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Community Rank

Monday, August 19, 2024

The younger monastics, then, must respect their elders, and the elders must love their juniors. When they address one another, no one should be allowed to do so simply by name: rather, the elders call the younger "sister" or "brother" and the younger members call their elders "nonna" or "nonnus" which is translated as "venerable one." But the abbot and prioress, because we believe that they hold the place of Christ, are to be called "abbot" or "prioress" not for any claim of their own, but out of honor and love for Christ. They for their part, must reflect on this and in their behavior show themselves worthy of such honor.

Wherever members meet, the junior asks the elder for a blessing. When older members come by, the younger ones rise and offers them a seat, and do not presume to sit down unless the older bids them. In this way, they do what the words of scripture say: "They should each try to be the first to show respect for the other (Rom 12:10)."

In the oratory and at table, the young are kept in rank and under discipline. Outside or anywhere else, they should be supervised and controlled until they are old enough to be responsible.

This paragraph is clearly about the place of respect, experience and wisdom in life. Obviously, the chapter on rank is not meant to grind the community down to its least common denominator. It is not meant to diminish in us the natural respect that differences should bring. Quite the opposite, in fact. This chapter is meant to freshen our eyes so that we can see all the gifts of the human community clearly: the gifts of old peasant farmers and the gifts of young artists, the gifts of young thinkers and the gifts of old keepers of the monastery door. Age, the Rule teaches, does not give us the right to dismiss the values of the young as if they were useless. Social class does not give us the right to overlook the insights of the poor. Education does not give us the right to snub the needs of the simple. We are to call one another by titles of love and respect. We are to care for the needs of the elderly, no matter our own needs or rank or station. We are to teach what we know so that the next generation grows in good air.

Once upon a time, the Zen masters teach, wealthy donors invited Master Ikkyu to a banquet. The Master arrived there dressed in beggar's robes. His host, not recognizing him in this garb, hustled him away: "We cannot have you here at the doorstep. We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu any moment." The Master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his host's doorstep where he was received with great respect and ushered into the banquet room. There, he took off his stiff robe, sat it upright at the dinner table and said, "I presume that it is my robe you have invited since when I first arrived without it a little while ago, you showed me away." In Benedictine spirituality reverence for the other based on the spark of the divine that is in us all is a gift to be given to a century alive with distinctions it will not admit and an insight into the sacred, scarred and bleeding, which it does not see.