Magis ac magis in Deum proficiat (LXII)

CHAPTER LXII. Of the Priests of the Monastery
17 Apr. 17 Aug. 17 Dec.

If any Abbot desire to have a priest or deacon ordained for his Monastery, let him choose from among his monks one who is worthy to fulfil the priestly office. And let him that is ordained beware of arrogance and pride, and presume to do nothing that is not commanded him by the Abbot, knowing that he is now all the more subject to regular discipline. Let him not, by reason of his priesthood, become forgetful of the obedience and discipline of the Rule, but advance ever more and more in godliness. Let him always keep the place due to him according to his entrance into the Monastery, except with regard to his office at the altar, or unless the choice of the community and the will of the Abbot should raise him to a higher place for the merit of his life. Nevertheless, let him know that he must observe the rules prescribed by the deans or Prior. Should he presume to do otherwise, he shall be judged, not as a priest, but as a rebel; and if after frequent warning he do not correct himself, let recourse be had to the intervention of the Bishop. If even then he will not amend, and his guilt is clearly shewn, let him be cast forth from the Monastery, provided his contumacy be such that he will not submit nor obey the Rule.

Straightaway in this chapter, Saint Benedict declares that the ordination of a priest or deacon for the monastery depends on the initiative of the abbot. He is to choose  from among his own one who is worthy. What exactly does this mean? De suis eligat qui dignus sit sacerdotio fungi. In order to have a right understanding of this, it is necessary, I think, to hear what the Apostle says in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

The purpose for which any high priest is chosen from among his fellow men, and made a representative of men in their dealings with God, is to offer gifts and sacrifices in expiation of their sins. He is qualified for this by being able to feel for them when they are ignorant and make mistakes, since he, too, is all beset with humiliations, and, for that reason, must needs present sin-offerings for himself, just as he does for the people. His vocation comes from God, as Aaron’s did; nobody can take on himself such a privilege as this. So it is with Christ. He did not raise himself to the dignity of the high priesthood; it was God that raised him to it, when he said, Thou art my Son, I have begotten thee this day, and so, elsewhere, Thou art a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedech. (Hebrews 5:1-6)

A man asks to be clothed in the holy habit; he asks to be admitted to monastic profession. When it comes to ordination to the priesthood or diaconate, however, it is not the monk who asks; it is rather the abbot who chooses him and presents him for ordination. A monk does not choose to be a priest, nor does he put himself forward for Holy Orders. The abbot, holding the place of Christ in the monastery, chooses from among his sons those who are, by nature and by grace, suited to “stand behind him” (as Saint Benedict says in Chapter LX) in humility. “You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you” (John 15:16).

Whereas the monk is, by virtue of his baptism, and then by virtue of his profession and monastic consecration, singularly identified with the Offering, that is, with Christ the sacrificial victim; the priest monk, without losing anything of his identification with the Offering, is sacramentally, and by an indelible character, identified with the Offerer, that is, with Christ the Eternal High Priest. The altar, then, is central to the monastic vocation. We saw this in Chapters LVIII and LIX. Et manu sua eam super altare ponat. “And place it with his own hand upon the altar” (Chapter LVIII) Et cum oblatione ipsam petitionem et manum pueri involvant in palla altaris, et sic eum offerant. “Let them wrap that promise and the hand of the child in the altar-cloth and so offer him up” (Chapter LIX). It is also to the altar that the priesthood is ordered. The place of the altar in the Holy Rule is what prepares and disposes a Benedictine monk to the grace and mystery of the priesthood. Dom Pius de Hemptinne (1880–1907) wrote a memorable page on the significance of the altar in the life of a monk:

In every altar . . . Calvary is seen: every altar becomes an august place, the Holy of holies, the source of all holiness. Thither all must go to seek Life, and thither all must continually return, as to the source of God’s mercies.

Those who are the Master’s privileged ones, never leave this holy place, but there they “find a dwelling,” near to the altar, so that they never need go far from it; such are monks, whose first care it is to raise temples worthy to contain altars. Making their home by the Sanctuary, they consecrate their life to the divine worship, and every day sees them grouped around the altar for the holy sacrifice. This is the event of the day, the centre to which the Hours, like the centuries, all converge: some as Hours of preparation and awaiting in the recollection of the divine praise — these begin with Lauds and Prime continued by Terce, the third Hour of the day; the others, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline, flow on in the joys of thanksgiving until sunset when the monks chant the closing in of night.

Thus the days of life pass, at the foot of the altar; thus the life of man finds its greatness and its holiness in flowing out, so to say, upon the altar, there to mingle with that Precious Blood which is daily shed in that hallowed place: for, if the life of man is as a valueless drop of water, when lost in the Blood of Christ it acquires an infinite value and can merit the divine mercy for us. He who knows what the altar is, from it learns to live; to live by the altar is to be holy, pleasing to God,—and to go up to the altar to perform the sacred Mysteries is to be clothed upon with the most sublime of all dignities after that of the Son of God and His holy Mother. (A Disciple of Dom Marmion, Dom Pius de Hemptinne: Letters and Spiritual Writings, pp. 145-147)

