What the tradition is and what it is not (VII:12)

CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
5 Feb. 6 June. 6 Oct.

The eighth degree of humility is, for a monk to do nothing except what is authorised by the common rule of the monastery, or the example of his seniors.

The eighth degree of humility is a development of the seventh. The monk who sees himself as ordinary and who does not want to be thought exceptional follows the common rule of the monastery peacefully, cheerfully, and consistently. If he is laid low by infirmity or fatigue, he accepts it and does humbly whatever little he can do. If he enjoys a greater measure of strength and creative energy than others, he carries out quietly whatever tasks have been given him, and equally accepts whatever limits are imposed on his spirit of enterprise.

What is the common rule of the monastery? It is, first of all, the Holy Rule interpreted and explained by the teaching of the abbot in conformity with the Declarations and Statutes. It is not the Holy Rule interpreted for oneself. Saint Benedict unmasks the pride of the monk who says, “This is what I read in the Holy Rule and this is how I shall practice it. No one until now has understood things correctly. I shall set things right.” Such a one places himself above his Fathers and Brothers as their instructor and their judge and, in doing this, becomes blind to the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Rule: docility, obedience, silence, humility, mercy, and patience. An elder of the desert said:

This is the life of the monk: work, obedience, meditation, not judging, not backbiting, not grumbling; for it is written, ‘O you that love the Lord, hate the things that are evil’ [Ps 96:10]. The life of a monk is to have nothing to do with that which is unjust, not to see evil with one’s eyes, not to be a busybody, not to listen to other folks’ affairs, to give rather than to take away with one’s hands, not to have pride in one’s heart nor wicked thoughts in one’s mind nor to fill one’s belly, but rather to act with discretion in all things. In these the life of the monk consists.

Each monastery develops its own hermeneutic of the Holy Rule within the context of the certain traditions and in continuity with whatever streams of Benedictine life in the past flow into the present and shape the future. In a remarkable essay translated here at Silverstream, Dom Jean Leclercq demonstrates that there is no pure expression of an elusive “Benedictinism”. Dom Leclercg writes:

Any judgment about an institution which has a history supposes an exact concept of what the tradition is and what it is not: it is not identified with the ancient or recent past, nor with a bygone period considered, more or less arbitrarily, as privileged. The tradition is the current of life which runs through and animates the entire development of a spiritual organism, whether personal or collective, right from its origins. Hence, it benefits from the contribution of all eras, without being reduced to any of them, while legitimately placing the accent on this or that datum transmitted by them. It therefore entails a choice, or choices, among this inheritance; and since it can never reach a totality, by this very fact it runs the risk of an impoverishment. But it is normal, and even inevitable, that it assumes and makes more or less its own the values proper to the time in which it is lived, and in this there is a source of enrichment.

This type of historical law could be illustrated in the light of many examples. In the English Benedictine Congregation, a 17th-century author, Dom Augustine Baker, has been and is considered as a classic of that institution’s spirituality; now, he owes very much to the non-Benedictine writings of the Devotio moderna, to Carmelites and Jesuits, and above all to two Capuchins: Benet Canfield (by whom, as we have seen, Mother Mectilde was also inspired) and Constantin de Barbanson. A “monk of the 20th century, a witness of the liturgical renewal,” even points out in him this “lacuna”: “The liturgy: in this work written for Benedictines, does it occupy perchance the post which we would have expected? One must confess that it does not.” But probably the criteria of Benedictinism derived from Solesmes in the 19th century are not at all fitting for the Benedictinism of other times and other lands. In France in the 19th century, Père Muard, not only before his “novitiate à la Trappe” but even afterwards, might make one think that “there is an inescapable closeness between him, founder of La Pierre-qui-Vire, and Saint Francis of Assisi: he himself would not have denied it.” And to recognize, for example, that “Dom Guéranger and Père Muard had entirely different monastic conceptions” does not imply any judgment on the greater or lesser Benedictine “purity” of one or the other. As for Dom Guéranger, it is not necessary to repeat here how much he was imbued with the ideas of his own time, while at times having just and profound intuitions about Benedictine life; we recall just for the record that he was inspired greatly by the Constitutions of the Congregation of Saint Maur, the same ones which had been at the basis of the Constitutions of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration.

Later, at Sainte-Cécile de Solesmes, an abbess, Cécile Bruyère, sought to introduce into the monastic spirituality of the West certain ideas inspired by Pseudo-Dionysius, which constituted an innovation. And one could go on, citing examples of the same kind furnished by the restorations and foundations which go from the end of the 1800s through all the 1900s. In short, an institution is no less “purely Benedictine” because it is ancient, just as another is not because it is recent; and the spirituality of the Vannists and the Maurists is as valid as those which had to be established later, after an interruption of the historical continuity owing to the revolutionary crisis and the reactions that this provoked. (Dom Jean Leclerq, OSB, A school of Benedictine spirituality: the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration, From Catherine Mectilde de Bar, Non date tregua a Dio: Lettere alle monache 1641-1697 (Milan: Jaca Book, 1978), pp. 11-24. Translated from the Italian by a Benedictine monk of Silverstream Priory.)

A certain spiritual cross-pollenisation accounts for the unique character of each monastery and assures its fruitfulness. Humble submission to the wisdom of former generations informs the fidelity of the present generation and, at the same time, gives rise to hope for the future.

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