Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 58:17-23

To be read: April 12, August 12, December 12

Let him who is received promise in the oratory, in the presence of all, before God and His saints, stability, fidelity to moral life, and obedience, 18in order that, if he should ever do otherwise, he may know that he will be condemned by God Whom he mocks. 19He is to make a written statement of his promise in the name of the saints whose relics are there, and of the Abbot there present. 20The novice is to write this document with his own hand, or if he does not know how to write, let another write it at his request, and let the novice make his mark, and with his own hand place it on the altar. 21When he has placed it there, let the novice next begin the verse: “Uphold me according to thy promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope!”(Ps 118[119]:116). 22Then all the brothers repeat this verse three times, adding the Gloria Patri. 23Then the novice prostrates himself at the feet of each monk, asking that they pray for him; and from that day he is to be counted in the brotherhood. 

As was noted yesterday, to be a follower of Christ is to be zealous to become the Imago Christi.  To that end we must pursue the “hard and rugged things which lead us to God”.  Benedict tells us that in order to do these things we must practice “stability, fidelity to moral life, and obedience”.  Let us look at how these promises are applicable to our pursuit of holiness as zealous followers of Christ.

The basic meaning that one can derive from Benedict’s use of the term “stability” is perseverance.  It is important for us as members of this community of faith to persevere not only in relationship with God, but also in relationship with one another.  Our perseverance in communal work, prayer, and relational support for one another is essential to fulfilling the Great Commandment.  We are called to love God with all of our being, but also to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Stability is about relationship with God and earnestly maintaining our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sadly, in our American culture, we have come to the point of zealously protecting our firmly held personal beliefs.  For example, we demand the right to not be offended.  If you disagree with me, you must be wrong!  People quickly jump ship over the slightest offense, moving from church to church until they find a church that tells them what they want to hear.  And when they fail in their pursuit, there is always the option to leave the institutional church altogether.  Stability offers the alternative of persevering in the steadfast faith that God works through difficult people (ourselves included).  We will never agree with everyone, nor will everyone agree with us about everything.  But there is great benefit in remaining in one place, pursuing the Imago Christi in each one of those whom God has placed around us.  As Benedict reminded us in chapter 4, “the workshop in which we perform all these works with diligence is…stability in the community” (vs. 78).

The second of the three promises is “fidelity to moral life.”  This promise is difficult both grammatically and in practice.  The Latin phrase that Benedict uses in 58:17 is conversatio morum suorum.  I am not a Latin scholar, however, those who are and who have commented on this verse in the Rule are in agreement that this wording is problematic.  The best translation of the promise appears to be lost in the idiomatic expressions of Benedict’s days.  On a more practical level, the essence of the promise, if we can rightly interpret Benedict’s intent, is that we are promising a conversion of our behavior—the abandonment of secular habits that are contrary to our Lord’s will for our lives.  The promise, conversatio, then is a promise to adopt a “way of life” that is in fidelity to the Gospel and to the Rule of St. Benedict.  Fidelity is faithfulness.  To faithfully follow Christ we need to let go of the things which distract our attention from Him.  Secular goods and values are a distraction from committing ourselves to the Imago Christi.  The call for us in this promise is to live in faithful adherence to the Rule in the station of life where we find ourselves.  For us, that is not a call to renunciation of all worldly goods; rather it is a renunciation of the claim that those worldly goods have over us.  We cannot serve both God and mammon.  To “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11) is our goal, and fidelity is the call to embrace that goal.  

The final promise is obedience.  This virtue is the one most prominently touted in the Rule, and one that every person should strive to possess.  Life without obedience is fruitless.  Without obedience to God, we are alienated from the source of life.  Without obedience to those in authority we are in rebellion, which Samuel told King Saul is like the spirit of divination (1 Sam. 15:23).  According to Benedict, “it is love that urges us” to be obedient (5:10), but it is also a battle to maintain this lifestyle (Prol. 40-41).  And though we will inevitably struggle to maintain a life of obedience, obedience is a blessing that leads to a deeper and more profound relationship with God (71:1-2).  “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the Abbot, but also to one another, knowing that we shall go to God by this path of obedience” (71:1-2).  The life and health of the community is tied to this virtue.  If we are to live together in love and unity we must show respect for one another, support each other with patience, and “vie with one another in obedience” (72:4-6). 


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