Their weakness must be taken into account (XLVIII:3)

CHAPTER XLVIII. Of the daily manual labour
30 Mar. 30 July. 29 Nov.

On Sunday, let all occupy themselves in reading, except those who have been appointed to the various offices. But if any one should be so negligent and slothful, as to be either unwilling or unable to study or to read, let some task be given him to do, that he be not idle. To brethren who are weak or delicate, let there be given such work or occupation as to prevent them either from being idle, or from being so oppressed by excessive labour as to be driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.

For Saint Benedict, Sunday is the day of lectio divina par excellence. This is brought home by the repetition of Psalm 118—the long, rapturous litany in praise of the Word of God—which Psalm overflows into the Little Hours of Monday. Being a practical man, Saint Benedict acknowledges that the tasks of certain monks will keep them from dedicating their Sundays to reading.

For us, reading is not an end in itself. We read not to acquire the knowledge that puffs up, but to be led, by means of what we read, to the threshold of love. All a monk’s reading is directed to the knowledge of Christ Jesus. When I was a young monk, I used to repeat at the hour of lectio divina, “My heart hath said to thee: My face hath sought thee: thy face, O Lord, will I still seek. Turn not away thy face from me” (Psalm 26:8-9). This desire to behold the Face of Christ continues, even today, to give direction to all my reading. The monk who, in his reading, seeks the Face of Christ will, sooner or later, be led to the Heart of Christ. I do not separate lectio divina from adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. The same Christ who gives us a glimpse of His Face peering through the lattice work of the sacred text, draws us into the radiance of His Eucharistic Face. “Behold he standeth behind our wall, looking through the windows, looking through the lattices” (Canticle 2:9).

Saint Benedict must have had some difficult characters in his monastery. He speaks of monks “so negligent and slothful, as to be either unwilling or unable to study or to read.” Such monks are always restless, incapable of remaining quiet in one place for any length of time, easily distracted and distracting to others. It is normal, in order to assess a monk’s dedication to reading, that before beginning any new book, he seek the blessing of the abbot or of a Father in the community with whom the abbot shares his spiritual paternity. Novices and the young professed, for so long as they remain in the noviciate, seek the blessing of the Father Master. The purpose of this is not to control or limit a monk’s reading; it is to make him accountable to the Father set over him lest he lose his sense of direction by reading haphazardly and without discernment.

As I said yesterday, a monk must learn to read consistently, continuously, and contemplatively. This disciplined way of reading, ordered to union with God in Christ, is a powerful means of spiritual hygiene. By this I mean that lectio divina cleanses the memory and the imagination of bad thoughts and replaces them with thoughts that engender faith, hope, charity, patience, chastity, forgiveness and gratitude.

In the battle against evil thoughts, nothing is as helpful as holy reading. Evil thoughts arise from one of three sources: from the world, that is, from persons, places, and things around us; from the flesh; that is, from bodily weakness, from our senses, our memory, or our imagination;  and from the devil, that is, from “principalities and powers, the rulers of the world of this darkness, and the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (q.v. Ephesians 6:12). Evagrius identified the principal eight thoughts that may assail a man: gluttony, fornication, avarice, sorrow, discouragement, anger, vainglory, and pride. Before Evagrius, Saint Paul distinguished the works of the flesh from the fruits of the Holy Ghost:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, emulations, wraths, quarrels, dissensions, sects, envies, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. Of the which I foretell you, as I have foretold to you, that they who do such things shall not obtain the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity. (Galatians 5:19-23)

Holy reading is a protection against evil thoughts and a remedy for the man who is afflicted by them. At the same time, holy reading disposes a man to the inward operations by which the Holy Ghost produces His twelve fruits. If you are troubled by evil thoughts, read in order to push them out and replace them with good thoughts. If you are blessed with good thoughts, read in order to nurture them and allow them to develop. In times of real spiritual crisis, when the power of one’s dark thoughts seems overwhelming and one can almost feel oneself descending into the pit, there are two books that God has invested with—I speak here from my own experience—an extraordinary power to save. These are the Psalter and the Gospels. To open the Psalter or the Gospels is the beginning of one’s deliverance. In particularly violent temptations, it is helpful to kneel down, to take the Psalter or the Gospels in hand, and to read aloud until “the storms of destruction pass by” (Psalm 56:2).

How is the abbot to help the brother who is “so negligent and slothful, as to be either unwilling or unable to study or to read”? Saint Benedict says, “Let some task be given him to do, that he be not idle”. Idleness is the bane of the monastic life. The idle monk begins to believe that life has no direction and no meaning. He lives on the edge of despondency. By idle, Saint Benedict does not mean only the monk who is content to sit with his thoughts for hours in the sun. The idle monk is also the one who goes about his work in a disorganised manner, not finishing one thing before beginning another, and having nothing to show for his use of the time between the Hours of the Divine Office. Every monk should be ready, at any moment of the day, to give the abbot an account of what he is doing with his time. This is not in order to diminish or relinquish personal responsibility. It is, rather, to assist the monk in taking responsibility for the time at his disposal.

