Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
Respect the Seniors, Love the Juniors
One of the most important aspects of the life of a monastic community is the coexistence of different generations. This phenomenon is now more pronounced in the West, particularly with the increase in life expectancy. Modern society has decided to separate generations; monastic communities maintain the practice of intergenerational living together as much as possible. It is common to have communities of four or even five generations.
This issue of the AIM Bulletin, as an extension of the Roman Synod on ‘Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment’, presents some aspects of this theme in relation to monastic life. Several testimonies from different continents give us an idea of how young monks or young sisters are situated in their commitment today. Each one interpreted in his or her own way the initial question, which concerned the vision that a young person could have of monastic life in the context of the country or culture in which he or she lived. This gives a fairly wide variety of approaches! The rest of this issue is divided into different sections and a few news items.
As a starting-point we should listen to what St Benedict says on our theme. St Benedict is especially concerned with a good balance within the community between the contribution of the young and the older brothers and sisters. In chapter 4 on the instruments of the spiritual art he gives his instruction, ‘Respect the seniors, love the juniors’ (4.71-72). It is a matter of placing the relationships of the ones and the others within a mutual attentiveness.
From the beginning of his Rule the monk is considered as a son listening to his father. This is, of course, a reference to the Book of Proverbs (1.8), but even more is it a gospel emphasis. Jesus places himself in a relationship of sonship to his Father who is also our Father, and from the very fact invites us also to be like beloved children of this Father who loves us. Whatever the age of a monk or a nun, of a disciple of Christ, it is always a relationship of a son or daughter, who listens to him from whom everything is received.
Chapter 7 on humility returns to the same question. It defines the monk as a child who rests in confidence in the embrace of a mother, just as the disciple listens to God (cf. Psalm 130). If one listens to it carefully, this is an astonishing definition of a monk. The whole secret therefore is to rest in God as a child, a little child, rests in its mother’s arms without any pride or ambition or pursuit of independent, self-confident aims. In such an attitude of confidence, of faith, a maturity is gradually acquired and, as the twelfth step of humility says, ‘the monk will soon come to that love of God which is perfect and casts out fear’ (7.67). This is the journey of the whole of monastic life.
The school which St Benedict is aiming to found for all those who put themselves in this position must aim at a running in the way of the commandments: ‘In so far as a monk progresses in the religious life and in faith, he runs with an expansive heart [ever younger], full of the unbelievable sweetness of love’ (Prologue 49). It is not guaranteed that this occurs always and with everyone, but at least this is the perspective opened by St Benedict. In any case, no one can judge from outside what is going on in the intimacy of each person’s heart; only God knows that.
In line with this proposal, St Benedict presents cenobites as beginners (Rule 1 and 73), enlisting them in the ranks of a fraternal army. They detach themselves progressively from the simple fervour of beginners, to enter upon trials and combat against interior forces of adversity, becoming more autonomous with age. Some can even eventually lay claim to an eremitical lifestyle. In fact we experience in our monasteries that most of the seniors end their days in this kind of solitude, either in the infirmary or even in their current style of life. The seniors, even if they remain in community life, acquire a certain distance from passing events, and help the whole community, especially the young, to take a step backwards with regard to the quarrels, confrontations and discussions which are a necessary but transitory part of daily life.
St Benedict is well aware of the contribution made by each group to community life, and this is why he insists that everyone should be consulted when there is important business to be transacted in the monastery (Rule 3.1-3). He notes, ‘This leads us to say that all the brothers should be consulted, since God often reveals to the younger the better course of action.’ How good it is to hear this from someone as experienced as Benedict! Far from holding the fact of considering oneself as a child of God as a reason for irresponsible dependency, the author of the Rule insists that being young in a community is a call to play the part that is appropriate to this age. How far this is from the infantilising customs which we see only too often in our holy institutions! It happened in our communities – especially in the northern hemisphere – that even after reaching the age of fifty a person is still treated as a little child who has no right to give an independent opinion. This is mere childishness and must be vigorously opposed, especially since these ‘young’ in our communities may be adults of thirty, forty years or more, matured by a wide experience of life.
Once he has given his spiritual teaching in the early chapters of the Rule, Benedict deals with practical questions in which he unpacks the major principles which he has laid down at the start. So in chapter 22 St Benedict underlines the importance of mixing generations even when he is speaking of sleeping arrangements in the dormitories: ‘the younger brothers should have their beds mixed among those of the seniors.’ In concrete terms it is important to avoid ambiguities of relationships among the young brothers, to make use of the encouragement of hardened warriors for the young, but also to strengthen the elders to retain the vitality of youth. Such measures may seem very out-of-date in a world more fearful of abuse of the young by their elders. But should such a fear dominate everything? Encouragement between generations also has its part to play, even though it brings with it the danger of abuse. In the case of monasteries, quite apart from those involved in education, such abuse can issue in homosexual behaviour. Certainly there is a place for vigilance and correction, but these should not impede an exchange of richnesses within a community.
