In the Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict, the speaker addresses his audience as a ‘son’. This is more significant than it might appear to us at first. The word ‘son’ (or ‘daughter’ in a women’s community) connotes a specific type of relationship, one that implies a certain commitment on both parts. But it is a commitment not by contract, but by piety and love.
We are about to conclude our annual formal celebration of the Incarnation. One of the great difficulties in delving deeper into our faith is a certain scandalous element to the Incarnation, that of particularity. When the Son of God came to earth, he was born of a particular woman, who is forever his mother. He had particular relations according to the flesh, and in a similar way, these relations can never be changed. My cousins will always be my cousins.
We bristle at instances of particularity in our culture. The words ‘tribe’ and ‘clan’ tend to have pejorative connotations apart from the obviously negative sound of the derivative words ‘tribal’ and ‘clannish’. Traditionally, the family, tribe and clan were expressions of one’s particular place in the world. Today, this feels too limiting to us. Many recognize that the institution of the family is weak; I wonder if we would gain insight by a more profound reflection on the Incarnation and particularity and modernity’s rejection of them.
In order to get away from tribalism and nepotism (the favoring off nepoi, ‘nephews’), modern liberal societies rely to a great extent on impartial law. Everyone is equal under the law, and the law is no respecter of persons—in theory. The problem with law is the same as what Saint Paul saw so many centuries ago. It too easily becomes a tool for autonomy and self-justification.
When the Church is spoken of today, many of her critics tend to focus on the laws that one has to obey: no abortion, no sex before marriage, attendance at Mass, and so on. As important as Canon Law is to the Church, it must always be seen as secondary to the communio of the Church, which will always and necessarily be expressed person-to-person in the parish, as a specific instance of the Mystical Body of Christ, united at a far deeper level than even a family is.
To return to Saint Benedict: one of the attractions of living under a ‘rule’ is precisely that the expectations seem to be very clear. If I follow the rules within the Rule, I will be a good monk and win the esteem of my peers and overcome whatever doubts I have about God’s love. In fact, this doesn’t work. This approach to law is divisive and gives rise to suspicions about who is shirking what.
On the other hand, a group of brothers living together under the loving guidance of a father is something quite different. It doesn’t mean that anything goes, but it again means that whatever laws we decide on for ‘the amendment of vices and the preservation of charity’, are clearly secondary to the effort of loving particular persons, with all of our flaws, weaknesses. We see in the reality of particularity that God loves us as genuine individuals and not as drones.
This is why Benedictines make a vow of stability, and why Benedictine Oblates do the same. Part of our discipline in the manner of life to which God has called us is to love the particular persons of the monastery and the Oblate community. By extension, of course, it is a call for Oblates to see in their own families and other committed relationships particular persons who are gifts from God for our sanctification. We don’t get to choose our parents; God chooses them for us in a mysterious manner. Similarly, from a theological perspective, the Benedictine monastery doesn’t choose its members; they are sent by God. And with the help of God’s grace, we enter into the particular relationship of a spiritual family.