Fr François You, Abbey of Notre Dame de Maylis
President of the Monastic Conference of France
Dom François You is abbot of the monastery of Maylis in France. This is the text of a conference he gave at the Congress of Benedictine Abbots in September 2012. By characterizing Benedictine identity he enables it to be better shared in the name of the Gospel. In order to participate in the New Evangelisation, monks and nuns must be convinced that they are rooted in the life of the Church and the world. The appendix has been added for this publication.
Chapter 58 of the Rule of St Benedict gives instructions to make sure that the candidate for monastic life ‘truly seeks God’. Seeking God is presented as the axis of Benedictine life. But what is ‘seeking God’? How does one seek God?
Our God is not a solitary being whom one seeks from outside, whom one can circle and describe as an object of examination. As we know, God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the three living in a community of love. God is a relationship of love; he is agape. Love, however, can be truly known only by experience. God can be known and discovered only by one who participates in the divine exchange of love. In his First Letter John says clearly, ‘Whoever loves has been born from God and attains to knowledge of God. One who does not love has not discovered God, since God is love’ (1 John 4.7-8). On each occasion here the apostle uses the term agape.
To seek God amounts to allowing oneself to be introduced into the circulation of Trinitarian love, taking the means to allow oneself to be more easily grasped and to live by that circulation of love, allowing oneself to be identified with Christ in order to be introduced into him in this Trinitarian agape. Such is the meaning of Christian baptism, but such is also the meaning of Benedictine monastic life. The rule simply offers us particularly radical means to allow us to live and move in the Spirit of love. All the requirements of the Rule can be read in this optic, in the hermeneutical key: to further our insertion into Trinitarian love by identifying us with Christ.
The axis of monastic life, then, is to set up communities where people seek to live by agape. The Rule has no other purpose than to teach us and help us to live in agape. The various works in which a Benedictine community can be engaged are only a secondary expression of this love. This explains why the whole dimension of prayer and silence enjoined by the Rule merely expresses agape in its relationship to God. The liturgy is the work of Christ, and by celebrating it we are introduced into the relationship between the Father and the Son in this Trinitarian agape. Lectio allows us to participate in the prayer of Christ, in his love for the Father. Silence has no other purpose but to prolong the exchange of Trinitarian love. It is essentially by being rooted in prayer in all its forms that the monk can allow himself to be transformed by the Spirit of God and that his love will be divinised, becoming agape. The common life teaches us to look at others (abbot, brothers, the sick, guests) with the eye of faith which recognizes in them the presence of God. Through this, a brother is seen as more lovable, and in allowing myself to be loved by him it is also the love of God that I receive.
Obedience, which is so important for St Benedict, has no other purpose than to correct us from our vices and purify our intentions. These are merely means, and the purpose differs from them. St Benedict expresses this very precisely in the two chapters where he discusses obedience (chapters 5 and 7), and he twice quotes the same word of Christ. In chapter 5 he says, ‘without doubt such people [the obedient] are imitating the Lord who said, “I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me”. In chapter 7 the second degree of humility required the monk ‘to imitate in his behaviour this word of the Lord, “I came not to do my own will but that of him who sent me”.’ We could add the third degree of humility which goes in exactly the same sense, ‘To submit to the superior in all obedience for the love of God, in imitation of what the Apostle says of the Lord, “He became obedient unto death”.’ In all these cases it is a matter of imitation of Christ, that is, identifying ourselves with him by his obedience to his Father, or rather expressing in ourselves the love of the Son for his Father, a love unto death, and death on a cross. What is required is a theologal obedience, centred on Christ, not a moral or moralizing obedience, and still less a purely functional obedience. The obedience of Christ is an expression of his agape, which passes through us to rejoin the Father or our brothers. It is possible to read all the chapters of the Rule under this aspect: they seek to promote the participation of the monk in Trinitarian agape.
We should also look at the structure of the whole of the Rule in this way, for it tells us something about the evolution of St Benedict and his central message:
• In the first seven chapters St Benedict follows the Master very faithfully.
• In the following section, up to the chapter on the doorkeeper (RB 66), he shows much more originality, distancing himself from the Master and giving more of his own personal angle.
• In the third part he expresses fearlessly his own concerns. These chapters are from his pen alone, though much inspired by St Augustine, the master of love. Thus chapter 72 was considered by Sr Aquinata Böckmann to be the spiritual testament of Benedict, that is, his essential message, his core teaching, the written expression of the charism which he sought to put into practice. The chapter on the Good Zeal describes to us the practice of agape in a monastic community. It may be said that this is the axis of life which Benedict sought to further by writing his Rule. This means that we can re-read the Rule while asking how each chapter seeks to put into practice and further the growth of agape.