St Benedict’s monastery included also children entrusted to the monks by their families to receive a good education (Rule 59). They were treated in the same way as the monks if they made mistakes or faults. Their first penalty was temporary exclusion, and if they failed to understand the gravity of their offence they were subject to rougher punishments. St Benedict wanted to believe in the capacity of spiritual perception in these young people who filled the monasteries even though they were not always easy to accompany (Rule 20). Chapter 68 on the way of receiving a new member is without doubt the best lesson to teach us St Benedict’s wishes for young monks. To begin with, entry into the community is not made easy: ‘their spirits must be tested to see that they are from God’ (Rule 68.2). This clashes with the attitude so often found of granting young people an easy entry into monastic life. Hard experience demands testing to discover the real issues.
At the time of St Benedict if someone knocked on the door there was first a stay in the guest-quarters, then, if the candidate perseveres he is taken to the place where the novices live. There they are truly apart, sleeping and eating and having different spiritual exercises. An experienced senior, ‘skilled in winning souls’, will be designated to accompany them. Three criteria are given for this accompaniment: examine the young man to see if he really seeks God, if he is fervent for the divine office, if he can live out obedience and difficulties which will not be lacking.
It is possible, therefore, to see both that the young are not treated like royalty in St Benedict’s monastery, and at the same time that their specific needs are taken into account. That is why they are formed separately under the guidance of a senior. There is a progressive entry into the community with particular attention to the interior journey. This clashes with our current feeling which attempts to integrate newcomers as soon as possible into the life of the whole community by appreciating their specific talents. Clearly there must be a balance between these two positions. There is a lot at stake for the monastic life of today. Not enough notice is taken of the difference between generations in the contemporary world, a difference which is rapidly increasing. It demands a structured approach to make possible a healthy dialogue between people of different ages and often of different cultures, mediated by the same Rule.
This progressive integration is all the more important today, when the value of commitment is relativized. It is not rare these days to see monks or sisters even after solemn profession raise questions, without any scruples, about the value of their solemn promise. They can even leave the monastery wholly without warning, a practice which could never occur in professional circumstances. But monastic commitment is more of a personal matter, according to the example of what occurs in the context of a family which in these days can come together and break up ever more easily.
St Benedict lays down the order to be observed in the community (Rule 63), laying down that this depends on the order of entry into the monastery, not on age and certainly not on social standing. Thus ‘one who enters the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognise that whatever his age or dignity he is junior to one who entered at the first hour’ (63.8). Similarly, St Benedict recalls that ‘in no way is there to be advantage or prejudice simply by age in the order to be kept, since Samuel and Daniel judged the elders when they were still children (63.5-6). In the same chapter, in addition to its mention in chapter 4, St Benedict repeats that juniors honour the seniors and seniors have affection for the juniors. To do this he recalls certain rules of fraternal conduct which affect daily life: for example, calling the younger members ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, and the seniors ‘nonnus’ and ‘nonna’. From this derives the noun ‘nun’ and in Italian it still means ‘grandfather’ or ‘grandmother’. The first term marks a recognition on the part of the senior that the junior is a brother in Christ, without any paternal or maternal superiority. The second term denotes at the same time respect and a certain familiarity. It could be interpreted as ‘little father’, ‘little mother’. That is probably not a good expression to use today, but it would be worthwhile to find an equivalent.
St Benedict mentions also some matters of elementary good manners, as for example to give a passing greeting, in which the junior takes the initiative. In the Rule this takes the form of asking a blessing through the senior. In the same way, St Benedict mentions that the junior should rise and offer the senior who passes a place to sit. All these little gestures of respect are signs of a broader respect, each striving to surpass the other in honour.
In western society, where the elders are often brought together in specialised houses, the example of monasteries where different generations live side by side can bear a strong witness, provided that the elders, who form a majority in some western communities, must be careful to avoid the temptation of treating the few remaining juniors – there may be only one! – as their servants. This is even more the case if they are young monks or nuns who have been brought surreptitiously from abroad for this very purpose. Furthermore, St Benedict is very insistent that two members of the same family (of which one is often younger) must not defend each other because of the unbalanced scandals that this may cause within the group. He requires also that the youngest and the elders – because of their greater fragility – should not be made use of on any occasion in a disorderly fashion, such as to let off steam.
In the last analysis the Benedictine Rule was, according to its author, written for beginners, as we have already said. So in the monastery
all must be careful to keep the heart of a child, eager to advance on the path of the commandment of love, so that with mutual encouragement the heart of each one may expand, and all may run with joy towards the goal which is none other than union to God. This aim guarantees for each individual the dynamism of living out the novelty and creativity of God. In this age plays an extraordinarily small part.