The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Holy tools

NOTE: In honor of St. Benedict, whose solemnity we celebrate today, below is a reflection on the role of reverence in Benedict's Rule--for both everyday items, and for each human being. This is adapted from a conference I presented last year to several of our oblate chapters. A blessed feast of St. Benedict to all! -- Br. Francis

Human beings are tool-making and tool-using people, whether we’re talking about rocks and sticks or iPads and SUVs. The tools we use help us to get certain things done, to get somewhere we want to go, or to communicate with one another. Many have considerably improved the human condition.

However, we tend to have a love-hate relationship with our tools. They can sometimes be taken for granted or ill-maintained, and then still become targets for abuse when they don’t perform up to expectations. The very device that makes life easier—although often treated carelessly—in one instant of hesitation is sometimes declared a “worthless piece of junk.” In other words, we expect tools—whatever they are—to instantly satisfy every demand. Any failure reduces the tool’s value (even if “user error” is involved!). It only remains useful as long as it fulfills our desires.

Now, we all do this from time to time (yours truly included), but does such an outlook really reflect a Christian understanding of creation? And if each human being is God’s chosen instrument created in the divine image in order to glorify his name (cf. Acts 9:15; 2 Timothy 2:20-22; 2 Corinthians 5:20), then what does our treatment of ordinary tools possibly indicate in terms of how we are treating one another?

Anselm Grün, a German Benedictine monk, writes that a person’s treatment of a tool or object of any type reveals a great deal about that person’s true inner attitude. “A violent handling of items expresses the inner disposition of a person,” he says.

So, if a person’s handling of a simple tool reveals his or her inner disposition, then how might that disposition show itself when another human being is involved? Is the other person “of value” only if his or her “performance” instantly meets expectations? We would deny this, of course, but in reality, we must honestly ask ourselves: How often do I view another person as only a means to an end—as a some sort of tool—rather than with care and consideration as another human being created—like ourselves—in the divine image?

There is spiritual connection between how we typically treat tools and how we usually treat people. Both objects and people are to be cared for out of reverence for God, something St. Benedict addresses in Chapter 31 of his Rule for monks. In his chapter on the qualifications of the monastery cellarer, Benedict writes that this person must “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” What is most significant about this extraordinary statement is that it is preceded by the words: “He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor.” At the beginning of the chapter, Benedict states that the cellarer must “take care of everything” and everyone.

The message being conveyed here—and throughout the Rule—is that every object, person, moment, place, encounter, etc., has sacramental significance. As Benedict states in Chapter 19, “the divine presence is everywhere.” Everything and everyone is to be treated as a sacred vessel entrusted to us by God and offered to God on the altar through Christ, who is all in all—as the New Testament emphasizes in several places (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28 and Ephesians 1:23).

As St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (4:7): “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels.” We human beings are earthen vessels—fragile, clay jars—that contain the immense treasure of God’s glory. So, we must handle with care, and this goes not only for every thing, but also for every person. As St. John writes at the beginning of his Gospel, “all things came into being” through Christ, who is God’s eternal Word.

In a very broad sense, every external sign of internal divine blessing is a sacrament (Modern Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J.). In some way—often in a manner hidden from our limited human senses—every created person or thing expresses the glory of God. The deeper, Christian sense of a sacrament as instituted by Christ—such as baptism—is that it actually contains and confers the grace it signifies because it is Christ himself who works in it. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1084) states, “the sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, they make present [efficaciously] the grace that they signify.” And, in the Catholic tradition, of course, the sacrament of the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324).

As Christians—and especially as Benedictines—we profess and strive to live an incarnational spirituality. In Christ, we worship a God who is incarnate—the Word made flesh who took us to himself on the cross (cf. John 12:32) and raises us to the Father through his resurrection and ascension. All that we think, say, or do should radiate Christ, who “is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). As Jesus stated, “Whatever you did for one these least brothers of mine [the poor, the alien, the sick, and the imprisoned], you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

The entire world, created by God and viewed by the Creator as “very good” (cf. Genesis 1:31), has a sacramental character, and should therefore be treated with due reverence. Every thing, every person, and every circumstance somehow fit together in God’s universal plan of salvation (cf. Romans 8:28)—though from a human perspective that is distorted by the Fall, many of these elements may appear to be broken, useless, or hopeless. The challenge of our faith is to trust that these fragile, clay jars hold the treasure that is God’s presence and promise among us.

