By Sr Mary David Totah, OSB, St Cecilia's Abbey, Ryde, Isle of Wight, England.
When we first come to the monastery--and indeed throughout our monastic life-- our very formation comes to us from the meaning communicated by outward lives and structures. The outward example of a group of people reflects its ideals. Many of us could echo St. Aelred describing his friend Simon: "The authority of our Order forbade conversation, but his appearance spoke to me, his walk spoke to me, his very silence spoke to me" (Mirror of Charity, I.34). Simon was the living exemplar of the life, the form with which his whole being coincided. Closer to our own day, one response to a questionnaire prepared by the Union of Monastic Superiors (1999) ran: "I can still remember when visiting my community as a guest, walking around the church after Matins, seeing about four monks sitting in the Nave, and thinking, 'this is a community that prays.' That was the moment when I first began to take seriously the possibility of joining."
The Rule as Lived Expression
The living Community is an exegete of the Rule to the novice, the first exegete of the Rule to the novice. People come to our monasteries because they see something, a pattern of life, an observable observance. And it is the Rule which establishes this pattern of life. The contemporary visitor saw the community practising ch. 20 and 52 of the Rule; he saw that the communal liturgy which punctuates the monk's day is something that becomes continual in the oratory of his heart. In a sense, then, by entering the monastery, they have already responded to the Rule; our task is to help them understand what they are responding to. As one of our novices said to me, "I think my attitude to the concept of 'rules' in general was probably more negative. I saw the Rule as something 'to be kept' than as a positive tool for spiritual growth. Now I am frequently struck by its beauty. As with Scripture, in some respects I was initially blinded by its apparent simplicity." In a sense, the young--clear-sighted as they may be--don't know how to respond to the Rule; we have to show them. So the question of how the young respond to the Rule really becomes a question of how we present the Rule. Young people will respond to the Rule by the way they are called to live it and from what they see lived around them.
This brings us to the problem of how to communicate values. The values of the Rule are lived values, communicated in life. Words and arguments do not suffice. Their decision to live as monks and nuns must be present and reflected in the Community, in a manner of life. The abbot in his teaching says St. Benedict should show forth all that is good and holy more by his deeds than by his words; in the chapter on humility, the monk is called to a real transformation of his entire being, and the ascending steps in the ladder are "signs," something that can be seen. The fact that the degrees describing exterior comportment (9-12) come after those concerning interior humility is not an accident. Exterior humility is not a preliminary training to real spiritual work. It is the fruit, the full-flowering of a life united to God and conscious of a real relationship to God. Exterior behaviour is not the source but the manifestation of a soul which sees itself in the truth.
That the young are very sensitive to this kind of truthfulness may be seen in the answers to the questionnaire--"Young people are looking for something authentic and engaging even if it means something demanding and at one level unattractive". . ."Rather than worry about advertising gimmicks, superiors should ensure that their communities are actually following the Holy Rule-not just the spirit of it (whatever that is) but the literal words of the Rule. It is a remarkable and inspiring document.". . ."There will be disappointments when the novice witnesses those above him not doing what the Rule exhorts". . . "What changes would you recommend to Superiors. . . ? Really to be seen to live the life you profess--the monastic habit alone cuts no ice with aspirants who are truly searching for something different challenging, authentic. They will soon learn the truth of the situation on entering if there is a discrepancy between the life professed and the life lived out" . . ."Challenge young people and do not mislead them with giving an easy option."
What I noted in the questionnaire, and in the novices I've had, is this desire for authenticity. Young people wish either to live more fully in conformity with the text they claim to follow, knowing it better and understanding more what it demands; or if they are asked to depart from a specific practice laid down in the Rule, to recognise clearly what they are doing and to verify whether they have the right, and if so why. 1 They recognise that the Rule presents them with a pattern of life to be lived. In their responses, they seem to be saying that the monastic life is a practical affair, a matter of actually doing things, not just thinking various thoughts. And that a true fidelity to the spirit of the Rule is going to involve a certain literalism; the spirit of the monastic life is inseparable from the concrete observances in which it is realised. "We follow the Spirit of the Rule," ran one response, "which can mean almost anything." 2 They sense that the letter is the bearer of the Spirit, and that without the letter the spirit is voiceless. 3 The young would seem to have confidence in observances. 4
So on the one hand there is this desire for authenticity; on the other, they admit that some things are difficult to understand. Two other responses to the questionnaire read: "Strive to be clear about what is monastic and what is house custom. Be firm in keeping the former intact and flexible about the latter." "I consider it necessary that the Rule be seen critically and not as a means of justifying concepts and practices that are out-moded."
