Dear Br Patrick
: it seems only a short while ago that you had your First Perseverance and now you’re having your Second and are more than half way through your Novitiate. Sometimes events seem to overtake us and we think we’ve lost control but, you see, losing control is an essential part of monastic formation and it is a lesson that we have to keep learning throughout life in a monastery as Benedictine monks. We are not in control: God is, and we have to learn to hand over our lives to Him. It sounds a simple and a pious thing to do, but it’s not. We are constantly rebelling against it.
St Benedict talks about the “yoke of the rule” and the novitiate is “a prolonged period of refection” or discernment as to whether you are willing to accept this yoke and make profession or not. It’s a daunting matter because, as St Benedict points out, a monk, once professed, “will not have even his own body at his disposal”. Nothing is mine from the day of my profession, not even my skin and bones! So what the Holy Rule proposes is far more than just losing control, it’s handing the whole lot, body, mind and spirit, over to God, not just in some vaguely spiritual way but in a precise and practical way. Through monastic vows we promise a lifelong commitment to live the monastic life as a monk of a specific Community, Belmont Abbey, and to be always faithful to the cenobitic ideal of “serving under a rule and an abbot”.
I mention this because it’s important for you to be quite clear about it and for the rest of us, me first, to remember that we are not free agents, doing whatever we want, deciding everything for ourselves, ordering our own lives, but men who have promised to live a life of obedience to God, to the Gospel, to the Church, to the Rule and Constitutions, to an Abbot and to a Community. In Chapter 72 we are told that, “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” Now that someone else refers to your brethren, the Abbot and God. So we don’t rush ahead and do what we want, the first thing that comes into our heads, but we consult, we discern and we ask permission. Likewise, when asked to do something, even something we don’t want to do or we don’t feel qualified to do, nevertheless we obey.
You will remember that wonderful reading we heard at Mass this morning from Hebrews Chapter 5. “During his life on earth, he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. Although he was Son, he learned to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation.” These words seem to sum up the very meaning of the Gospel and the Incarnation. At the same time they describe perfectly the means and goals of the monastic life: prayer, submission, humility and obedience, learned in the school of suffering, the school of self-sacrifice and kenosis, self-emptying. The way of Christ, the way of the Cross, must be our way, the only way, and we must be prepared not only to set out on this way but to walk faithfully along it for the rest of our lives until it leads to heaven and eternal life. Christ is the model of the monk, ultimately the only model, and in the monastic vocation we are called to live fully in Him and in no other. “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ,” writes St Benedict, “and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
Now this is easier said than done, as we all know, but it should at least be our desire and intention as we begin each new day and as we go to rest each night. “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” It is, I am sure, your desire and intention today. It requires an act of the will rather than just relying on our sentiments, a deep and unwavering desire to seek first the Kingdom of God, his justice and righteousness, his love and forgiveness. Each day we need to remember why we are here, why the Lord called us and why we said in reply, “Here I am, O Lord, I come to do your will.” Above all, acknowledging Christ Jesus to be our Lord and Saviour, we renew our promise and desire to live in Him and in the power of his Spirit, that in Christ our lives too may become a doxology, an act of worship, a living sacrifice of praise. “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”
Thus if we obey the will of God as Jesus himself obeyed his Father’s will, then Christ will become the source of our eternal salvation. Now he hasn’t promised us that this will be an easy task. On the contrary, it is through suffering that we too learn to obey. St Benedict tells us, “The novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God.” Of course, this is an impossible task for the Novice Master because none of us can foresee the hardships and difficulties that we will have to face as we go through life, let alone life in a monastery. What appears easy early on can often become a major difficulty later in life, and the opposite is also true. It’s amazing what you learn to put up with, though obviously monks are not meant just to put up with things but to embrace them, accept them and transform them into tools of good works. If we but have faith in Him, God will work miracles in our lives.
Dear Br Patrick, as you hasten down the home straight these next five months, keep your heart and your mind fixed on Christ, on his obedience to the Father’s will, and in prayer, aloud and in silent tears, ask for the gift of submission to God’s will, that same obedience, and for the grace to persevere in the monastery until death. And don’t forget to pray for the rest of us. We really do need each other’s prayers and example. Amen.