A REFLECTION OFFERED TO THE CONGRESS OF BENEDICTINE ABBOTS, 2012
Fr John Kurichianil OSB,
Abbot of the Monastery of St Thomas, Kappadu, India
I do not think it is possible to define ‘Benedictine Identity’ in terms of anything we can call a Benedictine charism, as is done by other Religious Orders and Congregations. The Rule of St. Benedict does not mention any such specific charism. According to the Rule one embraces monastic life to seek God; it is the duty of the Novice Master to see ‘whether the novice is truly seeking God’ (RB 58:7). The novice has to learn to seek God because that is what he will have to be doing all his life as a monk.
One comes to the monastery, not because one cannot seek and find what one wants in the world, but to seek and find him through monastic life, that is, through a life of prayer, work, and study; through a life of obedience, stability and conversion; through a life of celibacy, simplicity, poverty, hospitality, silence and solitude. A Benedictine monk, from the first moment of his entrance to the monastery, especially from the moment he makes the monastic profession, undertakes to ‘seek God’ within the framework of the life style set forth in the Rule and as lived in a particular community. Thus seeking God can be considered the central theme of the Rule to which all other fundamental aspects of the Benedictine way of life are related.
1. Seeking God and awareness of the Divine Presence
The theme of seeking God is closely related to the idea of Divine Presence, of which the monk should always be aware and in which he should always try to live. He has to believe that God is present everywhere (19.1) and that everything is visible to the ‘divine eyes’ (7.13); that God is present in his thoughts because God is the ‘searcher of minds and hearts’ (7.14); that God is present in a special way when he is praying, whether it is the community prayer or personal prayer (19.2). He has to be aware of the Divine Presence when he is engaged in lectio divina since lectio divina (4.55) is the prayerful and meditative reading of the word of God. One has to recognise the Presence of God in the Abbot since he is ‘believed to hold the place of Christ’ (2.2; 63.13), in his brethren, especially in the sick (31.9; 36.1-2), in the guests who come to the monastery (53.1) particularly in the poor (4.14; 31.9; 53.15; 55.9; 66.3).
Benedict’s insistence on the Presence of God is based on several biblical ideas:
1. The idea of standing before God (1 Kings 17.1; 18.15; 19.11; 2 Kings 5.16) walking before God (Genesis 17.1; Isaiah 38.3) walking with God (Genesis 5.22, 24) or walking behind God (Jeremiah 2.2).
2. The idea of the special presence of God with individuals chosen and given a special mission by God (Genesis 39.2, 3, 21, 23; Exodus 3.12; Judges 6.12; Jeremiah 1.8; 15.20).
3. The idea of personal awareness of the Divine Presence in one’s own life (Genesis 39.9; Jeremiah 20.11) which enables one to persevere in the way of seeking God. In short, like Enoch, the monk is one who walks with God all his life and then he is found no more because God takes him (Genesis 5.22, 24). To be taken by God is the end or the aim of the monk’s walking with God (John 6.66-69) and seeking God.
2. Seeking God and giving him the first place
Since the monk’s only concern is to seek God, he has to ‘love the LORD God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength’ (4.1) which is simply the first commandment: ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6.5). In chapter 4 this love for God is to be manifested by obedience to the commandments, the teachings of the New Testament as well as the great principles of monastic life.
The monk’s love for God is to be concretely manifested by his preferential love for Christ: the monk is ‘to prefer nothing to the love of Christ’ (4.21); he is to prefer ‘nothing whatever to Christ’ (72.11); he is to obey because he holds nothing dearer to him than Christ (5.2). This great principle laid down by Benedict is another version or extension of 4.1. It is this preferential love for Christ that turns the monk into a soldier of Christ, ready to fight in the army of Christ (Prologue 3, 40; 1.2; 58.10; 61.10). The fight in question is the spiritual warfare spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (6.13-17). Many of the tools of good works enumerated in RB 4 can rightly be considered weapons of this spiritual fight. The monk, in as much he keeps fighting against all evil, especially within his own self, is a soldier of Christ like the martyrs of the early centuries. A most important aspect of that fight for Christ consists in the monk defeating evil thoughts and temptations that arise in his heart by ‘dashing them against the Rock which is Christ’ when they are still very young (Prologue 28; 4.50), that is, as soon as they arise.