As these responses recognise, our monastic life implies two things: a body of teaching, a doctrine, and secondly, it also implies a sum of practice, usages, customs, obviously of lesser and greater importance. The task of discriminating between these is not always easy. For the sum of practices and usages both express this theory of life and underpin it. The teaching would remain pure theory, would render it disincarnated, if it was not expressed practically, concretely, in a way of living (if it seems like pinning down, it's really as the skeleton pins down the flesh as it were). On the other hand, the way of living could easily degenerate into a kind of Pharisaism, rigidity, formalism, if it was not animated by a teaching, by an ideal. 5
A symbolic action, a custom, a monastic practice does not always make its mark immediately. Time is needed to take it in. The young ones can feel uneasy at this, at finding these practices and observance something of a task. They think they ought to rejoice in these things at once; they are afraid of offering God a purely formal service. Newman makes an interesting point with reference to the prodigal son who begged to be a servant first. "We must begin religion with what looks like a form. Our fault will be, not in beginning it as a form, but in continuing it as a form. For it is our duty to be ever striving and praying to enter into the real spirit of our services, and in proportion as we understand them and love them, they will cease to be a form and a task, and will be the real expression of our minds. Thus shall we gradually be changed in heart from servants to sons of Almighty God."
This process can be difficult for young people oriented by our society towards the quick fix and instant results. Here a deliberate personal effort is needed to get into a gesture or movement, a search for deeper levels of meaning, but this is sometimes beyond them. Perhaps we need to educate them into the power of signs where form and mystery encounter one another. In this question of monastic practices and usages we are often in the realm of signs, almost a kind of sacramental realm; and signs have a power to influence us consciously and unconsciously. For this reason, we need to think twice before throwing something overboard: that something can have deeper consequences than we can foresee. Cassian says, practise something first for a long time, and then you will see its value.
"Do not be troubled," he cautions the young, "or drawn away and diverted from imitating whatever you see our Elders do or teach, even if for the moment the cause or reason of any deed or action is not clear to you, because when you are good and simple towards all things and are anxious faithfully to copy whatever you see taught or done by their Elders, instead of discussing it, then the knowledge of all things will follow through experience." (Conference XVIII, 3)
Cassian says, live first and do first, in order to understand later; young people tend to say , "I want to understand first, and live and do when I'm jolly well ready." They find it difficult to trust, to give themselves to the system, to allow themselves to be formed without being able to realise or confirm the process. But Cassian's point remains important--many Christian realities have to be lived before being understood. A certain experience of God is acquired by striving to do his will. Many intellectual difficulties find their solution in the measure in which we strive to live the Gospel and put it into practice. And Cassian's text makes another point as well; the pedagogy of monastic life goes from outer to inner, from practice to reflection, from observance to spirit. 6
The Journey from Fear to Love
In what we've said so far, I think three kinds of responses to the Rule have emerged. It is a very common idea in the writing of the early fathers and ascetics that in the spiritual life we must go through three stages--slave, hireling, son. In a sense, the novices' response to the Rule passes through these three stages. The slave is one who obeys out of fear; who sees the Rule "more as something to be kept than as a positive tool for spiritual growth." The slave response sees the Rule as a stick by which they are coerced into the observance, an abrupt descent after the soaring flight of the initial call. Fear does have its part to play in spiritual growth; in the beginning , it can goad the soul into sustained efforts, habits, rhythms, like getting out of bed. But its initial prominence must be infused with hope, joy and desire.