For the angle of the Rule the end of the Prologue is particularly significant. While the text as a whole is very faithful to that of the Master, St Benedict suddenly inserts some lines which are personal to him, verses 46-49, where he explains what his intention is in founding a ‘school of the Lord’s service’. I transcribe his words: ‘In this institution we hope to set up nothing rough or burdensome. However, if something rather rigorous does occur there, rightly imposed to correct our vices and safeguard charity, take great care not, under the effect of sudden fear, to desert the way of salvation, whose beginnings are always difficult. In fact, as progress is made in the religious life and in faith, the heart is expanded and one runs in the path of the commandments of God, with the unspeakable sweetness of love.’ The purpose is well expressed as ‘safeguarding charity’. And charity, we know, is the Latin word used to translate agape. What St Benedict sought in establishing monasteries is therefore nothing else but to create households where charity, agape was lived to the full, where the brothers lived by Trinitarian love and expressed it among themselves as directly as they did to the Lord. To help them he composed a Rule whose purpose was not to establish artificially anything rough or burdensome; the requirements imposed themselves in order to prevent anything which opposes charity. Ascesis is only a means to procure detachment from material things or from the world, to be free for the impulses of the Holy Spirit. Its limits are those of charity; as St Ignatius of Loyola says, we put to work what is necessary for growth in love, but not more.
Experience shows that as we make progress the heart expands and we begin to run in the paths of the Lord, carried along by the attraction of love. The monk then discovers an ability to ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, thus earning a share in his Kingdom’. That is to say that such a monk is so swept up by the agape which fills the Son that he participates in the love of the Son so far as even to giving his life. Thereby he already enters the Kingdom in the plenitude of agape. Mgr Joseph Tobin, at that time Secretary of the Congregation for Religious, in the homily which he gave during the Congress, defined monastic life as a ‘School of Communion’. By this, it seems to me, he meant nothing else but ‘The Benedictine life is a school of communion, a school of agape’. The final purpose of St Benedict in composing the Rule certainly seems to have been to set up communities where the monks seek to live more and more closely within Trinitarian love. This is what makes them ‘schools of the Lord’s service’. In any case we here rejoin the ultimate goal of the Christian life, but the holy Patriarch is defining the means of approaching this ideal appropriate to those whom God calls to this vocation.
Appendix: The Rule as a School of Agape
The purpose here is to sketch some of the great themes of the Rule in order to determine how and to what extent St Benedict wishes by them to shape communities founded on love.
In order to recognize agape in the expressions of fraternal love we will be attentive, of course, to certain criteria:
• The expressions of love must be rooted in the divine life, so that it is not a simple natural love. Hence the importance of a life of prayer surrounding all the acts of love.
• When agape infiltrates human love, it makes this more delicate, more ‘humane’ in the good sense of the word, more attentive to those in need, more open to all.
• It is joined also with plenty of humility, of self-denial, of desire to serve the other and not oneself.
The Abbot (especially chapters 2 and 64)
He ‘holds the place of Christ’, that is, he will try to resemble Christ in his behaviour, to live agape himself. For example, when Benedict requires that he should make sure that he is more loved than feared, we understand that he must be attentive to each of the brothers, and maintain a climate of community in which they feel themselves respected and loved for what they are, accompanied in their search for God. Then the brothers will love their abbot, but above all in such a community all will seek to live agape.
• The Rule frequently reminds the abbot that he must remember the final judgment, to help to purify his intentions and his decision and direct them towards the Kingdom. The abbot is thereby invited to make sure that all his decisions are rooted in the will of God and directed to putting it into practice.
• The abbot seeks to listen to the Holy Spirit through the brothers, by advice (3), from a monk guest (61), in the case of obedience being impossible (68).
• The abbot is in charge of souls: he helps them with discretio (64) to grow in agape.
• He pays attention to each one, adapts himself to each (2).
• The punishments represent a therapeutic dimension adapted to each individual.
• The attitude expected of the abbot towards excommunicated brothers is outstanding in charity (23-27): on the one hand he denounces the evil of those whose actions put them outside the communion, and on the other he does everything possible to try to bring them back, by his own actions, by sending synpectai who will have more chance of being heard to bring them to reason. In every case of a crisis over a brother, the example he is given to imitate is that of the Good Shepherd, showing his unlimited care for the lost sheep, even to the extent of ‘putting it on his sacred shoulders to bring it back to the flock’ (27). The pastoral charity which animates the abbot is directly rooted in that of Christ, whose place he holds. That is no empty word!
