Chapter talk 11/17/19 – Br. Godric Begins his Novitiate

This morning our postulant Danny received the novice habit and this is the talk Fr Elias gave after Fr. Michael read from the  RB chapter 58:1-8

ABBOT ELIAS DIETZ, O.C.S.O.

Sunday Chapter, November 17, 2019

Br. Godric Begins his Novitiate

Text: RB 58.1-8:

“…Let him be shown all the hard and rugged things through which we pass on to God.”

This last statement is the key to understanding the whole of the process of entrance and formation. First of all, we must be sure to hear it correctly: it does not say that we go to God despite hard and bitter things or that we go to God by merely putting up with unpleasant experiences; it says that we go to God precisely through such things. It might be considered a paraphrase of Jesus’ word in the gospel: “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Mt 7:14).

Formation is not about conveying some sort of secret or hidden wisdom to newcomers. It has more to do with reminding brothers of the Christian way. We come to the monastery to live out the gospel, which is only possible if we are willing to go through the narrow gate.

Does the novice truly seek God?, Benedict asks. The answer to this question is not something to be gleaned from conversation about motivations and convictions. The answer is to be observed in practice. Are there visible signs that this brother knows what the narrow gate is and that he consistently chooses it over easier or more attractive possibilities?

The criteria Benedict mentions are both wide-ranging and specific: eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience, and for trials. The Work of God, specifically means the liturgy in church, but zeal for it means much more than just showing up on time. Since the Work of God itself is based on the conviction that God is present everywhere, the signs to look for here are whether the brother’s life is shaped by prayer. As the Rule teaches, to place nothing before the Work of God is an outward expression of the more important inner choice to place nothing before Christ. In a way, the narrow gate, in the monastic context, is the totality of the community’s customs. Seen as a whole, they are hard work and a bitter pill, but, seen up close, they are small, manageable practices to be chosen over and over again day after day and year after year.

If Benedict mentions obedience here, it is because this way of life constantly challenges the will. How important is what I want, and how powerful is the force of my self-will? The surest practices here are to allow the bell to determine one’s next move and to be willing to accept doing things someone else’s way.

The third criterion, eagerness for opprobria—or ‘trials’ as translated here—needs close attention. It is easy to get a distorted view of these trials as invented or as unnecessarily imposed hardships or, worse yet, as a sort of masochism on the part of the novice. Aquinata Böckmann’s translation of the term is probably the most helpful. She calls it eagerness for ‘simple services’. The focus is on the commonness of the tasks. A novice who is eager for opprobria is someone who has discovered the importance of humility and who willingly, even eagerly, engages in whatever promotes or safeguards humility. It his way of reminding himself of Jesus’ word: “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life.”

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