Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation

 

COMMENTARY ON THE
RITUAL OF MONASTIC PROFESSION (1984)

 

CHAPTER I
RITE OF ADMITTANCE TO THE NOVITIATE


1. Data from the Rule of Benedict

Saint Benedict, like Cassian ( Inst.IV , 3, 1) and the Rule of the Master (RM 90: 1), decrees: "Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry" (RB 58: 1). From these words it can be gathered that the postulant aspires to the monastic way of life: conversatio. Nevertheless this way of life, at least as propounded by Benedict, is new and unfamiliar to him. He has no experience of it, and may not know what he is seeking. He may be driven by an enthusiasm which carried him beyond his real capabilities. Benedict does not refuse admittance, but states that it should not come easy; and in accord with I In. 4: 1, should be granted only after testing the spirits (RB 58: 2) This provokes a struggle at the door of the monastery (see RB 58: 3- 4) in which the fresh arrival continues his attempt to enter and is repeatedly rebuffed. If he patiently endures this harsh treatment and persists in his request, he gains admittance to the guest house and subsequently the novitiate. Full reception into the community will come only later, after more trials and a formal promise of obedience (RB 58: 14).

For Benedict, therefore, monastic conversatio is a way of life governed by the discipline of a rule. One does not simply take it up or enter upon it of oneself. Rather one must be permitted access to it, and this permission may be either granted or refused. Hence a decision must be issued by some authority -- a decision which hinges upon whether the candidate sufficiently satisfies definite requirements and expectations.

To be received as a full member of the community, a formal promise of obedience is required. To gain admittance to the novitiate, persistence and determination must be demonstrated. Viewed from the postulant's

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original aspiration, namely, undertaking monastic conversatio, the novitiate appears to be a deferment. But by accepting it, he learns to practice the perseverance, stability, and obedience which lie at the heart of monastic conversatio. In other words, in the novitiate he already begins to live the very "way of life" which apparently had been denied him! When at last he is allowed to make profession, he knows what he is entering (see RB 58: 12), and so his original desire as well as the Rule's prescriptions are simultaneously fulfilled.


2. Medieval and Beuronese Tradition

Although Saint Benedict clearly reserved the monastic habit for professed monks and supposed that novices would wear their own clothes for the duration of the novitiate, it had become customary by the middle of the ninth century in both East and West to confer some special garb at the beginning of the novitiate.5 Lacking any detailed description of this special garb, it is impossible to determine its appearance. suffice it to say that it was distinct from the habit of the professed and, as we shall see, was not blessed. Given this practice, medieval rites for receiving novices are basically rites of investiture.

The ritual of Beuron, compiled from medieval sources, stands in line with this tradition. At the outset the novicemaster informs the abbot of the presence of someone from the world "seeking the habit of holy religion." The abbot, having ordered the novicemaster to bring the candidate before him, asks:

Quid petis ? The candidate prostrates and answers: Misericordiam Dei et vestram con fraternitatem. In reply to a short admonition about the necessity of renunciation and obedience, he declares: Non ex mea sufficientia, sed Del fretus misericordia confido, me omnia adimpleturum. The abbot then washes the feet of the newcomer; invests him with tunic, belt, and short scapular; and prays for him. In conclusion the abbot pronounces a second admonition reminding the novice of his freedom to leave; then blesses him and imposes a new name. 6

Close examination of the postulant's reply to the abbot's first admonition reveals it to be a promise of obedience. The wording of

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this promise is strongly reminiscent of the one which the Rule of the Master expected of the postulant at the moment of arrival (RM 87: 3- 4) and after two months in the guest house (RM 89: 2). Benedict did not require this promise "to observe everything, and to obey every command given him" (RB 58: 14) until the period of testing had come to an end.
In the Beuronese ritual this preliminary promise enables the postulant to gain entrance to the novitiate and to receive the habit.