It may take years before a man learns how to organise his time as a monk. We all have bad days on which we judge ourselves useless and unproductive. Beware! The devil waits for such bad days to make his move. If you have such a day, take it in stride and resolve to do better the next day. I have known monks who have fallen into discouragement and every manner of temptation against their vow of stability because of an apparent inability to work within the constraints of the horarium. It helps to set one’s priorities in order, and to consciously and perseveringly choose to put the Divine Office before all else. Blessed Schuster writes:

It is necessary that the sons of the Patriarch Benedict understand well the loftiness, the importance, and the efficacy of this their mission as adorers, and never forsake it nor put it after other incumbencies. This is the actuality of the injunction, Nihil operi Dei præponatur.

As for running colleges, schools of arts and crafts, and parish, the Jesuits, the Barnabites, and the Salesians can dedicate themselves to these things with great results. But to put together a perfect choir that honours heaven and, at the same time, builds up the earthly city with the devout solemnity of the sacred liturgy, this properly belongs to Benedictine monks.

The objection is sometimes raised, “But, while Hannibal is already at the gates, all this psalm-singing personnel would do better to close their Antiphonals and to descend into the squares with the people to defend the Faith. This was not the way our Divine Saviour thought. To Martha’s preoccupation with her chores, He preferred the contemplative attitude of Mary, who had chosen the best part, which would never be taken from her. Just as Jesus redeemed the world with prayer and with expiation, so today does He set apart choirs of privileged souls in the Church, souls that imitate Him in these His exercises of eternal redemption. . . . What redeems the world and wins souls for Jesus is, above all else, prayer and sacrifice, and not the preponderant recreational activities of so many parish organisations. (I. Card. Schuster, La Vita Monastica nel Pensiero di San Benedetto, Viboldone 1949, pp. 24-26).

Blessed Schuster’s position may seem uncompromising and a bit hard on the people who keep dioceses, and parishes, and schools running, but his aim in writing these things was to convince monks of the value of the one thing that Saint Benedict would have them put before else: the solemn choral praise of God in the Divine Office. I have said before that the regular rhythm of the Hours constitutes the heartbeat of the Church. Should we monks leave our proper task or abbreviate it in order to devote ourselves to works with more visible results, we would cause the Church to suffer an irregular heartbeat, and thereby cause her damage.

Although it may not always be possible for every monk to be in choir for all the Hours, those who have the ability to do this must be grateful for it. The best monastic work flourishes in communities where nothing is put before the Divine Office. He who multiplied the loaves and fishes is capable of multiplying minutes for us so as to make the intervals between the Hours of the Divine Office fruitful beyond all our expectations.

The same thing may be said of the watches of adoration before the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Beware of the classic temptations that assail a monk at prayer: “What a waste of time! What am I doing here when I could be getting important tasks done? This is eating into my day. This is a serious mismanagement of time. I will never finish my work. Here I see nothing, I hear nothing, I feel nothing. I feel only absence and emptiness. This is no way to live.” These temptations, in effect, proceed from a worldly view of reality. Our monastic waste of time continues in the Church the extravagant gesture of Mary of Bethany:

And now Mary brought in a pound of pure spikenard ointment, which was very precious, and poured it over Jesus’ feet, wiping his feet with her hair; the whole house was scented with the ointment. One of his disciples, the same Judas Iscariot who was to betray him, said when he saw it, Why should not this ointment have been sold? It would have fetched three hundred silver pieces, and alms might have been given to the poor. He said this, not from any concern for the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse, and took what was put into it. And Jesus said, Let her alone; enough that she should keep it for the day when my body is prepared for burial. You have the poor among you always; I am not always among you. (John 12:3-8)

The conclusion of Chapter XLVIII ranks among the most beautiful passages of the Holy Rule:

To brethren who are weak or delicate, let there be given such work or occupation as to prevent them either from being idle, or from being so oppressed by excessive labour as to be driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.

Things in a Benedictine monastery are never so rigidly organised as to exclude brethren who are weak or delicate. It is the abbot’s duty to help his monks so organise their times of reading and of work that no one of them falls into idleness, and that no one of them becomes so crushed by work that it drives him out of the monastery in search of relief. I once said that in a Benedictine monastery all things may be conceded to a monk save the permission to sin. This may have been a bit of hyperbole on my part, but the underlying truth of it remains. It is borne out by Saint Benedict in Chapter LXIV, where he will say:

Let the abbot so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm.

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