Of Priests who may wish to dwell in the Monastery (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.

After treating of men who seek entrance to the monastery, and of the children who are entrusted to the monks as oblates, Saint Benedict provides for priests and clerics who ask to be received into the monastic family. “Let not consent be too quickly granted.” One senses on the part of Saint Benedict a certain reticence. The motives of the priest must be examined. Is he coming to the cloister because he truly seeks God? Does he love the Divine Office? Is he ready to embrace humiliations? Is he eager for obedience? “Nothing,” says Saint Benedict, “will be relaxed in his favour.” The priest who knocks at the door of the cloister, like any other beginner in the monastic life, must be shown “all the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God” (Chapter 58).

The priest who seeks admission to the monastery must be shown the via crucis, the via dolorosa, that leads to Calvary, that is, to the altar of the Cross and to the immolation of the Lamb upon it. The priest monk is called to the highest degree of union with the Victim Christ, “the pure victim, the holy victim, the spotless victim,” sacrificed day after day in an unbloody manner. The priest monk holds in his hands the Christus Passus and, by virtue of this ineffable privilege, he is called to become what he holds, what he handles, and what he contemplates. This he will do, by allowing himself to be introduced, by the action of the Holy Ghost and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, into the obedience, the silence, the humility, the poverty, and the hiddenness of the Host.

Saint Benedict goes so far as to apply to the priest who has come to the monastery the terrible words of Our Lord to Judas in Gethsemani: “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” (Matthew 26:50). Saint Bernard used to put the same question to himself: Bernarde, ad quid venisti? “Bernard, what are you doing here? Why have you come?” There is but one answer to this question that will allow a man to persevere in the monastic life: “What have I in heaven? and besides thee, Lord Jesus, what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and Thou my portion for ever” (cf. Psalm 72:24–26). Deus cordis mei, et pars mea, Deus in æternum.

It sometimes happens that Our Lord allows a novice or a young monk to experience what feels like the loss of all earthly consolations and supports: family, friends, and interests. One may suffer illness and fatigue. The observances that were once so appealing, so invigorating, and rewarding may become burdensome and well nigh unbearable. Even the fathers and brothers in whom one saw models and from whom one drew support and encouragement may begin to show their feet of clay, their human foibles and deficiencies. It is then that one must address Saint Bernard’s question to oneself: “Ad quid venisti? “What are you doing here? Why have you come?” It is then that one must find in the depths of one’s heart, hidden beneath the accumulated rubble, the briars, and the debris of one’s life, the only answer that will allow one to go forward: “What have I in heaven? and besides thee, Lord Jesus, what do I desire upon earth? Lord, to whom shall I go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” Deus cordis mei, et pars mea, Deus in æternum.

One may even find the words of Job rising in one’s heart:

For what is my strength, that I can hold out? or what is my end that I should keep patience? My strength is not the strength of stones, nor is my flesh of brass. Behold there is no help for me in myself, and my familiar friends also are departed from me. . . . Although he should kill me, I will trust in him . . . . Why hidest thou thy face, and thinkest me thy enemy? (Job 6:11-13; 13:15)

There is, among the prayers in the Roman Missal that a priest is invited to say after offering Holy Mass, one, attributed to the Seraphic Doctor, that expresses just this:

Ut tu sis solus semper spes mea, tota fiducia mea, divitiae meae, delectatio mea, iucunditas mea, gaudium meum, quies et tranquillitas mea, pax mea, suavitas mea, odor meus, dulcedo mea, cibus meus, refectio mea, refugium meum, auxilium meum, sapientia mea, portio mea, possessio mea, thesaurus meus, in quo fixa et firma et immobiliter semper sit radicata mens mea et cor meum.

May Thou alone be ever my hope, my entire assurance, my riches, my delight, my pleasure, my joy, my rest and tranquility, my peace, my sweetness, my fragrance, my sweet savor, my food, my refreshment, my refuge, my help, my wisdom, my portion, my possession and my treasure, in whom may my mind and my heart be fixed and firmly rooted immovably henceforth and for ever.

When a priest comes to the monastery, he consents to the loss of many things, even of things excellent and cherished. “I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). Not only does the priest novice consent, as would any other novice, to the loss of freedom, of personal ownership, and of self–determination at many levels; the priest novice consents also to the loss of a certain standing in the hierarchical ranks. He becomes a little brother and takes his place as the last one of all in his new monastic family. He will be assigned lowly domestic tasks. The priest who enters the monastery learns, in a whole new way, the meaning of the words uttered by Saint John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

When a priest comes to the monastery, he also gains much. To understand what a priest gains, we must return to the 26th chapter of Saint Matthew to which Saint Benedict has already referred. After the washing of the feet and the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, Sacrament and Sacrifice, in the Cenacle, the Apostles, newly consecrated priests of the New and Eternal Covenant in the Blood of the Lamb, went forth with Jesus into a country place called Gethsemani. There, Our Lord said to his disciples: “Sit you here, till I go yonder and pray” (Matthew 26:36). The priest monk is the privileged witness of the prayer of Jesus to the Father. The priest monk who spends time before the Most Blessed Sacrament becomes, more and more, the witness of this prayer of Jesus.

Who in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence. (Hebrews 5:7)

The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemani perdures in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, for nothing of His earthly prayer to the Father has passed away. It remains forever actual and efficacious beneath the appearances of the Host.

And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to grow sorrowful and to be sad. Then he saith to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death: stay you here, and watch with me. And going a little further, he fell upon his face, praying, and saying: My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh to his disciples, and findeth them asleep, and he saith to Peter: What? Could you not watch one hour with me? Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak. (Matthew 28:37-41)

The priest monk, more than another, hears the words of Jesus addressed to Peter, James, and John only hours after their ordination to the priesthood, “Stay you here, and watch with me,” and he understands that these words are addressed to him. To keep watch and to pray: this is the first priestly task entrusted to the Apostles. The priest monk finds in these words of Our Lord the answer to the question: “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” (Matthew 26:50). “I have come, Lord Jesus, to stay with Thee in watching and in prayer, and to console Thy Heart, forsaken by so many.” The first request of Our Lord to His  Apostles remains. It is no less urgent today than it was in that awful night in Gethsemane. Priest monks are charged, in a special way, with obeying the mandate of Gethsemani; they do this not only for themselves, but on behalf of those brother priests of theirs who flee into the night far from Jesus in agony.