What the life of monks ought to be (III:2)

CHAPTER III. Of calling the Brethren to Council
17 Jan. 18 May. 17 Sept.

Let all therefore, follow the Rule in all things as their guide, and let no man rashly depart from it. Let no one in the monastery follow the will of his own heart: nor let any one presume insolently to contend with his Abbot, either within or without the monastery. But if he should so presume, let him be subjected to the discipline appointed by the Rule. The Abbot himself, however, must do everything with the fear of God and in observance of the Rule: knowing that he will have without doubt to render to God, the most just Judge, an account of all his judgments. If it happen that less important matters have to be transacted for the good of the monastery, let him take counsel with the Seniors only, as it is written: “Do all things with counsel, and thou shalt not afterwards repent it.”

The Holy Rule stabilises our monastic life; it provides us with a pattern of order, harmony, and peace. It protects us against the tyranny of subjectivism and the distortions of relativism. The Rule, being a distillation of the Holy Gospel for monks, is the objective standard by which all things are measured rightly. It is a privileged vessel of the wisdom of Christ, “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). I often refer you to Bossuet’s panegyric on the Holy Rule. Bossuet was bishop of Meaux from 1681 to 1704. He was uncompromisingly zealous for the reform of monastic life in his diocese. The prelate says:

This rule is a summary of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgement of the whole doctrine of the Gospel, of all the institutions of the holy Fathers, of all the counsels of perfection.

Today’s Office for the feast of Saint Antony is also, in its own way, “a learned and mysterious abridgement of the whole doctrine of the Gospel, of all the institutions of the holy Fathers, of all the counsels of perfection.” The antiphons of the Office of Saint Antony give us the Gospel for monks such as Saint Antony would have heard it and lived it. I invite each of you to meditate, one by one, the antiphons of today’s Office. In these antiphons you will find the very marrow of the Holy Rule, and in the Holy Rule you will find the very marrow of the Gospel. So often as a monk leaves the Chapter Room after hearing the Holy Rule, he should be able to turn to his neighbour and say, “Was not our heart burning within us, whilst he spoke in the way, and opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

To keep the Holy Rule is not the same as to abide by rules. A monk can keep all the rules outwardly without their affecting any real changes in the inner man. Love of the Holy Rule is not the same thing as the love of rules! Nothing renders monastic life more toxic than a narrow legalism. The text of the Holy Rule, received and cherished day after day, grows with a monk and causes him to grow into a new man. It gives him a distinctively Benedictine countenance, that is, a way of entering into relationships. It fashions in him a Benedictine soul: attentive, silent, obedient, humble, quick to praise God, and merciful. What is a Benedictine countenance? It is, I think, similar to Saint Athanasius’ description of Saint Antony:

His countenance had a great and wonderful grace. This gift also he had from the Saviour. For if he were present in a great company of monks, and any one who did not know him previously, wished to see him, immediately coming forward he passed by the rest, and hurried to Antony, as though attracted by his appearance. Yet neither in height nor breadth was he conspicuous above others, but in the serenity of his manner and the purity of his soul. For as his soul was free from disturbances, his outward appearance was calm; so from the joy of his soul he possessed a cheerful countenance, and from his bodily movements could be perceived the condition of his soul, as it is written, ‘When the heart is merry the countenance is cheerful, but when it is sorrowful it is cast down’ (Proverbs 15:13). Thus Jacob recognised the counsel Laban had in his heart, and said to his wives, ‘The countenance of your father is not as it was yesterday and the day before.’ Thus Samuel recognised David, for he had mirthful eyes, and teeth white as milk. Thus Antony was recognised, for he was never disturbed, for his soul was at peace; he was never downcast, for his mind was joyous. (Life of Saint Antony, 67)

The Holy Rule, the Life of Saint Benedict by Saint Gregory, and the Life of Saint Antony by Saint Athanasius must be read in synopsis. In giving us the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict seeks to transmit to us the spirit of the Fathers who went before him, of whom Saint Antony is the first. In writing the Life of Saint Benedict, Saint Gregory wants us to see how the grace of Saint Antony was, in some wise, reproduced in Saint Benedict. I was only fifteen or sixteen years old when a wise Trappist monk, Father Marius Granato, counseled me to read the Life of Saint Antony every year. Strange advice to give a teenager in a tumultuous 1967! I have never forgotten what Father Marius said, and fifty-three years later, I can still attest to the wisdom of it. One of the loveliest pages of the Life of Saint Antony describes his pia consideratio for the weak and suffering, a motif that recurs so often in the Holy Rule. Saint Athanasius writes:

He championed those who were wronged in such a way that you would imagine that he, and not the others, was the sufferer. Further, he was able to be of such use to all, that many soldiers and men who had great possessions laid aside the burdens of life, and became monks for the rest of their days. And it was as if a physician had been given by God to Egypt. For who in grief met Antony and did not return rejoicing? Who came mourning for his dead and did not immediately put off his sorrow? Who came in anger and was not converted to friendship? What poor and low-spirited man met him who, hearing him and looking upon him, did not despise wealth and console himself in his poverty? What monk, having being neglectful, came to him and became not all the stronger? What young man having come to the mountain and seen Antony, did not immediately deny himself pleasure and love temperance? Who when tempted by a demon, came to him and did not find rest? And who came troubled with doubts and did not get quietness of mind?

In returning to the Life of Saint Antony, I am struck by the passage in which Saint Athanasius presents him as a great intercessor, a consoler of the afflicted, and a healer. This particular passage will an inspiration to Dom Chrysostom in his work in the gatehouse and in his dealings with people who write to us asking for prayers:

With those who suffered he sympathised and prayed. And oft-times the Lord heard him on behalf of many: yet he boasted not because he was heard, nor did he murmur if he were not. But always he gave the Lord thanks and besought the sufferer to be patient, and to know that healing belonged neither to him nor to man at all, but only to the Lord, who does good when and to whom He will. The sufferers therefore used to receive the words of the old man as though they were a cure, learning not to be downhearted but rather to be long-suffering. And those who were healed were taught not to give thanks to Antony but to God alone.

I have been reading the Holy Rule and listening to it being read for over forty years. I never tire of it. And I have been reading the Life of Saint Antony for just as long. Like the Sacred Scriptures, which are woven into it on every page, the Holy Rule conceals one layer of meaning under another, too many to be exhausted in a lifetime.

In relating his impressions of Dom Boniface Osländer (Abbot of Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls from 1895-1904), Blessed Ildephonsus Schuster writes that Abbot Osländer, “when already advanced in years, said that he still discovered new truths in the Rule, new wellsprings of consolation that altogether inebriated the soul.” Writing to a friend, Blessed Schuster said, “The Rule will illumine you at life’s inevitable crossroads. When you read the Rule, or hear it read, do not consider it a book like any other. It was given you by God as the straightest way of life.”

The words of Blessed Schuster concerning the Holy Rule resonate wonderfully with the conclusion of the Life of Saint Antony:

Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brethren that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify Him: and leads those who serve Him unto the end, not only to the kingdom of heaven, but here also — even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world — makes them illustrious and well known everywhere on account of their virtue and the help they render others. And if need be, read this among the heathen, that even in this way they may learn that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only God and the Son of God, but also that the Christians who truly serve Him and religiously believe in Him, prove, not only that the demons, whom the Greeks themselves think to be gods, are no gods, but also tread them under foot and put them to flight, as deceivers and corrupters of mankind, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.