Brother Matthew Receives Novice Habit.

Chapter-Mark 8:22-26

Christ the Healer

JESUS ONCE AGAIN PUT HIS HANDS ON THE BLIND MAN'S EYES... AND HE SAW CLEARLY. This is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus performed a miraculous cure in stages. The first time he laid his hands on him, the blind man gained his sight but his vision was blurred. Only after a second application did he fully recover and see distinctly. The Evangelist does not comment on this fact or explain its significance. Certainly the main point of this account admits of no doubt: Jesus has power to bestow sight to the blind by virtue of his touch and his intent to heal. That this particular kind of miracle has a symbolic meaning beyond the sheer physical benefit bestowed is quite clearly the case. Later on in John's Gospel Jesus is cited as proclaiming "I am the light of the world" (8: 12) and again he explained that "I have come into the world as light" (12:46). The giving of sight to the blind was an important sign, he told the messengers sent by John the Baptist, that he is truly the Messiah, the one awaited by true Israelites. "Go tell John what you have observed and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the Gospel is preached to the poor (Luke 7: 22)." Such a miracle as this healing was intended to reveal something of the real identity of Jesus. He is the one announced by the prophets and awaited by the remnant of his people. He had no doubt of this himself; nor did he have any hesitation in recognizing he had a unique relationship with the God he knew as a loving Father.

The fact that Jesus disposes of such powers so freely throughout his ministry and that his prayer is always heard by his Father makes it all the more curious that the first time Jesus laid hands on the man's eyes he recovered his sight only partially; only with the second laying on of his hands did full recovery take place. This is the only such instance of a partially successful healing in any of the Gospels, or even in the whole of the New Testament. Perhaps that is why this account is omitted altogether by Matthew and Luke who have so much else in common with Mark. In the absence of any explanation by the evangelist we are left free to speculate on plausible reasons.

It is obvious, in any case, that neither Mark nor the others who witnessed the healing considered this need for a second effort on Jesus' part to be an indication of diminished powers or a sign he was not heard by God. The circumstance lends itself to speculation that the explanation lies in the special need of the blind man to have further contact with Jesus before he could fully open his eyes to the reality of the world around him. How reassuring his touch and his words were to this suffering creature. Yet the effects of his condition had made this victim hesitant and fearful. He could not fully respond to the grace received at first by the contact with the Savior; he could come to such a sense of security only by stages, after a second recalling back to health.

We can further find in this healing by stages a parallel with the spiritual life and with the monastic life that you undertake to begin today as a novice, Brother Matthew. Called to conversion to a more earnest following of Christ you had responded by leaving your familiar world and family and entering the monastery. But, like all of us, you quickly discovered that conversion is not achieved all at once. It is an ongoing process that continues all through life. But it is marked by stages and progress from one stage to another represents, in a certain manner, another contact with the healing hand of Christ that gives reassurance and a stronger sense of security.

Taking the novice habit is one of the major turnings in a man's life. In antiquity to put on the monastic habit was to commit oneself for life; there were no subsequent stages to negotiate before a definitive commitment. Cassian, at any rate, tells us that the Egyptian monks made it quite a test to enter the ranks of the monks, but once the postulant took the habit it seems he was considered to have made an irrevocable choice. Nonetheless, he is put under the charge of the porter who teaches him while he works in the guesthouse for a year as a form of preparation for the future full integration within the monastery. In the case of St. Benedict himself, once he accepted the monk's habit from the hand of a hermit he seems to have considered himself fully engaged until death. In spite of serious subsequent trials which including his being violently rejected by his own monks and later experiencing the active hostility and machinations of the local pastor, he never considered turning back. Certainly for those who are offered the grace of such a decisive call such a wholehearted intention is still the ideal way to undertake the monastic way.

The Rule of the Master (RM), written around 425 A.D. as it stands is somewhat confusing until one realizes he makes a distinction between a "conversus", that is to say a private monk who applies to enter the monastery, and a simple layman. The "conversus" is allowed a period of two months during which he deliberates as to his vocation, whether he should stay or leave, and the community tests his vocation. During this period he is under the care of the guest-master and porter who determine his suitability for monastic life. Significantly, however, should he actually decide to depart, the Master refers to him as belonging to the devil! "If he wishes it, let him depart as a guest, and let the devil reclaim this citizen of his whom Christ unwillingly received as a guest " (RM Ch. 78). The lay postulant lives with the brothers for a year before receiving the habit and tonsure and made his permanent commitment to the monastic life. During this year, however, there is no mention of deliberation on his part, though it may be presumed. Rather it is a time of testing his determination and capacity for the life.

ince to learn by experience is the way to wisdom, made wise by reflecting on events Benedict himself came to the opinion that it is more prudent to establish a period of formation that allows for a graduated response to the call to be a monk. Only after a year in which he studies the Rule, hears it read through three times and experiences living it in the community is the novice to decide if he wishes freely to make his permanent vows. Conceiving this year as a period of deliberation as well as of testing and formation in a novitiate somewhat apart from the rest of the community is then an original contribution of St. Benedict, as Terrence Kardong points out (cf. Benedict's Rule, p. 481). In fact, St. Benedict is the one who introduced the terms "novice" as a technical term to refer to a monk in the period of formation and probation prior to his permanent vows. Though he does not use a specific term to designate the senior appointed for the training of the novices, he was also the first to arrange for the distinct position of novice master. Cassian had the new comers under the porter and the Master assigned the guest-masters for this function, obviously giving less prominence to this function.

