What about the Seniors?
Dom Denis Huerre, OSB, Abbey of La Pierre-qui-Vire, France
To speak of seniors is not straightforward, for the word has several senses. When we are speaking of seniors, do we mean our older brothers or our elder sisters, the nuns? Read again the chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict on adapting the provisions of the Rule to the capacities of the old and the young. Was a whole chapter needed to say something so natural? St Benedict agrees that it is natural, but he wishes to go further. This chapter makes sure that those who have no part in public life, the old and the young, are not forgotten. Above all, the Rule here makes a stand, not for the only time, against a rigorism which arises at particular moments in the history of the Church when, on the pretext of renunciation of sin and an unbalanced preference for ‘the world above’, a certain contempt for human nature has seemed to triumph. It is reminiscent of the excesses of Tertullian or Hippolytus in the first centuries of the Christian era, or, more recently, of an overwhelming desire to make ‘reparation’, expressed in an excessively penitent form of life. This has gone so far that Rome has had to reject as excessive several points of the Constitutions proposed for a new monastery. The chapter in the Rule of Saint Benedict on old men and children witnesses to the need for a balanced humanitas, to use the word used by Romans proud of their way of governing the world, and also by Philo of Alexandria in his defence of the Jews and their way of life, which at that time was so misunderstood by the Roman world.
Humanitas comprises humanity, a culture which respects human nature, balance, avoidance of excess, discernment. Pope Gregory the Great uses these expressions or their equivalents to sum up his praise of the Rule. For Gregory, as for Benedict, it is not, however, merely a question of a happy balance of the common life, nor of the indispensible maturity of each of its members. Beyond these elementary conditions, necessary for the survival of any human community, it is a question of a Gospel way of life which touches every human being, regardless of age. Furthermore, in the Gospel human beings are subjects, not objects (1).
Before speaking directly of aged brothers, the number of whom seems to worry European monasteries, let us proceed in an orderly way: what does this traditional word mean, and, among all the senses which it can have in current usage, which is the most fundamental? This may seem a pedestrian starting-point for this study, but a solid one, which opens up the broad horizons of Christian humanism.
1. The senior, the one more advanced in age
The French word ancien, as the English word ‘ancient’, indicates primarily a person born before another. The word comes from late (eighthcentury) Latin, anteanatus, which develops into ante/, anti/, and finally ancien. If this person has brothers born after him he is called in French le frère aîné from the vulgar Latin antius, one who is born beforehand. Furthermore, a great ‘ancient’ is called an ‘ancestor’ from the Latin verb antecedere. As antecessor the ancestor precedes, is a precursor, lights the way, etc. Finally ‘priest’ is an abbreviation of presbyter, a transliteration of the Greek presbyteros, ‘older’ the comparative of the adjective presbys.
If this ‘ancient’ is the first-born he enjoys the right of primogeniture, which confers on him a certain pre-eminence, a sort of consecration. This right imposes on him the obligation of preserving the family inheritance, whether this be a landed property, a privilege or a kingdom. It is, to be sure, a matter of material goods, but more especially a matter of the honour due to a family or a people which should not be alienated. This right of primogeniture leaves no more room for argument than the chronological priority in age. It is accepted as natural. Still today in families with several children the eldest son possesses a willingly accepted moral authority among his younger siblings, in the family circle and beyond. The eldest son effortlessly imparts the tone to his siblings. In him a new generation begins and a new era for the whole family is inaugurated. In the Rule of Saint Benedict the senior is primarily the one who entered the monastic family first, regardless of age or social status.
2. The senior as sage and servant
From his chronological priority and the experience that this brings, the senior easily becomes a witness to whom others listen. Wisdom shown, not merely by an eldest son but by anyone, even young, makes that person a senior, giving suitable guidance. In every social organisation counsellors who take responsibility must be wise but not necessarily more advanced in age. This goes without saying. But where Benedict is an innovator is in the attention given to juniors. Regardless of the prudence expected of adults, these juniors simply speak, under the inspiration of the Spirit who constantly brings human beings to birth in newness of life, and can make use of the very young to reveal it to seniors, more advanced in age than themselves (2). This liberty in the Spirit is so strong that the young can become a model to inspire the seniors who are in leading positions in various community functions, if they listen to them. There is an echo here of the words of Christ to the apostles, instructing them as future leaders of the Church to become like children. Gregory the Great’s comment is also familiar, when he praises the young Benedict for behaving like a wise old man, a senex.
In the same way, whatever his age when he is appointed, the senior appointed to care for the novices must have given proof of spiritual wisdom, similarly the old monk receiving guests, or the synpecta who makes discrete contact with those who are marginalised, or the cellarer, or the senior capable of helping others in their spiritual warfare, and above all the abbot. It is nowhere stated that the abbot should be advanced in years; he must be a monk capable of continually bringing out to his brothers nova et vetera, the new and the old which meditation on the Bible has revealed to him for the life of monks. It is the life of monks that is always at issue when the Rule speaks of ministries entrusted to seniors. To be a ‘vehicle of life’ (3). All the seniors of whom we have been speaking, and especially the abbot should be such, furthering life, protecting it as a precious gift, a treasure which should be fostered. The senior must toil to encourage life, and because neither his own life nor that of others belongs to him, he must be prepared to give an account of his zeal in the task entrusted to him. However, what senior can claim to be qualified for the task of working to cultivate life, that mysterious reality which we see appearing, developing and being transformed into eternal life once it has been transfigured by charity? The senior who is given a task can only trust, in true spiritual poverty, in simple and strong humility. He is no more than a servant.
