Starting afresh from Christ (Prologue 1)

PROLOGUE OF OUR MOST HOLY FATHER SAINT BENEDICT TO HIS RULE
1 Jan. 2 May. 1 Sept

Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thine heart; willingly receive and faithfully fulfil the admonition of thy loving Father, that thou mayest return by the labour of obedience to Him from Whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience. To thee, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever thou art that, renouncing thine own will, dost take up the strong and bright weapons of obedience, in order to fight for the Lord Christ, our true king. In the first place, whatever good work thou beginnest to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect; that He Who hath now vouchsafed to count us in the number of His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He hath given us, that not only may He never, as an angry father, disinherit his children, but may never, as a dreadful Lord, incensed by our sins, deliver us to everlasting punishment, as most wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.

The beginning of the Prologue of the Holy Rule is, in some way, like the beginning of a new season of the liturgical year. It holds out to each of us, if I may borrow the expression used by Saint John Paul II at the beginning of the new millennium, an opportunity to start afresh from Christ. How are we to hear the beginning of the Prologue? Who is speaking in the Prologue? To whom is the speaker addressing himself? And of whom is he speaking? These are questions that I have often asked myself, and this after many years of listening to the Prologue of the Holy Rule, and of wanting to take its message to heart. We have, of course, the authorised opinions of the scholars, and these are helpful as far as they go, but it remains that, for us monks, the reading of the Holy Rule is a lectio divina.

In lectio divina, one seeks the Face of Christ, and on the Face of Christ one learns to read the secrets of His Heart. We listen to the reading of the Holy Rule with the expectation of meeting Christ in it. Take Christ out of the Holy Rule and it loses all its savour. It becomes burdensome and inscrutable. What Saint Paul says concerning the Law may also be applied to the Law of Monks, the Holy Rule:

To this day, I say, when the law of Moses is read out, a veil hangs over their hearts. There must be a turning to the Lord first, and then the veil will be taken away. The Spirit we have been speaking of is the Lord; and where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. It is given to us, all alike, to catch the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, with faces unveiled; and so we become transfigured into the same likeness, borrowing glory from that glory, as the Spirit of the Lord enables us. (2 Corinthians 3:15–18)

The Holy Rule, without the illumination that comes from the Face of Christ, remains unintelligible. It seems to me that the Prologue of the Holy Rule corresponds in more than one way to the Prologue of the First Epistle of Saint John:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life: For the life was manifested; and we have seen and do bear witness, and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father, and hath appeared to us: That which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you, that you may rejoice, and your joy may be full. (1 John 1:1–4)

Our Father Saint Benedict speaks to us in the Prologue of what he has heard, and seen, and looked upon, and handled of the Word of Life, and of that same Word truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Saint Benedict’s death was illumined by the adorable Body of Christ because his whole life was illumined by the adorable Body of Christ. Listen to what Mother Mectilde says concerning this very mystery. She is speaking here of God’s providential election of the children of Saint Benedict for the perpetual adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar:

I glimpse the reason of the mystery of this choice and of the election that God has made of the children of this great Patriarch, and for this I am not at all astonished; because, although there is something incomprehensible, hidden, and profound in the state [of life] that this glorious Patriarch brought to the earth, and that he inspired in his sons, we see that it has so great a relation to the Divine Eucharist, that I cannot but say that it is the portion and heritage of the religious of Saint Benedict. I should, rather, be astonished that it took the passage of so many centuries before the children of this Blessed Father quickened themselves to enter into possession of the inestimable treasure that the infinite bounty of God held in reserve for them.

If you ask me . . . where I get that which I have just said, I dare assure you that it is a secret which was shown me in the death of our most illustrious Patriarch, who, wanting to witness to to the love he had for the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, could do it no better than by expiring in His Holy Presence, thereby rendering the last breaths of his heart to this adorable Host, and enclosing his sentiments in the sacred ciborium, so as to produce, in time, children of His Order who would, until the end of the world, offer the adorable Host adoration, respect, and the bounden duties of continual love and reparation.

Saint Benedict speaks to us in the Prologue not only with the accents of Saint John in the Prologue of his First Epistle, but also with the humility of Saint John the Baptist, who says:

A man cannot receive any thing, unless it be given him from heaven. You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, that I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:27–30)

Our Father Saint Benedict addresses us in the Prologue of the Holy Rule, but he speaks of another. He does not speak of himself. Look at the key words of the Prologue. Who is the magister (master)? It is Christ. Who is the pater pius (devoted father)? It is Christ. (That Christ is called father should not surprise us. Saint Benedict refers to this designation of Christ as father in Chapter II, where he explains that the father of the monastery is called abba in reference to the fatherhood of Christ.) Who is the Dominus (Lord)? It is Christ. Who is the rex (king)? It is Christ. Only when the veil is removed from our eyes and we begin to see Christ present in the Holy Rule, does the inner coherence of the text become clear.

The references to Christ in the Prologue, the very beginning of the Holy Rule, send us to the references to Christ at the very end of the Holy Rule in Chapters LXXII and LXIII.

Let them . . . prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all alike to life everlasting. (Chapter LXXII)

Fulfil by the help of Christ this least of Rules which we have written for beginners; and then at length thou shalt arrive, under God’s protection, at the lofty summits of doctrine and virtue of which we have spoken above. (Chapter LXXIII)

In pronouncing the name Christ, Saint Benedict evokes the majesty of the Παντοκράτωρ (Pantocrator, Ruler of All) as seen in the splendid mosaics of Rome, Ravenna, Cefalù, and Monreale. One must not, all the same, oppose Saint Benedict’s profoundly reverential use of the name Christ to the equally reverential and also heartfelt use of the Holy Name of Jesus by Saint Anselm, Saint Bernard, and the monks of the 12th and of later centuries. Both names are divine. Both names are an expression of faith and of adoration, for the Apostle in his hymn of the humiliation and glorification of Christ, says:

That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10–11)

It is right to say that a man enters the monastery to be with Jesus; to incline the ear of his heart to Jesus; to be instructed by Jesus; to share by patience in the sufferings of Jesus; and to prefer nothing to the love of Jesus. In a lettershe wrote to us, Mother Maria Benedicta of Tororo said that for us, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ effectively means to prefer nothing to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. What are the implications of this? If any man would be with Jesus, let him go to the Most Blessed Sacrament. If any man would incline the ear of his heart to Jesus, let him go to the Most Blessed Sacrament. If any man would share by patience in the sufferings of Jesus, let him go to the Most Blessed Sacrament. If any man would prefer nothing to the love of Jesus, let him go to the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Benedictine life, if it be not illumined and warmed by the adorable face of Christ and by the fire that blazes in His Sacred Heart, can seem at certain hours to be a dark and cold path. By drawing us, from the very first lines of the Prologue, to the adorable Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the magister (master), the pater pius (devoted father), the Dominus (Lord), and the rex (King) who would lead us after him ad gloriam (into glory), our Father Saint Benedict would have us understand that we, like him in the hour of his Eucharistic death, are called to contemplate “with faces unveiled,” that is, with the penetrating eyes of faith, the Deus absconditus (Hidden God) of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

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