In 43.3 we have an extension of this preferential love for Christ: ‘indeed nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God’. The three principles go together. Loving Christ above all else is the concrete manifestation of one’s love for God with all one’s heart, soul and strength. Love for the Divine Office above all else is the expression of one’s love for Christ. Just as the disciples manifested their preferential love for Christ by abandoning everything at the call of Jesus, the monk shows his preferential love for Christ by abandoning all that he has in hand, when he hears the signal for the work of God. The sound of the bell is the voice of Christ calling the monk; calling the monk to himself, calling the monk to prayer. Leaving everything at the signal for the work of God is the monk’s daily response to Christ’s daily call. In concrete life, whether or not one is serious about seeking God can be judged from whether or not one is serious about the Divine Office.
3. Seeking God in prayer
The monastery is ‘the school of the Lord’s service’ (Prologue 45). It is the place where people go on learning and practising the art of serving the Lord. The expression ‘to serve the Lord’ has a twofold meaning in the Bible. In a general sense it means to live a life of obedience to God, a life that is pleasing to God. But it also means a life of worship and prayer. The people come out of the land of Egypt to serve the Lord, to worship the Lord (Exodus 4.23; 5.1, 8). They cease to be servants of Pharaoh and of the Egyptians in order to become servants of the Lord; they give up worshipping the idols of Egypt (Ezekiel 20.7) in order to worship God alone. By the covenant the people of Israel became God’s own people. That exclusive belonging to God had to be manifested by worshipping him alone (Exodus 20.2-5). Monastic profession is a covenant, by which the monk begins to belong to God exclusively (58.21, 25). Living a life of service of God, both in the sense of a life of obedience and in the sense a life of liturgical worship, becomes an obligation for him (5.3; 50.4; 18.24).
It is mainly in prayer that the monk seeks and finds God, finds God’s will. It is in prayer that he gets the strength to do the will of God which he has discerned in his prayer. It applies to the community at large; hence the insistence on community prayer. It applies to every individual monk; hence the insistence on personal prayer. Like the great men of the Old Testament the monk has to inquire of God (1 Samuel 22.13, 15; 23.2, 4, 9-12, 2 Samuel 2.1; 1 Kings 22.5, 7) to consult God, take counsel with God (Hosea 8.4). And the same inquiring of God has to be practised also on the community level. Seeking God and this inquiring of God or consulting God always go together; there can be no seeking God without this constant inquiring or consulting of God.
4. Seeking God in lectio divina
What lectio divina is can be gathered from the use of the adjective divinus in the RB. It is used to refer to Sacred Scriptures (2.5, 12; 7.1; 9.8; 28.3; 31.16; 53.9; 64.9; 73.3), to Divine Presence (19.1), to divine or sacred reading (48.1) and to community prayer (19.2; 43.1). Thus lectio divina means the prayerful and meditative reading of the sacred Scriptures in the presence of God. Benedict wants the monk to read all the books of the Old and the New Testaments (9.8; 42.4; 73.3), the writings of the Fathers of the Church (9.8; 73.4) and all serious monastic literature (42.3; 73.5). But the writings of the Fathers explain the Scriptures; and the monastic literature applies the word of God to the daily life of the monk. So lectio divina is primarily the reading and study of the word of God. If one is to benefit from lectio divina one should do it with exactly the same dispositions as in prayer: with ‘humility’, ‘reverence’ and ‘purity of devotion’ (20.1-2).
The primary aim of lectio divina is to acquire a deeper knowledge of the word of God. It is in lectio divina that one gets in touch with the word of God, with the power of the word of God, with God himself. It is in lectio divina that one eats the word of God (Deuteronomy 8.3; Jeremiah 1.9; 15.16; Ezekiel 2.8; 3.1-3, 10); and it is this eating the word that gives one energy for all one’s actions. Like Jesus in Luke 4.17-21, the monk should find a message for himself in the text that he reads. It is this personal discovery of the depths of the word of God that leads to the discovery of God.
