In the Rule St. Benedict insists that the novice upon entering the monastic community pledges his loyalty in oral and written form “in the presence of God and his Saints RB 58, 18).” The promise is made by the novice “in the names of the Saints whose relics are there and in the name of the abbot (RB 58, 19).”
To a modern, contemporary, reader the significance of this solemn act may be lost. Moderns are too often as little interested in the dusty old teachings of the holy Fathers as they are in relics. The names of the Saints is a mere addition to those witnessing the event. But so much more lies behind this solemn act that is too often lost to a modern observer.
The novice is in fact entering a living community of monastic life. The Saints, present in their relics, are living parts of that community. But the Saints present in their relics are not the only Saints making up this local community. The community also consists of Saints whose relics may not be present. The relics emphasize that the presence of the Saints is not pretence but tangibly real. Relics can be touched in veneration. Insofar as thee relics can be touched we can touch the Saints whose relics they are. Among the Saints comprising the community are the holy Fathers (RB 73, 2) whose teachings are to lead the novice (and his fellow monastics) to the very heights of perfection (RB 73, 2). These holy Fathers may not be present in their relics but they are very much present in their teachings. These teachings are currently located in the present abbot of the community, so that the abbot is a living voice of the holy Fathers (RB 64, 2) in his “goodness of live and wisdom of teaching.” The abbot is a father (RB 2,3) to his monks placing the abbot in a position similar to the holy Fathers! Fatherhood is a title shared with Christ because fatherhood is ultimately Christ’s and is given to the abbot and the Saints as grace.
Communal fellowship is not merely horizontal. There is more to community than modern hearers of the word might think. Above it was said that the Saints are part of the living community the novice is entering. A Christian community, Fr. Bunge points out, is “entirely unthinkable without the (living) testimony of those who have followed the Lord “from the beginning (John 15, 27).”
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
~ 1 John 1 1-3
No-one “comes to the Father except through the Son (John 14, 6)” and it is this Son who is the only true “mediator between God and humankind (1 Tim. 2, 5). In much the same no-one seeking communion with the Father and the Son can achieve it “except through the handing on by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses (Lk 1,2).” The holy Fathers are to us the ones handing on what they have received from their fathers, the latter have received it from theirs stretching all the way back to Jesus and his Apostles. The holy Fathers are authentic eyewitnesses and servants of the word [or Word] in the sense of Lk 1, 2.
We have not come to this task because of works that we have done (Titus 3, 5 & 2 Tim. 1, 13), but having as our model the sound discourses which we have heard from the fathers, we have been equally a witness to some of their deeds.
~ St. Evagrius of Pontus, On the Vices opposed to the Virtues, 1.
The holy Fathers are “equally witnesses” and, it should be remembered, so is the spiritual father of today: the abbot. For any Christian it is impossible to sidestep or otherwise circumvent the “teachings of the holy Fathers” because in doing so he will inevitably introduce novelties and things alien to the Christian way.
It is fitting for those desirous to walk on the Way – that Way which said about himself that “I am the Way and the Life” – that they would learn from those who have travelled along this way before them. It is also fitting that they should hear from them what is needful and converse with them about the things that are helpful. This is to prevent the introduction of things that are alien to our walk.”
~ St. Evagrius of Pontus, Epistle 17, 1.
The Christian monastic (both monks and nuns and non-monastics) strives to attain the same communion with the Father and His Son together with all the Saints already achieved by the holy Fathers who are “alive to God (Lk. 20, 38).” This is hat true Christian communion is.
Ultimately the communio Sanctorum (communion of Saints) consists of all the Baptized in both the horizontal and vertical senses. The communion of Saints is not actuated at the service of the Altar but it is forged in the waters of Baptism. The service of the Altar follows is made possible as it were by Baptism. The holy Fathers and the Saints who have travelled on the Way before us are present with us in Christ as our living brothers and sisters in faith. It is as our living and present brothers and sisters that we ask their help and intercession. In this our Protestant friends mistakenly believe that death has successfully separated us from Christ. After all our unity is in Christ and if we are separate from one another this can only be because we are separated from Christ! But as Catholics we know that the love of Christ unites us to Him in a bond which is unbreakable (Rom 8, 38).”
This is therefore what it means to adhere to St. Paul’s admonition to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions (2 Thess. 2, 15)” that we were taught. Not merely preserving the what is handed on to us but maintaining it in living communion. This is not “traditionalism” in the sense of doggedly sticking to ways and means regardless of life and context. It means living through the traditions given to us today. Traditional is not that which has gathered thick layers of the dust dust of age. Traditional refers to that which is authentically from the beginning. It can very well be that new aspects of tradition must arise in order to follow the teachings of the holy Fathers (RB 73, 2) in the present day context. This does not, however, mean innovation can now commence. The following of the traditions requires not creativity, but rather fidelity. St. Benedict provides an example of evolutionary wiggle room in his Rule:
Above all else we urge that if anyone finds this distribution of Palms unsatisfactory, he should arrange whatever he judges better, provided that the full complement of one hundred and fifty Psalms is by all means carefully maintained every week, and that the series begins anew each Sunday at Vigils.
~ St. Benedict of Nursia, The Holy Rule, 18, 22-23.
For Benedictines – those following the Holy Rule – the precise order of Psalms given by St. Benedict does not have to be followed. Others are possible. In Benedict’s time one of the alternatives was another Roman distribution of Psalms such as presumed in the liturgical writings of Amalarius of Metz and present in the pre-1911 Roman Breviary (only a slight alteration was made in the Psalter at Trent). The ways in which the Psalms can be distributed is limited by important qualifications:
- the Psalms mist all be recited at least once a week
- the Psalter must begin its cycle at Sunday Matins (Vigils = Matins).
This, of course, refers to common prayer and not to private prayer. The distribution found in classical Books of Common Prayer (BCP) is an excellent starting point for private prayer or a “little office” of personal devotion where the Psalms and Scripture readings are read slowly and lead the practitioner into extemporaneous prayer arising from the Psalms and Scriptures themselves. Here quality is much more important than quantity! As suitable as the BCP can be as a launching platform for private devotion so unsuitable is it as Liturgical Prayer. In essence peforming Morning or Evening Prayer as contained in the BCP as a solemn, publicly sung Office is therefore neither here nor there. This does not imply the BCP offices are bad, it only says something pertaining to their use. For liturgical prayer the given traditional liturgies are more than suitable and exceedingly adequate. We might consider the Anglican Breviary or Monastic Office here. Cranmer’s efforts are not necessarily in vain so long as his ill-conceived attempt at turning private devotion into common prayer is corrected.
In other words tradition is not dead and therefore unchanging (as is evident in both the Anglican Breviary and the Monastic Office). But neither can tradition be entirely undone and re-invented. Authenticity requires fidelity to what is given to what was handed on to us. So that in form, structure, and in time there is a direct and immediate connection to what was from the beginning. In fact … the beginning is present (or ought to be) manifested and made present in the current form and structures. This is as true for liturgy and personal devotion as it is to other aspects of the Benedictine (and therefore Christian) way of life. It is also in this sense that the abbot, the current abbot, of this particular monastic community, embodies the life and teaching of the holy Fathers.
Fr. Gregory Wassen