Words on the Word
The chapter from the Holy Rule set to be read on this day, the feast of St Benedict, is chapter 33, on private ownership: ‘Whether monks should have anything of their own’. At first sight, w may think a more exalted theme could have been chosen for our patriarch’s heavenly birthday—a passage from the Prologue on the vision of God, perhaps, or the Rule’s conclusion, with the promise of the fruits of a monastic life well lived.
On reflection, though, we shall find that the 33rd chapter is perfect. It expresses the heart of our father’s vision, and tells us what sort of man he was. For as Gregory the Great says, ‘this holy man could never have taught anything else [in his Rule] than what he lived himself’.
What is a monk? A monk is a man who is entirely given. He is a man who keeps nothing for himself, a man without personal claims. St Benedict, justly noted for his discretion, is uncompromising in this regard. Private ownership, he says, must be rooted out of the monastery ‘above all’. Why this urgency? Because the moment we start accumulating stuff, the moment we delude ourselves that we have facilities and possessions under our control, our heart is no longer free. It is bound to our treasure. Instead of being a ceaseless tending towards God, our life will be set upon tending our stocks, however modest they may be. A small, in itself pathetic possession can bind us every bit as much as a large and precious thing. The lure lies in the sense of authority we get when we look upon something and say, ‘This is mine’.
This goes against a monk’s nature. ‘Monks’, says St Benedict in the same chapter, ‘should not have even their bodies and wills at their own disposal.’ Their very self is a function of the oblation they made of themselves at their profession. We said, on that day, we who are gathered round this altar: ‘Lord, I give you everything, and to make this gift is my chief desire, my choicest joy.’ How infinitely sad it would be, brothers, if later in life we start reneguing on this gift, if we stealthily begin to re-appropriate little bits and pieces. We would turn into a sad caricature of what we set out to become.
The secret to happiness is to be whole. The whole man is also free. He is not torn in different directions. Life according to the Rule of St Benedict is intended to liberate us, to orient our lives in such a way that we move forward easily, gracefully, and quickly, with wind in our sails, enjoying the progress. Brothers, let us make sure we cast overboard any ballast that slows us down, any seed of bitterness that infects our joyful pilgrimage with bile. May St Benedict, our Father, led us safely to the goal we long to reach, and may he keep our longing strong, faithful, resolute, and pure. Amen.