Wednesday, January 14, 2015

CHAPTER 63: The Organization of the Monastery

     The monks should be ranked according to the time of their conversion and the merit of their life, or as the abbot has determined.  This is the order the monks should take during liturgies—when they exchange the sign of peace, receive communion, intone the psalms, and stand in choir.  Age should never determine one’s rank because Samuel and Daniel were mere boys when they judged priests (1 Sam 3; Dan 13:44-62).  Thus, for instance, one who enters the monastery at the second hour of the day should understand that he will be ranked lower than he who came at the first hour, without regard to age or class.  Therefore, let the younger monks honor their elders, and the elders love the younger ones.
     No one should address another by his simple name; but let the older monks call the younger ones “Brother,” and the younger address their elders as “Father.”  But because the abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ, let him be addressed as “Lord” and “Father abbot”—not because he himself deserves the title, but out of love and reverence for Christ.  Whenever the brethren meet, let the younger ask the elder for a blessing.  Moreover, when the elder enters a room, the younger should rise and offer him his seat; so that it may be done as it is written: "In honor compete with one another" (Rom 12:10).

     There are no cliques or class distinctions in a monastery.  Hierarchy, yes.  After all, even the angels have a chain of command. But monastic rank is determined by seniority—not age, nor social distinction, nor intelligence nor talent.  In a community centered on Christ, it is only love that distinguishes one from the other.  Ambition has no place at all except in the pursuit of holiness.  The monks compete with one another “in showing honor.”  And they do this by means of certain established gestures which we call “courtesy.”
     Such gestures are essential to keeping order in the community.  They are small ways of reminding ourselves that Christ dwells in each of us.  They force us to keep the ‘other’ in mind so we don’t run about the monastery slamming doors in each other’s faces and grabbing at the most comfortable chairs.  Instead, younger monks beg a blessing from their elders whenever they pass by, and offer them a seat when they enter the room.  Older monks address the juniors as “Brother.”  And all the monks address their superior as “abbot.”
    Of course, all this bowing and rising and blessing may seem a little silly to the outsider, but equally silly customs exist outside of monasteries too.  Do you really care about the emotional wellbeing of the checkout clerk at Stop-N-Shop?  Probably not.  And you’d be very surprised indeed if when you walked up to the counter, she said, “My boyfriend just broke up with me; I have a bit of a cold; my little brother used my toothbrush to clean his fish tank; and I’ve been feeling slightly melancholy all week…”  Still, you ask her how she’s doing (and she says, “Fine.”) because this is how you acknowledge your common humanity.  She isn’t just there to serve your needs; and you’re not just a money dispenser.  You and she have equal dignity as children of God.  And so, from day to day, we hold the door for one another, nod and smile as we pass, offer to help when a stranger drops his groceries on the floor...
     These conventions shift from culture to culture, sometimes quite dramatically, and learning their subtleties is important to getting along.  In Japan, they bow to one another.  Here in America, we shake hands.  In France, they kiss (or so I’ve heard).  For human beings all around the world, these small courtesies are essential, but they’re just conventions, so they change from time to time and place to place.  The important thing is that we remember to honor the presence of God in one another.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

CHAPTER 62: The Priests of the Monastery

     If the abbot decides that the monastery needs a priest or deacon, let him select from among his monks one who is worthy to discharge that office. But let the one who has been ordained be on his guard against arrogance and pride, and he should only do what is commanded him by the abbot, knowing that he is now all the more subject to the discipline of the Rule; and—especially because he is a priest—let him not forget the obedience and discipline of the Rule, but advance more and more in godliness.

    Here again, Saint Benedict addresses the delicate issue of how priests are to be regarded in the community.  This time, however, his worry is that they will feel exempt from the monastic discipline.  The priest, by his nature, is called to lead the faithful in worship, but a monastic community can have only one leader, and therefore the monk priest should lead by example only.   He should be more submissive, more docile and more obedient precisely because others will look up to him. 
     Of course, everyone owes obedience to someone, from pauper to president to pope.  We’ve all got bosses and we all have people that we get to boss around.  And every one of us, by virtue of his baptism, is a priest, a prophet, and a king.  But that makes us servants, not judges.  Jesus told his disciples to serve one another.  He also told them to be more observant than the Pharisees, and the Pharisees were pretty big on following the rules.
     As adolescents, we tend to think that “freedom” means being able to do whatever we like—that once we become adults, we no longer have to obey anyone.  “It’s a free country,” we say to ourselves.  “From now on, no one’s going to tell me what to do.”  Of course, that’s totally wrong. Just ask a recovering drug addict, and he’ll tell you there are some things that make you less free when you do them.  In fact, there are many things (like shooting heroin) that we should never be free to do precisely because they take away our freedom.
     So what distinguishes the obedience of an adult from the obedience of a child?  It is just exactly this:  that the adult doesn’t need to be forced.  He doesn’t need to be punished.  In fact, the adult anticipates the desire and obeys even before he is asked.  True maturity demands an even higher level of obedience—an obedience so complete that it anticipates the law and goes beyond it.  Imagine a school where the students tried to guess what their teachers wanted, and then did it even before they were asked.  Imagine a school where each student was determined to outdo the other in kindness.  St. Benedict envisions such a school in his Rule for monks.  He calls it “A School for the Lord’s Service.