April 17, August 17, December 17
Any abbot who asks to have a priest or deacon ordained should choose from their monks one worthy to exercise the priesthood. The monk so ordained must be on guard against conceit or pride, must not presume to do anything except what the abbot commands them, and must recognise that now they will have to subject themselves all the more to the discipline of the rule. Just because they are a priest, they may not therefore forget the obedience and discipline of the rule, but must make more and more progress towards God.
They will always take the place that corresponds to the date of their entry into the monastery, except in their duties at the altar, or unless the whole community chooses and the abbot wishes to give them a higher place for the goodness of their life. Yet, they must know how to keep the rule established for deans and priors; should they presume to act otherwise, they must be regarded as a rebel, not as a priest. If after many warnings they do not improve, let the bishop too be brought in as a witness. Should they not amend even then, and their faults become notorious, they are to be dismissed from the monastery, but only if they are so arrogant that they will not submit or obey the rule.
What is this discipline of the rule? What end does it serve? The discipline is in the forgetting of self, becoming instead a loving and loveable person. The end of the rule is a person who accepts and forgets their own loving self, being humble enough to simply live in love.
Often pride and an overbearing sense of our own self-importance can be fostered by an underlying and persistent feeling of our own unlovableness. There can be a tendency to over-compensate for a false perception of worthlessness. There is a lie in all of us that says ‘I will be loved if…’ I help, I do things right, I know stuff, I’m different, I’m a success, I’m loyal.
The experience, over time, of the truth of love – love as uncreated, already loving us, and always loving us without conditions – this is what undermines the lie of unlovableness we all live with. A leader who has taken to heart the spirit of the rule and is considering someone for priesthood would be looking for someone who is not trapped in this lie of unlovableness. To lead people out of this trap, the way out must be known, experienced. A priest, as someone in a position of service and spiritual leadership, needs to have experienced enough of the way out. If someone is already living into this way out within the monastic community, then that person may be appropriate for the role of priest.
The simple truth is that a monastic is to be a contemplative first. This teaches us today that a contemplative needs to be always wary of anything that could encourage egoism and thus undermine a full human journey into God.
What roles have we performed, roles that were valued, perhaps even prized by others? Did we sense that movement within us towards an unnecessary self-focus, a focus that would have moved attention away from the task at hand as an act of service to one as an act of that ‘I’ inside that desires attention lest that ‘I’ be forgotten?
Benedict was well aware of this human tendency towards self-focus. Attention being directed towards someone in a public and culturally valued role can, over time, be usurped by an ego that always has within it the potential for compulsive self-focus. Add to this the dangers of clericalism. Clericalism is a failure of the spirit of the Gospels and thus a failure of the spirit of the rule. It is a failure because it views the priest as somehow separate from their brother and sisters. This undermines community. Priesthood could then be seen, falsely, as a way to live the Christian life more purely.
To be a priest does not make someone better, more gifted, or somehow closer to God. The treasure in the field is not an increase in vocations to priesthood. The treasure is the gift of our own deep, divinely given identity-in-love. As we live into this loving mystery that is our deep identity lost in God, some of us will be drawn to serve as priests and deacons. All this is what contemplative life and prayer uncovers and helps us live into.
My brothers and sisters, do not let partiality enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord. For suppose someone comes into your synagogue, well-dressed and wearing gold rings, and at the same time someone poor, wearing shabby clothes, and you take notice of the well-dressed person, and say, ‘Come this way to the best seats’; then you tell the poor person, ‘You can stand there’ or ‘You can sit on the floor by my foot-rest.’ Are you not making distinctions among yourselves and judging on shameful grounds? (James 2:1-4, RNJB)