The hireling is one who obeys for a reward. This response is not necessarily bad; St. Benedict himself is conscious of good works and rewards (cf. end of chs. 4, 5, 7 and 35); the idea of a reward runs like a refrain throughout the New Testament. This response marks a certain liberation from fear, a sense of feeling at home with the Rule and its demands. The hirelings do what they think is expected, and find a certain satisfaction in following the Rule literally; but they tend to get crushed when their performance doesn't elicit the response they were hoping for. They may be using their response to the Rule unwittingly to secure affection or approval. They have done these things for God and they expect a recompense. And they are right, but on condition that they do not forget that in spite of the work accomplished, the recompense remains a grace. Grace is never something due or owed, for then it would not be grace, as the parable of the workers in the vineyard explains. The Bible, and the Rule inspired by it, would make a distinction between a reward that comes from men and that which comes from God
Finally there is the filial response, the response that acts out of love. If the slave response sees the Rule only as a disciplinary code, and if the hireling see it as a vast A-level exam, the filial response sees it as a living word, born out of the desire to make the Word of God enter into every detail of a community's life. This response sees in the Rule as a call that invites a response; as the very condition for the initial call not to be, in the final analysis, illusory; as something that will help them to combat their own weakness and strive toward that which they would but cannot. Here the response sees the Rule as a help, liberating the novices' freedom so that they can find their true nature. The Rule is all about growing out of the mentality if slaves and attaining the spirit and stature of sons.
Note: the novice may well have all three responses playing at the same time, or a different response for different chapters of the Rule. Indeed after elaborating the traditional imagery of slave, mercenary, son in his description of the spiritual life, Cassian says: "If anyone is tending towards perfection let him begin with the first step." In Cassian's mind it is not wise to leapfrog the negative in order to find a more palatable entrance into the Rule and its demands; the Rule needs to feel like disciplina before turning us into discipuli. Who wants rules instead of the Happy Isles? asks one of C.S. Lewis' characters when faced precisely with this demand. He receives the answer: it's as though you asked who could prefer the cooking to the meal. It's absurd to want to have the one without going through the other. So in these three responses there is not only sequence but causality. It can be handy to point this out when the one who loves the chapter on common ownership doesn't want to switch off lights or clean tools before putting them away. The earlier negative experience plays its part in preparing the ground for a later positive experience.
In this journey from fear to love, I would like to offer a very practical suggestion which novices have found helpful towards deepening their response to the Rule: the daily reading of the Rule aloud with those in formation and giving a five-minute commentary on some aspect of the text provided for that day. As with Scripture, it seems necessary that there be a thread of continuity in the novices' exposure to the Rule. That way it does not become something stale or static; it gives an element of adventure to the reading of the Rule; it turns the Rule into a living word that challenges their efforts, calls forth their generosity, and clarifies their vision. Admittedly, this is demanding for the novice director, who may find it hard to find something to say about the chapter on the Abbot's table, three times a year for five or six years! But there are many advantages to this practice:
it confronts them with the whole of the Rule, without isolating the palatable from what is harder to swallow;
it enables them to see that the Rule is aimed at the whole person, both his interiority and all that he does, and not only with individuals but also within the community;
it can help the novices to see the continued relevance of the Rule in their own situation. By exposing himself daily to the Rule, the young become imbued with its attitudes and values, and become progressively aware of how to shape their lives.
it enables the novice director to speak of key ideas or themes--like prayer, perseverance, patience, community relations, obedience and love, several times a year; and to build up familiarity with key terms in monastic tradition--compunction, purity of heart,--without waiting for these to be dealt with in the monastic spirituality course; sometimes too we look at parallel passages and ideas and themes in Cassian, Basil, or the desert Fathers to show their significance for understanding St. Benedict's special concerns;
it prevents them from slipping into a way of living as though the Rule did not exist, as though their life was defined only by contemporary constitutions and usages. By putting the Rule at the forefront, one is better able to show how the contemporary modifications are there to safeguard the intention of the Rule in changed circumstances;
it seems to me that something more is needed than a Rule course two or three times a week in which only familiar passage may be dealt with.
