How ineffable your joy will be (Prologue 9)

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.

“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 oppressive.” Nihil asperum, nihil grave. From the Prologue of the Holy Rule to Chapter LXXIII, Saint Benedict manifests how much he has made the words of Our Lord his own:

Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Harshness and oppressiveness have no place in Benedictine life. Saint Benedict reflects the meekness of Christ of whom Saint Matthew, quoting the prophet Isaias says:

Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul hath been well pleased. I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not contend, nor cry out, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. The bruised reed he shall not break: and smoking flax he shall not extinguish: till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name the Gentiles shall hope. (Matthew 12:18-21)

So marked is Saint Benedict by this description of Our Lord that he uses it in his recommendations to the abbot in Chapter LXIV:

He must ever prefer mercy to justice, that he himself may obtain mercy. Let him hate sin, and love the brethren. And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes, and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. And by this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up; but that prudently and with charity he should cut them off, in the way he shall see best for each, as we have already said; and let him study rather to be loved than feared.

I often return to the letter that a young Abbot Guéranger wrote to the new prior of Beuron in Germany, Dom Maurus Wolter, in May 1863. Dom Wolter was of a meticulous and somewhat rigid temperament. Abbot Guéranger had, at this time, a quarter of a century of experience as the founding abbot of Solesmes. He had learned, on his own, how to foster unity of purpose and of means in a community of men from a variety of backgrounds, many of them clerics, and each one having, and sometimes clinging to, his own idea of what monastic life ought to be. Dom Guéranger governed with gentleness, with love, and with an astonishing breadth of view. This is something of what Abbot Guéranger wrote . . . personally, I take it to heart here and try to put it into practice.

• Take care of your health; you need it, and it doesn’t belong to you.
• Making use of every means, foster a holy liberty of spirit among your monks, and do everything to make them love their state of life more than anything else in the world.
• Make yourself loved always and in all things. Be a mother rather than a father to your sons.
• Imitate the patience of God, and don’t demand of spring the fruits of autumn.
• Always be approachable to all; avoid etiquette and ceremony. Come as close as you can to the familiarity you have seen practised at Solesmes.
• Adapt yourself to everyone, and don’t try to adapt others to yourself, because God created us all different, and you are really the servant of all, like Our Lord Jesus Christ.
• Take scrupulous care of the health of each one, and don’t wait for a serious infirmity before giving a dispensation.
• Establish the observance gradually, and don’t be afraid to take a step backwards when you see that you have gone too far.
• Don’t worry yourself too much about the contacts with the outside world that your religious may have, if they have the spirit of their state, and if it is a question of the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
• Remember that the spirit of faith is the one and only basis of the monastic life.
• Inspire the love of the Sacred Liturgy, which is the centre of all Christianity.
• Have your monks study with love the Acta Sanctorum Ordinis, the Annals, and also the history of individual monasteries.
• Take care that they study theology, especially Saint Thomas, Canon Law, and Church history.
• Finally, strive to increase in your sons love of the Church and of the Holy See.

I think that these aphorisms of Abbot Guéranger express well the spirit of Saint Benedict. There is nothing harsh or oppressive about them. The breadth and mildness of Saint Benedict are not a kind of cheap monasticism. Quite the contrary. The breadth and mildness of Saint Benedict allow a monk to participate by patience in the sufferings of Christ without losing hope, without being utterly crushed, and never despairing of the mercy of God. To those who are fascinated by a monastic ideal of great austerity and physical hardships, the Benedictine way may appear to be too easy an accommodation to human weakness, but those who persevere in the Benedictine way can bear witness after ten, or twenty, or thirty years that it is a most effective way of death and of entombment, a progressive entering into the ennothingment of Christ in His Passion and in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Participation in the sufferings of Christ will come to every man in one form or another.

What if you have trials of many sorts to sadden your hearts in this brief interval? That must needs happen, so that you may give proof of your faith, a much more precious thing than the gold we test by fire; proof which will bring you praise, and glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. You never saw him, but you learned to love him; you may not see him even now, but you believe in him; and, if you continue to believe in him, how you will triumph! How ineffable your joy will be, and how sublime, when you reap the fruit of that faith of yours, the salvation of your souls! (1 Peter 1:6-9)

Saint Peter speaks of trials of many sorts. Was he remembering Our Lord’s own words? “Do not fret, then, over tomorrow; leave tomorrow to fret over its own needs; for today, today’s troubles are enough” (Matthew 6:34). In the winter of 1661, Mother Mectilde was ill. This was often her lot. In a letter to her friend, Mère Benoîte, she reveals the one secret of the interior life that she knows:

With regard to myself, I must tell you in passing that although I am burdened in continual troubles, I sense in a singular way the efficacious presence of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Certainly, when it pleases Him, all times and all occasions are suitable for Him. He does what He wills and gives the soul to understand that His work is independent [of circumstances], even within [the soul], and that He has need only of His love and of His omnipotence when He wishes to act sovereignly.

With all of that, I am more than ever plunged into the abyss of my abjection, for His work [in me] does not take away this knowledge and this feeling. Let us say no more about it; but for love of this same pure and divine Love, pray Him to do His most holy will in me and to be pleased in all the different dispositions that His Divine Providence makes me bear.

I only know one secret in the interior life: it is the costly and precious abandonment of all that we are to whatever pleases God. That He alone should live and reign is enough, without reflecting on the progress made, nor on the gifts of God, nor even on our eternity. Let His pure and divine Love consume us as He sees fit, because we were created for Him alone . . . . If you could see how I am eaten up, you would pity me. Sometimes even my body cannot bear up under it. My God, dear Mother! It seems to me that Our Lord wants me to be lost altogether, but I am still full of myself and of creatures. (Letter to Mère Benoîte, 18 February 1661)

The breadth and mildness that characterise Benedictine life do not spare us any of the self-emptying sufferings by which God cleanses the human heart and makes it fit for the sanctifying operations of His grace. Illness, loss, contradiction, darkness, dryness, helplessness, disappointment, persecution, misunderstanding, failure, and every manner of brokenness are permitted by God if, by these things, we are to be brought to the point of total abandonment to Him alone. Herein lies the living out of the Fourth and Twelfth Degrees of Humility. Jean de Bernières, in a letter to Mother Mectilde that expresses his own doctrine of holiness and hers, wrote:

If we never see one another again, expect no other discourse from me than the story of the wonders of a soul brought to nothing and that subsists in God alone, in living as much as in doing. This is the principle of the greatness of our actions. If you would arrive at this, you do very well in not aiming at your house’s brilliance or magnificence at all, and in not relying on creatures in any way. Abjection, poverty, littleness, and scorn attract Jesus Christ to a monastery more than all the means used by human prudence. (Cited in Véronique Andral, O.S.B. a.p., Itinéraire spirituel de Mectilde du Saint-Sacrement, pp. 90-91)