Dominicum servitium (XLIX)

CHAPTER XLIX. Of the Observance of Lent
31 Mar. 31 July. 30 Nov.

Although the life of a monk ought at all times to have about it a Lenten character, yet since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all, at least during the days of Lent, to keep themselves in all purity of life, and to wash away, during that holy season, the negligences of other times. This we shall worthily do, if we refrain from all sin, and give ourselves to prayer with tears, to holy reading, compunction of heart and abstinence. In these days, then, let us add some thing to our wonted service; as private prayers, and abstinence from food and drink, so that every one of his own will may offer to God, with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond the measure appointed him: withholding from his body somewhat of his food, drink and sleep, refraining from talking and mirth, and awaiting Holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing. Let each one, however, make known to his Abbot what he offereth, and let it be done with his blessing and permission: because what is done without leave of the spiritual father shall be imputed to presumption and vain-glory, and merit no reward. Everything, therefore, is to be done with the approval of the Abbot.

There is something particularly poignant about this reading of Chapter XLIX today, after having spent several days pondering it at the beginning of Lent. We could not have imagined on Ash Wednesday the dramatic changes that would affect our monastery and the whole world. The injunction of Saint Benedict is sobering: “We exhort all, at least during the days of Lent, to keep themselves in all purity of life, and to wash away, during that holy season, the negligences of other times”. It is never too late to begin afresh. In the very last chapter of the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict says that he wrote his Rule in order to show men like ourselves how to make “a beginning of holiness”, initium conversationis. No matter how long a man is in the cloister, and no matter how far he thinks he has advanced, he remains, at the end of every day, and indeed every morning, at the beginning.

I am very affected by my current reading of Blessed Schuster’s little book, La vita monastica nel pensiero di San Benedetto, “The Monastic Life in the Thought of Saint Benedict” (Viboldone, 1948). A monk is never too old to learn new things and to deepen what he thinks he may already know. In the first two chapters of the book, The Servant of God, and The Opus Dei, Blessed Schuster argues that following a certain Patristic usage, widely received in the high Middle Ages, the designations servus Dei (servant of God), servitium (service), Opus Dei (Work of God), and officium (sacred duty) were reserved first to the sacerdotal state and, then, by extension to the monastic state. Blessed Schuster cites the Canon of the Mass in which the priest prays, nos servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta, “we Thy servants, and likewise Thy holy people”. Blessed Schuster also cites the supplication for the clergy in the Great Litany, Ut nosmetípsos in tuo sancto servítio confortare et conservare dignéris, “That it may please thee to strengthen and preserve us in Thy holy service”.

For Blessed Schuster, the extension of Dominicum servitium as an expression used in reference to the priesthood to one used in reference to the monastic state happened easily and organically. The monastic life has a certain sacerdotal quality—it bears a sacerdotal imprint—even for those monks who are not priests. Blessed Schuster’s thesis—and I find it altogether convincing—is borne out in the vocabulary of Chapter XLIX. In one sentence, Saint Benedict uses two words charged with a sacerdotal and sacrificial connotation: servitus (service) and offero (I offer).

Ergo his diebus augeamus nobis aliquid solito pensu servitutis nostrae, orationes peculiares, ciborum et potus abstinentiam, ut unusquisque super mensuram sibi indictam aliquid propria voluntate cum gaudio Sancti Spiritus offerat Deo.

Let us add some thing to our wonted service; as private prayers, and abstinence from food and drink, so that every one of his own will may offer to God, with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond the measure appointed him

Blessed Schuster shows that the designation servus Dei (servant of God), by which Saint Gregory designates Saint Benedict, was applied to priests before it came to be applied to monks. The servus Dei is one who lives in the precincts of the altar, set apart for the praise of the Divine Majesty, and bound to offer sacrifice. We sing this in Psalm 133 at Compline:

Ecce nunc benedicite Dominum, omnes servi Domini: qui statis in domo Domini, in atriis domus Dei nostri. In noctibus extollite manus vestras in sancta, et benedicite Dominum.

Come, then, praise the Lord, all you that are the Lord’s servants; you that wait on the Lord’s house at midnight, lift up your hands towards the sanctuary and bless the Lord. (Psalm 133:1-2)

The servant of God is, at the same time, one who lives with his eyes fixed on his Master, and waiting to do his Master’s bidding:

Behold as the eyes of servants are on the hands of their masters, As the eyes of the handmaid are on the hands of her mistress: so are our eyes unto the Lord our God, until he have mercy on us” (Psalm 122).

Blessed Schuster shows that the servant of God is, in effect, the sacrificing priest. The same term came to be applied to the monk who makes of his whole life a divine service, that is an act of latria, and a sacrifice offered to God. This is the Dominicum servitium, the liturgical service of the Lord Christ, that emerges so clearly from the Holy Rule and, in particular, from Chapter XLIX. Rightly, then, did Saint Benedict, even in the Prologue of the Holy Rule, present the monastery as the Dominici schola servitii, “the school of the service of the Lord”.  The school of the service of the Lord is, first of all, the school wherein one learns the sacrificium laudis, “the sacrifice of praise”, that is the right worship (ὀρθοδοξία (orthodoxía) of the Divine Majesty; it is, at the same time the school of monastic perfection, the school of holiness.

 

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