It was with great joy as a community that we celebrated Ben Perkins one of the postulants receiving the habit of a novice of the Cistercian Order. The rite of clothing was performed by Dom Rufus Pound, Monastic Commissary. As part of the rite the Postulant sits while a section from the Rule of our Father St. Benedict is read. Dom Rufus chose the beginning of Chapter Four – The Tools of Good Works.
After Dom Rufus had questioned the Postulant about his intention; Fr Malachy then dressed the Novice in the habit, according to the norms of the Constitutions as a sign of conversion. We ask your prayers for Br Alberic of our Community.
Below is the Text of Dom Rufus’ reflection on the opening of Chapter 4 of the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Chapter: 26th January 2024, Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, Roscrea
Ben Perkins Reception as a Novice.
At first glance it might seem odd, of all passages from the Rule, to choose that particular one, made up of such basic commandments, for this ceremony of the reception of a new brother as a novice. What is significant though, is that it comes from Benedict’s very dense and rich Chapter 4, on the ‘Tools of good works’, one of those early chapters of the Rule which are all consciously inspired by ancient baptismal instruction.
And I think it’s a good reminder that monks are first of all Christians, called to the fullness of humanity, and only then monks; and that whether our lives be long or short we will always be beginners, for whom the basics will always be our staple diet – beginners, never some kind of ‘professionals’, always beginners, striving only to follow a ‘little rule for beginners’.
Never let us forget that. Rather, it is only by constantly recalling the basics that we stay on track; and with each recalling, the basics become more deeply engraved in our being.
In the previous chapters, 1-3 Benedict lays the foundations of monastic life: he is writing for coenobites; he is careful to describe the role of the abbot and the way the community functions together with him through consultation.
Then in Chapters 4-7 he gives an in-depth teaching on what you could call the moral life of the monks, that’s to say, the life-long work of practicing the virtues and growing in the way of love, which is what we embrace as a deeper commitment of our baptismal consecration, when we come to the monastery.
And this chapter 4 of which we have just heard the beginning, is a kind of condensed summary of the teaching that will unfold throughout the Rule but particularly in the following few chapters.
Benedict calls these short sayings “tools,” “tools of the spiritual craft” to be used “day and night” and to be returned on judgment day, in just the same way that tools are returned after one’s turn at a community service in the monastery.
I love the fact that these are such very manual, earthy images. Benedict wants to ground our lives in reality. His approach is very ‘hands-on’ to use a contemporary idiom, and Chapter 4 is like a manual or text book for good living. In this sense, it’s an ideal text for the initiation of a new brother.
And what does Benedict emphasise first? Love; love of God and love of neighbour, the bedrock and foundation for the whole Rule: “love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength,” and, “love your neighbour as yourself.” Without that we are merely ‘noisy gongs or clanging cymbals’ (1 Co 13:1).
The ancient commandments not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal or covet, and not to bear false witness mean what they mean. But, as tradition shows, they can also be broadened to take on a range of meanings.
There are many ways of killing, especially in community, where the way we treat one another or speak about one another can be life-giving or downright murderous. To undermine someone, to break another’s spirit or to ruin his reputation is very much like killing.
And it’s not difficult to interpret the other precepts in similar ways. ‘Adultery’ can be seen as a key word for the whole realm of living chastely and seeking more and more to be pure of heart, in the deepest sense, in every aspect of our lives.
The Rule forbids private ownership: and every time we are tempted to cut corners around community practices regarding possessions, permissions or the use of money, we are moving within the moral arena circumscribed by “you are not to steal nor to covet.”
‘False witness’ is a key word for another realm of moral living: truthfulness, integrity, transparency, both with others and with oneself, in developing ‘self-knowledge’. Notice, too, especially the way that Benedict has transposed the commandment to ‘honour father and mother’ to “you must honour everyone.” The command to love one’s neighbour can sometimes sound a bit general or vague; but to honour each and every person has a real concreteness about it that fits in well with this list of tools.
At every turn, whether a newcomer, or an ‘old hand’, each of us can ask ourselves whether his thoughts, his actions, his words to or about another honour that person – that person made in the image and likeness of God, that person of whom Jesus said quite clearly: ‘whatever you did to one of the least of these, you did it to me’.
And there is no mistaking the practical consequences of the commandment “never do to another what you do not want done to yourself.” It is a guide, a tool, that we can never afford to allow to be far from our minds.
So, dear brother, as you begin your novitiate, take these sayings to heart and strive to live by them to your dying day. As Benedict says at the conclusion of chapter 4: “These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. When we have used them without ceasing day and night and have returned them on judgment day, our wages will be the reward the Lord has promised: ‘What eye has not seen nor ear heard, God has prepared for those who love him’. And so I now ask you, in the presence of this your community: