Et animae salventur (XLI)

CHAPTER XLI. At what Hours the Brethren are to take their Meals
20 Mar. 20 July. 19 Nov.

From Holy Easter until Pentecost let the brethren dine at the sixth hour, and sup in the evening. But from Pentecost throughout the summer (unless they have to work in the fields, or are harrassed by excessive heat) let them fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the ninth hour, but on other days dine at the sixth. Should they have field labour, or should the heat of the summer be very great, they must always take their dinner at the sixth hour. Let the Abbot provide for this, and let him so arrange and dispose all things, that souls may be saved, and that the brethren may do what they have to do without just cause for murmuring. From the fourteenth of September until the beginning of Lent let them always dine at the ninth hour; and during Lent, until Easter, in the evening. And let the hour of the evening meal be so ordered that they have no need of a lamp while eating, but let all be over while it is yet daylight. At all times, whether of dinner or supper, let the hour be so arranged that everything be done by daylight.

It is in the middle of this chapter that, at first glance, has to do only with the organisation of the times of meals, that Saint Benedict gives us one of the great over-arching principles of the Holy Rule. Et sic omnia temperet atque disponat qualiter et animae salventur et quod faciunt fratres absque iusta murmuratione faciant. “Let the abbot so arrange and dispose all things, that souls may be saved, and that the brethren may do what they have to do without just cause for murmuring”.

For Saint Benedict, there is no greater evil in a monastery than murmuring. Murmuring is, in effect, a contagious virus. It begins when one brother holds a conversation with himself in his head concerning something not to his liking, or a decision of the abbot, or a detail of the observance, or one brother’s niggling idiosyncracies, or a change in the horarium or in the ceremonial. This one thought, if it is not dashed against the rock that is Christ while it is still small, grows quickly until it becomes a preoccupation and a cause of anxiety, or resentment, or anger.

If a brother, so affected by a thought, communicates his anxiety, or resentment, or anger to another, the virus begins to multiply. An entire community may be thus infected with the virus of murmuring. Once the infection has invaded the cloister, it is very difficult to control. How do the abbot and community go about expelling such a virus? There are three measures that may be taken. The first is a rigorous and uncompromising refusal to engage with the thought. One must learn to send all such thoughts to the feet of Christ without stopping to analyse them, argue with them, or reason them away. The second is the humble confession of the thought to the spiritual father: a humble confession is one in which the thought is simply exposed, without giving it a foreword and an epilogue, without trying to explain it, justify it, or discuss it. The third is to replace the anxious, resentful, or angry, or otherwise evil thought with a thought that is wholesome, good, and true.

Be nothing solicitous; but in every thing, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things. The things which you have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, these do ye, and the God of peace shall be with you. (Philippians 4:6-9)

Going beyond thoughts that are wholesome, good, and true, one must rise to prayers of thanksgiving and praise. Thanksgiving, especially, is the great disinfectant that has the power to cleanse a monk and indeed a whole monastery from the contagion of murmuring. Every time a brother murmurs, or grumbles, or gives in to thoughts of anxiety, resentment, and anger, he spews forth a multitude of invisible droplets, each of which contain the virus that has infected him. On the other hand, every time a brother offers a prayer of thanksgiving and praise, he draws down upon himself and upon those around him an invisible shower of graces.

Dear sons, there is always something for which we can be grateful. If we quiet ourselves and reflect, we will see that there are always many things for which we can be grateful. Saint Bernard says that vice is like a nail in a piece of wood; it can be driven out only by hammering another nail onto it. The nail of murmuring is driven out by prayers of thanksgiving. How transforming are the words of the Gloria: Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam, “We praise thee, we bless thee, we adore thee, we glorify thee, we give thee thanks for thy great glory”!

Saint Benedict gives the abbot full authority to so arrange and dispose all things that souls may be saved. A monk must always give his abbot the benefit of believing that he is doing just this, even when it may appear that there is a better way to arrange and dispose all things. This does not mean that a monk is obliged to suspend all personal judgment nor that he is to close his eyes and ears to everything around him. It does mean that he is to be vigilant lest thoughts of anxiety, resentment, and anger turn to murmuring, and so infect his brethren that the whole monastery is poisoned by it. A monk is always free to say to his abbot, “Reverend Father, it seems to me that it would be good to consider such and such a matter in a different light”. Having said this, humbly and respectfully, a monk ought to remain in peace, trusting that he has been heard and that his abbot is not so proud or obtuse as to dismiss out of hand the representations made to him.