School for the Service of the Lord

January 7, 2010

From the Rule of St Benedict:

And so we are going to establish 
a school for the service of the Lord. 
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. 
But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity 
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, 
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, 
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).
For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, 
our hearts expand 
and we run the way of God’s commandments 
with unspeakable sweetness of love (Ps. 118[119]:32).
Thus, never departing from His school, 
but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching 
until death, 
we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13)
and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.

From The Monk: ‘In his Preface to The Rule St. Benedict speaks of the monastery as a “school for the Lord’s service” where “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” is set down in order not to discourage the monk. The image of a school is an analogy which describes well the process of learning that takes place as the monk moves from Novice to Junior to Solemnly Professed member of the community.

And yet, this picture can be misleading too. St. Bernard hinted at the subtle obfuscation when he stated that “We search in a worthier manner, we discoverwith great facility through prayer than through disputation.” (Five Books on Consideration, Cistercian Publications, 1976) The monk then does not enter into a study of the life of the Spirit, but rather enters into a relationship with Christ, mediated through his obedience to the abbot and rule, through his participation in the life of community, through the various practices of monastic ascesis, through prayer in all its dimensions, personal and communal. It is not a speculative process, a theoria but instead a personal experience grounded in his daily round of monastic activity, humble and hidden as it mostly is.

And so, yes, the monk is a student of the cloister, but his study is not simply analytical, his learning is not simply theoretical; it is, if you will, physical, experiential, something felt initially in his innermost being communicated to him from the Spirit. His life then is a process repeated over and over of seeking to understand what the Spirit is teaching him, and living it out.

The result of this process in the “school for the Lord’s service” is not the production of a scholar of the life of the Spirit, though that can be a byproduct, but rather it is wisdom, the only “degree” that matters in a monastery.’

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