Thursday, April 17, 2014

CHAPTER 35: Of the Weekly Servers in the Kitchen

No one should be excused from kitchen duty, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because this is how merit and charity are acquired.  If the community is large, let the cellarer be excused from the kitchen, and also those who, as we have said, are engaged in more urgent work; but let the rest serve one another in charity.  At the end of the week, these same servers should wash the linens and do the Saturday cleaning. Both the outgoing and the incoming servers should wash the feet of all.

Doing the dishes may sound like an awfully minor detail to include in the Rule, but Saint Benedict seems to think it has special importance.  Perhaps that’s because dishwashing is the one job nobody wants.  When dinner is over, the one thing you really want to do is relax, but Benedict sees this as a unique opportunity to acquire “greater merit and charity.”  And by having the servers wash the feet of the brethren, he links their job to that of Christ Himself, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Matt 20:28).

So what seems like a small act of service is really a big opportunity to cultivate holiness.  “Anything you do whatsoever,” said Saint Paul, do it for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).  So that means you can brush your teeth for the glory of God; scrub a toilet for the glory of God; change a light bulb for the glory of God.  Whatever you do, you can do it for the glory of God.

And yet, if glorifying god were that easy, wouldn’t there be more saints in the world?  Of course you can’t necessarily identify a saint by his appearance, and there’s no way to measure holiness.  But then again, many of the stories of our saints are full of spectacular episodes which prove their holiness: Saint Dunstan held a demon by the nose with a pair of jewelry pliers.  Saint Joseph of Cupertino prayed so hard he levitated right out his bedroom window.  Saint Rose of Lima sat up in her coffin in the middle of her own funeral.  Saint Anselm, according to Eadmer, his eleventh-century biographer, predicted that a trout of unusual size would be served to him for supper—and it was![1] These are certainly some of the more spectacular, more obvious signs by which our saints have been identified.  And of course, the more spectacular the sign, the more likely they are to be remembered.

We have a tendency, therefore, to think that we must work wonders, cast out demons, raise the dead, levitate, bi-locate, have visions, or make prophesies to be a saint.  But that just isn’t the case.  Saint Therese of Liseaux liked to say, "Our Lord needs from us neither great deeds nor profound thoughts. Neither intelligence nor talents. But he cherishes simplicity" (Story of a Soul).

            Or, in the words of Blessed Mother Theresa:  “There are no great deeds.  Only small deeds with great love.”

[1] If you don’t believe me, just read Book I, Section 17 entitled How a trout of unusual size was caught for his supper as he foretold.  And while you’re at it, be sure to read section 18 entitled How, as he had predicted, a catfish was unexpectedly brought to his friend.  Wow!

Monday, April 7, 2014

CHAPTER 34: How Each Monk Should Be Treated

It is written in the book of Acts, "Each person was given as much as he needed”(Acts 2:45). This is not to say that the abbot should play favorites (God forbid), but that all decisions should take into account human weakness.  The one who needs less should thank God and not be upset, and the one who needs more should be humble, and not pleased with himself because of the sympathy shown to him.  Thus all the members of the community will be at peace.

Should everyone be treated equally?  Saint Benedict’s answer, surprisingly, is no.  His monks should be treated fairly, but they shouldn’t all be treated the same.  This strikes the modern ear—and in particular, the American ear—as rather unfair.  And it sounds all the more peculiar when you stop to consider how much effort monks spend trying to downplay their individuality.  We change our names, wear clothes that make us all look alike, we eat the same food and say the same prayers...  When our hands are folded and our hoods are up, you literally can’t tell who’s who.  Our whole life’s work is, in the words of John the Baptist, to “decrease so that He [Jesus] may increase” (John:3.30)

But the bottom line is that the monastery is a family, not an army.  And while every member of this family is equal in dignity, we are not all equal in authority.  Nor are we equal in the gifts we’ve received from God.  Some monks are stronger than others, or smarter, or cleverer or bigger or wiser or holier.  And the stronger brothers often have to take up the slack for the weaker ones.  But consider Jesus’ warning, “For he to whom much has been given, much will be expected” (Luke 12:48).  Everyone has their gifts, and if you have more, don’t be surprised or resentful when you are asked to do more work.

Speaking of which…

Above all, let not the evil of grumbling appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty of grumbling, let him be severely disciplined.

            There’s Benedict going on about grumbling again…this is the fourth time it has come up.  This time, however, let’s have a look at what some others have to say about it.

            John Chrysostom: “It is better to do nothing than to do it with grumbling, because when you grumble, even the very thing itself is ruined…For grumbling is intolerable, most intolerable; in fact, it borders on blasphemy because the grumbler is ungrateful to God.” (Homily 8)

            Saint Augustine: “Just as vinegar eats away at the vessel that holds it, so resentment corrodes the heart if it is left there overnight. (Letter to Mother Felicitas)

            C.S. Lewis: “Hell begins with a grumbling mood...but you are still distinct from it.  You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God "sending us" to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud ” (God in the Dock, p. 155).

St. John of the Cross: “Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent.”