Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of the AIM
The Rule of St Benedict and the Family
From the beginning of his Rule St Benedict treats the monk and the nun as a son or daughter in relationship to a father, and as brothers or sisters in relationship to the community. We can see there not merely the attitude put forward in the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament (‘Listen, my son, to the precepts which I give to you today’) but also the way in which Jesus is presented in the Gospels.
The posture of a son listening to a good and tender father (compare the Prologue) opens the way to a profound personal transformation. Such listening is an education at the level of the interior source, the depths of the heart, to express in action what has been accepted with confidence. That is just how Jesus was constantly alert to the One whom he called Father, with whom he shared one breath, one spirit. In the same way monks live under a Rule and an abbot. The abbot is a father who mediates and interprets the Rule, with the Council which surrounds him at the heart of the community of brothers.
The abbot must constantly bear in mind that he represents in the monastery that divine paternity with regard to our humanity as Christ Jesus perfectly revealed it: ‘One who sees me sees the Father’ (John 14). He, the Son par excellence, reveals the Father, and that is why the person who leads the community receives the name Abba or father. This is not only because he represents the pater familias of a Roman family, but especially because he represents in the midst of the community the presence of a Father made manifest by the Spirit. The family in question is Trinitarian and not only a social reality. It aims to form a gospel community where the divine presence plays the most important part.
Chapters 2 and 64 of the Rule concerning the abbot give precious advice on how the clear and active presence of God is put into concrete practice:
• There is no distinction of persons in the monastery. All are loved, and the relationship between the monks is one of brothers. There is no ranking by social milieu or wealth. ‘We are all one in Christ.’
• The abbot adapts his ministry to the needs of every individual. He knows how to take action with regard to each one, showing himself at once gentle and tender but also firm and decisive on certain occasions.
• He does not ignore faults, but cuts them off at the roots.
• He seeks first of all the kingdom of God and his justice, and all the rest will be given over and above that.
• He will always have before his eyes the final perspective of union with God to which all are called. He will himself have to give account of his teaching and his actions in this respect.
From chapter 3 onwards Benedict calls the monks ‘brothers’. The abbot should take note of the advice of the brothers by bringing them together to make decisions about the life of the monastery. St Benedict gives wise advice for living community brotherhood in such circumstances. If all are to be called to counsel, that is because often ‘the voice of the youngest can bring out what is best’ (RB 3).
Therefore in the whole of the early part of the Rule it is always a question of a father in relationship to the Father whom Jesus reveals. Then who is the mother? This becomes clear in chapter 7 when Psalm 130 (131) is quoted. Anyone who is so self-centred that he raises his heart to the extent of becoming his own god is like a baby deprived of its mother’s milk (RB 7). The mother in question here equally represents the divine presence. To want to take oneself out of this presence is to risk a severance which does not suit the stage of human growth when we are still in our infancy. As a disciple of Jesus the monk is invited to situate himself like a new-born baby in the family of God. This means not that he must act childishly but that he must place all his confidence in him who is the giver of all good gifts. Such an interior openness allows the growth of many fruits, far beyond our own abilities.
Living in the family of God implies an education in not centring on an illusory self, but in remaining alert and welcoming the gift of the Word of the Father which is lived as a permanent presence of God in our human lives. This will be lived out particularly in the liturgy. In addition St Benedict invites us to the same awareness of this presence in chapter 20 of the Rule, ‘We believe that the divine presence is everywhere…, but particularly when we take part in the divine office.’ He also invites the monks to stand up in honour and respect whenever the Trinity is invoked.
In fact the whole of the liturgy focuses attention in a particular way on the presence of God as the source of our vitality in the faith. By praying we welcome him who speaks to us, who sows his Word in us, who gives us faith, and we give thanks to him in recognition that his gifts are enduring. At the same time we pray to him that our hearts and all human hearts may remain always open to such an exchange. We praise him and thank him for such a gift. This is what St Benedict calls pure prayer, emanating from a pure heart.
On this basis monks and nuns build up a community life with different aims contributing to its construction. This is the case for the deans and prior who support the abbot to avoid him wielding tyrannical power. There is in St Benedict a strong care to see that the Father Abbot remains the humble servant of the community as a whole, without his authority becoming overwhelming and without upsetting anyone. Wielding an authority derived from God he knows how to share it appropriately.
