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The Procedure for Receiving Members

Sunday, August 11, 2024
Chapter 58

Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry, but, as the apostle says, "Test the spirits to see if they are from God (1 Jn 4:1)." Therefore, if someone comes and keeps knocking at the door, and if at the end of four or five days has shown patience in bearing harsh treatment and difficulty of entry, and has persisted in the request, then that one should be allowed to enter and stay in the guest quarters for a few days. After that, the person should live in the novitiate, where the novices study, eat and sleep.

The spiritual life is not a set of exercises appended to our ordinary routine. It is a complete reordering of our values and our priorities and our lives. Spirituality is not just a matter of joining the closest religious community or parish committee or faith sharing group. Spirituality is that depth of soul that changes our lives and focuses our efforts and leads us to see the world differently than we ever did before. The Mezeritizer Rabbi taught: "There are sparks of holiness in everything. They constitute our spirituality." Benedict, too, wants proof of this commitment to truth and perseverance in the search before a new member is even admitted to the community. "Test the spirits," the Rule says, and test he does, in more than one place. Even the newcomer is left sitting in the guesthouse until the community is sure that the applicant is sure. No one is to enter a Benedictine community on impulse and, once there, no one is to treat life as a series of hapless circumstances. In fact, life itself is a discipline. Life is something that we are to live with purpose and control right from the very beginning. Life is not easy and life is not to be lived as if it were, for fear that when we really need internal fortitude we will not have developed it.

It is an important insight for all of us. We must develop the rigor it takes to live through what life deals us. We can't set out to get holy in the hope that we will then automatically become faithful. We must require fidelity of ourselves even when we fail, in the hope that someday, as a result, we will finally become holy.

A senior chosen for skill in winning souls should be appointed to look after the newcomer with careful attention. The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and shows eagerness for the Opus Dei, for obedience and for trials. The novices should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead to God.

There are two elements of this paragraph that may come as a surprise in the wake of early twentieth century spirituality with its emphasis on particular examens and reparation for sin. The first is that it is not perfection that Benedict insists on in a newcomer to the spiritual life; it is direction. "The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life," Robert Browning wrote. The Rule of Benedict wants to know at what we're aiming: prayer, concern for the will of God, commitment--whatever the cost--or lesser things?

The second surprise in a document that was written in a century of harsh penances and rigorous pious disciplines is that the director is not asked to be harsh and demanding but "skilled in winning souls," someone who can make a hard way possible.

In the spiritual life we may fail often but we may never change course and we must always seek the help of those whose ways are wiser and more tried than ours.

If they promise perseverance in stability, then after two months have elapsed let this rule be read straight through to them, and let them be told: "This is the law under which you are choosing to serve. If you can keep it, come in. If not, feel free to leave." If they still stand firm, they are to be taken back to the novitiate, and again thoroughly tested in all patience. After six months have passed, the rule is to be read to them, so that they may know what they are entering. If once more they stand firm, let four months go by, and then read this rule to them again. If after due reflection they promise to observe everything and to obey every command given them, let them then be received into the community. But they must be well aware that, as the law of the rule establishes, from this day they are no longer free to leave the monastery, nor to shake from their neck the yoke of the rule which, in the course of so prolonged a period of reflection, they were free either to reject or to accept.

Benedict allows no one to take on the monastic life without knowing what it entails--in full and without gloss. At the same time, the Rule makes it quite clear that this is the process of a lifetime. It is not a year's experience; it is not a degree once gotten and then ignored. This is not a spiritual quick-fix. It is a way of life and it takes a lifetime to absorb. Nothing important, nothing life-altering, nothing that demands total commitment can be tried on lightly and easily discarded. It is the work of a lifetime that takes a lifetime to leaven us until, imperceptibly, we find ourselves changed into what we sought.