Since the sixth century when the Rule of Benedict was written, there has been a further development of the stages through which the monk passes on the way to permanent vows. Three years of temporary vows were introduced after experience revealed that the one year required by the Rule was not sufficient neither for adequate discernment nor for the formation of a monk. In more recent decades the need for continuing formation has been given greater attention. Since the whole of monastic life is a process of conversion and of transformation, the monk requires to continue to apply himself to growing in virtue and to learn more about the mysteries of our faith. Like the blind man in the Gospel of Mark, we are healed by stages; we require repeated contact with the healing touch of Christ before we can see as we ought and become able to carry out the will of God in our daily life in all its scope and with all its demands.

Discernment of one's vocation is a basic element in the noviciate period, but it is not the most important matter to focus on. The primary task of every Christian is to seek God, and this is the chief task of the novice. In fact, Benedict tells us, it is the major indication that he has a vocation. Once the postulant is accepted as a novice and receives the habit he does well to presume he is called to become a monk. His attention and energy should be directed to the work of growing in virtue, above all in those virtues which are most pleasing to God and so most unitive with Him. Obedience, humility and charity are the conditions for pleasing God, Jesus taught and revealed to us by his example. By cultivating these habits of soul and training the body to respond to the various practices by which they are expressed, including such things as vigils and manual labor, the novice effectively seeks union with God and in doing so gives evidence of a true vocation to the monastic life.

Discernment is much facilitated after having had experiences that demonstrate in the laboratory of life that one can grow spiritually and contribute effectively to the good of the community. Thus it is by submitting actively to monastic formation rather than deliberating a great deal over whether he belongs in the monastery at all that the decision to make final vows in response to a call from God is eventually clarified. Until the novice experiences growth in his chosen way of life and interacts to the best of his ability with the various members of the community he will not be so well positioned to make a confident choice that binds him happily for life. Thus it is of the greatest help to give oneself as fully as lies within one's power to the work of monastic formation once the decision is taken to enter the novitiate.

This is true of all professions, it would seem. We can hardly believe in any form of life that does not require the best we have to give for its adequate fulfillment. That means we must pass through periods when we feel inadequate for the exacting demands of our chosen field of endeavor, and so our resolve is tested. It is hardly advisable to make long term decisions in the middle of crises arising from our weakness and inexperience and so the strength of our resolve must be such as to sustain us when we feel inadequate and weak or even overwhelmed by some demands or temptations. At such periods only those who give their all are likely to discover their latent possibilities for the growth needed to respond to the more exigent requirements of their profession. Those who begin to doubt the course they have chosen too readily will not find the courage and strength of soul to call forth their undeveloped capacities. "Silver and gold are tried by fire so are chosen hearts with the Lord (Proverbs 17.3)." To realize that temptation plays an important role in the formation of character is a great help at times when one is submerged by difficulties and conflict. We are all too prone to become confused and to begin to doubt we are pursuing the right path when our course meets with obstacles. How readily many of us are to become discouraged and waver. As Jesus has said: "Narrow is the gate and painful is the way that leads to life (Matthew 7: 14)" To put off the ways of the world and cultivate Christian virtue, we soon discover, requires a real struggle, which at times is most afflicting to the spirit. Already in earlier times the wise had understood and accepted this truth. " For the furnace tests the potter's vessel, and the temptation of tribulation tries just men (Ecclesiasticus 27:6 [Vulgate])."

The novice will find his efforts more fruitful if he always keeps in mind that the aim of all our striving is knowledge and love of God in Christ. The monastery is a "schola divini servitii" , that is, "a school of the Lord's service", Benedict tells us. Some centuries later St. Bernard added that it is a "schola charitatis, a school of charity." This school has its own discipline which must be directed above all to the heart and not merely imposed from the outside. The novitiate is not merely a period in which to adapt to a new way of living, and to learn the discipline of our practices, although it certainly requires these kinds of learning. Rather the chief purpose of this period of formation is to discover God himself living within you, and to penetrate more consciously and deeply into the mystery of Christ's love.

The desire for God fuels the search for purity of heart that is attained only by stripping off the old man with his selfish and easy-going ways and putting on the new man created in Christ Jesus. Although there is a good deal of such effort required to come through the struggles that are inevitable in the early years of monastic formation, yet the work undertaken need not at all be experienced as dreary or oppressive. For once we understand that Christ not only calls us to follow him, but he also accompanies us on the way and makes his abode with us, a certain peace quietly fills our life. Our striving for purity of heart is made a lighter labor, and even a source of joy when we realize that any suffering we accept in faith unites us with the cross of Jesus. Until we experience the cross we cannot really know the Lord very intimately, so much was he formed by it in his attitude to his mission.

St. Benedict

The Prologue to St. Benedict's Rule for Monasteries is addressed to those who, like you here today, stand at the beginning of the great adventure of the monastic life. The final words of that address remain as pertinent today as they were when he first wrote them. They express in a brief compass a kind of summary of the spirituality he taught along the lines I have outlined above. Let them serve as an encouragement and stimulus to you as you begin your novitiate in view of preparing for a life time of service of God and of his Church.

With progress in the monastic way and in faith and with a heart enlarged with the unspeakable sweetness of love one runs in the way of God's commandments. May we live in such a way that never departing from his teaching and persevering in his doctrine we persevere in the monastery until death. In this way we share in the suffering of Christ by patience so that we might merit to be his companions in his kingdom.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

Return to Index.

Go to Archive.

Return to Abbey's Homepage
Fax: 716-243-4816
E-mail: Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
[abbey crest]