Sunday, 15 July 2012

Life and Wisdom of St Benedict/8 - To honour all men


St Benedict receiving King Totila
Gaspar de Crayer, 1633
Continuing this Year of Grace series, the eighth of the 'tools of good work' listed by St Benedict in Chapter 4 of his Rule is 'honorare omnes homines', or honour all men, and comes from 1 Peter 2, where the instruction is to:

"Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king."

Who are you?

St Benedict has much to say on this subject in his Rule, throughout advocating a policy of treating people on their merits, rather than according to their station in life, and seeking to see Christ in them. 

It is an important reminder.  A reader asked who I was last week, and I have to admit I was taken aback somewhat - because surely what is important is not how I earn a living or spend my time, who my parents are, or other such things that define us in secular life, but rather, I'm asking to be judged here on what I write!

Sometimes, of course, it is necessary to know something about someone in order to asses their agendas.

But on the whole, I would suggest that our society puts rather too much weight on who is saying something, rather than what is being said.

As Christians, perhaps we need to recapture the tradition of the anonymous, such as those wonderful medieval composers of the repertoire of Gregorian chant, of the 'monk or nun of [insert Abbey]' who poured forth spiritual treasures, of appreciation for those who pray or do good works in secret, their saintliness known only to God.

Certainly St Benedict's teaching supports that direction.

There is no respect of persons in God

In Chapter Two of The Rule of St Benedict, the saint urges the abbot not to make any distinctions based on who people are, but rather reward them on the basis of what they do:

"Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery. Let him not love one more than another, unless it be one whom he finds better in good works or in obedience.  Let him not advance one of noble birth  ahead of one who was formerly a slave,  unless there be some other reasonable ground for it.  But if the Abbot for just reason think fit to do so, let him advance one of any rank whatever. Otherwise let them keep their due places; because, whether slaves or free, we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28) and bear in equal burden of service  in the army of the same Lord. For with God there is no respect of persons (Rom. 2:11). Only for one reason are we preferred in His sight: if we be found better than others in good works and humility. Therefore let the Abbot show equal love to all  and impose the same discipline on all according to their deserts."

Serving others in distress

In Chapter 36 of his Rule, St Benedict gives instructions on taking care of the sick.  They are to be cared for as Christ he instructs.  But it is a two way thing: the sick are instructed to remember that they are being served for the honour of God, not for themselves, and thus should refrain from making a nuisance of themselves!  Here is the section of the Rule:

"Before all things and above all things, care must be taken of the sick, so that they will be served as if they were Christ in person; for He Himself said, "I was sick, and you visited Me" (Matt 25:36), and, "What you did for one of these least ones, you did for Me" (Matt. 25:40). But let the sick on their part consider that they are being served for the honor of God, and let them not annoy their brothers who are serving them by their unnecessary demands. Yet they should be patiently borne with, because from such as these is gained a more abundant reward."

Hospitality and the treatment of guests

Perhaps the most famous of St Benedict's discussions on honouring others though, comes in his chapter on guests RB 54).

First, he instructs that strangers be welcomed warmly - provided, that is, that they prove to be good Christians and not the devil in disguise:

"Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received Me" (Matt. 25:35). And to all let due honor be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.  As soon as a guest is announced, therefore, let the Superior or the brethren meet him with all charitable service. And first of all let them pray together, and then exchange the kiss of peace. For the kiss of peace should not be offered until after the prayers have been said, on account of the devil's deceptions.

Secondly, he advocates a reverence to others reflecting that spark of the divine in us all:

"In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons."

Thirdly, he insists that extra attention be given to the poor, and to pilgrims:

"In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received; for as far as the rich are concerned, the very fear which they inspire wins respect for them."

St Benedict and King Totila

One of the interesting historical anecdotes contained in St Gregory's Life of St Benedict concerns the saints meeting with King Totila, King of the Ostrogoths, who ruled from 541-552, probably in 543.  Totila managed to win back almost all the Italian territory that had been reclaimed by the Eastern Roman Empire, and could be utterly ruthless at times, yet was, in the end, able to claim a much better reputation than the Imperial troops when it came to their impact on the countryside.  The story of his meeting with St Benedict perhaps explains why.

Totila first tried to put one over the saint by disguising one of his men as himself. The saint quickly saw through the ruse:

"For in the time of the Goths, when Totila, their king, understood that the holy man had the spirit of prophecy, as he was going towards his monastery, he remained in a place somewhat far off, and beforehand sent the father word of his coming: to whom answer was returned, that he might come at his pleasure. The king, as he was a man wickedly disposed, thought he would try whether the man of God were a prophet, as it was reported, or no.

A certain man of his guard he had, called Riggo, on whom he caused his own shoes to be put, and to be appareled with his other princely robes, commanding him to go as it were himself to the man of God; and to give the better color to this device, he sent three to attend on him, who especially were always about the king: to wit, Vultericus, Rudericus, and Blindinus; charging them that in the presence of the servant of God, they should be next about him, and behave themselves in such sort as though he had been king Totila indeed: and that diligently they should do to him all other services, to the end that both by such dutiful kind of behavior, as also by his purple robes, he might verily be taken for the king himself. Riggo, furnished with that brave apparel, and accompanied with many courtiers, came to the Abbey.

At that time the man of God sat a little way off, and when Riggo was come so near that he might well understand what the man of God said, then, in the hearing of them all, he spoke thus: "Put off, my good son, put off that apparel, for what you have on, is not yours." Riggo, hearing this, fell immediately down to the ground, and was very much afraid, for presuming to go about to mock so worthy a man, and all his attendants and servitors fell down likewise to the earth, and after they were up again, they dare not approach any nearer to his presence: but returned to their king, telling him with fear, how quickly they were discovered.

Totila is suitably humbled, and the saint puts the fear of God into him:

"Then Totila himself in person went to the man of God; and seeing him sitting afar off, he dare not come near, but fell down to the ground: whom the holy man (speaking to him twice or thrice) desired to rise up and at length came to him, and with his own hands lifted him up from the earth, where he lay prostrate: and then, entering into talk, he reprehended him for his wicked deeds, and in few words told him all that which should befall him, saying: "Much wickedness do you daily commit, and many great sins have you done: now at length give over your sinful life. Into the city of Rome shall you enter, and over the sea shall you pass: nine years shall you reign, and in the tenth shall you leave this mortal life."

The king, hearing these things, was wonderfully afraid, and desiring the holy man to commend him to God in his prayers, he departed: and from that time forward he was nothing so cruel as before he had been. Not long after he went to Rome, sailed over into Sicily, and, in the tenth year of his reign, he lost his kingdom together with his life.

The next part in this series can be found here.

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