‘When he is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience … he states his promise in a document … and with his own hands lays it on the altar.’ (Rule of St Benedict 58:17, 19, 20) Simon, you have come to be received by the community, and so you have come here to promise stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience ‘in the presence of God and his saints.’ (Rule of St Benedict 58:17)
What these vows mean is not exactly defined in Benedict’s Rule. As I pondered over what I might say about them, I found it straying into my prayer. As you may know, in my lectio I have been praying my way through St Mark’s Gospel. I have arrived at that part where the Pharisees and some scribes from Jerusalem come to chastise Jesus: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5) Jesus pushes back, accusing them of not keeping the commandments of God through their clinging to their traditions: “For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’ … But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition.” (Mark 7:10-13) Jesus calls them hypocrites. (Mark 7:6) For, though what they have may be ‘given to God,’ this has no meaning; they still have what they have, to use as they like … and what they like does not include using it to help their parents. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 1:8-9) We cannot just give; we must give it to someone else such that it is no longer mine — this is what is absent from their donation of what they have to God; theirs is a meaningless act.
In his Chapter on The Procedure for Receiving Brothers, Benedict says, “If he has possessions, he should give them to the poor beforehand, or he should give them to the monastery by a gift made in solemn form. He must keep nothing at all back for himself.” (Rule of St Benedict 58:24) This, of course, is reminiscent of Jesus’ answer to the young man’s question to him: “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man says he does, but he wants to know what more he must do. “If you would be perfect,” says Jesus, “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-21) This we see played out in the life of St Antony, the father of monks. He hears this Scripture as particularly addressed to himself. So he gives all he has to the poor and goes off to become a monk. Such radical dispossession, through the giving of his all to the poor, is his response to the God who called him so that he might follow him (as it has to be for all of us); such is what is really meant by Corban — what he has is no longer his; it is given to God, who is his only treasure in heaven. For Benedict, this is symbolised by the candidate’s being ‘stripped of his clothing and then clothed in what belongs to the monastery’ (Rule of St Benedict 58:26) — even that which covers his nakedness (c.f.: Genesis 3:21) is not his; he has given his all.
In the next Chapter of his Rule, Benedict makes provision for those who have nothing: they ‘simply write out the document, and in the presence of witnesses,’ they make their offering by placing it on the altar. (Rule of St Benedict 59:7-8) Thus, the offering made to God is not really about possessions. (C.f.: Mark 12:43-44) What is ‘given to God’ is our very self; even the poor have something they can give. So, Benedict says of the candidate that he is ‘well aware that from this day he will not have even his own body at his disposal.’ (Rule of St Benedict 58:25) This offering, too, must be a meaningful one. This, I would suggest, is how we are to understand the promise of obedience. If I still go around doing as I please (Rule of St Benedict 1:8), as I did before, nothing has changed; my offering is meaningless. So Benedict says of monks: “They do not wish to live by their own lights, obeying their own desires and wants. Rather, they prefer to walk according to the judgment and command of another, living in cenobitic community with an abbot over them.” (Rule of St Benedict 5:12)
For Benedict, though, obedience is not about subservience. Rather, the context (as it is here Rule of St Benedict 58:17) is community, and obedience is more about mutual obedience, about living in community (Rule of St Benedict 71), about living in this community with these particular people — which is the point of the promise of stability. The content of our promise of obedience, then, is more than adequately expressed in Benedict’s Chapter on The Good Zeal of Monks: ‘Let them strive to be the first to honour one another, bearing each other’s weaknesses of body and behaviour with the utmost patience. They must compete with one another in obedience. No one is to pursue what he judges advantageous to himself, but rather what benefits others.’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:4- 7) Here is our offering to God, such that we can no longer just please ourselves. As St Paul puts it: “Present your bodies to God as tools for righteousness. … Do you not know that you are slaves of the one to whom you present yourselves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey. … so now present yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” (Romans 6:13, 16-19) Here is our gift of self such that we do not have even our own bodies at our disposal; we are slaves to righteousness, always striving for what is advantageous to another. (Rule of St Benedict 58:25) To act otherwise would be to hear from the Lord: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mark 7:16) For the words of our promise would not mean anything.
We are to be tools for righteousness, tools for good works (Rule of St Benedict 4), in the hand of the Lord — the first way in which we can do this is, as Benedict has it: “Love the Lord God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength, then, your neighbour as yourself.” (Rule of St Benedict 4:1-2) The latter makes the former real. In what we do (loving our neighbour well) we can see how the words of our commitment (to love God with all our heart) becomes flesh in our flesh, so to speak. This we are to do all the days of our life, till at last we can show our ‘fellow monks the pure love of brothers’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:8) (and of whom the ‘abbot’ is but only one (Rule of St Benedict 72:10. C.f.: 7:1), and so manifest fully our love of God, which is more properly called the ‘fear of God.’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:9) Benedict’s other tools for good works, those other ways in which we can love God in our neighbour, just put meat on the bones of these first two. (Matthew 22:40) This love of God in neighbour is what we are ‘to work at faithfully within the enclosure of the monastery’ (Rule of St Benedict 4:78) in our promise of ‘fidelity to the monastic lifestyle,’ in the conversion of our life. For, done well, the obedience we extend to one another in our good zeal turns all our living together into an act of love for our God, the God in our midst. As Jesus put it: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20), and here in the oratory especially we do surely gather in his name. (Rule of St Benedict 58:17) In our gathering, in these very ordinary people assembled here, is the fleshly embodiment of the One we love. The One whom we are to love with all with all our heart, all our soul and all our strength is somehow present in our gathering in a real way, such that loving my neighbour is how I make my love for God real in a way that is meaningful. When we have done this, when we have ‘fostered our good zeal with fervent love’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:3), we shall hear those wonderful words that Benedict puts in the mouth of the Lord in his Prologue: “My eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers, and even before you ask me I will say to you: Here I am.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:18) In the beginning of this Chapter on The Procedure for Receiving Brothers, Benedict says, “The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God.” (Rule of St Benedict 58:7) Here, through a lifetime of fidelity to our promise, is that which we seek: “Here I am!” Our vows — the vows which you, Simon, are to make this day — are but the means of our quest; may you keep them faithfully.
I started off by noting that Benedict nowhere in his Rule defines what our vows mean. Instead of searching for good words, as I have tried to do, what Benedict does, in the liturgy he has devised for today’s ceremony, is show us what they mean in what he has the novice do (cf.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:1): ‘The one to be received must first promise his stability, fidelity to the monastic lifestyle and obedience before all in the oratory. This is done in the presence of God and his saints, so he should realise that if he ever acts otherwise, he will be condemned by the One whom he mocks. He should make his promise in a written document in the name of the saints whose relics are there and the name of the current abbot. He is to write the petition in his own hand, or certainly, if he is illiterate, he may ask someone else to write it. Then the novice makes his mark on it and personally lays it on the altar. When he has deposited it, the novice himself immediately begins this verse: “Receive me, Lord, according to your promise and I will live. Do not disappoint me in my hope. … Then the novice prostrates himself at the feet of each monk to ask his prayers, and from that day he is to be counted as one of the community.” (Rule of St Benedict 58:17-23) The full and total offering of oneself to God in love, the oblation of our very self in such a way that I give myself without holding anything back for myself (Rule of St Benedict 58:24-25) in response to the God who calls us (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:15-16), is what is meant by the promises Benedict asks the novice make; and it is this that we are trying to make real through a lifetime of service in the monastery. This I now invite Simon to do. Simon, ‘do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue: 48-49); this is the promise in return for your promise.
May God bring to completion the good work he has begun in you.