The exercise of the monastic priesthood differs from the exercise of the priesthood by canons, friars, and the secular clergy. In what way? In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the priesthood comports two functions: the first in relation to the real Body of Christ, that is, the Most Holy Eucharist; and the second in relation to His Mystical Body, that is, the Church. According to Saint Thomas, the first and principal function of the priest is ordered to the real Body of Christ; the secondary function of the priest, ordered to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, is derived from the first.[1]  The first can, therefore, exist without the second; but the second cannot exist without the first. As monks, we hold fast to this teaching of the Angelic Doctor: our monks are ordained to the holy priesthood for the service of the Real Body of Christ, the Most Holy Eucharist, without being destined for pastoral ministry in the Church. All the same, the exercise of the monastic priesthood, which is concentrated in the daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice, redounds to the glory of God, the salvation of the living, and the eternal rest of the dead. Père Jérôme of Sept-Fons has written some remarkable pages on the singular efficacy of the intercessory priesthood of the monk. There is also in the Prayer before Holy Mass, Summe Sacerdos, that the Roman Missal attributes to Saint Ambrose, although it is the work of the Benedictine abbot, John of Fecamp (d. 1079), a passage that wonderfully expresses the intercession of the priest monk at the altar.

O LORD, ever mindful of Thy venerable Passion, I, though a sinner, approach Thine Altar so I might offer Thee that Sacrifice which Thou hast instituted and commanded us to offer in remembrance of Thee for our salvation. Receive it, I beseech Thee, O God Most High, for Thy holy Church and for the people whom Thou hast purchased with Thy Blood. And since Thou hast willed that I, a sinner, should be in the midst between Thee and Thy people, although Thou perceivest not in me the evidence of good works, at least refuse not the service of the ministry which Thou hast given me; let not the price of their salvation be wasted through my unworthiness, whose saving Victim and redemption Thou didst deign to be. I also bring before Thee, O Lord, if Thou wilt deign to consider them, the tribulations of the people, the perils of the nations, the groans of prisoners, the misery of orphans, the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the depression of the weary, the infirmities of the aged, the aspirations of the young, the vows of virgins, and the lamentations of widows.

Saint Benedict identifies the two principal temptations that threaten the priest monk: arrogance and pride. The arrogant man is puffed-up with self-importance. The prideful man recoils from submission and from obedience. He sees meekness as weakness. He instinctively places himself before others and above them. For Saint Benedict, the remedy for arrogance and pride is a radical obedience. Saint Benedict would have the priest monk do nothing that is not commanded him by the abbot, even those things that are directly related to the exercise of his priesthood. The priest monk is not dispensed from the regular discipline; he is, rather, all the more subject to it. He is not to become forgetful of the obedience and discipline of the Rule. The priest monk, because of his privileged and intimate access to the altar, the Holy of Holies, is bound to become more and more like the Lamb of Sacrifice, like the Host that he holds in his hands and contemplates before him on the corporal.

Saint Benedict has this remarkable phrase concerning the monk who is a priest: Magis ac magis in Deum proficiat. “Let him advance ever more and more into God.” This describes the life of the priest monk who each day ascends to the altar. Saint Benedict’s phrase evokes the image of Moses in the book of Exodus: “And Moses entering into the midst of the cloud, went up into the mountain” (Exodus 24:18). It also evokes the words of the Apostle:

But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

With each successive offering of the Holy Sacrifice, the priest monk advances more deeply into the midst of the cloud, that is, into the knowledge of God. In this, the priest monk at the altar, experiences here and now, in the regime of faith and through the Most Holy Eucharist, the unending penetration of the saints into the infinite mystery of God, and this in the light of glory. Just as I finished preparing this chapter last evening, I came upon a passage in a letter of the French Dominican, Marie de la Trinité, that explains well what, I think, Saint Benedict means when he says: Magis ac magis in Deum proficiat. “Let him advance ever more and more into God.” The advancement “from glory to glory,” begun on earth at the altar, continues eternally in heaven. The Dominican mystic writes:

The moment of our entrance into heaven fixes us in an immovable way in what is essential in the beatific vision. We see God immediately, face to face, as He is. This vision of God, of His infinite perfections, confirms us in grace, makes us infallible, incapable of sin.

The progression of which Saint Paul speaks [2 Corinthians 2:18] has to do, then, with this [earthly] life in which we go from knowledge to knowledge in proportion to our growth in holiness. It may be understood of the other life [in heaven] in the sense that God, being infinite, has in Himself infinite possibilities that we do not know. Our knowledge of His works does not go beyond what He has done with regard to earth. We shall advance, then, throughout eternity, in the knowledge of His infinite possibilities, which will give us joy: a secondary joy because our essential beatitude will come from the vision and the possession of God in which the first moment of our eternity will fix us forever. . . . What will always be unsearchable for us is the Mystery of the adorable Trinity, of the life of God in Himself. Silence! Adoration! Silence! (Marie de Saint-Jean, Marie de la Trinité, L’abîme appelant l’abîme, Correspondance I, Paris, 2013, pp. 209-210)

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[1] “Ad primum ergo dicendum, quod sacerdos habet duos actus: unum principaliter supra corpus Christi verum; et alterum secundarium supra corpus Christi mysticum. Secundus autem actus dependet a primo, sed non convertitur; et ideo aliqui ad sacerdotium promoventur, quibus committitur primus actus tantum, sicut religiosi quibus cura animarum non committitur; et a talium ore non requiritur lex, sed solum quod sacramenta conficiant; et ideo talibus sufficit, si tantum de scientia habeant quod ea quae ad sacramentum perficiendum spectant, rite servare possint.” Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, lib. 4, d.24, q.1a.3qc2 ad 1.”

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