Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CHAPTER 31, Part 2: The Cellarer continued...


Let him be in charge of everything, but let him do nothing without the command of the abbot.  Let him do what has been ordered him and not grieve the brethren.  If a brother should make an unreasonable request, let him not sadden the brother with a cold refusal, but politely and with humility refuse him. Let him provide for the sick, the children, the guests, and the poor with all care, knowing that, without doubt, he will have to give an account of all these things on judgment day.

I particularly like this bit about how the cellarer should respond to an unreasonable request.  As a teacher, this happens to me all the time.  I get an email at nine o’clock the night before a paper is due asking if I can recommend sources; I get a letter from a parent demanding the rationale behind a grade I assigned over a month ago.  Another kid asks for a 7am “help session” when he doesn’t even do his homework.  But what really gets my goat is when a kid asks for something they don’t need as though he deserved it.  I once had a seventh grader tell me, “This isn’t what we pay you for.” (As if he or anyone ever paid me for anything!)
To be sure, this is not a problem unique to teachers.  As a lifeguard in Galveston, Texas, I used to marvel at the stupidity of the people who came to swim at my beach: parents who napped while their children swam in the rip current, tourists who tried to eat dead fish they found on the sand, swimmers who would run screaming from the surf when they spotted a dolphin fin…  A guy once asked me (I’m not joking) if “that thing” was Mexico.  He was pointing at the horizon.  He couldn’t figure out why the water “just stopped.”
To be sure, it is a great temptation to answer with laughter or sarcasm or anger when presented with unreasonable demands.  But what real good would that do?  And who would it help?  Besides that, aren’t we always making unreasonable demands of God?  I stay up too late, speed off to work, and pray for ‘no red lights.’  Then, of course, I’m infuriated when the traffic is slow.  God is patient with our stupidity and incompetence, so shouldn’t we be patient with others’?  I think this is part of what Jesus meant when he said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”  God responds to all our idiocy with kindness, patience, love, and generosity.  Imagine if He answered, “Oh sure.  Like I really care what grade you make on your History Test.  Come back when you have a real problem.”  Instead, He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?  Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.  Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”  God is infinite, so you can be sure that some small part of Him really cares whether you pass your history test—and that part is infinite too.


Let him regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar.

          This sentence deserves to stand on its own.  Theologically, it is one of the most profound passages in the Rule because it articulates an essential aspect of Saint Benedict’s spiritual vision.  For monks, you see, material things have spiritual significance.  This explains why, for over 1500 years, monasteries have been so prosperous.  It also explains why, every few hundred years, the monks have to save civilization.
Although the monastery is a community that is fundamentally devoted to the world of prayer, the very tools and stones and dirt of the monastery are themselves part of that mission.  By our vow of stability, monks create a place (called a cloister) where heaven and earth fuse together.  Nothing, therefore, that is within its walls can be considered “dirty” or “unworthy” of God.  It may be misused or misunderstood, but you can’t really write it off.  So when heretics or barbarians (or barbarian heretics) start to run around burning stuff down, the monk’s first instinct is to run around saving it.

Thomas Cromwell
Not a very pleasant fellow...
This happened during the late third century when the Vandals invaded North Africa, and again when the Christians of late antiquity abandoned their pagan heritage.[1]  It happened during the Iconoclastic Controversy of the 8th Century and again during the English Reformation, when Cromwell and his buddies started knocking the heads off statues.  And it rather looks as though it might start happening again now that our own ‘intellectual elite’ have decided, in the words of Charles Dawkins that “Faith is the great cop-out.”
When, in time, this civilization of ours begins to crumble under the weight of its own bigotry and excess; and like every great civilization before it, it falls to pieces.  Even then, we don’t need to worry.  Because just as they have in ages past, the monks will quietly, joyfully, prayerfully pick up the pieces, store them in some safe, quiet place, and carry on.


[1] For more on this, have a look at a great book called How the Irish Saved Civilization.