3. The Roman Rite

The Initiation into the Religious Life presented in the Roman Rite of Religious Profession reflects a fundamentally different outlook. Since it deliberately avoids "anything that may seem to diminish the novices' freedom of choice or obscure the true meaning of a noviceship or time of testing" (RRP 1 ,4 ), it elicits no promise or engagement of any sort. Consistent with this position, it reverts to the more ancient practice of deferring the bestowal of the habit until temporary profession. 7 Hence it cannot be understood as a rite of investiture. The stated aim of the ceremony is "to ask God's grace for achieving the special purpose of the novitiate" (RRP 1 , 1; see Intro. 4). In simplest terms it is a prayer service or celebration of the word, prefaced by the briefest of transactions in which the postulants, either on their own initiative, or in response to a question, tell the superior of their desire to experience and learn religious life with a view to possible entrance.

While fully agreeing with the intent of the Roman approach, we judge the ritual statement itself to be rather weak - It rightly refrains from calling forth any kind of commitment from the postulants. But it does not provide for any decision on the part of the superior either -even with regard to admitting the candidates to the novitiate. Furthermore the rite consists entirely of words, and is devoid of any powerful gestures expressive of petition (such as prostration), or of welcome (such as footwashing ), or of renunciation and admittance (such as investiture).

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4. Structure of the Present Rite

Although the intentionality of the Beuronese and Roman rites is totally different, they share several structural features in common: The question of the superior; the response of the candidate; an address or admonition; prayer. These elements have been retained in our rite. To them we have added the reading and presentation of the Rule (nos. 7-8) for reasons to be explained later. Since many abbeys, though not all, continue to invest novices with either the monastic habit, the short scapular or a choir robe, our rite allows this practice as a sign of admittance. Following the ritual of Beuron it also permits the abbot to wash the feet of the novices either in addition to or instead of investing them with the habit.

From the viewpoint of intentionality this rite can no longer be conceived in medieval or Beuronese fashion as being primarily a ceremony of investiture, because some abbeys will not be conferring the habit. Yet it is considerably more than the prayer service or celebration of the word envisaged by the Roman rite.

5. A Rite of Admittance

Following the lead of the Rule, our rite is conceived primarily as a rite of admittance. This theme is first sounded during the request (nos. 2-3); then developed at greater length in the abbot's admonition (no. 4). As in the Rule, the postulants are portrayed as seeking to enter upon conversatio: the monastic way of life. Using phrases from RB 58: 1-2 ,7 - 8, the abbot replies that their request cannot be granted immediately. They must first accept a period of testing in the novitiate, which, when compared to their ultimate goal, is not exactly what was sought. He permits them to remain in the monastery for this purpose. Since the admonition in the ritual is only a model text, the Beuronese formula may be substituted for it or the abbot may address the postulants in his own words (see no. 5).

As a sign of admittance, the abbot may wash the feet of the novices (no. 6). Besides signifying the hospitality which Benedict accorded

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to guests (RB 53: 13), it gives the novices an example of self-abasement and humility which they must imitate. Provision is also made for investing novices with the habit, the scapular, or some other distinctive garb (no. 6). It must be remembered, however, that both the Rule and the Roman rite oppose this practice. for it bespeaks a type of renunciation and commitment which the novices have not yet made.

Since the reason for admittance to the monastery is for the novices to learn to live under the Rule and be tested in their ability to do so, it is fitting for the abbot or novicemaster to read to them the opening paragraph of the Prolog (no. 7), perhaps prefacing this reading with a few words of introduction. He may also present the novices with a copy of the Rule (no. 8). The Roman rite recommends that this be done at temporary profession (RRP II, 32). Saint Benedict, however, insisted that his Rule be read  three times during the novitiate (RB 58: 9,12,13). For this reason it seems preferable for Benedictines to present the Rule at the beginning of the period of probation, rather than at its end. The formula provided for this purpose expresses the wish that the novices may adopt  the Rule as their "way of life (no. 8). They will have the opportunity to do so at the end of the year when the abbot again confronts them with the Rule and declares: ii if you can keep it, enter. If not, you are free to leave" (nos. 16, 28; see RB 58:10).

The rite may be concluded with the kiss of peace (no. 11). Discretion must be exercised in this matter, however, lest the gesture lose its significance through overuse. We recommend reserving it for perpetual profession.

The rite of admittance may be used as an independent service or it may be incorporated into Vespers. This will determine whether the prayer (no. 9) is recited.

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Chapter 2

 

Web version: 4 March 2006; rev. 10-Mar-2007 | © 2007 by Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation | www.osb.org/swissam/ritual/