In godly fear, and on bended knees (L)

CHAPTER L. Of the Brethren who are working at a distance from the Oratory, or are on a journey
1 Apr. 1 Aug. 1 Dec.

Let the brethren who are at work at a great distance, or on a journey, and cannot come to the Oratory at the proper time (the Abbot judging such to be the case) perform the Work of God there where they are labouring, in godly fear, and on bended knees. In like manner, let not those who are sent on a journey allow the appointed Hours to pass by; but, as far as they can, observe them by themselves, and not neglect to fulfil their obligation of divine service.

One may reasonably ask why Saint Benedict dedicates a chapter of the Holy Rule to the brethren who are working at a distance from the Oratory, or who are away on a journey. Saint Benedict insists on the observance of enclosure; he says at the end of Chapter IV that, “the workshop where we are to labour at all these things is the cloister of the monastery, and stability in the community”, and in Chapter LXVI:

The Monastery . . . 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.

At the same time, Saint Benedict wisely provides for exceptions from the observance of enclosure. A brother may be obliged to work at a distance from the monastery. Such was the case of those monks and conversi (laybrothers) of the Middle Ages, who were charged with the cultivation or administration of an abbey’s outlying lands. These monks and conversi lived in granges, that is, in small residences belonging to the abbey, but at some distance from it.

Without living outside his monastery, a monk may, from time to time, be sent to represent the monastery or to conduct business on behalf of the community. Such a monk is always missus; he is always “one sent”. Absences from the monastery are never a matter of personal initiative. The monk obliged to travel remains a monk. Everything he says and does represents his monastery. With good reason does Saint Benedict surround a monk with prayer before leaving the enclosure and upon returning to it. Even for very short errands or medical appointments, a monk asks the abbot’s blessing on bended knee before leaving the monastery and, without delay, upon his return. The same sound monastic instinct extends this practice, whenever possible, to visits in the parlour. Benedictine life, as well as Eastern Orthodox monasticism, reflects in this the traditional Jewish practice of praying blessings throughout the day, on every occasion, and in all circumstances.

Now, we come to the point of this chapter. Saint Benedict knows that the backbone of a monk’s life, that which holds it upright and makes it capable of bearing up under strain of heavy burdens, is the regular rhythm of the Divine Office. A monk deprived of the Divine Office is severed from his moorings. He quickly loses a sense of meaning and purpose. This, in turn, leads to despondency and anguish. “Why am I here? Who am I? What is my life about?” Without the rhythm of the Divine Office and the structure of the regular observances, a monk risks losing his identity.

The abbot alone judges whether or not a brother is too far from the Oratory to be able to return to it for the Hours. No brother takes it upon himself to make this decision. If the abbot judges that a brother is working too far from the Oratory to be able to return to it at the hours of prayer, or if he is away from the monastery on a journey, he is not dispensed from his bounden service of the Divine Majesty. He is to carry out the Work of God where he happens to be, and this, “in godly fear, and on bended knees”. The Divine Office is not merely a matter of words; it engages the mind and heart (godly fear) and the body (bended knees). The latter expression refers, in all likelihood, to the orationes secretae, the silent prayers, that followed the psalms. By implication, it refers to all of the bodily gestures that accompany the words of the Divine Office.

Saint Benedict concludes: “Let not those who are sent on a journey allow the appointed Hours to pass by; but, as far as they can, observe them by themselves, and not neglect to fulfil their obligation of divine service”. The expression, ut possunt, “as far as they can”, suggests that Saint Benedict recognises the various limitations and obstacles that may prevent a monk from praying his Hours exactly as they are prayed in choir. He may not, for instance, have the required texts. He may not have his Psalms memorised. He may not have a breviary on hand. None of these things present an insurmountable problem. Over forty year ago, a wise abbot told me—and was a holy man widely consulted, and having auctoritas (authoritativeness)—that whenever he was obliged to travel, he contented himself with saying only the appointed Psalms. How much more necessary this exercise of epikeia may be today, given the dearth of monastic breviaries! In some cases, especially if a monk is suffering from poor eyesight, mental fatigue, or scrupulosity, the abbot may commute the material servitutis pensum (bounden service) to part of the Holy Rosary or to other memorised prayers. In such cases, the monk so instructed will take comfort in knowing that his brethren in choir are assuring the full round of the weekly Psalter in its integrity.