St. Benedict


AND I, WHEN I CAME TO YOU, BROTHERS, ... CONSIDERED THAT I KNOW NOTHING AMONG YOU EXCEPT JESUS AND HIM CRUCIFIED (1Cor 2: 1, 2). This past week we celebrated the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This feast has had a particularly significant place in the liturgical year for monks through the centuries. The chief reason is the central role of the passion of Jesus in the work of our redemption which is symbolized by the cross on which the Lord suffered and died. To honor the cross is to express our faith in the continuing efficacy of the passion in our own lives, and to acknowledge that we place all our hope in the graces that the redeemer gained for us by accepting his death on that cross. For every Christian, and certainly for every monk, fidelity to the vocation received from God to which we have given our assent by our vows, involves a daily taking up of the cross in the various forms it assumes for each of us. In celebrating this feast we publicly renew our intention of uniting the labors and struggles that constitute our cross with those much heavier trials our Lord bore for our sakes. The fruitfulness of our life in all its dimensions, we acknowledge, arises from our participating in the sufferings and labors of Jesus, who alone elevates them and makes them worthy of the Father.

This message of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is reinforced for monks by the fact that St. Benedict has chosen the day before this feast to mark the beginning of the monastic fast. The date was chosen for its convenience as a marker for a change of seasons for by this time in Southern Italy where he lived the harvest was completed and the days were growing shorter as autumn deepened. This called for a change of the monastic horarium. Actually, the association of the feast in honor of the Holy Cross is not mentioned by St. Benedict for the good reason that it was not as yet an established part of the liturgical year during his life time. It was celebrated in Naples not long after his death, and soon after that was welcomed into the Roman calender. The effect on monks, then, of linking the change of the monastic horarium to this feast is to make more explicit the connection with the fast and the self-denial of Jesus that is symbolized by his cross.

Benedict's arrangement, though occasioned by the practical consideration that there was less need for manual labor, was more than just practical. He has the spiritual purpose of emphasizing the more contemplative features of the monastic life. He so disposes of the time taken from work that it is made available for uses of a more interior nature. Moreover, a less strenuous physical activity allowed for a reduction of the diet and so the monks begin at this time to fast as their regular daily observance. It is understood that fasting is to be accompanied by greater emphasis on lectio divina and more intense prayer.

This prayer, which is an interior activity, needs to be sustained by practices that favor recollection and communion in God's will and plan. We are made in such a way that we need to express in act what we believe and value in our heart. Fasting is more than a physical deprivation that represents a certain discipline and sacrifice of gratification. It has for the Christian another dimension- that of union with Christ who himself fasted and denied his own will so as to enter more fully into communion with the Father. Fasting as well is a symbol of our taking up of the cross and of following the Lord. It expresses our hope in the cross of Jesus in a concrete physical way, indicating that our desire for satisfaction is subject not to gratification of our corporal urges and senses but rather to God's plan as manifested in the cross of Jesus.

Prayer for St. Benedict is more than a specific exercise in which the monk raises his mind to God in praise, adoration, petition or thanksgiving. It is a mode of living, a manner of being in the world, a form of consciousness that is to characterize the whole of life. St. Benedict does not cite any of the various scriptural texts that enjoin continual prayer, but he clearly has this practice in mind when he speaks of the continuous memory of God. He would have learned from earlier monks and doctors, such as Saints Basil, John Chrysostom and Augustine, how seriously they took our Lord's teaching as recorded in St. Luke: He (Jesus) told them another parable that we ought to pray always and not give up through weariness (18:1).

Some theologians, notably Origen, felt that the implicit desire to do God's will as the Christian carried out some activity represents a continual prayer. No explicit words or thoughts of prayer are required to fulfill this injunction, simply the intention of carrying out a task assigned by one's circumstances with the desire to please God is sufficient motivation to make work a prayer, and, of course, this solves the problem of How to pray without ceasing?, which so exercised these serious Christians. St. Basil, who knew Origen's writings very well, nevertheless took another view of the issue. He felt that explicit prayer should be made even in the course of work, repeatedly.

St. Basil the Great
What therefore gives more happiness than to imitate the choir of angels on earth?... Once the sun is shining brightly we go to work accompanied by prayer in all places, and give flavor to the tasks, as it were, by hymns. For the solace of hymns graces the steadiness of the soul with cheerfulness and pleasantness. (Epistola II.2 , Opera Sti. P.N. Basilii, tome III, Paris 1839:100- 102)

St. Benedict also believes it important always to remain aware of God and to be uninterruptedly in touch with him, though he presents the case in the context of humility and of recollection without referring directly to prayer as such.

he first degree of humility, then, is if he (the monk) always places before his eyes the fear of God and altogether flees forgetfulness and be always mindful of all that God commands (Rule, Ch. 7).

This continuous mindfulness is not a mere memory devoid of personal involvement and engagement; on the contrary, it is marked by the desire to carry out God's will and to remain united with Him in all things. In the twelfth degree of humility he spells out in detail that this constant awareness of God's presence is to be expressed in the monk's deportment wherever he may find himself and in all his activity, not just at times of formal prayer. Obviously, such recollection is considered to be a communion with God, and so is an implicit prayer, expressive of the desire to be united with Him totally.

The twelfth degree of humility is that a monk, not only in his heart but also in the body itself always displays humility to those who see him: that is at the work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, when traveling, in the field, wherever he might be sitting, walking or standing... saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: "Lord, I am not worthy, sinner that I am, to raise my eyes to heaven."

In order to realize this program elsewhere in his Rule Benedict enjoins a strict silence on his monks and provides for corrective measures when this is not carried through. We know how insistent our Cistercian Fathers were on this practice of silence for the same reason as Benedict, in order to sustain a life of interior recollection and a heightened consciousness of the presence of God. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is an occasion when each of us should examine himself on these various practices, beginning with silence which is fundamental to the life of continual prayer. Like fasting, silence is more than a discipline; it is also an effective sign that our conversation is in heaven. Moreover, it is an appeal to God's mercy for his grace that makes our practice fecund.

Silence then becomes a witness to the whole community that the monk walks in the presence of God and is living for the goal that draws each of us to the monastery in the first place. Neglect of our rules of silence weakens the sense of prayerful attention to God that should be attitude dominant in every fervent community. This silence is not mere absence of speech but is a direc tion of the mind and heart to God and divine things, and eventually becomes a communion with the Lord that accompanies us throughout the day. Once it is rooted in our heart and spirit it be comes a dimension of our consciousness so that even when duty or ministry indicates that we engage in speech such talking is not a source of distraction.

These practices of fasting, silence, reading and prayer that are so emphasized during this season of the monastic fast are not ends in themselves. The final goal of such practices is the same as that of humility as St. Benedict states it at the end of his chapter on that subject; it is nothing less than the pure love of God and of Christ. As he well knows, this ultimate aim is beyond our hu man powers to attain, but with perseverance in the monastery and fidelity to these practices until death, we can realistically hope to receive this love that brings about a unity of spirit with the Lord as a free gift of God's Spirit.

And so, having ascended all these steps of humility, the monk will soon arrive at that love of God which, when perfect, casts our fear. By virtue of that love all those things which at first he observed not without fear he will begin to keep without any strain, out of habit, no longer from fear of hell but from love of Christ and good habits and the pleasure he finds in virtue. The Lord will bring this about in his worker once he is cleansed from vice and sin, by the Holy Spirit.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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