Chapter 4

 

Benedictine Work

 

AND SO we arrived at what is in truth the chief end of this study, a consideration of Benedictine monachism as it exists in the Church today, one mansion among many. What do Benedictine monks give as their share to the whole of Christian work and praise? Or to go a little deeper, what is there peculiar in their interpretation of the gospel counsels?

 

Before attempting to answer the question of the peculiar work of Benedictines, it is worth while to repeat that, strictly speaking, there is no peculiar Benedictine work. There is no one employment or kind of employment, speculative or practical, intellectual or physical, to which one who enters a Benedictine monastery may expect to find himself destined. This monastery or that, this or that congregation, may be largely or even principally (though this is rare) devoted to a particular form of work -- education, research, missionary activity. But there is no single external activity common to all the Benedictine congregations of the world. In what may be called the most normal Benedictine congregation neither the congregation as a whole nor each house taken by itself has any one outstanding work, suitability for which is demanded from all candidates as a condition sine qua non before profession.

 

Here indeed is the Benedictine's heritage from his Founder. He does not exist to do this work or that, but to serve God and save his soul. Benedictines are, as we have seen, not an order but a way of life, and not an extraordinary way but an ordinary way, if any way based on the gospel counsels can be called ordinary.

 

Yet in the Rule, if anywhere, the necessity for work is insisted upon, and the great variety of activities in which Benedictines have taken part is in many ways due to their freedom from limitation. As Christians they refuse no work that is religious in its scope. Such work may he of very great variety, but it is normally such as can be accomplished within the framework of community life, with attendance at the common prayer. As a result of these conditions, normal Benedictine work has the characteristic that it is in most cases consciously felt to be a community work.

 

The force which results from the work is not merely a thrust which is the sum of all the individual thrusts of those who are cooperating -- that is the case with all team or united work. It is rather a thrust different in character from anything that individuals contribute, and which owes all it has to the past and present life of the house.

 

There must always be some work or works which can employ the bulk of the community, at once sufficiently permanent and general to suit a variety of temperaments and capable of being added to or reduced from time to time as need arises. Benedictine history and modern practice show two or three works particularly suitable.

 

There is, first, the care of souls. This, like all Benedictine work, should be distinctively monastic. That is, it should normally be done by a monk resident in his monastery and should be felt to be the work of one or community rather than of an individual priest. It may take the form of ministering to the spiritual needs of those immediately round the monastery, whether in country or town, or of systematically giving retreats or instructions to those who are attracted to the abbey as a center of liturgical and spiritual life. Missionary work, and the care of shrines and pilgrims are also included in this category.

 

There is also the work of Christian education, which has been an accepted monastic employment as far back as records go. It can appeal for sanction to the Rule itself and to the accounts of the life of Saint Benedict. In the United States this may take the usual form of preparatory school or of a college. And in some cases the monks may supply the staff of a diocesan seminary.

 

Finally, there are many kinds of work, half science, half crafts, which the monastery may do. This may take the form of some liturgical study and publication, or it may be a school of art with all its processes of reproduction and execution, or it may be even the secular Benedictine work of farming and the selling of some specialized product.

 

This list of Benedictine works may seem to comprehend almost every kind of possibility for religious, but certain features -- that the work is stationary and in some sense of the community -- are common to all those mentioned above. And beyond this, freedom, the wide freedom of Christianity, is Saint Benedict's own legacy to his children.

 

From this refusal to be pledged to any single type of activity, from this reserve of life, comes a Benedictine characteristic which can have escaped the notice of few, and which yet is difficult to analyze. It is seen in all external Benedictine activity. In the realm of dogmatic and mystical theology it is an independence, a freedom from historical connections and controversies. Benedictine theologians are unconsciously faithful to their founder's idea. They represent the ordinary developed Christian, the man in the street, at once beneath and above schools of thought.

 

We said, when beginning this enumeration of Benedictine external work, that it must normally he such as can be accomplished within the framework of community life. Can Benedictine monks ever safely abandon this principle? Clearly, they can never abandon it of their own choice.

 

But, it may be asked, if residence in a monastery is so essential, how is it that considerable numbers of Benedictine monks in various countries of the world live outside their monasteries in a manner indistinguishable from the secular clergy or other religious?

 

The answer may he given that in all those countries exceptional circumstances, in the past or present, have caused the highest authorities of the Church to call upon such priests as existed anywhere to aid in spreading or maintaining religion in certain districts -- England in the Penal Days, America yesterday and today. When such a need has once been felt and such a call made, a complicated system, ecclesiastical and financial, comes into being which cannot readily be altered, and which, in view of the innate disposition of the Church to let well alone, will probably never be directly altered from above. When such a system exists, the monk who accommodates himself to it is obeying, explicitly or implicitly, the Supreme Pontiff, the Abbot of Abbots.

 

The gospel must always be preached, whereas no religious institute can at any given time be said to be essential to the Church. In the cases just mentioned the authorities of the Church have said, in effect, that parish priests or missionaries are so sorely needed that monks must take their places. Yet Saint Benedict, as we have seen, founded his form of monastic life, not to fill any place in the external life of the Church, but to create a school of the service of God, a place where the full Christian life of the counsels might he lived, a life suiting those who, with the young man of the gospel, wished to be perfect.

 

There is nothing in such a life and training to render a man unfit for any other kind of life whose direct end is the service of God and man. Nor, on the other hand, does there seem any reason why a man who has attained to a certain degree of maturity in the monastic life should be at all harmed spiritually by a life directed to God's service outside the enclosure of his monastery.

 

Neither habit nor choir nor community life are essential to sanctity and a life of prayer. If the end of 0 monastic observance, the monasticism of the soul, be once attained, it may be retained no matter where one is. The monk and the contemplative, like Plato's guardians, may come back to the world they have left and be able to work in it and for it. From the earliest times popes have summoned monks, even of the strictest and most retired life, to rule churches.

 

But while Benedictine tradition has always admitted such changes of life for the tried and the perfect, or in special circumstances, it has not regarded them as belonging to the normal course or development of Benedictine life. It is for the Church to call in the aid of monks to a particular work, and for monks to meet such a call of necessity with ready obedience, while they remember that the Church herself has always maintained a distinction between the pastoral and the monastic vocations, and regarded the sending of monks to pastoral duty outside the common life as something exceptional.

 

A monk who under the call of obedience is summoned to undertake such labor will, without losing any of this monastic character, be able to do a great work for the Church. It may even be said that he will do that work, whatever it may be, with especial success precisely because of his monastic training, for an experience of the full religious observance gives a kind of character and groundwork for life. Yet if we were to argue that a life lived thus outside the cloister is a normal Benedictine one or is the exact equivalent of the life presupposed by the Rule, we might justly he accused of paradox.

 

In the fourth chapter of the Holy Rule, Benedict gives a list of the instruments of good works, "the tools of the craft of spirituality," which his monks are to use. The workshop in which the monks should use the tools is the monastic enclosure and stability in the monastic family. For Benedict it was not a principle, but an axiom that a monk, as such, lived and prayed and worked and died in his monastery.

 

Continue to The Conclusion.

Table of Contents.


 

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