• In all this dynamic of pastoral charity he assures himself of the prayers of the brothers (27-28).
Reception of Guests (53)
• Welcome them in prayer.
• Show them plenty of humanity. Thus the abbot will eat with them (56).
• Give particular attention to the poor and to pilgrims.
• A visiting monk may make comments. St Benedict remarks that perhaps God is speaking to the community through him.
• Welcome at any time.
• Not to go over the top in welcome; otherwise the brothers would lose their rooting in God and their warm or excited attitude could be more natural than true agape.
• Labour is discussed in close connection with spiritual reading, in the pattern of reading→labour→prayer (48). This is a sign that labour is not envisaged only in its dimension of material service. It is part of the relationship to God, which is nourished by it and sets it going.
• Frequent reminders to the abbot that he must seek first the Kingdom of God and the rest will be given to him as a bonus. The brothers must labour, yes, (and it is thus that they are truly monks) but without being crushed by it. Help must be given to those who need it to avoid murmuring, sadness, loss of peace. If the labour becomes a source of pride it should be withdrawn (57).
• Everything must be well administered, with the right instruments. The tools must be cared for ‘like the sacred vessels of the altar’ (32); when the brothers take turns in charge of a project the tools should be checked against an inventory to see that none are missing – all these are signs that the labour should be well done.
• Cooking should be done by all, because thereby ‘merit and charity are acquired’ (35).
• The Bursar seeks to be ‘like a father to all’ (31). A climate of respect for the brothers and attention to their needs should reign, e.g. meals should be more generous when the labour is strenuous (39); in summer the timetable should be adapted to avoid the greatest heats (48).
• The weekly kitchen servers wash the feet of the brothers (35), like Christ with his disciples: a sign that their work draws on the love of Jesus for his brothers.
Relationships between brothers
• Be careful to listen to one another and to listen together to the Holy Spirit (3).
• Honour and obey one another (63, 71).
• The outlawry of murmuring in Benedict witnesses to his care not to break communion between the brothers and the abbot: ‘Above all the vice of murmuring should never appear for any reason at all, neither in words nor in gestures. If anyone fails in this, he should be severely punished (34).
• Care for the sick (36), the elderly and children (37) must be very delicate, for Christ is being served. • Meals: this is something profoundly human, but it is linked to spiritual reading, which must be listened to with care. The monks attend to one others’ needs (those who cannot eat a particular dish), and the weak (35, 38-41).
• The chapter on good zeal (72) describes the quality of respect and mutual attention, of disregard for oneself in order to be aware of others and to wish them well. Finally, if Christ ‘is leading us all together towards eternal life’ it is because the monks already form a single entity. The verses of this chapter lovingly enumerate items of this unity. This unity is rooted in an absolute preference for Christ, in unity with him. Again we note that the agape paid by the brothers to one another and to Christ is a participation in the Trinitarian agape; this is why it is a participation in eternal life. The seed is already there.
Humility (chapter 7)
This is a central theme in the Rule. St Benedict there describes an itinerary of the spiritual life which culminates in the perfection of love. What does this virtue mean for the Patriarch? How does he analyse it? Is there a link with the Trinitarian agape which the other chapters of the Rule are eager to promote?
Jacob’s ladder, presented at the beginning of the chapter, is a reminder that our life is in contact with God. The descent of this ladder is by exaltation and the ascent by humility. Hence this virtue draws us nearer to God. The thought of the humility of the Son of God who ‘came down to us’ and was ‘therefore supremely exalted by God’ (Philippians 2.6-11) shows that there is here an interesting link to make. The comparison of the Latin texts is striking: the Vulgate said of Jesus, Humiliavit semetipsum...propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum (Philippians 2.8-9). The Rule continues with the detail that on this ladder exaltatione descendere et humilitate ascendere. In both cases a balance is made between humility and exaltation. For the Rule descent occurs through personal exaltation but ascent through humility. In Philippians 2 God exalted Jesus because Jesus humbled himself. The conclusion is that God himself will exalt the humble monk just as he did his Son. So for St Benedict this ladder probably represents Jesus himself, to whom we assimilate ourselves by humility and in whom we will be led to the Father. That is to say, he brings us into their deep relationship, into their agape. It must, however, be admitted that the Patriarch does not give this explanation explicitly; it is merely underlying.
