Blogging Benedict: Entering the monastery

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

According to the Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58, entry into the monastery goes as follows:

  • A few days at the guest house for the persistent
  • Two months as a novice
  • Read the Rule. Can leave if they don’t like it.
  • Six more months. Read the Rule as above.
  • Another four-month testing period.
  • Finally admitted

The three central (famous!) vows:

  • Stability
  • Poverty
  • Obedience

In making these vows, the new monk is stripped in the oratory and clothed in monastic garb. Thus everything he was is gone and everything he is is now invested in the community. He has not even his own clothing. He has no money to provide for himself. He has vowed not to leave. And he has vowed to surrender his own disordered will to that of the community under its abbot.

This is a radical commitment.

Few non-monastic Christian communities today have such radical commitment. Varieties exist in some Anabaptist communities, of course. Most of us don’t belong to those. Most of us belong to congregations that would barely notice if we were gone.

What if we were to invest in stability? This is certainly part of the Benedictine freedom of simplicity, isn’t it? Force yourself to stick with your local church, not merely in spite of the people who annoy you or the preaching that you dislike for one reason or another or the hymns/songs that aren’t your favourites, but specifically to fall in love with those people, that preacher, and find Jesus in that music.

That would take humility, as opposed to just leaving. Not that we should never go, but that we should more often stay instead.

What if we were to invest in the ideal of poverty? This one is possibly harder. Imagine that all your goods belong to the whole Christian community (cf. Acts 2). Then give cheerfully in the collection plate. Share with others. Look for opportunities to do good. Have people over to your house in rich hospitality. Living like that (which I certainly don’t do!) would probably revolutionise how we love others.

What if we were to invest in obedience? This one is probably hardest for our culture. Obedience has been abused, certainly. But Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, makes the point in his chapter about service that choosing to serve others means they can’t walk all over you because you have already willed your act of service. Their own evil hearts may seek to abuse you, but you cannot be abused, for you already wish to serve. That said, I actually do believe in boundaries; if your acts of service for others are harming your family life, for example, you need to find new ways of serving.

What if we were this radically invested in our churches?

Would it make us into better disciples? Would it make more disciples? These are the two questions I am now considering as I read through my notes on Benedict.

Thoughts springing from Benedict

The end of the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict reads:

Thus we must found a school for the Lord’s service. In its design we hope we will establish nothing harsh, nothing oppressive. But if, according to the dictates of fairness, there emerges something a little severe in the interest of amending sins or preserving love, do not at once be frightened by fear and flee the path of salvation, which can only be narrow at the start. Instead, by progress in monastic life and faith, with hearts expanded in love’s indescribable sweetness, we run along the path of God’s commands, so that, never turning away from his instruction and persevering in his doctrine in the monastery until death, through patience we may share the sufferings of Christ and also deserve to be sharers in his kingdom. Amen. (Prol. 45-50, trans.Venarde, p. 9)

I am primarily grabbed by the first line in which Benedict likens his monastery/rule to a school, indeed, ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’  I like this image. For, indeed, Christians are disciples, discipuli, students. We are students of our great Master, Christ. We sit at his feet and learn from him.

And who does Christ tell us to be? Servants of all. Then the monastery — or any Christian community — is a school for the Lord’s service by its very nature. It is a place to learn how to serve the Lord. And since in serving the least, we serve Him, all service is the Lord’s service.

The rest of this passage is not without importance for us today, however.

Benedict, like many Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic authors, thinks of the monastic pathway as ‘the path of salvation.’ Here he describes it as sometimes severe (but only in the interests of fairness and love), and narrow at its start. Yet it is a pathway to be followed through to one’s death, showing us the Benedictine virtue of stability (currently discussed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at Relevant).

By living lives in submission to God’s commands, lives devoted to the Lord’s service, by walking along a narrow path, we hope to become ‘sharers in his kingdom.’

The importance of virtue and holiness is always to the fore in monastic spirituality, as we see here. As I exhort you and myself to live a devout and holy life along the at times severe, frequently narrow path of salvation, take comfort from the earlier portions of the Prologue wherein Benedict reminds the reader that one’s ability to live holy lives and do righteous deeds is based in the grace God gives to those who come to him in faith.