Lectio divina is a necessary condition for prayer. One has to pray intelligently (19.4: psallite sapienter); and that requires a good grasp of the Psalms, the hymns, and the readings, used in the Divine Office; hence Benedict’s advice to the monk to spend extra time reading and studying the Pslams and the lessons (8.3). The same idea is implied in the principle that when one prays the mind should be ‘in harmony with the voice’ (19.7). What comes out from the lips should come from the mind and the heart. It is lectio divina that brings things into one’s heart and mind. Lectio divina is a necessary condition even for a fruitful celebration of the Eucharist which should normally be the very centre of monastic liturgy. To have the eyes of one’s heart opened in order to see and recognise Jesus (John 9.35-38; Luke 24.31) in the breaking of bread (Luke 24.35; Acts 2.42), one’s heart should first be set on fire by listening to the word (Luke 24:32); and Jeremiah compares the word to fire (20.9; 23:29). Generally without the practice of lectio divina monastic prayer tends to become mechanical.
Like Jeremiah the monk should seek the word, find it, and eat it (15.16). This search for the word is search for God; it is the yearning and thirst for God (Psalms 42.1-2; 63.1); it is the earnest waiting for God (Isaiah 8.17).
There can be no serious seeking God and finding him without serious lectio divina which enables the monk to relish the word and to turn it into the ‘joy’ and ‘delight’ of his heart (Jeremiah 15.16; Ezekiel 3.3; John 3.29). Yes, seeking the Word means seeking God, and finding the Word means finding God, because the Word is the Word of God.
Lectio divina nourishes and strengthens the monk’s faith; it supplies the necessary intellectual support to his life of faith; and monastic life is a life of faith (Prologue 49). After all it is as a ‘rational animal’ that man has to believe. Let us note here the way the gospel of John associates knowledge and believing. The two terms to ‘know’ and ‘to believe’ are almost interchangeable in a number of texts in John (4.42; 6.69; 17.8, 21, 23). And most important – for John eternal life consists in knowledge: ‘this is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (John 17.3). And Paul seems to imply the same thing in the expression ‘knowledge of faith’ (Romans 1.5; 16.26). If all that is true, lectio divina enables the monk to encounter God already in this life. Hosea’s warning that ‘a people without understanding (knowledge) comes to ruin’ is as relevant today as it was in his day; and relevant especially for monks!
5. Seeking God in work
In RB 48.8 we have a definition of the monk: a true monk is one who earns his living by the work of his own hands. For Benedict the monk is basically a worker. Though Benedict speaks about various types of work (46.1; 57.1; 66.6) he does seem to attach special importance to agricultural work. This is evident from the context of 48.8: ‘if the circumstances of the place or their poverty require that they themselves do the work of gathering the harvest, they should not be saddened’ (48.7). It would seem that the ‘fruit or fresh vegetables’ mentioned in 39.3 are produced by the monks in their garden (hortus: 7.63; 46.1; 66.6). The mention of ‘fields’ (ager) in 7.63; 41.2, 4 is also significant. In the mind of Benedict working and eating are intimately related (39.3, 6; 40.5; 48.7-8), not only in the sense that the monk eats in order to have the energy to work, but also in the sense that the monk works in order to have something to eat. The mention of ‘brothers working at a long distance’ (50.1), and probably also working for several hours at a stretch, also seem to refer to agricultural work.
By his insistence on agriculture Benedict puts the monk directly in touch with nature, with the mother earth. This is in perfect harmony with the way man is presented in the Bible. God ‘formed man from the dust of the ground’ (Genesis 2.7). God ‘planted a garden in Eden’ (Genesis 2.8) and he ‘took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it’ (Genesis 2.15). Man has to eat bread ‘by the sweat of (his) face’ (Genesis 3.19) and at death he has to ‘return to the ground’ (Genesis 3.19). Moreover we find God bringing all the animals to man to impose names on them (Genesis 2.19). All that shows that man, by his nature, is bound up with the plant world and the animal world. Moreover by his presence and work man perfects the creative work of God – note that one of the two reasons, why at one stage in the process of creation there was ‘no plant of the field’ and ‘no herb’, was that ‘there was no one to till the ground’ (Genesis 2.5).
In Genesis 3.8 we have the image of ‘the LORD God walking in the garden’; and the text goes on to say that ‘the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God’. God fills nature with his presence, with his glory. Man is to discover God’s greatness in nature, to recognise God’s glory in nature and to praise him (Psalm 19.1; Romans 1.19-20). Yes, God’s presence in nature is as real as the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of course the adjective ‘real’ understood differently in the two cases. And I believe that the two types of presence are so intimately related that one who does not recognise God’s presence in nature will not be able to recognise Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. I also believe that the monk who engages himself in agricultural work has a better chance to find God in nature. Working on the soil, walking in the field meditating like Isaac (Genesis 24.63) the monk discovers the presence of God in nature. This in turn enables the monk to recognise and acknowledge his great duty as guardian of nature. He should protect and cherish nature; but never exploit it, never yield to the temptation of consumerism. Indeed very earnest and honest seeking is required to find God in nature. One who does not find God in nature will not find him at all.
6. Seeking God in obedience
Benedictines are cenobites. For Benedict cenobites are ‘the strongest kind of monks’ (1.13): ‘strongest’ kind because they live ‘under a rule and an abbot’ (1.2); ‘strongest’ because ‘they dwell in monasteries and desire to have an abbot over them’ (5.12); ‘strongest’ because they ‘take up the strong and bright weapons of obedience’ (Prologue 3). In short, ‘strongest’ because, as in the case of Jesus (John 4.34: ‘my food is to do the will of him who sent me’), obedience is the food that nourishes and strengthens the monk.
Benedict wants the monk to renounce his own will (Prologue 3; 3.8; 5.7), not to love his own will (7.31), ‘to hate’ his own will (4.60). Obedience is a process by which the monk learns to replace his own will with the will of another, to walk ‘by another’s judgment and command’ (5.12); that ‘another’ is ultimately God himself, because ‘obedience given to superiors (or to anyone for that matter) is given to God’ (5.15). Of course this process of replacing one’s own will with the will of God is not easy. Benedict speaks of the ‘labour of obedience’ (Prologue 2), implying that obedience is laborious, hard. It cannot be otherwise. Why? Because Jesus himself, whose obedience the monk is to imitate (5.13), found obedience difficult: ‘although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered’ (Hebrews 5.8); and it was through obedience that he was made ‘perfect’ (Hebrews 5.9). There can be no other way for the monk who has been called to ‘hasten to the perfection’ of monastic life.
The monk is one who undertakes a journey towards God. And the road by which he is to travel is the road of obedience (Prologue 2; 71.2). Obedience is not just a good disposition of submission, not just docility, but willingness to follow a particular Rule; to be under the guidance of a particular abbot, who is to be seen as the legitimate interpreter of the Rule; to show obedience to the various superiors appointed by the abbot (71.3) and to one’s fellow-monks (71.1). Obedience means obedience to the commandments of God, to the teachings of the New Testament, to all the healthy principles of Monastic tradition, to the rules and regulations of a particular community (RB 4). Obedience is possible only where there is love; obedience is the expression of love. That is a strong point in John (14.15, 21, 23, 24; 15.14). And Benedict has exactly the same point in 68 - after an honest dialogue with the abbot (68.1-3), if the abbot still insists that the monk should do the difficult thing that is asked of him, the monk should know that it is ‘good for him’ to obey, and he is to obey ‘out of love’. Loving and respectful obedience is what a son owes his father (Malachi 1.6; Prologue 1). This was true of Jesus; and it has to be true of the monk. Hebrews 5.9 says that by his obedience Jesus has become ‘the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him’, that is, ‘for only those who obey him’ .The point is the same as in Romans 5.12-21. Monastic obedience has to be seen in this perspective. It is by his obedience that the monk partakes of the salvation given by Jesus; and that salvation consists in becoming friends of God, like Abraham (James 2.23) or friends of Jesus like John the Baptist (John 3.29), like Lazarus (John 11.11) and like the 11 disciples (John 15.13-15). Obedience brings about intimacy with God, with Jesus, because it brings about unity and harmony of wills – the will of God and the will of the monk (John 8.29). And that is the state of salvation.
What exactly happens in the monk’s life of obedience? Obedience enables the monk to be ‘alive to God’ (Romans 6.11), to ‘live to God’ (Galatians 2.19), to live ‘because of the Father’ and because of Jesus (John 6.57). Obedience is the seeking, and living to God is the finding – both, of course, going together.
