Monday, February 18, 2019

The humanity inherent in Christian monasticism

These days, in addition to praying Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours and reciting the Rosary during my morning walk, I start my day by reading a chapter of The Rule of St. Benedict. I use a beautifully cloth-bound edition of an English translation of the Rule by the late Patrick Barry, OSB: Saint Benedict's Rule: A New Translation for Today. This book, which was given to me by one of my theological and pastoral mentors, was published by Ampleforth Abbey Press. Barry, who passed away at age 98 in 2016, was a monk of Ampleforth Abbey in England. For 15 years he served as abbot of Ampleforth Abbey.

There are many commentaries on Benedict's Rule. The commentary I am currently using is A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal. In my current reading of the Rule I am in the middle-thirties chapters. As a deacon, I have to say that the thirty-fifth and the thirty-sixth chapters are very diaconal. This morning my reading of the Rule consisted of chapter thirty-seven of the Rule, entitled "Care for the elderly and the young."
Human nature itself is drawn to tender concern for those in the two extremes of age and youth, but the authority of the Rule should reinforce this natural instinct. Their frailty should always be given consideration so that they should not be strictly bound to the provisions of the Rule in matters of diet. They should receive loving consideration and be allowed to anticipate the regular hours laid down for food and drink (Barry, 45)
Commenting on this chapter of the Rule, de Waal provides this insight: "When society seems increasingly to say that productivity and usefulness are the qualities by which we judge the worth of the individual, here Benedict is telling us that respect should be shown to those who apparently contribute little or nothing to the community in these terms"(A Life-Giving Way, 107).

What is also worth noting, in light of de Waal's observation, is something that one finds throughout the Rule, namely that the Rule is not absolute! To paraphrase Jesus's take on the Law, which he never denigrates but always reveres: the Rule is made for people and not people for the Rule. Rather than diminish the importance of the order the Rule seeks to establish, making it human only serves to enhance both its importance and authority for those who seek to live by it. It is hardly surprising that perhaps the least fanatical form of Roman Catholic Christianity is monasticism.

St. Benedict, by R.M. Placid Dempsey


Note how easily Benedict concedes that rather than go against the grain of the natural human instinct to be charitably disposed towards the very young and the elderly, the Rule should reinforce it! In Benedict's insistence that the Rule reinforces what is naturally good in our humanity is contained an entire and entirely healthy theological anthropology. What I mean by stating that Benedict's theological anthropology is healthy is that it is whole, as in holistic. Like any good theologian, Benedict rejects any fundamental fissure between the orders of nature and grace, or, translated to the human person, between soul and body.

Christ did not come reinvent humanity but to show us what it means to be truly human. The Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, is explicit about this: "Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (sec. 22). Jesus Christ,
Who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man... Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every [person]. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin (Ibid)
Today, this line of thought brought to my mind Pater Tom's last presentation, which he made at a conference in Thailand just before his untimely death, which happened fifty years ago last December: Marxism and Monastic Perspectives. Given the societal conditions under which Benedict composed his Rule, it is striking that the order he established is so authentically Christian, which is to say human. It was a structure established at a time when Europe was in utter political/societal chaos. What struck me re-reading Merton's short conference was this:
We can no longer rely on being supported by structures that may be destroyed at any moment by a political power or a political force. You cannot rely on structures. The time for relying on structures has disappeared. They are good and they should help us,and we should do the best we can with them. But they may be taken away, and if everything is taken away, what do you do next?

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