Dr. Alice von Hildebrand The Holy Rule of St. Benedict

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

But inevitably, we shallalso find passages, which, at first sight, will baffle us. A monasticvocation is a response to a call coming from God and implies anardent desire to give oneself totally to Him. But, given our fallennature, it is inevitable that the way to heaven will be narrow, andits very narrowness will discourage many of us from proceedingfurther 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 usthe “rudiments of monastic observance.” (Ch. 73) It is a “rulefor beginners.”

Those of us who have readit attentively will be dumbfounded by this claim that he is offeringus only the ABC's of spiritual life, for our response to his teachingwill at times be, “this is too hard a road to travel on. I amdefinitely not called upon to become a Benedictine.” “This way isso steep that only some privileged souls, who have receivedextraordinary graces, can possibly follow this path.”

How many of us will not beturned off upon reading the following words: “And if any brother,for however trifling a reason, be corrected in any way by the abbotor any of his seniors, or if he perceive that any senior, in howeversmall a degree, is displeased or angry with him, let him at oncewithout delay cast himself on the ground at his feet, and lie theremaking reparation, until that displeasure is appeased and he blesshim.” (Ch 71) Is there not a shocking discrepancy between theoffense (“a trifling reason”) and the humiliation required inorder to be forgiven? Should not be punishment be proportionate tothe “crime”?

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

Yet this theme is furtherdeveloped in the Holy Rule: we are told how a candidate aspiring tobecome a monk should respond with “a quiet heart” to the trialsthat he will systematically be exposed to (such as contradictions andany kind of injustice). He should be “enduring all without growingweary…” (Ch 58)

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

Religious orders aresupposed to be “schools of holiness.” One is entitled to assumethat all their members, therefore, will aim day after day, to comecloser to Christ. But the wisdom of St. Benedict has taught us thatthose who choose the narrow path are not, ipso facto, freed fromoriginal 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 amongmembers 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 behaviorof the twelve apostles who were hand-picked by Christ Himself: onewas a traitor; one denied him three times, all of them fled inGethsemane; one came back, but we do not know how soon. Yet, all ofus know people who leave the Church because of the shocking conductof some priests: be it sex scandals that have made the headlines, beit because some members of the clergy have no charity, or becausethey are sadly secularized.

But let us go back to theHoly Rule: to inform a candidate that it is likely that he will betreated unjustly is, I repeat, upsetting.

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

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

To go back to the HolyRule, this is the reason why, the wise St. Benedict repeatedlyreminds the abbot of any Monastery that on the fearfulday of judgment, he will be held accountable for every single one ofhis decisions and for the obedience of his sons. To be a holy abbotmeans to live in fear and trembling.

At any rate, injustice issomething that in all of us triggers a feeling of “revolt.” Itshould not be so.

Whereas in the worldinjustice often leads to “wars” between siblings, oracquaintances, the monk is taught to view this “evil”supernaturally. He should remember that by entering a monastery, hehas freely accepted to follow Christ: He who was “despised andrejected”; 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 lambled to the slaughter house.” Who are we, poor sinners, to “deserve”to be treated with kid gloves? A monk striving for holiness willinterpret the injustice done to him as a “grace” and a call tocome closer to the One he loves.

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

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I would like to concludethese brief remarks with a caveat: indeed, God can through Hisinfinite power and love, draw good out of evil, but today, the Evilone who, once again, never sleeps, can whisper into stupid humanears, that we should not have a panicky fear of falling into sinbecause it gives God a chance of manifesting how infinite is HisMercy.

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

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

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