A school of the Lord’s service (Prologue 8)

PROLOGUE OF OUR MOST HOLY FATHER SAINT BENEDICT TO HIS RULE
7 Jan. 8 May. 7 Sept.

We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous. But if anything be somewhat strictly laid down, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult. But 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; so that never departing from His guidance, but persevering in His teaching in the monastery until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers of His kingdom. Amen.

When we arrive at the end of the Prologue. Saint Benedict tells us that his purpose is to establish a school of the Lord’s service. Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici schola servitii. “We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service.” Servitium generally means slavery or the condition of servanthood. It can also refer to a body of servants. For Saint Benedict, however, the word, without excluding the first meaning, has another meaning as well: servitium, like ministerium and obsequium can denote liturgical worship. The servitium Dominicum is an expression equivalent to opus Dei or to divinum officium. The servitium Dominicum is not an isolated act of worship; it is a permanent state of life ordered to the worship of God or, if you will, to perpetual adoration. You know the evocative phrase of Dante describing the hermitage of Saint Peter Damian at Fonte Avellana: disposto a sola latria, “given over to pure adoration” (Paradiso, Canto XXI, 110).

In the first two chapters of his little book, La vita monastica nel pensiero di San Benedetto, “The Monastic Life in the Thought of Saint Benedict” (Viboldone, 1948), Blessed Schuster argues that following a certain Patristic usage, widely received in the high Middle Ages, the designations servus Dei (servant of God), servitium (service), Opus Dei (Work of God), and officium (sacred duty) were reserved first to the sacerdotal state and, then, by extension to the monastic state. Blessed Schuster cites the Canon of the Mass in which the priest prays, nos servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta, “we Thy servants, and likewise Thy holy people”. Blessed Schuster also cites the supplication for the clergy in the Great Litany, Ut nosmetípsos in tuo sancto servítio confortare et conservare dignéris, “That it may please thee to strengthen and preserve us in Thy holy service”.

For Blessed Schuster, the extension of Dominicum servitium as an expression used in reference to the priesthood to one used in reference to the monastic state happened easily and organically. The monastic life has a certain sacerdotal quality—it bears a sacerdotal imprint—even for those monks who are not priests. This is evident in the place that Saint Benedict gives to the altar—the place of sacrifice—in both Chapters LVIII and LXIX. Blessed Schuster’s thesis—and I find it altogether convincing—is borne out in the vocabulary of Chapter XLIX. In one sentence, Saint Benedict uses two words charged with a sacerdotal and sacrificial connotation: servitus (service) and offero (I offer).

Ergo his diebus augeamus nobis aliquid solito pensu servitutis nostrae, orationes peculiares, ciborum et potus abstinentiam, ut unusquisque super mensuram sibi indictam aliquid propria voluntate cum gaudio Sancti Spiritus offerat Deo.

Let us add some thing to our wonted service; as private prayers, and abstinence from food and drink, so that every one of his own will may offer to God, with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond the measure appointed him.

Blessed Schuster shows that the designation servus Dei (servant of God), by which Saint Gregory designates Saint Benedict, was applied to priests before it came to be applied to monks. The servus Dei is one who lives in the precincts of the altar, set apart for the praise of the Divine Majesty, and bound to offer sacrifice. We sing this in Psalm 133 at Compline:

Ecce nunc benedicite Dominum, omnes servi Domini: qui statis in domo Domini, in atriis domus Dei nostri. In noctibus extollite manus vestras in sancta, et benedicite Dominum.

Come, then, praise the Lord, all you that are the Lord’s servants; you that wait on the Lord’s house at midnight, lift up your hands towards the sanctuary and bless the Lord. (Psalm 133:1-2)

The servant of God is, at the same time, one who lives with his eyes fixed on his Master, and waiting to do his Master’s bidding:

Behold as the eyes of servants are on the hands of their masters, As the eyes of the handmaid are on the hands of her mistress: so are our eyes unto the Lord our God, until he have mercy on us” (Psalm 122).

Blessed Schuster shows that the servant of God, servus Dei, is, in effect, the sacrificing priest.The same term came to be applied to the monk who makes of his whole life a divine service, that is an act of latria, and a sacrifice offered to God. For Saint Augustine, as for Mother Mectilde many centuries after him, the monk himself is a sacrificium, that is a sacrificial victim made over to God. Saint Augustine says,

A true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. And therefore even the mercy we show to men, if it is not shown for God’s sake, is not a sacrifice. For, though made or offered by man, sacrifice is a divine thing, as those who called it sacrifice meant to indicate. Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God. (The City of God, Book X, Chapter VI)

The Dominicum servitium, the liturgical service of the Lord Christ, is at once sacerdotal and sacrificial. The school of the service of the Lord is, first of all, the choir and the sanctuary wherein one offers the sacrificium laudis, “the sacrifice of praise”, that is the right worship (ὀρθοδοξία (orthodoxía) of the Divine Majesty; it is, at the same time, every place in the monastery where one learns, under obedience, how to die to the world as a sacrificium (a victim immolated upon the altar) so as to live to God.

Sacrificial immolation and death to the world are recurring motifs in the writings of Mother Mectilde. These are, as Saint Benedict says in Chapter LVIII, “the hard and rugged paths by which we make our way towards God.” I was struck this morning by something that Mother Mectilde wrote to Jean de Bernières on 23 June 1654: “The little noviciate is going very well; it seems to be entering into the spirit of Saint Benedict, which is death and separation.” In the same year, Mother Mectilde wrote to a religious of Rambervillers:

For some time now, I am seeing a kind of blessedness in being rejected, looked down upon, crucified, and cursed by creatures, and it seems to me that I will never be [made over] perfectly to God unless I go through these things. It pleases God to put me there in the sight of some people, but not of all. And so my happiness is not complete. I admit that one must have a very high grace in order to bear up under this, but my confidence is in the virtue and mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He knows how to destroy and how to sustain, and if you hear a lot of things about me, do not be astonished. . . . Let things be. All will be well and He will bring about our sanctification in the midst of the obstacles that nature, and creatures, and the demon set up against us. It seems to me that the soul [M. Mectilde is referring to herself] may no longer take any pleasure on this earth save in the good pleasure of God. . . . Let us learn to lose ourselves. Let us be victims in truth and not in figment. Let us immolate our lives, our interests, and our feelings to the good pleasure of God. Let us prefer Him to all else and find our pleasure in the turning upside down of all our plans. I see that it is an infidelity for the soul [again, she means herself] to desire anything: it is Jesus Christ who must desire for her and make plans for her. I dare not wish for anything. It seems to me that Our Lord wills that we abide more in Him than in ourselves and that we be moved more by His Spirit than by our own. Let us begin to live for Him in the purity of His love. Let us give Him this glory, so that our remaining years, which are very short, may be purely for Him with no more reference to ourselves, not even with regard to our own perfection.

 

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