Charles, St Benedict begins his Chapter on The Procedure for Receiving Brothers with the words: “Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry, but, as the Apostle says, ‘Test the spirits to see if they are from God’.” (Rule of St Benedict 58:1) Well, Charles, you are the first in our community to ‘benefit’ for our newer, more-extended time of initial testing: you have now been a postulant for twelve months; we have kept you waiting that long and you have kept knocking. (Rule of St Benedict 58:3) There are lots of reasons for wanting to enter a monastic community: we might have been living a rather precarious life, and so the security of life in the monastery becomes attractive; we might be all alone and lonely, and so life in community is of appeal — to name just two. However, for Benedict, there is just one reason for granting entry into the community — as he puts it: “The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God.” (Rule of St Benedict 58:7) The testing recommended by Benedict involves a discernment of what it is that is in your heart and moving you. “For,” as the Lord puts it, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21; Luke 12:34) So, another way of putting what is to be discerned is: What is it that you treasure? What is it that you would be willing to ‘sell all that you have’ to acquire it? (Matthew 13:44-46. C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 58:24) For this is what will be asked of you!
Well, Charles, it has been discerned that you do ‘truly seek God,’ that your answer to the Lord’s question, “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” is, “I do.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:15-16) And so, you are to be admitted to the Novitiate. In this place, as Benedict puts it, you are to be ‘clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead you to God.’ (Rule of St Benedict 58:8) You must know then, that, just because your heart is set on God, the Way does not somehow miraculously become easy. In the Chapter on The Daily Manual Labour, Benedict says that ‘all things are to be done with moderation on account of the faint-hearted.’ (Rule of St Benedict 48:9) Though we set our hearts on God, we need to learn to pace ourselves, lest we try too hard and burnout before we reach our goal. (Rule of St Benedict 64:17-19. C.f.: Prologue:22) Here we will need to learn to accept and trust the ‘help and guidance’ of those who have learned how to do just that, of those who can teach us that patient endurance which will bring us to the life in the Kingdom that we seek. (Rule of St Benedict 1:4; Prologue:50) In the Chapter on Kitchen Servers of the Week, Benedict says, “Let those who are not strong have help so that they do not lose heart.” (Rule of St Benedict 35:3) Though we set our hearts on God, not all of us are so strong; we can lose heart. This can be humbling, and we need to learn to accept help when it is needed, rather than run away lest another see us in our weakness. (Rule of St Benedict 64:19, Prologue:48. C.f.: 72:7; Genesis 3:10) In the Chapter on The Proper amount of Food, Benedict quotes the Lord as saying: “See that your hearts are not be loaded down with drunkenness.” (Rule of St Benedict 39:9) Though we set our hearts on God, we can overload our hearts by giving in to all those other appetites that are found within them. We have to learn how ‘to grapple with our vices of body and mind,’ as Benedict puts it. (Rule of St Benedict 1:5) This is not easy, and so here again, we are given help. (Rule of St Benedict 58:6; 1:4)
Life in the monastery, especially initially, is as Benedict has it at the beginning of his Rule: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:1, 48) Monastic life is essentially a life of discipleship, in which above all we must all learn to listen … with the ears of our heart. (C.f.: Luke 24:32) Your heart has responded to God’s call: “I do desire true and eternal life.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:17) Now you have to learn to listen to all that might pull you this way or that in the light of that desire in your heart, that you might learn how to discern for yourself, so that you will be able to put aside all those other contrary things and do only that which will to bring you to eternal life. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:28, 39-40. C.f.: 1: 5; 72:3)
As you begin to journey on this way, you will find all this impacting even on your prayer. For, as Benedict says in his Chapter on Reverence in Prayer, “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.” (Rule of St Benedict 20:3) There are many things that can attract our hearts, which, if we follow them, will not lead us to the one thing that we truly seek. (Rule of St Benedict 72:1) When looking at what we do and measuring it against this desire, we will often find that we do fall massively short of it. This is where the tears come from. Like St Paul, we will come to realise that we are ‘human, slaves to sin.’ For, ‘the good we want to do is not what we do, but the evil we hate is what keep on doing.’ (Romans 7:14, 19) Like Paul, we will come to realise that the task we have set ourselves is an impossible one, and the prayer that will be wrenched from the depths of our hearts is: “Miserable man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) And in our prayer, washed thoroughly only by tears borne of this true self-knowledge, we shall find ourselves explaining to God why it is that we cannot do it. (Rule of St Benedict 68:2-3. C.f.: Prologue:18; Luke 7:44) This is often not a pleasant experience, but a necessary one. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:22, 39-40)
In this place Benedict merely advises, “Do not be daunted by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It’s bound to be narrow at the outset.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:48) There, he recommends that we beg God for his help to do what we cannot do. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:41) Then, he tells us, just to trust in that grace and have a go. (Rule of St Benedict 68:5) His promise is that ours is a road that leads to salvation, and that ‘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:49) You will find, more than once, that it is only this hope that will sustain you on much of this journey to God and eternal life, and that it will give you that patient endurance needed to go on till the end. (C.f.: Romans 9:24-25; Rule of St Benedict Prologue:50) In the face of all those difficulties and hardships you will encounter along the way, above all else, you will need to learn how to trust in God’s grace — no easy task! May God bring to completion the good work he has begun in you!