Plane Agenda matutina vel vespertina non transeat aliquando nisi in ultimo per ordinem oratio dominica omnibus audientibus dicatur a priore, propter scandalorum spinas quae oriri solent, ut conventi per ipsius orationis sponsionem qua dicunt: Dimitte nobis sicut et nos dimittimus, purgent se ab hujusmodi vitio. Ceteris vero Agendis ultima pars ejus orationis dicatur, ut ab omnibus respondeatur: Sed libera nos a malo.
Chapter 13/3, continued
Of course, the Offices of Lauds and Vespers shall never be allowed to end without the superior finally reciting, in the hearing of all, the whole of the Lord's Prayer. The purpose of this is the removal of those thorns of scandal, or mutual offence, which are wont to arise in communities. For, being warned by the covenant which they make in that prayer, when they say Forgive us as we forgive, the brethren will cleanse their souls of such faults. At the other Offices, however, only the last part of that prayer shall be said aloud, so that all may answer Sed libera nos a malo.
This instruction reminds us I think, of two important messages: firstly, the fallible nature of man, even those committed to a life of holiness; and secondly, the central importance of the Lord's Prayer.
The challenges of community life, inside and outside of monasteries!
We tend to think of monks and nuns as very holy people, and no doubt they generally are, at least relatively speaking!
Yet sanctification is a gradual process that takes a whole lifetime or more for most, as St Benedict makes clear in his Prologue and the chapter on the tools of good works, even for those who have the privilege of dwelling in a monastery!
One of the (several) reasons that I think we should take St Gregory's Life of St Benedict seriously as a source of our spirituality (for following the Rule alone is not, in my view, enough to make one a follower of St Benedict, any more than following the Rule of St Augustine – as for example the Dominicans do – makes one an Augustinian) is that it is very far from simple hagiography. Rather, the Life is filled with tales of the weaknesses and sins of St Benedict's monks as well as much as of the zeal inspired by the saint. Nor does St Benedict himself escape entirely unscathed in this depiction, despite the justifications for some of his actions supplied by St Gregory.
So I always wonder if St Benedict introduced the idea of the superior praying the Lord's Prayer morning and night as part of his own process of achieving forgiveness of others, particularly in relation to his first failed attempt as an abbot, where his regime was so tough and resented that the monks tried to assassinate him!
In any case, the reality is that even in the happiest of communities, the happiest of families, the happiest of workplaces, there will invariably be tensions at times. And the expression 'the fish rots from the head' is relevant here: in whatever setting, leadership from the top on this front is vital.
Probably the earliest surviving commentary on the Rule is that by Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel (born circa 760), which notes that:
"Now in this place thorns of scandal means 'angry outbursts, quarrels, dissensions, slanders, rivalries', or any of the disturbing disputes and commotions that are wont to spring up among the brothers. Morning and evening, even though the monks have peace and preserve continual charity among themselves, they should purge themselves from these things. In the morning, so that none of these faults may remain until sunset, for it is written: Let not the sun go down upon your anger; in the evening, so that a fault may not remain overnight with him until sunrise, and in the morning render the monk answerable for sins and foul in the Lord's sight." (trans David Barry OSB, Cistercian Publications, 2007)
The importance of the Lord's prayer
The role of the Lord's prayer said fervently as a means of expressing our contrition, cleansing our venial sins, and recommitting us to advancing the kingdom is one of those ideas whose centrality to Christian life I suspect we have mostly lost sight of today: how easy it is to merely say the words.
Yet in the tradition, the Our Father is an absolutely crucial prayer.
It formed the core of the regular prayer times practiced in the early Church. The first century document Didache, for example, says, "Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this: Our Father who art in heaven...Pray this three times each day."
The prayer generated a number of substantial commentaries from many of the Church Fathers: St Augustine's excellent exposition, for example, included in his work on the Sermon on the Mount, can be found on the New Advent Church Fathers website.
And throughout the Middle Ages it was one of the main focuses of works of catechesis for the laity.
No wonder then it is said at every hour of the Office.
In terms of its content, the Rule particularly emphasizes the covenant dimension of the prayer, as Smaragdus goes on to explain:
"So that warned, that is, won over and drawn by the covenant contained in the prayer itself, that is, by the promise contained in the Lord's prayer which says: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors each one may forgive his brother from his heart. And thus purged, that is, cleansed from vices, let him in the morning proceed to perform the work of obedience, and in the evening celebrate the night watches. But at the other Offices, that is, in celebrating the other hours only the last part of that prayer, that is: And lead us not into temptation is to be said aloud, so that hearing it all may answer: But deliver us from evil."
Forgiveness flows from knowing God
Finally, it may seem strange that St Benedict emphasises the importance of the Lord's Prayer in the midst of this section on the structure of the Office, but once again I think the saint is trying to make sure we fully appreciate that he is building into the Office a theme that he reiterates many times in the Rule, on the importance of forgiveness. Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery comments:
"Saint Benedict makes it clear to us here and in many places of the Rule that we must make knowing God the very center of our being, or our personalities. We are not just tepid Christians, we must be Christians who are putting all of our personal energies into this new life in Jesus Christ. It seems so clear in the Gospels and in the New Testament: if we want God to forgive us, then we must always forgive others. Another challenge is to forgive before the sun sets. That is asking a lot from us, for sure. Many times we want to delay, we want time to get our own emotions back into order, we want time so that the other person knows that we are deeply offended, etc. Jesus Himself wants us to forgive immediately. Our forgiveness can never depend on whether the other person, the other monk, has acknowledged that he has offended us. Forgiveness must come from us immediately and without reserve--if we are truly following the Lord Jesus."
The next part of this series can be found here.