March 22, July 22, November 21
Chapter 43: On Those Who Come Late to the Work of God or to Table
At the hour for the Divine Office,
as soon as the signal is heard,
let them abandon whatever they may have in hand
and hasten with the greatest speed,
yet with seriousness, so that there is no excuse for levity.
Let nothing, therefore, be put before the Work of God.
If at the Night Office
anyone arrives after the "Glory be to the Father" of Psalm 94 --
which Psalm for this reason we wish to be said
very slowly and protractedly --
let him not stand in his usual place in the choir;
but let him stand last of all,
or in a place set aside by the Abbot for such negligent ones
in order that they may be seen by him and by all.
He shall remain there until the Work of God has been completed,
and then do penance by a public satisfaction.
the reason why we have judged it fitting
for them so stand in the last place or in a place apart
being seen by all,
they may amend for very shame.
For if they remain outside of the oratory,
there will perhaps be someone who will go back to bed and sleep
or at least seat himself outside and indulge in idle talk,
and thus an occasion will be provided for the evil one.
But let them go inside,
that they many not lose the whole Office,
and may amend for the future.
At the day Hours
anyone who does not arrive at the Work of God
until after the verse
and the "Glory be to the Father" for the first Psalm following it
shall stand in the last place,
according to our ruling above.
Nor shall he presume to join the choir in their chanting
until he has made satisfaction,
unless the Abbot should pardon him and give him permission;
but even then the offender must make satisfaction for his fault.
For too many years, I have read this chapter as just one more outline
of punishments for offenses. I missed completely the message to be
found in its title and I suspect many others have, too. The Work of
God and Table are lumped together. They are not exactly equal, but
they have many similarities and are, in some instances, nearly equal.
Now, this is not something most people would have guessed, especially
with all the details about times of fasting and amounts of food and
drink, but it is true nonetheless. St. Benedict links the places and
times where body and soul are nourished because he esteems both. Like
any truly orthodox monastic, he escapes the heretical trap of making
body and matter evil and spirit alone good. Because we sometimes
unconsciously fall into that trap ourselves, it is easy to misread
Neither St. Benedict nor monastic life itself hates the body. Both
wish to discipline and control it, to remove the obstacles it
presents to our spirits, but neither can hate the body, because God
created it and God Himself assumed it. Talk all you will of bodily
mortifications, but the bottom line is that nobody (quite
literally, "no body",)is getting to the spiritual banquet without a
truck to take them and that truck is the body. Kill it and you will
not only have no means of allowing the soul to grow in time, but may
well have violated the 5th commandment, as well, thereby fouling up
your total efforts rather messily. Wow! What poor God has to untangle
in His insistent love and will to save some of us!
Monastic reforms over the centuries have frequently proclaimed a
return to the "full rigor of the Rule." Whoops! Missed something
there, folks. The Rule ain't rigorous. Says so himself, right in the
Prologue: "...nothing harsh or burdensome." Being observant is one
thing, but rigorous is quite another. To go beyond the Holy Rule in
laxity OR austerity is a perilous mistake. Our Rule is balance and
moderation. Take those away and the critter you are left with is no
Rather than alienate the entire camp of those with Cistercian
leanings in one fell swoop, I will give examples of failure on this
count on BOTH sides at the time of the Cistercian reform in 1098.
Cluny, remembered by some Benedictine historians with a bit of pride
that is embarrassing, was WAY off the mark liturgically. Geegaws and
doo-dads and little Offices and devotions for days. Ruined the
balance. One abbot over literally hundreds of daughter houses and
thousands of monks. Ruined local autonomy. Not surprisingly, a lot of
other unlovely stuff crept in. Given the lack of Benedictine balance
to hone their vision, the fact that they overlooked the mess they
were in is hardly shocking. Lots of pruning was in order.
Along come the first Cistercians who point out (maybe a teeny bit
self-righteously?) that those slimy Benedictines are not only failing
to abstain from "the flesh of four-footed animals," but are dining
quite nicely on just about anything within reach. Well, there is a
point there, then and now! But there is a point against the reforms
of Citeaux and La Grande Trappe, too. Want to get literalist? The
Holy Rule says meat from quadrupeds. If it meant all meat, period,
that would have been easier to say; it would have even saved some ink
and parchment, in an age when neither were that easy to come by. But
it didn't say that. That left fish and poultry wide open. The
Trappists didn't think so: meat, fish, eggs, milk and cheese ALL got
banned. Okaaay..... But if you have only one oar in the water, you
are quite likely to wind up going in circles...
If the literal Rule is what you want, then take it, but always,
always remember that the literal Rule cuts a LOT of slack and demands
a lot of balance. Miss that and you might miss the boat entirely.
Love and prayers,