Sermon for St Benedict 11th July 2021
St Benedict opens his Rule by saying that there are four kinds of monks and telling us that we are cenobites, “that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot”. That’s us!
Let us ask him to pop in and have a word with us monks of Mount Saint Joseph here and now. What might he have to say to us?
“Did you ever notice that I have twelve chapters in my Rule on the Divine Office? I went to all these rounds to assign the psalms to the various hours because I’m so convinced that the Opus Dei is at the very centre of the monastic life.” As I noted in the Rule: “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching … when we celebrate the divine office … so let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”
Now that you are back in your fine Church, built by the big-hearted generosity and good will of your founders from Mount Melleray, take to heart what I have said about the Oratory of the Monastery, “that it be what it is called (a place of prayer), and nothing else is to be done or stored there … After the Work of God, all should leave in complete silence and with reverence for God, so that a brother who may wish to pray alone will not be disturbed by the insensitivity of another”
Now that you are celebrating my feast or should I say Solemnity (!), have a look at chapter 4 of the Rule on tools of good work. I suppose I went to town there in all the recommendations or tools, as I styled them. But let me call to mind a few of them for you. Of course “First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Perhaps I should have said for you: ‘Love your brother’, rather than ‘your neighbour’. Anyway “the love of Christ must come before all else”. Nihil amore Christi praeponere – yes and love your enemies too”. “You must not be proud … Do not grumble.” I advised “Listen to holy reading.” Books were rare and precious in my day and not all monks were literate, so rather let you say, “Devote yourselves to holy reading” – Lectio Divina. There’s lots more in that chapter.
I then picked out Obedience, devoting a whole chapter to it. Of course you promised it specifically at your Solemn Profession. “I promise my stability, my fidelity to the monastic way of life and obedience until death …” Well done! ’It would be a great idea if now and then you’d have a slow meditative read through that fifth chapter. “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.” And don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that you should obey God but not mere men. No, as I said in the Rule “they carry out the superior’s orders as promptly as if the command came from God himself” … Such obedience shown to superiors is given to God. Furthermore the disciple’s obedience must be given gladly, for God loves a cheerful giver, if a disciple obeys grudgingly and grumbles … his action will not be accepted with favour by God.
Humility is the other great monastic virtue that I recommend to you. It is all based on the Lord’s injunction. “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” When I was wondering how best to present the virtue of humility, Jacob’s dream came to mind with its ladder of angels descending and ascending – while we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. I settled for twelve steps, with one virtue after another at each step, all of which happen only with humility. The twelfth step is that a monk “always manifests humility in his bearing no less than in his heart, so that it is evident at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or in the field or anywhere else, whether he sits, walks or stands, all because of his love of Christ.”
Time and again the value of silence or restraint of speech comes to the surface throughout the Rule, but it is so dear to my heart that I felt a chapter devoted to it alone would have to be included – so chapter 6, introduced by the Prophets’ Counsel: “I have put a guard on my mouth, I was silent and was humbled, and I refrained even from good words.”
You Cistercians have always enjoyed a special esteem for manual work. Your Constitutions speak of it as a “sharing in the divine work of creation and restoration … as providing a livelihood for the brethren and for others especially the poor.” Incidentally I ordained that the Cellerar in particular was to show every care and concern for the poor. I wonder did you ever notice that in chapter 48 on manual labour, it states that there should be quote: “specified periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading.” They are intentionally linked both shown the same reverence. Yes “when they live by the labour of their hands, they are really monks.”
“Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may be truly served as Christ, for he said I was sick and you visited me.” Well done for all the care being given to Fr Kevin. “Sick brethren must be patiently borne with, because serving them leads to a greater reward.” Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are “served out of honour for God, and let them not be excessive in their demands.”
I’m pleased to hear that you have opened your Guesthouse after the closures of Covid-19. Of course we had our epidemics in our day too. As I put it “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ Every guest is to be met with all courtesy of love, and all humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival and departure.” Washing their feet and such like things of our day wouldn’t work in yours, but treating them with love, courtesy and humility is as valid as ever it was.
A word about one of the officers in the community. I had good experience with cellerars, men I had chosen, men who were “wise, mature in conduct, temperate … God fearing, and like a father to the whole community … He had to show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he would be held accountable for all of them”. I layed down a principle for him that takes many by surprise: “He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” I still stand by that injunction. It speaks to the heart of a true monk, a response to our throw-away society.
Well I have kept you long enough, but before I depart for my heavenly Monte Casino, I can’t leave you without my chapter – “the Good Zeal of Monks”, which I’ll quote in full, as it describes what a true community must be, what I want you at Mount St Joseph to be. You heard it at the second reading at Vigils this morning.
chapter 72. the good zeal of monks
“Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love. They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their superior unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life”.