7. Seeking God and stability
The words ‘live in monasteries’ in the definition of the cenobites in 1.1 as well as 5.12 indicate the idea of stability. Stability is not only attachment to the monastic way of life in an abstract way, not only fidelity to some monastic ideals or principles; it also means attachment to monastic life as it is lived in a particular community. A Benedictine monk is rooted in a particular community; attached to a particular monastery and community. Stability implies love for one’s monastery, love for one’s community, love for the life lived in one’s community; it means love for one’s abbot (72.10) and love for one’s brethren (72.8). It is attachment to everything that is in the monastery. This attachment enables one to look at even the tools and vessels of the monastery as the ‘sacred vessels at the altar’ (31.10); it enables one to use everything with the utmost care (32.4-5; 46.1-2).
One who has deep love for his own monastery will avoid wandering outside the monastery; in fact he will find it impossible to ‘wander outside’ the monastery (66.7). The monk loves his monastery which is ‘the house of God’ (31.19; 53.22; 64.5), because it is within its ‘enclosure’ (4.78) that he learns the art of serving God (Prologue 45), that he learns and practises the ‘spiritual craft’ (4.75) making use of all the tools of good works enumerated in RB 4; it is there that he can seek and find God. It is the vow of stability, one’s attachment to one’s community, that allows the monk never to abandon Christ as the Master, but to persevere in his teaching until death (Prologue 50); it is the vow of stability that brings about continuity in one’s journey towards God. This stability, this rootedness, this sense of belonging to a particular community, helps the monk to grow steadily and to become ‘strong’.
Stability suffers a setback when one begins to look for chances for going out, for wandering outside the monastery; look for external ministry; look for chances to make a name for oneself on the outside. It is when one no more feels at home in the monastery that one begins to look to the outside. And that is the beginning of the end of monastic life. If stability enables the monk to keep walking towards God, giving up stability means turning one’s back to God.
8. Seeking God and conversion
The third Benedictine vow is conversion, conversion of life, change of heart and mind. Conversion is a process by which the monk becomes a ‘new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5.17; Galatians 6.15), a ‘new man’ (Ephesians 4.24); it is the process by which one puts on Christ (Romans 13.14; Galatians 3.27); it is the process by which one acquires the mind of Christ (Philippians 2.5), Christ is formed in one (Galatians 4.19). Entering the monastery or embracing the monastic way of life is the beginning of conversion (58.1; 63.1). There are in the RB texts that almost identify the monastic way of life with the term ‘conversion’ (conversatio: 21.1-2; 73.1-2). In the RB conversion is a vow, which means that by his profession the monk takes it upon himself to live a life of constant conversion till his death. This idea is implied in Benedict’s presentation of monastic life as a return journey to God; one has to return because one has gone away; one has to keep returning all the time because one keeps going away all the time. This explains why ‘daily in one’s prayers, with tears and sighs’ one should ‘confess one’s past sins to God’ (4.57) and ‘amend them for the future’ (4.58). Conversion has to be a daily experience.
The value and specificity of this Benedictine vow can be properly understood only against the background of the importance of conversion in the Bible. The prophets, who were in a way the Old Testament monks, lived a life of conversion and conversion was the central message of their preaching. John the Baptist appeared preaching repentance (Matthew 3.2) and administering the ‘baptism of repentance’ (Mark 1.4; Luke 3.3). Jesus started his public ministry with the words: ‘Repent for the kingdom of God has come near’ (Mark 1.14). As a prophet of the New Testament and as a disciple of Jesus, the monk has to live a life of conversion and he has to convey the message of conversion, obviously more by his life than by his words. Conversion is seeking and finding God. Conversion is turning away from all that is not God, and a turning to God.
Conversion is possible only within the ambiance of the desert. In order to bring about the conversion of Israel, God had to ‘bring her into the wilderness’ (Hosea 2.14). To listen to the Baptist’s message of repentance and to submit to his baptism of repentance, people had to go out into the desert where John exercised his ministry (Matthew 3.5-6; Mark 1.5). That is what the monk does when he embraces the monastic way of life. He leaves the world and flees into the ‘desert’, into the monastery, to live a life of conversion. And there in the desert of the monastery, he is nourished by God (Revelation 12.6, 14); there under divine protection he is safe from the attacks of the serpent, like the woman in Revelation 12.6, 13-14). This constant touch with the desert, this constant fidelity to the desert ideal, makes him ‘strong in spirit’ like John the Baptist (Luke 1.80). Thus while hermits go out to the solitary combat of the desert cenobites live in the desert of the monastery, engaged in the same combat. But as long as they remain in the desert, they can be sure of victory with the help of God (Prologue 4, 41) and with the help of many brethren (1.4).