Let us, then, leave as they are the tasks we have in the monastery. Much as they contribute to our formation and that of our brothers, they are no more than provisional, and cannot express the whole of monastic yearning, the yearning for life. Benedict’s question to every candidate for monastic life is not what service he wishes to perform, but rather who wishes to live and know days of joy? ‘I do’, we have replied, without further qualification, as though signing a blank cheque. For life is a gift entrusted to us, to which we have no prescriptive right (4).
We have reached the point where everything seems to me to fall into place, life received as a gift and furthered till its fulfilment in eternal life, since such is the will of God. And that is where Christ enters in.
3. Christ the archetypal Senior, the First-born
In every situation the monk should remain close to the source of life. This is expressed, from the Prologue to the Rule onwards, as a conversation between God and the monk, an alliance re-discovered, a Covenant, as our English monks say. In this covenantal dialogue God has the initiative in Christ, who alone deserves unreservedly the title of senior. Born before all others, filled with the knowledge and the power of God which enabled him to become the Servant of humankind, Christ shows by his life, death and resurrection that he knows the goal of the human journey. ‘Image of the invisible God, he is the First-born of all creation, the First-born from among the dead’ (Colossians 1.15, 18). As First-born he possesses the fullness of God, which lives in him bodily. This is why all things can be reconciled to God through him (Colossians 1.15). He is the ‘Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Principle of God’s creation’ (Revelation 3.14), ‘the First and the Last’ (Revelation 22.13). Again, in the Letter to the Hebrews (1.2) God made him ‘heir of all things, through whom he made the ages’. In a word, Christ is par excellence the Living One (Revelation 1.18; 2.8), the Prince of life (Revelation 3.15). As first-born he has the right of primogeniture which no one can take from him, as Jacob took it from blasphemous Esau, and which he will yield to no one, especially not to the devil who came to test him in the desert, promising him no less than ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their glory’, if he would worship him. Such is our senior, Christ, and from this First-born we have all received life (John 1.16), his life.
4. The Senior, sign of the future
At this point the senior reclaims the title as a person full of years, born before us and familiar to us throughout a long life. Whether such a person has preserved health into old age without medical intervention, or has endured much and frequently been in hospital, such a one knows that the day is approaching to give an account of the gift of life and the use made of it: I have come to return to you, Father. I came before you or after you, brothers, and we have agreed to share everything. All together we will reach the peaks for which we hope. To come, to return, to agree, to achieve – all these bespeak the divine and fraternal love which draws together and enlivens the young, the adults and the seniors. The role of the seniors, the elders, the ancestors is always the same, to help others to look forwards. Thanks to God, their sicknesses, their faults, even their sins, all make sense in the spiritual combat and mutual fraternal help. Perseverance! Hope!
Hope concerns the future, still to come, and nothing is so encouraging for a young person, for the adult who carries the burden of the day, for the ageing person, for the sufferer, as to know that there is a future and that the name of this future is life, eternal life.
‘What about Seniors?’ was the title of this little article. We could perhaps have said, ‘What about life?’ The senior who is leaving us is not only someone dying, a poor, diminished soul who has not long to go, but someone who is living the essential experience of death (5). He has lived his earthly life to the end.
This is what it is to be fully a child of God, a true monk.
(1) ‘Paradoxically, the decline of humanism coincides with the major development of the human sciences.’ Human nature studied and analysed becomes an object of knowledge, and ‘the very word “humanism” is suspect for most of our contemporaries.’ (Concilium 86, p. 8).
(2) Chapter 63 of the Rule recalls that Samuel and Daniel as boys (pueri) judged the elders. Père Leclercq (‘Humanisme et spiritualité’ in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, col. 960) writes, ‘The Rules of the fifth to seventh centuries, and especially the sixth century, which ensure the transition between primitive and medieval monasticism do not take up position on the problems of the culture and concept of humanity. They establish a practice.’ In general, as a historian of education writes, ‘Monks re-discover the child. They treat children with humanity, recognising their qualities and talents. This is sharply at variance with secular paedagogy’ (P. Riché, Education et culture dans l’Occident barbare, p. 504).
(3) The expression ‘vecteur de vie’ is used by A. Wénin in D’Adam à Abraham ou les errances de l’humain. Lecture de Genèse 1.12-14, Le Cerf, 2007.
(4) In the periodical Sens, published by the Judaeo-Christian Alliance of France, no 11, 2008, p. 565, ‘Face aux changements du rapport à la vie’ (Paul Thibaul); ‘L’autoproduction de l’humanité’ (Hervé Juvin), ‘Un idéal tyrannique’ (Patrick Vespieren, SJ), ‘Une nouvelle condition humaine ?’ (Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim).
(5) This is developed by Paul Ricoeur in Vivant jusqu’ à la mort (Le Seuil, 2007).