Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
This issue of the AIM Bulletin reflects on the theme The Monastic Ideal of Life and Death. It dwells on the paschal mystery of Christ in general and in all kinds of customs which express it in daily life.
We shall consider two examples of monastic cemeteries and the manufacture of coffins at the Abbey of New Melleray (USA), and the funerary rites of monks and nuns in Vietnam. These are matters which provoke reflection at the spiritual and cultural and simply at the human level. A neurologist, director of a centre for ethics, makes a contribution in the form of a witness on the victory of life over the sufferings of dying.
The issue includes also various practical matters : the story of Anglican monks in England, a reflection on ‘Work and Economy’ by a monk of Keur Moussa (Senegal), the memory of great monastic figures, Dom Ambrose Southey, who did so much to form the Trappist Order, Mother Anna Maria Canopi, founder of the monastery on the island of San Giulio, and Mother Teresita D’Silva, founder of the monastery of Shanti Milayam. Finally this issue gathers up some recent news of our Benedictine family, among them a record of the ninth-centenary celebrations of the Carta Caritatis of the Cistercian Order.
Life and Death in the Rule of Saint Benedict
Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat
In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses decisively announces to the People of God the exact moment when he himself will die without seeing the Promised Land: ‘Today I am offering you life or death. Choose life, then, so that you may live’ (Deuteronomy 30.19). Monastic life takes this instruction seriously. From the beginning of his Rule St Benedict repeats the Lord’s call:
‘The Lord is searching for his workman, and that is why he appeals to the crowd and says again, “Who is eager for life and longs to see prosperous days” (Psalm 33). If you listen to this call and answer, “Here I am, Lord”, God says to you, “Do you want true life, life with God for ever? Well then, seek peace and pursue it” (Prologue 14-16).
Similarly at the end of the Prologue,
‘Thus we shall never abandon God, our Master, and every day in the monstery until death we will continue to do what he teaches us. In this way we shall participate by patience in the sufferings of Christ and in this way we may be with him in his Kingdom’ (Prologue 50).
In Chapter 4 on the instruments of good works, St Benedict returns to this influence of death and life on monastic existence: ‘To have death daily before one’s eyes’ (RB 4). There is certainly nothing morbid in this; it simply underlines that life on this earth, important as it is, remains no more than a passing moment, and to shut oneself up in it does not give us the key to existence. It is at the same time a question of the orientation of desire towards true life and an alertness to the things of every day in words and deeds.
Concretely this translates itself into an attention to a listening obedience and to the free circulation of love among us. Thus in his chapter on humility St Benedict explains, ‘The third step of humility for a monk is to obey a superior totally out of the love of God. By so doing the monk imitates Christ. Indeed the Apostle Paul says of the Lord that he wished to obey even unto death’ (RB 7). Therefore this again brings in the paschal mystery. The fourth step of humility completes the third by showing how much it requires patience and perseverance. It is a matter of holding on till the end, without letting go or turning back, right up to the end, in order to taste true life.
This is especially true within the framework of the liturgy, in which the alternation of day and night renews in our lives the paschal mystery of Christ: at sunset Vespers where Christ dies on the cross; in the darkness of night Vigils and the combat which features at the heart of the psalms; at sunrise Lauds and the dawning of the Resurrection; and right through the day-hours, following the trajectory of the sun and the Passion of the Son of Man. The same is true of behaviour towards the sick. They remind us of human fragility and the advance towards the final crossing. St Benedict says that in the sick we recognise Christ, suffering and dying, while still maintaining thereby the constant witness to the life which is in God. Similarly St Benedict exhorts attention to the young, to guests, to pilgrims, to the poor, in whom we recognise Christ helpless and confronted by the fragility of our existence.
In order to show this link to Christ in his pachal mystery the Rule prescribes the washing of feet on certain occasions, for instance at the reception of guests, but also every week when the monks undertake service in the refectory and the kitchen, even though this rite is not practised today. This dimension of service shows participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The rite of foot-washing finds its full sense in the link to the Eucharistic meal inaugurated on the eve of his Passion.
A monk deprives himself of all personal possessions. On the day of his profession he gives away all that he owns. He even gives himself, since it is said that, ‘from this day onward he has no authority even over his own body’ (RB 53). This is also the reason why at certain times the liturgy of profession was held to symbolize the spiritual death of the candidate by prostration under a pall. Even today the newly professed remains hooded for three or eight days before emerging and appearing as a witness to the resurrection, according to the model of baptismal liturgy. Memorable is the ‘encouragement’ which Trappist monks used to give each other when they made the sign of the cross, ‘Brother, we must die’, or those monks who used to dig their own tomb daily to stress the vanity of passing life. Such customs are no longer in vogue because the turning-point of life and the resurrection has regained its proper place. But monastic life must be careful to maintain the balance between the two dimensions of the paschal mystery.
At the end of his Rule St Benedict sums up monastic life in this way, ‘They should prefer nothing to Christ, and may he lead us together to eternal life’ (RB 72). In monastic life death and life are intelligible only in the light of the paschal mystery of Christ.