9. Seeking God and renunciation
When God called Abraham he had to leave his ‘country’, ‘kindred’ and ‘father’s house’ (Genesis 12.1). When Jesus called his disciples, they too left everything and everybody and followed him (Matthew 4.20, 22; Mark 1.18, 20; Luke 5.11). Jesus demanded total renunciation from all those who wanted to follow him closely (Matthew 10.37-39; Luke 14.26-27,33). To the rich young man who wanted to have eternal life Jesus said: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ (Matthew 19.21). Members of the early Christian community in Jerusalem practised the same renunciation by selling their possessions and bringing the money to the Apostles to be distributed among the believers (Acts 2.45; 4.34-37). At his conversion Paul ‘suffered the loss of all things’ (Philippians 3.8), and considered all the advantages that he had, all that he could boast of, as a Jew and as a Pharisee (Philippians 3.3-6) as mere ‘rubbish’ (Philippians 3.8). It cannot be otherwise with the monk. He too has to give up father and mother, brothers and sisters, and the possibility of having a wife and children, house and property. At his profession the monk formally renounces all his possessions and all the possibility of possessing (58.24; 59.3-6). He belongs to the community; he works and earns for the community and the community supplies all his legitimate needs (33.5).
There is yet a deeper level of renunciation. He has to live a life of austerity, of Christian asceticism, glorying in nothing but the cross of Christ (Galatians 6.14) and always sharing ‘by patience in the passion of Christ’ (Prologue 50). He has to live a life that does not conform to the ways of the world (4.20) keeping himself away from all pleasures (4.12). He is not permitted to ‘sit in the company of merrymakers’ nor to share in their worldly rejoicing (Jeremiah 15.17). His should be a life-style that keeps the ‘world’ out of the monastery; but at the same time, a life that allows or even forces the monk to embrace the whole human race within his heart – all great monks were great lovers of humanity.
Renunciation enables the monk to travel light; and then there is a greater chance of his reaching the destination - monastic perfection or God – and reaching it faster.
10. Seeking God and seeking peace
To the idea of seeking God is intimately related the idea of seeking peace. In Prologue 17 Benedict quotes Palm 34.13-14 where we have the Psalmist’s advice to those who desire life: ‘keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it’. The text comes in handy for Benedict’s thinking. The monk’s sole aim is to have life; and it is to obtain life that he seeks God. For Benedict seeking peace is a necessary condition for seeking God. Every monk should have this peace in his heart, and then the entire community will be at peace.
The idea of peace in its turn is related to the idea of discretion in the Rule. ‘Discretion’ is one of the strongest points of the Rule. Discretion means striking a balance between aspects that seem to be extremes, aspects that generally do not meet. Benedict has a wonderful way of striking such a balance. Benedict considers the monastery a ‘school of the Lord’s service’ (Prologue 45). In establishing this school he is keen on avoiding everything that is ‘harsh or burdensome’ (Prologue 46). But at the same time he insists that there has to be ‘some strictness’ of discipline for correcting vices or preserving charity’ (Prologue 47). In 58.3 in connection with admission to a new-comer there is mention of the ‘harsh treatments and the difficulties of getting in’. Again in 58.8 ‘the hard and rugged ways’ involved in monastic life are to be explained to the novice. The monk should ‘chastise the body’ (4.11) and check the desires of the flesh (4.59; 7.12, 23). But at the same time the body is not to be despised - the monk can do good works that will benefit him for eternal life only when he is still ‘living in the body’ (Prologue 43); he can hope to be exalted by God only if he keeps descending and ascending the ladder whose two sides are the ‘body and soul’ (7.9). The monk should ‘love fasting’ (4.13). Benedict lays down clear regulations about the measure of food (39) and drink (40). All the same he is aware that exceptionally hard work or extreme climate may require adjustments; and he allows such adjustments (39.6; 40.5).
