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February 13, 2013
Habit: a walker or a jail
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

When reading the Rule of St. Benedict, one is struck by the order and discipline he advocates. Whether prayer, work or rest: every single activity of a monk is given its precise time in the monastic schedule and he is taught to respect it.

We all know that some very talented people never achieve much because they are so disorganized, so undisciplined that all their rich gifts never blossom. On the other hand, we all know that many mediocre people occupy high positions. This might be explained by two facts: they know how to organize their day and moreover have learned how to play the “political game”, I.e. how to be politically correct. This might shed some light on a naughty remark of – I believe – Chesterton marveling at the mediocrity of many of our “leaders.”

Why do all founders of religious orders insist upon having a rule? The answer is obvious: because we need guidance and direction; otherwise we are tempted to run from one thing to another, and achieve nothing. On the other hand, being given man’s propensity to become a slave to anything that he does, it is worth remarking that this precious discipline can, for some, become a jail. Life is full of surprises, and always challenges us to face new situations. Once again, it is remarkable that a St. Benedict has foreseen this, and his severity about observing the Rule (the moment the bell rings, a monk must immediately abandon whatever he is doing, even in a “crucial” moment) is counter balanced by an equal readiness to follow the “thema Christi” – that is to say to break this holy routine when there a “call” to do so. The same great Saint writes that when a guest appears at an unaccustomed hour, immediately some monks appointed to this task, should turn their full attention to this call. He has become “wax” in the divine hands, and is for ever ready to “shift gears” when he hears a Divine Call. Christ said to Peter, and a bit later to James and John, who were repairing their fishers’ nets, “Follow me,” and without a moment’s hesitation, they did.  

In monastic language: this is holy freedom. Total fidelity to the Rule and simultaneously full readiness to change course, if circumstances indicated that it is what Christ wishes us to do. Medical emergencies or tragedies (such as a fire) call for immediate attention. It would be monstrous is someone, instead of coming to the help of someone who has a heart attack, would insist upon first finishing to clean the dishes.

This is stressed several times in the Holy Rule: “nihil sibi a Christo carius” (Chapter V). “Speak, O Lord, thy servant listens.” Total readiness to turn to urgent calls is typical of the holy flexibility is of saints; in them habits never become a jail.  St. Francis once ordered his monks to have a meal at an unusual hour because one them was actually starving. Monastic rules are “walkers” giving us much needed support on our way to holiness. But they should never become jails.  In fact a holy monk, having grown wings, can fly whenever God calls him.

In popular language, those for whom habits has become a jail are dubbed “old maids” or “bachelors.”  It certainly applies to many unmarried people who have never been challenged to share their life with another person – something which often is not easy – and get terribly upset when they have to change course. They lose their peace and easily become psychologically unbalanced. Any change in schedule (be it doctor’s appointment) or an accidental lateness of a visitor, or a change of date legitimized by unforeseeable circumstances,  has such an upsetting effect on them that they manifest their displeasure in very sour terms.

We all know people who are chronically unreliable. It is neither pleasant nor easy to deal with them because it is very difficult to achieve anything worthwhile on a sandy ground. Indeed, order, organization, discipline are “virtues” which mean “strengths”; they should never become “chains.” But these virtues are not by themselves “moral virtues.” They might be useful tools, but to possess them does not guarantee that their possessor is a morally good man.

We all deplore the efficiency of the Nazi staff in organizing the nets catching Jews to send them to death camps. The huge maps of Gulags in the Soviet Union were based on a gigantic organization.  How one wished they had been less efficient. Efficiency is not holiness, but baptized efficiency is typical of all saints.

Let us strive for this holy freedom which enables us – weak and imperfect creatures – to hear God’s voice, and to joyfully respond to His Call. Mary became the mother of the Savior, the moment she uttered the words:  “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy word.” From, this moment on, she started on a radically new course that would lead her to the foot of the Cross.   She is and should remain our model.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.
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