In the universal Church today is the Feast of St Benedict, Patron of Europe, Father of Western Monasticism, founder of the oldest order (as it were) in the Church. At Douai we have a holiday of sorts, with talking meals, a festal lunch, and a reduced regime. However, at Mass we did not have incense nor did we sing (or say for that matter) the Creed nor the Sequence. An odd way, you might observe, to commemorate our monastic patron. Have we gone low-church all of a sudden?
Many of you will already know the reason why. Today is for most Benedictines, and certainly for us English ones, what we might term Little St Benedict’s Day. For us, the major feast for St Benedict is the Solemnity of the Transitus of St Benedict on 21 March. Thus we keep his day of death as the main feast day. Traditionally 11 July was the feast of the Translation of St Benedict’s relics (though whether his relics went to Fleury in France or Monte Cassino in Italy is a vexed question: both abbeys still lay claim to possessing the true St Benedict). After the Council the reformers opted to omit the Transitus and keep the Translation in the Calendar for the universal Church, possibly because the Transitus always falls in Lent. This is no bar to English Benedictines keeping the Transitus in full fig, a God-sent break from the rigours of Lenten penance (well, not so rigorous any more to be honest, but that is another story).
The Prior preached this morning on St Benedict’s teaching on poverty, which set me to reflecting in the light of the new pontificate. Pope Francis is laying great stress on simplicity (rather than a neutered humility as the secular-minded wish to make out). Thus Pope Francis recently exhorted priests and religious to eschew fancy cars and go for a more unprepossessing jalopy, or even a bike. That strikes the disinterested hearer as perfectly sensible, though he (or she) might wonder why priests and vowed religious should need to be reminded of this. We religious especially should stop and take stock, and ask if in fact our lives reflect the evangelical poverty we profess.
However, the word poverty could use some fruitful elaboration, or even translation, in the context of the religious vows, and even more basically, of Christian life in general. Poverty is not the same as destitution or squalor. To be dressed in rags, living in a hovel and eating gruel is sadly the plight of many in the world today, but it is not the poverty to which religious are called (though some do indeed live so, to the glory of God). Benedictines do not make a vow of poverty at all. We do make a vow of conversion of life, in which evangelical poverty and chastity are integral elements. St Benedict saw no need to single these out for separate vows: evidently they are essential to the life of the evangelical Christian, and even more so to the monk who has committed his life to ongoing and authentic conversion.
St Benedict has little to say on poverty. The point he does labour is private ownership. In chapter 33 of the Rule, Monks and Private Ownership, St Benedict writes,
Above all, this evil practice must be uprooted and removed from the monastery. We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive or retain anything as his own, nothing at all … not a single item, especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills… All things should be the common possession of all, as it is written (Acts 4:32), so that no one presumes to call anything his own.
The crucial phrase is as his own. The quotation from Acts refers to the life of the primitive Church, a common life that reflected the Lord’s radical self-emptying. The Christian life is one of sacrifice, just as Christ’s was, who sacrificed his own body for our salvation. Thus the Christian is called to conform to the lifestyle of Christ, to a freedom born of indifference to material possessions and to one’s own preferences. It is not things that matter, but our attitude to things. Even our Lord and his apostles had a common purse (held by Judas). In today’s gospel from St Matthew (19:16-21) the rich young man can do everything but divest himself of his possessions. His property and wealth were not the obstacle as much as his possessiveness of them. It reveals a deep-seated selfishness which is at odds with the essence of Christian life: self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice.
Since religious life is the Christian life reduced to its concentrated essence, religious (like all Christians) are not called so much to get rid of everything but to renounce any right to possess something as their own, for themselves and their exclusive use. For the monk, nothing can be “mine” but only “our”. Only when we have removed our attachment to a thing can we be free to use it properly. That is the freedom of Christian poverty: a simplicity that allows us to retain or discard anything with peace of heart. The monk, as too the Christian, says with Job, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
So Pope Francis is quite right to remind seminarians and novices of the need to aim low when it comes to things we buy and use in our lives of service of the gospel. In so doing, we become a reminder to the Church and the world that all things are passing, and that our true and lasting possession is God and his grace which mammon will displace if our priorities are not right. Pope Francis is not advocating some sort of neo-Marxism; he is calling us to practise what we preach. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
O God, who made the Abbot Saint Benedict an outstanding master in the school of divine service, grant, we pray, that, putting nothing before love of you, we may hasten with a loving heart in the way of your commands. Through Christ our Lord.