It's important to recognise that such a program is not aimed primarily at the transmission of knowledge. It is designed to help novices reflect on beliefs and values which make sense of the lives we live, to be at home with the sources of monastic inspiration, and to discover a sense of identity, to see how the Rule relates to one's own tradition.
The Rule itself as Response
Finally, this practice helps them see the Rule itself as a response, as a way of responding to their call. Going back to the remark "There will be disappointments when the novice witnesses those above him not doing what the Rule exhorts". The Rule, especially in ch. 3 and 72, can help them with that kind of reaction, can help then take some inner stand that will transmute that reaction into a response. Ch. 3 recognises that they may be shrewd in what they see, but that they may also lack the human and spiritual experience to judge all aspects of the situation; ch. 72 can teach them to accept the weakness of all their brethren and tells them that we are all in this infirmitas together.
In their response to the Rule, young monastics do find it very helpful to see the Rule as something related to their call. By way of conclusion, I would like to recall that long, painful process described in the Bible, in the people of Israel, as God led them gradually beyond what they knew into something which was their filial vocation. We can see in the Exodus how the people became more than slaves and hirelings, and that the law stands at the threshold of the Promised Land--like the Rule for us which stands between God's call and what that call is ultimately meant to achieve. For both Israel and ourselves, lex is not a collection of law without a context; it is embedded in a call, in a covenant.
In what follows, one might substitute "novice" for Israel, and "rule" for law. Israel was chosen by God before she was given the commandments; as a result of God's choice, His love, she became the chosen people. God does not say, 'If you keep the law and know no other gods, I will make a covenant with you', but 'I have made a covenant with you, you are already endowed with grace, you have already been adopted into a relationship of intimacy with me. Since you are so close to me , act as a child of my household.' Everything rests on God's grace, his call, his choice.
In other words, the law outlines how Israel is to respond to her choice, her call. The laws of God, our Rule, are not codes to follow; they reveal at their foundation an initiative on the part of God. The Rule opens with this call; and it goes on to outline a way of responding to it. Seen in this way, the Rule is not something to be used as a stick by which to coerce somebody into the observance. Rather, it is given as instruction, wisdom, a way of responding which tells the novice: we freely give you this if you want to learn how to respond to your vocation.
Born in the US to Christian Palestinian parents, Sr Mary David entered St Cecilia's Abbey in 1985. She serves her Community as Novice Mistress.
1 The Rule itself, as they recognize, is a call to this kind of truthfulness and sincerity: Not to wish be called holy before one is holy; let the abbot be what his name implies; let the oratory be what it is called. This correspondence between inner and outer is very important to St. Benedict.
2 In his Apologia, St. Bernard, even while asserting the superiority of spiritual things, nevertheless insisted that "there is little hope of retaining them or keeping them without making use of external exercises." He best keeps the Rule, says St. Bernard, who calls into play both the spiritual and the physical (VII, 14). This was echoed in one response which said that what attracted her was "a holistic way of life that didn't separate material and spiritual."
3 Secular oblates keep the spirit of the Rule; they can hardly do otherwise. There are of course lots of details which we do not observe--we don't sleep in a common dormitory; we do not observe the rules of fasting and meal times laid down by the Rule. Yet it remains true that as sons and daughters of St. Benedict who make profession of the Rule, we have to live by the Rule far more than in the sense of living by the spirit of the rule.
4 To be sure, the notion of observances cannot be isolated from its spiritual context.
5 These usages, customs, etc. which underpin and support this teaching are not merely externals contrasted with inner reality, but means contrasted with an end. This is very important. People often talk about what is essential and what is merely external. But to divide things in this way can be misleading and even dangerous. What we have to consider is not the relationship between what is essential and what is merely external, but the relationship of an end to a means. Obviously not all the means adopted to express monastic life are equally important. Some might be deadwood, or of a temporary utility. Still others, on the contrary, are necessary means which retain great value if used with understanding and not just thoughtlessly or mechanically.
6 8 The degrees of humility, to be sure, go from inner to outer, but there St. Benedict is talking about signs, not practices. Cassian is writing prescriptively--this is how it works, this is what you must do to grow in understanding; St. Benedict is writing descriptively--this is what you will experience as grace draws you upwards towards God.