Tuesday, April 03, 2007

St. Benedict on Lent, Part 13

Before I begin on St. Benedict, I post this follow-up thought related to my last post. Here you have a similar sentiment from a better authority than yours truly.

"Reading, vigils and prayer...hunger toil and solitude...the singing of Psalms...patience and almsgiving...: all these practices are to be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable."
Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos, ch. 15

Back to Evagrius' grandson in the monastic tradition, St. Benedict:
"Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward." RB 49: 9

St. Benedict here moves away from the Aramaic title 'Abbot' back to the root title, 'father' in relating the monk's ascetic practice to the discipline of obedience. The 'spiritual father' is a term with a very long monastic pedigree already by the time of St. Benedict, and as he himself frequently points out to the abbot, the very term 'abbot' is a short-hand familiar name for the spiritual father.

Sadly, today we tend to think of abbots as administrators, much as we think of bishops in the same way. Contributing to this is an individualized spirituality that many undertake today for 'self-betterment' or 'self-actualization'. Of course, all of us should strive to improve our lives and to become the person God means us to become. But the Church teaches that we do this as a Body, the Mystical Body of Christ. No one is in the monastic life for himself, anymore than the
Word of God became man simply to see for Himself what it would be like. No, the Son of God, obedient to His own Father became human by the Holy Spirit in order to bring together what had been lost. The relationship of the work of the monk to the will of his spiritual father should itself be modeled on the Holy Trinity: the monk is never simply a worker bee in the grand projects of the monastery. Rather, he is looking to serve the Church as a whole through the purification of his heart in submitting in faith to God through the instrument of the abbot. Wow! If we really saw that this is what is happening, how would our lives change? Yet this is exactly what St. Benedict, grounded in the spirituality of St. Basil the Great and the Desert Fathers, proposes.

If we do this right, our mystical lives in baptism should begin to interpenetrate one another as happens in the Trinity. We were created for this sort of intimacy. To guide us in this path of agape, St. Benedict proposes a relationship of spiritual father to son, rather than that of CEO to employee. Therefore, the abbot functions not primarily to 'enforce the law' with various sanctions. Rather, he instructs the disciple in the path of spiritual maturity; what matters is less 'the monastery' and more the fruit of charity in the life of the individual monks. The 'son' demonstrates his faith in Jesus Christ by his openness to do the will of someone further along the path.

As I mentioned yesterday, one frequently hears from young aspirants in the religious life, particularly from those who are truly good persons, that they are turned off by what they perceive to be a lack of zeal in the community. When the abbot tempers their ascetical efforts, this is seen as proof of laxity rather than as solicitude for the health of the family. Yes, the one who so criticizes may be full of zeal, but there is more than one kind of zeal. The bitter kind divides: from others, but just as much from God [RB 72: 1]. It points us down the road to spiritual burnout and cynicism. Much better for the love of God to walk the sure path of obedience. St. Teresa of Avila often lamented the poor spiritual direction she received. Yet she always obeyed and she became, after all, St. Teresa, even with bad advice taken for love of Christ! Surely we can learn humble obedience as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments on "self-betterment" and "self-realization". My spiritual director told me that the process wasn't about "self-improvement", and I thought, "Huh?" but took his word for it.

Thanks for informing what was done in faith!


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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