The same is true of the Cellarer of whom St Benedict lays down that he must be a father of the community. The name takes us once more back to the family character which monastic life should have. Thus the Cellarer will take special care of the weaker members just as the the Guestmaster also does. He must know how to give a good answer even to those who make a bad request. He will provide what each of the brothers needs. The fact that the monks have nothing of their own (chapter 33 and 34) also gives their life the character of a family. In a family the interest of each member are shared and even if the accounts are not always shared, they are still at the service of the family.
St Benedict discusses also the needs of the elderly, young people and the sick in the monastery, meals, the manner of serving at table and so many situations which affect any family life.
By embracing monastic life monks divest themselves of all possessions they might own, so that by losing themselves they may find their true selves. To do this they accept to hand themselves over to another both from the viewpoint of material possession and from the more spiritual viewpoint of obedience. This is indicated by giving up personal clothing, by taking on a habit which belongs to the monastery, and by the fact that after pronouncing the vows the new brother or sister prostrates at the feet of each member of the community to ask for prayers and to receive the sign of peace. From this moment onwards the novice is accounted a member of the community. Such is the introduction into the family to which the novice now belongs.
Within the group a person who enters the monastery however shortly after another is reckoned the junior. This is another mark which fits a family: the youngest is the one who is born after the others, but in the case of the monastery it is not age which counts but the time of arrival. So St Benedict clarifies, ‘The juniors should honour their seniors, and seniors should love their juniors.’ This is what one should expect from family life, even if it is not always the case!
The characteristics of the abbot outlined in chapter 64 are what best typifies the character of this family life:
• The abbot should be at the service of the community rather than dominating it.
• He must always place mercy above human justice.
• He will hate the faults but love the brothers.
• In correcting he will act prudently to avoid breaking the vessel by rubbing too hard.
• He must aim to be loved rather than feared.
In all these dimensions he of course resembles the servant in the Gospel whom the master puts over all his possessions, but he shows also the qualities of the father of a family according to the Gospel in the manner of God the Father revealed by Jesus Christ. Strengthened by this example and the confidence thus given, the other members of the community will be encouraged to act in the same way. This is what is taught by chapter 72 of the Rule, which could be considered the charter of the family:
• The monks should compete in showing reverence for one another.
• They should show endless patience in putting up with the weakness, physical or moral, of others.
• They must practise mutual obedience.
• They must love their abbot humbly and sincerely.
The Community and the human Family
By entering the monastery the monk and nun distance themselves from their natural family. Jesus himself had to live out this reality. According to Matthew 18.19-21, when the mother and brothers (that is to say, the family) of Jesus came to look for him because they reckoned that he was off his head, he was engaged in teaching a crowd. The answer given by Jesus is familiar, ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Those who hear the Word of God and put it into practice.’ He goes on to say, ‘Whoever does not prefer me to father, mother and brothers… is not worthy of me.’ We all belong to the family of God, brothers and sisters of the same family.
From this fact the Rule requires of monks that they may not remain dependent on their natural family. He prescribes this when on the one hand he lays down that no account should be taken of the social position of monks in the rank which they hold in the community; the relationship must be one of true equality (cf. chapter 63), and on the other hand, when he lays down that monks should not receive presents or remain dependent on the natural family in a way which is incompatible with the life of the community (cf. chapter 54). When the family comes to offer anything to a monk or sister this should normally be shared with the superior in order to prevent any dependence on the family. There is much to say on this subject about the ease of relationship with externs at the present time. Many consider that the practice of this community transparency is a side-issue, and it is not rare to find that one member of the community is more secretly indulged by family than others. It is important to be aware of the sense of this prescription of St Benedict and to apply it in a realistic manner.
St Benedict deals with another case where family relationships should not impinge upon fraternal relationships: ‘One monk should not be allowed to defend another in the monastery or to act as his protector, even if they are closely related’ (chapter 69). It is of course not rare to find persons of the same family in a monastery. Their relationship to one another must never be based on family ties. They are called to live like other members of the group, in a new relationship of fraternity to which Jesus calls us.
