comes to the monastery to be repaired by being re-built. This may require a certain amount of demolition before the new foundations can be laid.
One does not become a monk by changing oneself according to a certain conventional pattern. One becomes a monk by allowing oneself to be changed by grace — to be chiseled, and chipped, and polished — and this in the humble quotidian. Saint Peter says: “Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4–6). In the Office for the Dedication of a Church we sing”
Many a blow and biting sculpture
Polish’d well those stones elect,
In their places now compacted
By the Heavenly Architect,
Who therewith hath will’d for ever
That His Temple should be deck’d.
A man comes to the monastery in order to be fitted into the spiritual house, the domus Dei, that is the monastery. This requires that a man be re-shaped or, if you will, accept that he must be re-formed or trans-formed. A man comes to the monastery to change his life or, more precisely, to be changed. A man is changed by the operations of the Holy Ghost and this, in the context of a life of lowliness, obedience, and submission to the Holy Rule and the teaching of the abbot. All of this is perhaps best read in the light of 2 Corinthians 3:16–18:
But when they shall be converted to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away. Now the Lord is a Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord.