Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 59

To be read: April 14, August 14, December 14

If a nobleman offers his son to God in the monastery, and the boy is of a young age, his parents should write a written promise which we have mentioned above; 2then at the service of oblation they will wrap that document and the boy’s hand in the altar cloth. That is the means to offer him. 3As to their property, they are to bind themselves under oath in the same document that they will never give him anything themselves, nor through any other person, nor in any way whatever, nor give the boy anything or give him opportunity to own anything; 4or else, if they refuse to do this and want to make an offering to the monastery as an alms for their own benefit, 5let them make a formal donation to the monastery of whatever goods they wish to give, keeping to themselves the income of it, if they so desire. 6And there ought to be no opportunity for the boy to expect anything and thus deceive him and ruin him.  May God forbid this. But in the past we have learned by experience that this can happen. 7Let those who are poor act in like manner. 8But as to those who have nothing at all, let them simply write the declaration, and with this oblation offer their son in the presence of witnesses. 

There are many and various reasons why noblemen and the poor would make an oblation, an offering of their sons to the monastery.  In the days of Benedict, military service was mandatory, but for those in monasteries, or certain service industries, military deferment was an option.  To offer one’s son to the monastery was a means to preserve his life, and possibly the family name.  Often people would give their sons to the monks for education or to learn a trade.  And occasionally, there were those who truly witnessed a call from God on the life of their child and wanted to facilitate that call’s fulfillment.  For the poor, feeding a large family could be problematic.  By giving one or two of their children to the monastery the parents could save the lives of those offered and ease the burden on the remainder of the family members.  And, of course, there were those who offered their children to the monastery mistakenly thinking that doing so would win them favor with God—a sacrificial offering, if you will.

What can we learn from Benedict, and from this practice?  Every child is a gift from God and belongs to God.  By recognizing that fact, and daily offering our children back to Him, we glorify God in our offspring.  Benedict makes it clear that when parents brings their child to the monastery, they offer their son to God.  This oblation is sacramentally signified in the ritual of wrapping the boy’s hand in the altar cloth.  We don’t need to give our children away in order to make an oblationary offering.  But we do need to recognize that our children do not belong to us—we do not possess them, or even know what is best for them.  God knows what our children need better than we do, because He knows the depths of their spirit, the state of their heart, and the very thoughts in their mind.  God Himself set the example of giving up a child, “for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”  

This oblationary practice has long since ceased in the monastic community.  So what relevance does this chapter have to either the Benedictine Community or to us who serve God in the secular realm?  The relevance is found, not in the directives regarding children, but in what it teaches us about our attitude toward the people we love.  Do we love them enough to “wrap [their] hand in the altar cloth” and give them to God?  Can we follow the example of God the Father, Who loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for us?  Do I love someone enough to let them go?  That is a hard question, but one we all will face in one way or another.  

If we can, by God’s grace, see in those we love, the Imago Christi, then we can, like the Father, let them go, because we can trust God, as the noblemen and poor of Benedict’s day did, and wrap their hands in the altar cloth, and offer our loved ones to God.  It is not easy, but it is freeing for us, and for them.  It is hard to give up someone we love.  But let us remember what St. Paul said about giving freely:  “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance” (1 Cor. 9:7-8).  In letting go of those we love, we get them back.  Because in giving them to God, we can find them in the Heart of Christ.  When we receive the Eucharist, we receive the Body of Christ and everyone who is found in Him.  

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