Amatores crucis Christi (LXI:2)

CHAPTER LXI. Of Stranger Monks, how they are to be received
16 Apr. 16 Aug. 16 Dec.
But if during that time he was found burdensome or prone to vice, not only must he not be admitted among the brethren, but he must even be courteously bidden to depart, lest others should be corrupted by his evil living. If, however, he is not such as to deserve to be sent away, let him not merely on his own asking be received and admitted into the community, but even be persuaded to remain, that the others may be taught by his example: because in every place we serve one God, and fight under one King. And if the Abbot perceive him to be a man of this kind, he may put him in a somewhat higher place. It shall be in the Abbot’s power to assign not only to a simple monk, but also to any of the aforesaid priests or clerics, a higher place than that due to them by their entrance into the Monastery, if he see that their lives are such as to deserve it. But let the Abbot take care never to receive a monk from any known monastery, without his own Abbot’s consent, and letters of recommendation; as it is written: “What thou wilt not have done to thyself, do not thou to another.”

In Saint Benedict’s time, as in the Christian East today, the notion of Ordo (Order) did not refer to a centralised body of religious. It referred rather to a way of doing things, to a certain discipline, or to the right ordering of divine worship. Hence come the Ordines Romani in their many successive redactions. There was also an Ordo Casinensis, the collection of ceremonial prescriptions for divine worship at Monte Cassino. We would be familiar with the terms Novus Ordo Missae (New Order of the Mass) and Vetus Ordo Missae (Old Order of the Mass). The word Ordo began to take on another level of meaning with the propagation of the observances of Cluny; there was an Ordo Cluniacensis, a Cluniac way of doing things, especially things liturgical, that came little by little to refer not only to the Cluniac way of doing things, but also to the monasteries which followed the usages and discipline of Cluny.

With the expansion of Cîteaux in the twelfth century, the word Ordo came to refer to the Cistercian family of monasteries that covered Europe from east to west and from north to south. Saint Bernard spoke of Ordo Noster (Our Order). All the same, the more ancient meaning of the word did not disappear entirely, not even among Cistercians. Saint Aelred, in his sermon for Palm Sunday, calls his monks ” not only adorers, but also professors, not only professors but also lovers of the Cross of Christ.” Non solum adoratores, sed etiam professores, non solum professores, sed etiam amatores crucis Christi. And the abbot of Rievaulx ends with this affirmation: Ordo noster crux Christi est. “Our Order is the Cross of Christ.”

After the Cluniacs and the Cistercians, other religious Institutes in succeeding centuries adopted the word Ordo (Order) to refer not so much their way of life as to the centralised organised body in all its various parts. The expression Ordo religiosus (religious Order) thus came into use. The French, however, have a peculiar expression—entrer dans les Ordres—which means to receive Holy Orders in the sense of the clerical state composed of the Minor and Major Orders.

Benedictine monasticism today, in its various expressions—Camaldolese, Cistercian, Vallambrosian, Silvestrine, Olivetan, and others—and in the congregations or federations organised along national or linguistic lines—is not an Order in the modern sense of the term. When we speak of the Ordo Sancti Benedicti, the primary reference is to the way of life ordered by the Holy Rule. It is true that, at the end of the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII created the office of the Abbot Primate at Sant’ Anselmo on the Aventine in Rome, but this modern Papal creation did not bring with it the creation of a centralised Order in the modern sense. The autonomous monastery, even if it is associated with other autonomous monasteries in a congregation or federation, remains the fundamental unit of Benedictine life.

The decline of autonomous monasteries, due principally to the scarcity of vocations, has contributed to the increase of meetings, commissions, and exchanges at the level of congregations and federations. However useful one may judge such attempts at fostering cooperation and support, there remains the risk of diminishing what is distinctively and properly Benedictine: the single monastery as an independent family. One cannot encroach upon the authority that the Holy Rule gives an abbot over his monastery without affecting the very essence of Benedictine life. If an abbot is too often absent from his monastery, even if this is to participate in meetings of monastic superiors; if the abbot lives outside the rhythm of the daily observance; if he is absorbed by material preoccupations and fundraising activities, the community will suffer and, in the end, the Benedictine spirit will be compromised, the community will lose its identity, and monks will seek to give meaning to their life by engaging in works outside the enclosure. The word of Saint Benedict remains, and it is inexorable:

Monasterium autem, si possit fieri, ita debet constitui ut omnia necessaria, id est aqua, molendinum, hortum, vel artes diversas intra monasterium exerceantur, ut non sit necessitas monachis vagandi foris, quia omnino non expedit animabus eorum.

The Monastery, however, ought if possible to be so constituted that all things necessary, such as water, a mill, and a garden, and the various crafts may be contained within it; so that there may be no need for the monks to wander abroad, for this is by no means expedient for their souls. (Chapter LXVI)

There is always a danger in admitting into the community a monk raised in another monastic family. All the challenges inherent in any adoption come into play. Is it impossible? No, there are examples of monks who, after a transfer of stability, entered fully into the spirit of their new monastic family, becoming virtually indistinguishable from those who who were formed in it as novices.

Sometimes monks from a healthy monastery are sent to a monastery in decline to bring new vigour to the observance and a fresh impetus to the community’s life. While this has sometimes brought happy results, not infrequently it has also failed, either due to an intemperate zeal on the part of the monks sent to help, or to resistance and immobilism on the part of the monks already there. The Cassinese monk, Dom Anselmo Caplet (1836-1916), sometime confessor at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, related to Blessed Ildephonse Schuster that when a certain Italian Abbot asked Saint Ludovico of Casoria (1814-1885) how best to go about reforming a monastery, the saint replied: “Father Abbot, begin by sending them all away, even the cats, then begin all over again with new men.”

When it comes to admitting a monk from another monastery, it is easy for an abbot to make mistakes of judgment. He may allow himself to be moved to pity, thinking that by accepting the guest monk, he will save his vocation. Or he may act out of interest, seeing in the guest monk a useful element for his own community. The prudent dispositions and precautions of Saint Benedict in Chapter LXI are as valid today as they were in his day. A Benedictine monastery remains, when all is said and done, a spiritual family with its own particular grace and  peculiar traditions. Only if a monk from another monastery is willing to make this grace and these traditions his own, and if he is resolved humbly and gratefully to take the place given him by the abbot, can the process of incorporation by adoption succeed and bear lasting fruit.