I’ve been dreading this chapter. I can hear my students laughing already. I’m so consistently late for everything, my own brother monks have started calling me “The Late Father Augustine.” Truly this is one chapter I have no authority to preach on. But I can’t skip it either, so I’ll just have to play the hypocrite and move forward.
The key to understanding this whole chapter lies at the end of the first paragraph: “Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God.” When Saint Benedict uses this phrase--“Work of God” (Opus Dei, in Latin) he is referring specifically to the monastic prayers. The monk may have other kinds of work to do in the course of the day, but prayer is the work of God. And this is what makes monks different from all the other religious orders. Every order has what they call a ‘charism’ that defines it. The Franciscans work with the poor, the Dominicans preach, the Jesuits teach, the Christian Brothers run schools, and so on. But the charism of the monk is uniquely simple: we pray. That’s it. Anything else we do is simply to support, enhance, or enable our prayer. And in many respects, that should be a rule of life for everyone. Holiness must always be the most important goal in your life, because who cares how hard you work if, at the end of the day, you are still the same cruddy person you were when you started?
There are two ways to show someone that they are important to you. The first and most important is to “be there for them.” You can buy all the presents you like, write all the cheesy poems you can, and tell as many people as you meet that you’re in love; but if you rarely show up to be with that person, you reveal by your actions that the love is a lie.
Woody Allen said, “60% of success is showing up.” I’ve said it once already, but it’s well worth saying twice: this is why the church demands that you attend mass every single Sunday for your whole life. Not asks—demands. On pain of your immortal soul. Yes, it is still a mortal sin to miss ...unless you are traveling—by oxcart. No one took “Keep holy the Lord’s day” out of the ten commandments. So as long as you are not contagious and you have access to some form of transportation (if necessary, your legs), you need to be there.
But why is such a law even necessary? Why would anyone skip mass when 60% of holiness is just showing up? Remember the Magnificat? Mary says, “My soul—mea anima—my being proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” Not “my holiness,” not “my actions,” not my words or prayers or talents. My very being—the mere fact of my existence—proclaims the greatness of the Lord. The fact that she’s here is her greatest triumph.
So “being there” is the monk’s first and most pressing obligation. But Saint Benedict would add that you also show what your priorities are by being here on time. (Imagine me now fiddling with my rosary and not looking you in the eye while I say this.) You show up early so that you can prepare yourself for prayer. You show up early so that you can do the job right. But most of all, you show up early because it shows God—and it shows everyone else—that He is the first priority in your life. Whatever the monk is doing when the bell rings for prayer, he drops it. Because “nothing is preferred to the Work of God.”
If anyone arrives late for dinner after grace has been said, let him be twice corrected for this, provided that it was his own fault. But if he keeps showing up late, he should eat by himself until he has properly apologized and changed his behavior.
In a typical monastery, the dining hall (“refectory” in monkish) lies at one end of the cloister, and the church at the other. So there’s a neat sort of symmetry between feeding the body and feeding the soul. Both are essential, and neither should be neglected. Being late for a meal is not perhaps quite as offensive or scandalous as being late for prayer, but it certainly is rude. It says, in effect, ‘my time is more valuable than yours, so you can sit around and wait while I do something else.’ It’s a matter of respect.