Let us examine more closely the various rungs of this ladder:
• The first rung requires us to live in the sight of God, renouncing our own will so that his will may be done in us.
• The second and third rungs consist in imitation of Jesus’ obedience to his Father, so participation in his love for the Father.
• The fourth rung invites us to imitate Christ in his adversities and injustices.
• The fifth recommends transparency to the abbot who holds the place of the Lord, putting our hope in the divine mercy.
• The sixth insists on the need to stay with God even in humiliations. St Benedict here quotes verses of a psalm marked by great confidence despite trials. There may easily be read the spirit of Jesus during his Passion, to whom the humble man is likened.
• The seventh details that the more we see ourselves as small and poor, the more ready we are to learn the commandments of God, that is, to live with him.
• The eighth prescribes a readiness to be guided by the framework of monastic life; apart from the personality of the abbot, it is he who represents authority to the monk. By respecting this framework the monk is clinging to God.
• By the ninth, tenth and eleventh rungs the spirit of silence is urged, in order to avoid sin and acquire wisdom. St Benedict wishes to keep the monk alert to the interior voice of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of agape.
• Finally the twelfth invites us to imitate the example of the tax-collector who was justified by his attitude and his prayer.
It seems to me that through all these degrees of humility the common theme is the imitation of Christ, who clings resolutely to the will of his Father, even to accepting humiliation which is so difficult for us human beings. Jesus knows his dependence on his Father, from whom he receives himself, and remains in all circumstances in his Father’s hands. The humble monk puts this attitude of the Lord into practice in his own person.
Then St Benedict concludes that this itinerary, this identification with Christ, leads to the perfection of the love of God, the perfection of charity, agape. As he matures, the monk acts more and more out of love of Christ (amore Christi); this genitive carries a double meaning: love towards Christ and love coming from Christ. This latter interpretation is also confirmed by the following phrase, which explains that all this is the work of the Holy Spirit in the monk. Humility is not a matter of exterior deportment, but is the grace of the Holy Spirit which identifies us with Christ and thereby leads us to exterior attitudes according as humility and charity grow within us.
The spiritual itinerary which St Benedict details in his chapter 7 consists in ever-increasing identification with the humility of the Son of God who receives his nature wholly from his Father. For Jesus this dependence is immediate; for us who are sinners and are so easily inclined to consider ourselves self-sufficient (at least on certain points), humility passes by the struggle against every claim to autonomy, to personal importance, though without denying each individual personality. By identifying himself with the dependence of Jesus on his Father, the monk, by this very fact and thanks to the Holy Spirit, enters into their relationship, their mutual love, their agape. To the extent to which each brother manages to live this out, finally the whole community becomes a place of communion, a focus of agape.
Across all these great themes of the Rule which we have surveyed it does indeed seem that the journey of monastic holiness is one of identification with Christ the Son to be able, in him and by his Spirit, to be introduced into the Trinitarian agape, and to live by it. If monks allow themselves to be inhabited by the agape which animates Christ, then the community will be a focus where all help one another to live this ideal of community; it will become more and more a focus of agape. This is the final goal towards which St Benedict constructed his monastic life.
All the monastic virtues which the Rule aims to arouse (obedience, humility, etc) constitute not a goal in themselves but a means for the monk to move forwards by identifying himself with Christ, towards a fuller and fuller participation in Trinitarian love. Of course, Benedict does not proclaim this on every page of his Rule; he says it expressly at the end of the Prologue and then contents himself with discrete reminders; but he is so permeated with this idea that it may be found in practically every chapter and every great theme of the Rule.
The final chapter (73) gives the basic purpose of the whole Rule. It is addressed to those ‘who are hurrying towards the heavenly homeland’. It describes itself as ‘a very little rule for beginners’ which seeks to train them to ‘make trial of a certain moral rectitude and of a beginning of monastic life’. Here we find the encouragement of the Prologue not to fear ‘something slightly rigorous which was imposed in fairness to correct our vices and safeguard charity’. This is the short-term purpose of the Rule: to put the monk on the road to charity, turn him in this direction by beginning the struggle against the vices which obstruct our path. But the objective does not, of course, stop there; it is a matter of return to the ‘heavenly homeland’ which consists in nothing other than entry into the communion of the Trinity, and living by it as soon and as fully as possible. This objective throws light on each of the chapters of the Rule and is the deepest clue to the interpretation of each of them.