CHAPTER LXIV. Of the Appointment of the Abbot
And, especially, let him observe this present Rule in all things; so that, having faithfully fulfilled his stewardship, he may hear from the Lord what that good servant heard, who gave wheat to his fellow-servants in due season: “Amen, I say unto you, over all his goods shall he place him.”
Et praecipue ut praesentem regulam in omnibus conservet. “And, especially, let him observe this present Rule in all things.” For Saint Benedict, the abbot is the keeper of the Holy Rule, and this in two ways: he must keep the Holy Rule by observing it in his life, and he must also keep it by preserving, defending, and transmitting it in its integrity. When an abbot is blessed, the book of the Holy Rule is given into his hands to be kept and to be passed on:
Accipe regulam Spiritu sancto inspirante dictatam, et sacratissimis manibus patri Benedicti descriptam, ad regendum, custodiendumque gregem tibi a Deo creditum, quantum Deus ipse confortaverit, ac fragilitas humana permiserit.
Receive the Rule dictated by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and written by the most sacred hands of our father Benedict, to rule and to keep the flock entrusted to you by God, for as long as God himself gives you the strength and the frailty of human nature permits.
All that an abbot needs to know, practice, and say for his own conversion of life and growth in holiness, and for the instruction, correction, and comfort of his monks, is contained in the Holy Rule. I often quoted for you Bossuet’s magnificent passage on the Rule of Saint Benedict. Allow me to do so again. It is a text that bears repeating over and over again.
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. Therein appear with eminence: prudence and simplicity, humility and courage, severity and gentleness, liberty and dependence. Therein correction has all its firmness; condescension, all its charm; commandment, all its vigour; subjection, its repose; silence, its gravity; the word, its grace; strength, its exercise; and weakness, its support.
One of the greatest graces of my monastic life has been a profound love for the Holy Rule, and this from the age of sixteen when a wise Trappist Father first put Dom Marmion’s Christ, the Ideal of Monk into my hands. Later on there were other authors who marked me with a devotion to the Holy Rule, among them Dom Claude Martin (1619-1696), a Benedictine of the Congregation of Saint Maur, and the son of Saint Marie of the Incarnation. Dom Claude Martin’s life spans the same years as the life of Mother Mectilde (1614-1698). Mother Mectilde, in fact, copied and adapted Dom Claude Martin’s Conférences ascétiques for her Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration. There have been, in the course of my life, other authors who have strengthened and refined my attachment to the Holy Rule: Abbot Delatte, Blessed Ildephonsus Schuster, certainly, and in these past few years, Père Jérôme of Sept-Fons.
The authentic spirit of Saint Benedict can only flourish where the knowledge of the Holy Rule is prized. It goes without saying that the companion volume of the Holy Rule is the Life of Saint Benedict in Saint Gregory’s Second Book of the Dialogues. The abbot who, day after day, teaches from the seventy-three chapters of the Holy Rule will never fail to find in it new lights to stimulate and encourage his monks. Blessed Schuster says that when Abbot Bonifacio Oslander commented on the Holy Rule at the Abbey of Saint-Paul-Without-the-Walls in Rome, he used to say that the sacred codex of the Rule, even though it had been, at that time, examined and scrutinized for fourteen centuries, still contained in its depths precious stones that, before then, were not even suspected.
Again, it is Blessed Schuster who says that the history of the monastic Order demonstrates that every period of outward decadence was preceded by monks growing cold with regard to the Holy Rule, making it a danno delle carte, that is, not worth the parchment it is written on. This strong expression is found in Paradiso XXII. Dante has Saint Benedict speak. The Holy Patriarch refers to the ladder of the Twelve Degrees of Humility in Chapter VII of the Holy Rule, and he is grieved that “from the earth, to climb it, no one now removes his feet”:
Infin là sù la vide il patriarca
Iacobbe porger la superna parte,
quando li apparve d’angeli sì carca.
Ma, per salirla, mo nessun diparte
da terra i piedi, e la regola mia
rimasa è per danno de le carte.
Le mura che solieno esser badia
fatte sono spelonche, e le cocolle
sacca son piene di farina ria.
Jacob, the patriarch, beheld it stretch
thus far its upper portion, when of old
laden with Angels it appeared to him.
But from the earth, to climb it, no one now
removes his feet, and my monastic rule
remains but as a means of wasting paper.
Walls which of old an abbey used to be,
have now become the dens of thieves, and cowls
are sacks now, filled with naught but wretched meal.
In contrast, every true reform of Benedictine life is the fruit of a loyal return to the Holy Rule and to its spirit. It is the abbot’s duty in the daily Chapter to present the Holy Rule in its freshness. In every generation, the Holy Rule has something of the newness of the Word of God about it. A monk may never say, “Ah, I have already heard that chapter fifty times.” It may well happen that the grace of a particular passage of the Rule will not penetrate the heart until it has been heard fifty-one times, or sixty, or a hundred times. I am still pierced to the heart by hearing certain passages of the Holy Rule. It is a terrible thing to become so accustomed to hearing the Holy Rule that one is never surprised by it. Happy the monk who, even after ten or twenty or thirty years of monastic life, is still eager to hear what the abbot has to say in Chapter! To the jaded monk, Our Lord says, “There is one charge I make against thee; of losing the charity that was thine at first” (Apocalypse 2:4).
A community’s love of the Holy Rule depends on each successive new admission to the noviciate. Abbot Basilius Ebel (1896-1968) of Maria Laach famously said to Dom Damasus Winzen: “Do not accept candidates who do not want to be monks. . . . A clear orientation toward the truly essential is absolutely necessary in a candidate. This applies to all times, but how much more to today.” Abbot Ebel was writing in 1951. For men who come to the monastery “truly seeking God, eager for the Divine Office, for obedience and humiliations” (Chapter LVIII), nothing will be too difficult. Perseverance brings its own rewards: “Do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult. As we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments” (Prologue).
When Saint Benedict says, “And, especially, let him observe this present Rule in all things,” it is understood that the abbot will love the Rule, and because he loves the Rule, he will strive to observe it and to make it observed in all things. Pondus meum amor meus ; eo feror, quocunque feror. “My weight is my love; by it am I borne wherever I am borne” (Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book XIII). What emerges from Chapter II, Chapter LXIV, and the whole Rule is that the abbot must be amator regulae, amator loci, amator fratrum. The abbot and, indeed any monk, who loves the Rule will love the place and he will love the brethren, and these three loves are subsumed and perfected in one love: the love of Christ. Nihil amori Christi praeponere. “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ” (Chapter IV). The abbot who guides his monks firmly but gently into the way of the three loves—amor regulae, amor loci, amor fratrum— that express this single love, amor Christi, will hear from the Lord what that good servant heard, who gave wheat to his fellow-servants in due season: “Amen, I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods” (Matthew 24:47).