January 15, 2014
The Holy Rule of St. Benedict
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

St. Benedict’s Monastic Rule is a spiritual gem acknowledged by one of the luminaries of the Catholic Church, St. Gregory the Great. It has spiritually guided thousands and thousands of men and women striving for holiness, and is still doing so after some fifteen centuries. One can read it and re-read it, and each time discover a precious insight that helps souls open to its message and to come closer to God.

But inevitably, we shall also find passages, which, at first sight, will baffle us. A monastic vocation is a response to a call coming from God and implies an ardent desire to give oneself totally to Him. But, given our fallen nature, it is inevitable that the way to heaven will be narrow, and its very narrowness will discourage many of us from proceeding further on the fast road to heaven. At the end of his Holy Rule, St. Benedict tells us, to our amazement, that he is only sharing with us the “rudiments of monastic observance.” (Ch. 73) It is a “rule for beginners.”

Those of us who have read it attentively will be dumbfounded by this claim that he is offering us only the ABC's of spiritual life, for our response to his teaching will at times be, “this is too hard a road to travel on. I am definitely not called upon to become a Benedictine.” “This way is so steep that only some privileged souls, who have received extraordinary graces, can possibly follow this path.”

How many of us will not be turned off upon reading the following words: “And if any brother, for however trifling a reason, be corrected in any way by the abbot or any of his seniors, or if he perceive that any senior, in however small a degree, is displeased or angry with him, let him at once without delay cast himself on the ground at his feet, and lie there making reparation, until that displeasure is appeased and he bless him.” (Ch 71) Is there not a shocking discrepancy between the offense (“a trifling reason”) and the humiliation required in order to be forgiven? Should not be punishment be proportionate to the “crime”?

St. Benedict informs us of the many trials that young men wishing to join his order, will be subjected to. One is particularly surprising: the test of a true vocation is whether the applicant is “zealous for humiliations.” (Ch 58) I am convinced that very many of us would prefer severe physical punishments rather than “humiliations” – the one thing we dread most? How can one be “zealous for humiliations?” That a candidate should “accept” to be humiliated is something that is very convincing: a school of holiness is not supposed to be a bed or roses, but to be “zealous for humiliations” (opprobria) seems to justify Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that Catholicism in clearly infected by spiritual masochism.

Yet this theme is further developed in the Holy Rule: we are told how a candidate aspiring to become a monk should respond with “a quiet heart” to the trials that he will systematically be exposed to (such as contradictions and any kind of injustice). He should be “enduring all without growing weary…” (Ch 58)

Do not many “leave the world” precisely because it is saturated with injustice, betrayal, fickleness and for this reason, take refuge in a place where people love God, seek him, and strive for holiness. That there should be “injustices” in such a place is upsetting indeed. These are troubling words. We all need supernatural help to have some understanding of their meaning.

Religious orders are supposed to be “schools of holiness.” One is entitled to assume that all their members, therefore, will aim day after day, to come closer to Christ. But the wisdom of St. Benedict has taught us that those who choose the narrow path are not, ipso facto, freed from original sin. This is a sad fact that is easily forgotten. The Devil, who never sleeps, will certainly try to gain entrance into these – for him – dangerous fortresses where God is adored day and night. We should not be surprised to find “sinners” not only among members of the Church, but also among members of religious orders, among the clergy, bishops, cardinals and Popes, because they are men, and therefore, frail and fallible.

Let us recall the behavior of the twelve apostles who were hand-picked by Christ Himself: one was a traitor; one denied him three times, all of them fled in Gethsemane; one came back, but we do not know how soon. Yet, all of us know people who leave the Church because of the shocking conduct of some priests: be it sex scandals that have made the headlines, be it because some members of the clergy have no charity, or because they are sadly secularized.

But let us go back to the Holy Rule: to inform a candidate that it is likely that he will be treated unjustly is, I repeat, upsetting.

The craving for justice (already strongly marked in little children) is so deeply engraved in our souls, that the spontaneous response to injustice is revolt. That we should expect to find injustice in the Church – and even in religious orders – should not surprise those of us, who have in some modest way, striven to follow the narrow path leading to holiness.

These injustices can be traced back to many causes. A Benedictine Abbot can make hasty and impulsive decisions, not based on a sufficient knowledge of a situation; it is conceivable that he has bad advisers, or that he “favors” some of his monks for very subjective reasons, such as the family background of a particular monk which, having connections in high places, can be advantageous to the monastery.

To go back to the Holy Rule, this is the reason why, the wise St. Benedict repeatedly reminds the abbot of any Monastery that on the fearful day of judgment, he will be held accountable for every single one of his decisions and for the obedience of his sons. To be a holy abbot means to live in fear and trembling.

At any rate, injustice is something that in all of us triggers a feeling of “revolt.” It should not be so.

Whereas in the world injustice often leads to “wars” between siblings, or acquaintances, the monk is taught to view this “evil” supernaturally. He should remember that by entering a monastery, he has freely accepted to follow Christ: He who was “despised and rejected”; a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief. (Isaiah, 53:3)

Our Savior was spat upon, insulted, tortured, and condemned to the most ignominious death, treated as a criminal. Yet “he did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter house.” Who are we, poor sinners, to “deserve” to be treated with kid gloves? A monk striving for holiness will interpret the injustice done to him as a “grace” and a call to come closer to the One he loves.

The history of the Church is rich in examples of saints that were not only unjustly, but shamelessly treated by those who were supposed to further their work and their mission. There are quite a few of them, and there are books documenting this point. But the very same books would testify to the supernatural humility with which they accepted the cross, nay, they kissed it. It does happen that some very holy people playing an important role in the Church are replaced by others that are not only less for the role now assigned to them, not as well informed, not as clear-sighted about the most threatening dangers of the time and are less supernaturally motivated. The response of most of us is “shock”, but when we witness the humility of the one demoted, we become supernaturally convinced that his joyful acceptance of this cross, will benefit the Church more than if he had remained in office. For God is glorified by his humility. Moreover, the one demoted comes closer to His Savior by kissing his cross, and our Savior, being all powerful, can and will through what I call “supernatural chemistry,” allow that this unwise or even unjust decision will turn to be for the benefit of His Church. This is the victory of the supernatural over any “human” interpretation of History. St. Paul has formulated this powerfully: “everything comes to the benefit of those who love God.” (Rom. 8:28)

I would like to conclude these brief remarks with a caveat: indeed, God can through His infinite power and love, draw good out of evil, but today, the Evil one who, once again, never sleeps, can whisper into stupid human ears, that we should not have a panicky fear of falling into sin because it gives God a chance of manifesting how infinite is His Mercy.

This was foreseen by the Great St. Paul, when he wrote in his Epistle to the Romans: “ … why not do evil that good come?” Even though these words are used in a different context, they are most pertinent today for the “spirit of the time” that puts so much emphasis on God’s mercy that it certainly does not discourage sinners from sinning. God should be given rich opportunities to show that He is Infinitely merciful! As always, St. Augustine has perfectly stated danger: “let us not make of God’s mercy a safe-conduct to sin.”

What is forgotten today is that God is also infinitely just. The Little Flower saw this when she wrote, “Heaven is the place where there is perfect Justice.”

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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September 21, 2014


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Mt 20:1-16A


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First Reading:: Is 55: 6-9
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Mt 20:1-16A


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