To maintain an atmosphere of peace in the monastery great care is to be taken by all concerned. The Abbot should ‘dispose all things with prudence and justice’ (3.6). He ‘must not disturb the flock committed to him’ by ordaining anything unjustly, making tyrannical use of his power (27.6; 63.2). Everything in the monastery has to be arranged in such a way that no occasion is given for justifiable murmuring (41.5), ‘that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak may not be frightened away’ (64.19), but that ‘all the members will be at peace’ (34.5). The advice given to the abbot in 64.16: ‘he is not to be turbulent and anxious, nor excessive and stubborn, nor jealous and over-suspicious; for then he is never at rest’ is equally valid for every monk. Even when one ‘meets with difficulties and contradictions and even any kind of injustice’ in the way of obedience, one should take it all ‘with a silent mind’ (7.35) and endure it (7.36) without murmuring, either in the heart or in words (5.17). Even those who are severely punished for serious failures in community life (27) as well as those who find it beyond their capacity to accept a request made of them (68) should be helped to face the difficult situations. Imposing burdens too heavy to carry is always destructive of peace (48.24; 64.17-18). Benedict proposes a simple way of life, possible for all average humans (Prologue 3), neither too burdensome nor too easy. The only condition is that they should be people who seek God. If they are people who seek God, then Benedict also wants them to be people who seek and find peace and strive to live in peace – in peace with God, in peace with others, in peace with themselves. No possibility of seeking and finding God, who is a ‘God of peace’ (1 Corinthians 14.33) unless the ‘peace of Christ rule in (one’s) heart’ (Colossians 3.15).
11. Seeking God and good zeal
To the idea of seeking God is also related the idea of ‘good zeal’ that Benedict speaks about in 72. It is the zeal ‘which separates from vices and leads to God and life everlasting’ (72.2). It is the same zeal that the novice is expected to have: zeal ‘for the Work of God, for obedience and for humiliations’ (58.7). It is basically the same as the zeal for God with which Elijah was filled (1 Kings 19.10, 14). If the novice is expected to be zealous, it follows that the monk should remain zealous all his life. Usually one begins with great zeal and youthful enthusiasm (1.3). But unfortunately many gradually become tepid and ‘lukewarm’, ‘neither cold nor hot’ (Revelation 3.15-16).
It is to express the idea of zeal that Benedict uses Biblical images of walking (ambulare: 5.12; 7.3; 64.18) and running (currere: Prologue 13, 22, 44, 49; 27.5) when speaking about monastic life. The use of these images shows that the monastic journey cannot be undertaken half-heartedly; it cannot be a sluggish movement forward. It has to be a steady and constant movement; it has to be a straining forward, a pressing forward (Philippians 3.12-14), at the same time making use of all the energies at one’s disposal, and relying heavily on God’s grace especially when the going is particularly hard (Prologue 4, 28, 41; 4:50. 68.5). It is by being zealous, that is, by doing things with ‘the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength’ that one shows that one loves the ‘Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength’ (4.1). Since the monk desires ‘eternal life with all the passion of the spirit’ (4.46), he also does everything with the same ‘passion of the spirit’, passion of the heart.
The image of running also implies the idea of healthy competition in monastic life, the kind of competition we find in the way Peter and John are generally presented in the fourth gospel, but especially in John 20.1-10. Both of them run together to the tomb, but one runs faster than the other and reaches the tomb first (John 20.4). Peter and John are presented in the Gospel of John as the ideal or model disciples. They are not opposed to each other but they complement each other. Benedict not only allows, but he even positively encourages, even demands, such a healthy competition. The very fact that Benedict reckons with the existence of ‘strong’ (64.19) and ‘weak’ (27.6; 28.5; 40.3; 42.4; 48.24; 64.19) within the same community, implies that some will ‘run’ faster than others. As soon as the signal is heard, monks should ‘compete with one another in hastening to the Work of God’ (22.6); they should ‘vie in paying obedience one to another’ (72.6); they should ‘hasten to the perfection’ of the monastic way of life (73.2). This hastening is part of the monk’s main concern of ‘hastening to the heavenly homeland’ (73.8).
The greatest obstacle to this zeal for God, zeal for the monastic way of life, is idleness. Benedict considers idleness as ‘the enemy of the soul’ (48.1) which the monk should avoid at any cost (6.8; 48.18, 24). The idea has strong biblical foundation. The story in 2 Samuel 11 alone shows how destructive idleness can be! The daily life of a monk who is dangerously idle is very similar to the portrait of Elijah in 1 Kings 19.4-6: getting easily tired, looking for every possible shade, sitting in every shade that is found, lying down, sleeping, and getting up only to eat! In the monastic context Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 3.6-12) is particularly relevant. One can think of physical, intellectual and spiritual laziness. To avoid physical laziness Benedict proposes serious, productive manual labour; to avoid intellectual laziness Benedict puts forward lectio divina. And once the physical and intellectual laziness is checked, and the monk is faithful to his prayer life, the pitfall of spiritual laziness is avoided.
