Friday, December 19, 2008

Community Rank

1The monks keep their rank in the monastery according to the date of their entry, the virtue of their lives, and the decision of the abbot. 8…someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour, regardless of age or distinction.

10The younger monks, then, must respect their seniors, and the seniors must love their juniors. 11When they address one another, no one should be allowed to do so simply by name; 12rather, the seniors call the younger monks “brother” and the younger monks call their seniors nonnus, which is translated as “venerable father.”
RB 63: 1, 8, 10-12

The daily reading from the Rule yesterday was about community rank. In practical terms this isn’t something that we pay much attention to in ours or most modern monasteries. In some ways that is too bad, because if we really reflect on what Benedict is doing we say how amazingly radical he was.

Americans like to pride themselves on being very egalitarian. “All men (and now people!) are created equal. We like to think of ourselves as the land of opportunity for everyone. We work hard at eliminating the “-ism’s” of racism, sexism, etc. But I wonder whether we are actually put to shame by a monk from an extremely hierarchical culture in the 6th century.

Benedict’s society was dealing with the collapse of the mighty Roman Empire, but the values of that society were in everyone’s bones. People’s status was determined by birth. Slave and nobility were stations in life that were pre-determined, not earned or deserved. Status was largely immutable and impersonal.

But in his new community, in the motley group of people who come together to seek God in the community, there is to be a new model of society. Rank, status in the new society, is not to be determined by birth, class, education, achievement, ability or any sort of personal characteristic. Rank is to be set by the time of entry into community. Status in this new society is determined by when a person answered the call to leave all and follow Christ.

Benedict reinforces this idea by insisting that members address one another not by first names but by titles of their new rank. A monk is to address someone who is ahead of her in rank by the title “nonna,” translated “venerable one,” and the older in rank are to address those behind them as “sister.”

In Benedict’s monastery this meant that an illiterate barbarian could and would “out-rank” the Roman noble who came to the monastery later. In fact, for the rest of her life the noblewoman would refer to a barbarian peasant as “venerable one” and the woman from a barbarian, frontier tribe would hear herself referred to as a “sister.”

In our community this means that a woman of the most modest ability and background is “ahead” of the woman with the most education or ability. The sister with a grade school education who does domestic work her whole life, the one who is never able to contribute much to community, is called “venerable one” by the sister with a Ph.D., the one who has been prioress, by the most capable sister in community.

And in Benedict’s society this happens every day. The most limited person is always assured that what matters is that she is here seeking God. The most gifted person is reminded that there are others ahead of her in coming to this way of life. This then is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t matter what gifts you were given, what you’ve achieved, what kind of person you are. There is no room for pride in the monastery, there is only room for seeking God. Together we are humbled by the reality that the only thing that matters is God and we come to God helped along by the most unexpected people who go ahead of us in the way.

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