Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Life and wisdom of St Benedict/6 - Not to covet

Continuing my series on the 'tools of good works' set out in Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict, today another of the commandments, summarised in the Rule as non cupiscere (not to covet)

The problem of monks coveting the goods (physical and spiritual) bestowed on others gets several mentions in the Rule of St Benedict.

Monastic poverty

Monastic life is meant to present to us an image of heavenly perfection, an ideal which we can imitate in ways adapted to our own state of life, and St Benedict's injunctions on property and acceptance of what we are given reflects that principle.

The monk, unlike the layperson or secular priest, owns nothing at all himself, but rather shares in the monastery's collectively owned goods.  Nor is he free to help himself: rather what he needs is to be allocated to him by the monastery's officers.

It is not a one size fits all system though - St. Benedict instructs that distribution of goods be according to needs, as determined by the abbot and those authorized by him, taking into account the infirmities of each person (RB 34). He instructs those who need less to thank God for this, and not be discontented that someone else might receive more!

Monastic poverty does not (necessarily) consist in deprivation of goods, but rather in the lack of individual control over them.  Some monasteries do manage to acquire, over the course of many years, a considerable wealth of assets, and this is not necessarily contrary to the Rule: what counts is how this wealth is used. 

Yet some monasteries these days devote their assets not to increasing the splendor of worship, not to building up their libraries, or to helping the poor, but instead seem able to provide what would seem luxuries for their members, such as an annual trip overseas/home.  St Benedict certainly doesn't seem to envisage this in his Rule, encouraging instead his monks to live an extremely simple lifestyle.

More often though, the situation these days, when traditionalist orders must start from scratch and build a Church and monastery for themselves, the situation is more akin to that which St Benedict certainly did envisage, where monks and nuns must work  hard, and suffe many privations generally hidden from the casual visitor.  In such cases, which St Benedict insists that his monks not be discontented with their lot, for example in relation to clothing (RB 55), or with having to work to earn their living (RB 48).

The sin of spiritual envy

The gravest form of envy though, is spiritual, and St. Benedict actually ended up leaving his first monasteries at Subiaco in order to remove the danger of it from a nearby priest, as St. Gregory the Great relates in Chapter 8 of the Life of St Benedict:

"When as the foresaid monasteries were zealous in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and their fame dispersed far and near, and many gave over the secular life, and subdued the passions of their soul, under the light yoke of our Saviour: then (as the manner of wicked people is, to envy at that virtue which themselves desire not to follow) one Florentius, Priest of a church nearby, and grandfather to Florentius our sub-deacon, possessed with diabolical malice, began to envy the holy man's virtues, to back-bite his manner of living, and to withdraw as many as he could from going to visit him.

When he saw that he could not hinder his virtuous proceedings, but that, on the contrary, the fame of his holy life increased, and many daily, on the very report of his sanctity, took themselves to a better state of life : burning more and more with the coals of envy, he became far worse; and though he desired not to imitate his commendable life, yet fain he would have had the reputation of his virtuous conversation.

In conclusion so much did malicious envy blind him, and so far did he wade in that sin, that he poisoned a loaf and sent it to the servant of almighty God, as it were for a holy present. The man of God received it with great thanks, yet not ignorant of that which was hidden within.

At dinner time, a crow daily used to come to him from the next wood, which took bread at his hands; coming that day after his manner, the man of God threw him the loaf which the Priest had sent him, giving him this charge: "In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no man may find it." Then the crow, opening his mouth, and lifting up his wings, began to hop up and down about the loaf, and after his manner to cry out, as though he would have said that he was willing to obey, and yet could not do what he was commanded.

The man of God again and again bide him, saying: "Take it up without fear, and throw it where no man may find it." At length, with much ado, the crow took it up, and flew away, and after three hours, having dispatched the loaf, he returned again, and received his usual allowance from the man of God.

But the venerable father, perceiving the Priest so wickedly bent against his life, was far more sorry for him than grieved for himself. And Florentius, seeing that he could not kill the body of the master, attempts to do now what he can, to destroy the souls of his disciples; and for that purpose he sent into the yard of the Abbey before their eyes seven naked young women, which there took hands together, play and dance a long time before them, to the end that, by this means, they might inflame their minds to sinful lust:

"...which damnable sight the holy man beholding out of his cell, and fearing the danger which thereby might ensue to his younger monks, and considering that all this was done only for his persecution, he gave place to envy; and therefore, after he had for those abbeys and oratories which he had there built appointed governors, and left some under their charge, himself, in the company of a few monks, removed to another place."

And thus was born the great monastery of Monte Cassino....

The next part of this series can be found here.

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