12. Seeking God and purity of heart
Jesus says in Matthew 5.8: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God’. In line with the entire monastic tradition Benedict also insists on ‘purity of heart’ (20.3). ‘Purity of heart’ and ‘purity of devotion’ are necessary conditions for seeking and finding God and to relate to God in prayer (20.2-3). God can be found only when he is sought with a pure heart.
‘Purity of heart’ is connected with one’s way of life. Benedict advises monks to ‘keep themselves in all purity of life’ (49.2). There can be ‘purity of heart’ only when one is interiorly purified by God (Isaiah 6.5-7; Ezekiel 36.25; Psalm 51.2, 7, 10) only when one tries one’s best to keep oneself from all sin as far as possible, even running away from the occasions of sin like Joseph (Genesis 39.7-12). Since ‘purity of heart’ is associated with ‘tears of compunction’ (20.3), to maintain purity of heart one should always live in a spirit of repentance. Purity of heart requires that one keeps out of the heart everything that defiles the heart (Matthew 15.18-19), everything, every idol, that is incompatible with the holiness of God ((Ezekiel 14. 4, 7; 20.7-8, 16, 24; 33.25).
Purity of heart is evidently related to simplicity of heart; and simplicity of heart is related to simplicity of life. And that is why Benedict proposes a simple life style for the monk. The monk is to be ‘content with the poorest and worst of everything’ (7.49). ‘Frugality’ is to be maintained in everything and in all circumstances (39.10). The monk should not complain about the ‘colour or coarseness’ of the clothes he wears, but should be simply content with what can be purchased cheaply where he lives (55.7). Not only the cellarer (31.1), no monk in fact should be a ‘great eater’ (4.36), no monk given to drinking (4.35; 40.6). ‘Over-eating’ is most unchristian (39.8); and a fortiori most un-monastic. Monastic life is a simple way to God; when that simplicity is lost, it ceases to be a way to God.
13. Seeking God and humility
The way Benedict understands the great Christian and monastic virtue of humility can also be related to the theme of seeking God. To explain the idea of humility he uses the image of a ladder, the ladder which Jacob saw in his dream (Genesis 28.12), and to which Jesus refers in John 1.51. The ladder has twelve steps. Steps imply the idea of ascending and descending. For Benedict the two aspects go together. It is by descending by humility that one keeps ascending. It is by self-humiliation that one is exalted, raised up, by God (7.8).
Seen that way humility is a sharing in the self-emptying of Jesus. Here again Benedict’s thought is close to that of John. Unlike Paul (Philippians 2.6-11) and other New Testament authors (Luke 24.26), John considers Jesus’ life at the same time as a process of self emptying, a process of humiliation, and a process of exaltation. His life in the flesh was an existence in glory (John 1.14; 2.11) and his death on the cross was his supreme glorification (John 3.14; 7.37-39; 8.28; 12.32). Add to that what John the Baptist says in John 3.30: ‘he must increase, but I must decrease’. The monk keeps becoming less and less, he keeps decreasing; while Christ keeps increasing, becoming more and more in him. The first is the aspect of self-emptying and descending; the second the aspect of glorification, ascending. The two things happen, not one after the other, but simultaneously – it is in the measure that the monk empties himself that he gets filled with Christ. According to Prologue 50 the sole programme of monastic life is to share in Jesus’ passion and death so as to be able to share also in his glory. Both these happen simultaneously. Seeking God or seeking Christ means giving way to him. Once the monk succeeds in divesting himself of his own dear self, he can say with Paul: ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20).
Now to conclude it must be stated that God is more in search of the monk (Ezekiel 34.11-16; Psalm 119.176; Luke 15.4-6, 8-9; 24.13-15; John 9.35; 21.2-4; Prologue 14) than the monk can ever be in search of God. The monk is able to meet God, more because he is sought by God than because he seeks God. Yet it is the duty of the monk to undertake the search for God in all earnestness.