Every now and again, either in our choir books or one of the mass sheets, the quality of the printing is less than perfect. This is partly because the page in question is sometimes a copy of a copy of a copy! And with each process of copying the quality slowly deteriorates until there is little resemblance to the original. Accordingly, passing on a good copy for further copying is essential if it is to be an authentic replica of the original. In his rule, and in the communities he founded, Benedict left high-quality copies for those who came after him and desired to emulate his holy life by following his monastic teaching—that perfect imprint of the gospel. For, in assigning to Benedict the very words of Christ in today’s gospel, we hear him saying: I have given them the glory you gave me; that is, the same glory, passed on untainted and unspoiled.
However, with succeeding generations what Benedict bequeathed to his disciples gradually began to lose its vigor and zeal, resembling less and less the original vision his rule had encapsulated. Over the centuries there would, therefore, be noble attempts to develop another clear copy that would guide and inspire a new generation of monks and nuns. We call these reforms or renewals and, as we know, we are currently in the process of assimilating the most recent one that emerged in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
Now, although I use the metaphor of copying, what is being copied and preserved is the Rule’s essential core and spiritual heart and not simply its more external manifestations that frequently need to change in the light of new contexts and challenges. Indeed, it is this very adaptability to new situations and cultures that has empowered Benedict’s Rule to guide and inspire generations of monastics down to our own present time. That being said, the resilience of his rule hasn’t precluded adulterations of his central teaching resulting from an inauthentic living of his rule—thereby distorting what he so painstakingly set down in writing.
This is to remind us that we are custodians of a precious legacy that has been bequeathed to us by those who preceded us—including those who lie in our cemetery. This underscores the fact that the rule on its own is limited in what it can engender apart from a living tradition striving to incarnate its teaching. Each Cistercian and Benedictine community is thus called be a living rule in which can be read, as it were, Benedict’s monastic vision. Unlike that poor paper copy used to make even poorer additional copies, we who are a living copy can, by constantly working on and improving its quality, hand on to the next generation the life-giving essence of Benedict’s monastic vision and teaching.
On this glorious feast of Our Father, Saint Benedict, let us, therefore, implore his intercession as we strive to faithfully hand on what we have been blessed to receive. In this way, this unique Benedictine way of living out the gospel will be strengthened to prosper and not succumb to the daunting challenges of our contemporary post-Christian society. Instead, like that city built on a hill that cannot be hidden monasticism will continue to give light and help redeem a world of deepening shadows in which monasticism needs—more than ever—to shine like the stars of heaven, offering it the Word of Life and the hope of eternal salvation.