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The Offering of Children by Nobles or by the Poor

Tuesday, August 13, 2024
Chapter 59

If a member of the nobility offers a child to God in the monastery, and the child is too young, the parents draw up the document mentioned above; then, at the presentation of the gifts, they wrap the document itself and the child's hand in the altar cloth. That is how they make their offering.

As to their property, they either make a sworn promise in this document that they will never personally, never through an intermediary, nor in any way at all, nor at any time, give the child anything or afford the child the opportunity to possess anything; or else, if they are unwilling to do this and still wish to win their reward for making an offering to the monastery, they make a formal donation of the property that they want to give to the monastery, keeping the revenue for themselves, should they so desire. This ought to leave no way open for the child to entertain any expectations that could deceive and lead to ruin. May God forbid this, but we have learned from experience that it can happen.

The dedication of children to God by their parents, the designation of their professions or even the selection of their marriage partners was a common practice for centuries. The gifting of a child to a monastery, in particular, was believed to assure the salvation of the parents as well as the child. Not until the Council of Trent did the Church itself define a legal profession age. In a period of history in which dedication of a child to God was a common pious practice, Benedict takes pains to see that the piety is not corrupted by the inexorable tension between the high ideals of the family and the test of time on the decision. The fact is that when the full realization of what we have promised begins to dawn on us, it is often more common to come to dubious terms with the demise of the commitment than it is to quit it. We marry in haste and then, as the years go by, we find ourselves starting to live life in two different parts of the house. We promise to spend more time with the children but read in the car while they play in the park. We take a job as night security guard and go to sleep at the desk. Benedict wants to avoid that kind of silent erosion of zeal by binding both the child who is being given and the parents who do the giving to the promise to let the thing go on being what it set out to be. Benedict does not want the child torn between two identities, community member and family member, as it gets older. More than that, he does not want the parents themselves to begin to take back the spiritual covenant they have promised for the sake of their posterity or influence.

It is a chapter concerned about simplicity and community and equality, true, but it is also a chapter dedicated to the spirituality of the long haul. We must learn to complete in faith what we began in enthusiasm; we must learn to be true to ourselves; we must continue to become what we said we would be, even when accommodation to the immediate seems to be so much more sensible, so much more reasonable, so much easier.

Poor people do the same, but those who have nothing at all simply write the document and, in the presence of witnesses, offer their child with the gifts.

The ability to eliminate distinctions between people is a hallmark of Benedictine simplicity and community. In the preceding paragraph it is obvious that Benedict is not accepting the children of the wealthy because their parents will endow the monastery. Whether they do or whether they don't makes no difference to him at all. What matters is that the children accepted as monastics out of the fervor of their parent's hearts be allowed to develop as monastics. Otherwise, he clearly fears, the community life and spirituality of the house will be corrupted by the independently wealthy who, as the years go by, grow more into the family fortune than into the monastic life. The poor have nothing whatsoever to give except their children and Benedict accepts them on the same grounds, with the same ceremony, in the same spirit. Benedictine spirituality does not fear poverty; it fears the kind of self-sufficiency that frees people from the smelting effects of a communal spirituality.