A WORD From the Abbot
These brief reflections in the manner of what some might call a “fervorino,” or a WORD, are given in the chapter room most Fridays after the office of Vigils.
#37 AS SACRED VESSELS OF THE ALTAR
My dear confreres:
There is a beautiful comparison that St. Benedict makes is chapter 31 of the Holy Rule on The Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer, and it is the Word that I hold up to you this morning, viz. “AS SACRED VESSELS OF THE ALTAR” (RB 31:10). Not only is it beautiful, but it provides a wonderful work-related theology concerning the tools we use in the service that we render. St. Benedict is referring to the cellarer when he writes in verse 10 of chapter 31 that “He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery AS SACRED VESSELS OF THE ALTAR,” but that “He” may well be any of us, and it is in that broader sense that I share these thoughts with you. It strikes me, parenthetically, that Benedict’s very use of that comparison (“as sacred vessels of the altar”) bespeaks his own—and, accordingly, our own—sense of values… sort of like valuing things of silver or gold or settings of precious diamonds. One might muse about the beautiful liturgical vessels that Benedict and his community actually treasured among their possessions and used in their liturgy…
Anyway, chapter 31 of the Rule is about the cellarer—or “procurator,” as we usually refer to him— and I would like, first of all, to take this opportunity to publicly express my personal appreciation to Father Martin for the excellent service he has provided for our community in very generously devoting his time and talent to our material and financial needs. This is an obvious and significant area of delegation regarding an aspect of our monastery’s life—a delegation which sets the abbot more free to focus on the spiritual and pastoral needs of the community, although Father Martin and I do meet regularly to discuss his areas of responsibility. Thank you, Father Martin, for your very generous and effective service, and for your cooperative spirit; I appreciate it very much.
My brothers, in offering some reflections on chapter 31 of the Holy Rule, our purpose is not to evaluate our procurator but, as I suggested a moment ago, to draw from this chapter some lessons that may well apply to any of us in the service we render. You will recall that this chapter opens with a challenging list of qualifications that St. Benedict proposes for the choice of a cellarer:
…someone who is wise, mature in conduct, temperate, not an excessive eater, not proud, excitable, offensive, dilatory or wasteful, but God-fearing, and like a father to the whole community. (RB 31:1-2)
In the collection of videos in our formation library there is one called In This House of Brede, a 1975 TV movie about a well-to-do London businesswoman who gives up her comfortable life to become a cloistered Benedictine nun in the Abbey of Brede. Well, back in March of 1998 when I was going over this chapter on the cellarer with the novices of that year, one of them shared an amusing quote from the novel on which that movie was based. It said:
Next to the prioress and subprioress in importance was the cellarer, Dame Veronica of the harebell-blue eyes that were “always brimming,” as Dame Agnes said in irritation. Dame Veronica was the most baffling of all Abbess Hester’s appointments. The Rule of Saint Benedict lays down that a cellarer should be ‘wise, of mature character, not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable, not offensive, not wasteful.’ “Well, Dame Veronica is not a great eater,” said Dame Agnes… (Rumer Godden, In This House of Brede, 44)
Talk about damning with faint praise!! In any case, perhaps the point of St. Benedict’s list of qualifications is one of INTEGRITY. While we realize that no one is—or is expected to be—perfect, we also realize that leadership and the ability to serve and minister to others effectively is compromised when personal integrity is lacking—i.e., when we don’t live up to the legitimate expectations of our role or state in life… when we don’t practice what we preach… when, despite our responsibilities, we don’t make a corresponding effort at goodness of life.
Chapter 31 also speaks of a warmth and peacefulness that should characterize the manner of those in authority, which is such a wonderful gift that they can bestow on the community beyond the specifics of their service. Thus St. Benedict says that the cellarer should be “like a father to the whole community” (v. 2); that “he should not annoy the brothers” (v. 6); that even in the face of an unreasonable request “he should not reject [a brother] with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request” (v. 7). Further, St. Benedict wants the cellarer to “show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor” (v. 9), and Benedict rather emphatically cautions that “above all” the cellarer needs to be humble: if he’s not able to meet a particular request, he should “offer a kind word in reply” (v. 13). And chapter 31 ends with a plea for what we might nowadays call regular office hours for the timely attention to requests, “so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God” (v. 18-19). My brothers, in all of these regards we find so true the beautiful observation that Terrence Kardong makes:
This is one of those passages that reveal that Benedict knew well the little things that make community life possible and bearable. No matter how poor or affluent a monastery is, if there is widespread gentleness and kindness, it is a rich community. (Kardong, Benedict’s Rule, 264)
Another important lesson to be gleaned from this chapter 31 of the Holy Rule deals with the cooperative attitude that should characterize all with whom the abbot shares responsibility for the life and wellbeing of the community. St. Benedict requires that the cellarer—and, let us understand, any appointee—“will do nothing without an order from the abbot. Let him keep to his orders” (v. 4). And a little later in the chapter he repeats that the cellarer “should do everything … according to the abbot’s orders” (v. 12), and that “He should take care of all that the abbot entrusts to him, and not presume to do what the abbot has forbidden” (v. 15). For an interesting commentary on life in a monastery when there is a conflictual relationship between the abbot and one of his appointees,
recall chapter 65 of the Holy Rule on The Prior of the Monastery—although the problem in that case arose out of the now anomalous situation of the prior not being one of the abbot’s own appointees, which Benedict calls “an absurd arrangement” (RB 65:4). My brothers, I believe that this lesson regarding the positive accord that should exist between the abbot and his appointees is—to use a phrase from that chapter on the prior—“for the preservation of peace and love” (RB 65:11). I believe that those in whom the abbot has placed a special confidence in sharing the burdens of his office need to be “abbot’s men,” not in the sense that the abbot should micro-manage what he delegates to them, but in the sense of loving obedience, humble service, respectful initiative, open dialog and much appreciated support of the mind and vision of the abbot for the good of the community…
Finally, to get back to that thought-provoking comparison that St. Benedict makes when he says that the utensils and goods of the monastery should be regarded AS SACRED VESSELS OF THE ALTAR, let me quote from Terrence Kardong’s commentary:
The theology here is clear and powerful: Benedict will tolerate no dualism between the sacred and the profane. All things are holy since they came from the hand of God, who looked on them and said: “It is good” (Gen 1:4ff). … Benedict insists on a kind of universal mysticism of things and nature that sees in them the very hand of the Creator. Given the extreme reverence for the sacred vessels that has always characterized Catholicism, this claim for the holiness of even the humblest cooking pot is not to be dismissed as a purple passage1. … We are now in an atmosphere like that prevailing among serious craftsmen for whom the abuse or misuse of a fine tool or piece of wood is a kind of sacrilege. It is equivalent to desecration of a precious liturgical vessel. … Things are not “merely things” but part of God’s creation to be reverenced and carefully maintained. (Kardong, Benedict’s Rule, 271-272)
And with that, let us go in peace…