Ancient monastic Rules do not, any more than the Rule of St Benedict, go into details beyond the question we have just discussed: not to receive presents from the family, not to make a distinction based on their connection or family rank. Nevertheless there is an interesting hint in the Rule of Tarnant: ‘No one should be allowed to visit his family too frequently, but visits can be allowed at regular intervals to those who have given evidence of their zeal for the salvation of their relations, so that a person who claims to be bringing others to the Lord should not himself become a stranger to him.’ This change in social relationships is important in today’s world. There is nothing like transcending the natural family for avoiding the often blood-stained quarrels which oppose certain members on questions of power, and precedence or abuse of parental power which is the challenge of a circle of disciples whose purpose is to become a single body in love. This does not stand in opposition to the duty of honouring father and mother and living out with them the sharing which is an essential part of monastic vocation.
Monastic rules and constitutions have richly legislated on this question, more in the case of nuns than in that of monks. Distance from the family has often been considered from the point of view of fuga mundi to which the enforcement of enclosure was often and sometimes excessively linked. In the modern world a balance must be found.
An extended Family
However the monastic community, family though it is, is certainly not called upon to turn in upon itself. In the Rule of St Benedict there is mention of oblates, children and layfolk working in the monastery. With the monks these constitute an extended family. This phenomenon of association with the life of a monastic community for people not bound by vows like those of the monks has known many forms in the course of history, from conversi to people gifted to the monastery and other associates. At the present time it is taking on new forms which should not be neglected. These can be grouped round the title of ‘spiritual family’. The situations of spiritual families in the framework of a monastery are as diverse in traditions and contexts as they are in the form of commitment. For some this is limited to an association in prayer even if they live far from the monastery; this is the case of many secular oblates. For others who frequent the monastery assiduously and take part in its activities while living in its neighbourhood, the accompaniment of silence, prayer and fraternal meetings changes their lives. This is what they were seeking, and they are glad of it. But monasteries can take this chance to share with the laity in the same listening of faith and building of an ecclesial community which have firm consequences for their personal life and that of the whole Church.
It may be asked whether the commitment to a link with a monastery is merely a private matter or whether it should take on a community dimension, a link with the monks or the nuns or simply at the heart of a group of laypeople. On this matter different answers have been given, and depend as much on what the communities offer as on what the enquirers seek. We should note also the more and more frequent presence of layfolk who live in an annex to the monastery and bring their participation in the life of the monastery with the desire to taste the monastic spirituality at least for a time. In many places fruitful projects on this basis have borne fruit. On a recent visit to Peru I had the joy of visiting the community of Ñaña, near Lima, and meeting there also the leaders of the community of Chucuito on the banks of the Lake Titikaka. These two communities are composed of brothers and sisters, monks and lay, who share in all the activities of the Benedictine community. They are impressively alert to the local culture, to the surrounding population and to spiritual enquirers of all kinds. They are rooted in a life of prayer and listening to the Word of God, which forms the centre of their life and action. I must confess I was very impressed, and said to myself that, far from representing a marginal form of monastic life for the present day, they presented a familiar type of it, profoundly evangelical. This seems to me a fine illustration, writ large, of the family dimension of the monastic charism. It is certainly a sign of hope, even if not all monasteries are called to live out such a reality.
Like any disciple, monks and nuns are called to take a step backwards with regard to links of the natural family. To prefer nothing to Christ, according to the formula of St Benedict, implies not being too attached to relationships which are simply natural, and to open oneself to communion with the Body of Christ which constitutes the true family of God. On this basis relationships can be transformed, by themselves becoming places of essential sharing in listening to and putting into practice the Word and love of God. Only so is it truly possible to honour father and mother and to receive a hundredfold of all the goods of this world which we have painfully left behind although we reckoned that they were our own property.
In this way, following the example of the first Christian community described in the Acts of the Apostles, monks and nuns will be able to have in community one heart and one soul, and to live in the unity of the family of God. The blessed community will be open to a larger circle through guests, relations and friends of the monastery, and especially through oblates and other members of the community who wish and have committed themselves to being part of the monastic family, and in this way witnessing to Christ with it. Local churches and society as a whole may benefit from this witness, whose contemplative and monastic influence will be valuable, under the inspiration of St Benedict, who himself lived in several different ways of life. This witness is at once a calling and a gift for us. May we be able to listen to it, to live it and to share it generously.
 Règle de Tarnant, n° 9 in Règles monastiques d’occident, IVe -VIe siècle, D’Augustin à Ferréol, p. 275, collection Vie monastique n° 9, éditions de Bellefontaine, 1980.