April 19, August 19, December 19
The younger monks, then, must respect their seniors, and the seniors must love their juniors. When they address one another, no one should be allowed to do so simply by name; rather, the seniors call the younger monks “brother” or “sister” and the younger monks call their elders nonna or nonnus, which are translated as “venerable mother or father”. But the abbot, because we believe that they hold the place of Christ, is to be called “lord” and “abbot”, not for any claim of their own, but out of honour and love for Christ. They, for their part, must reflect on this, and in their behaviour show themselves worthy of such honour.
Whenever monks meet, the junior asks the senior for a blessing. When older monk come by, the younger rises 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 to 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.
In this chapter, Benedict ensures that the practice of mutual respect and love between the old and the young is a part of everyday communal life. This practice is beyond like and dislike; it is a practice not dependent on how we might feel, nor on what might have been done or not done. Consistent practice gives time for grace to work, until what we practice is expressed from the heart. The young then respect, the old then love. This is not so much ‘fake it till you make it’, more ‘practice till you become it’. In this becoming we become ourselves. This is what the human and spiritual life is, we participate in our own graced becoming until we become, on earth, something of what God sees us as.
The example of this chapter shows us that we need a consistent practice to follow for transformation to occur. However, practice loses its power when its purpose is forgotten. When this happens, the practice can become a kind of lip service. Today, demands such as ‘respect your elders’, or ‘respect must be earnt’ reveal that generations both old and young can lose touch with the transformative power of everyday and ordinary acts. It is the role of spiritual leadership to ‘hold the place of Christ’, to remind us of the purpose and power of everyday, ordinary practice – by example and then (if necessary) by word. In the rule, if the Christ within and among us is forgotten, community leadership is there to humbly and creatively remind and correct.
What might help the young revere their seniors? In the venerable there has been an integration of life. They are at peace, themselves here and now. The divine life shines in them; they are alive with what the young long for. In a culture with a fixation on youth, the rule reminds us that being young is not limited to age. A young heart in an old body is a fruit of both community and meditation.
What might assist seniors to revere the young? The venerable are aware that the journey of life is a never-ending growth into love and lovability. The young, on this journey, so full of potential and energy, with their own insight and adventure, are fondly loved by the venerable. And in this interaction of seniors and the young it can be revealed that, sometimes, being an elder is not limited to the old.
Any rank in the rule is shaped by humility, a humility fashioned by the chance date of entry and the commitment to a live-long conversion into love. Both date and the growing fruits of this commitment move each member along. However, rather than moving up a bottom-to-top hierarchy with the community leader at the top, Benedict would have us moving (with growing humility) into the centre of a horizontal hierarchy. The community leader holds the place of Christ at the centre and community leadership discerns the shape of humble rank. In this way, all have the necessary chance and support to grow into the life of Christ at the centre of community and themselves.
My dear friends, if God loved us so much, we too should love one another. No one has ever seen God, if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love comes to perfection in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us a share in his Spirit. (1 John 4:11-13, RNJB)