Benedict’s Rule expresses this incarnational, sacramental, and reverential spirituality quite well. The Rule is not a treatise on mystical theology. Rather, informed by the gospel’s incarnational emphasis, it concerns itself primarily with very practical, down-to-earth, and seemingly mundane things. There are long passages about the specific liturgical order of the psalms, the sleeping arrangement of the monks, the assignment of kitchen servers, and the distribution of food and drink. There’s even an entire chapter on clothing and footwear! (Ch. 55)

“Benedictine life is earthed essentially in its ordinariness and its littleness,” says Anglican author and Benedictine oblate Esther de Waal (Seeking God). “The physical is recognized; the material is accepted. Division into natural and supernatural, or into sacred and secular, is thoroughly alien to the understanding of the Rule.” Benedict “is trying to foster an attitude towards people and time and material things which sees them all as matter to be consecrated and offered up to God.”

This consecration of the ordinary is what St. Benedict is specifically speaking about in Chapter 31 of the Rule on the “Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer.” The cellarer—and by extension, all monks and Christians—“will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected,” St. Benedict writes. Even the most ordinary garden tool is to be used and treated with care out of reverence for God, just as if it were a precious chalice on the altar in church—with sacred respect and care.

Benedict is saying that there should be no distinction between how we treat something in church and how we treat something outside of church. All are from God. All are to be treated as sacred vessels of the altar. In doing this, he is drawing on the tradition of Zechariah the prophet, who in his description of the last age, wrote:

On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the Lord.” And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord. (Zechariah 14:20-21).

Our Holy Father Saint Benedict was a deeply spiritual man, and because he was deeply spiritual, he saw God’s goodness, God’s glorious treasure, in all ordinary things and people—even the most fragile clay jars. In his Life of St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great describes a vision Benedict once had while praying one night by his window:

All at once, in the middle of the night, [Benedict] looked up and saw a light spreading from on high and completely repelling the darkness of the night. It shone with such splendor that is surpassed the light of day, even though it was shining in the midst of darkness. [Then] the whole world was brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were, under a single ray of sun.

This account demonstrates how Benedict saw the world and all that is in it—gathered up in a single ray of God’s Light. “Benedict wants his monks to be reverent toward God, reverent toward the community and its possessions, reverent toward visitors,” says Hugh Feiss, a Benedictine monk in Idaho (Essential Monastic Wisdom). “Benedict seems to have found the world and all that it is in it sacred, worthy of care and cultivation… Benedict does not contrast the sacredness of church space and church time to the insignificance of secular places and secular activities. His inclination is to extend the reverence one should feel in liturgical settings to the whole of reality.”

I am also struck by a parallel between Benedict’s chapter in the Rule on the cellarer and a passage from John’s Gospel. As we’ve already heard, Benedict says in Chapter 31: “He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” That last phrase—“nothing is to be neglected”—evokes an often-overlooked line from the beginning of the sixth chapter in John’s Gospel, where Jesus feeds 5,000 people with only five barley loaves and two fish. In verse 12, John writes: “When they had had their fill, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.’”

Why do you think Jesus cared about all the leftovers? Much more than a meal is going on here. Jesus provides more than mere food for the physically hungry. This act—this mystery—signifies something else, something much greater. God provides for those who are in need, for those who have nothing (which is really each one of us, in some respect). God gives us Himself. Jesus gathers us, feeds us, and fills us with bread from heaven. Then, when we are filled, Jesus instructs us as his Body: “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted” Like St. Benedict, Jesus says that nothing of God’s is to be wasted or neglected. In Christ, it all belongs to God.

We are fed by the very life of Jesus, the Bread of Life, and our lives as the collective Body of Christ are commissioned to feed the lives of others, to gather all the fragments of the broken human jars surrounding us, so that none will be neglected.

Aquinata Böckmann, a German Benedictine sister, observes that Benedict purposely employs such Eucharistic imagery when he writes in his Rule that the cellarer should regard all things as “sacred vessels of the altar.” The altar is where a monk’s vow chart or profession document is placed (RB 58:20); the hand of the oblate is wrapped in the altar cloth (59:2); and the priest serves at the altar (62.6). Sacred vessels are placed on the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist. These vessels, she writes:

contain the bread and wine that will become Christ’s flesh and blood. They are not impressive externally but contain the mysterious presence of Christ! Thus all things can become the bearers of Christ’s presence. This is a powerful statement that touches the core of Benedictine spirituality, its Christ-centeredness and its effect on the whole of creation… The entire creation will shine in God’s light, “so that in all things God may be glorified.” This is a core statement of Benedictine spirituality. From the altar bread and wine are shared, and so the items of daily life should become a bond of love, forming community among all [the brothers], especially love for the sick and the poor, who are the special vessels of the Lord. (Around the Monastic Table)

There is, indeed, a spiritual connection between how we as Christians should treat tools or other everyday objects and how we should treat people. Both are to be cared for out of reverence for God, who is the Creator of all.

St. Benedict’s vision of ordinary, everyday life is a sacramental one in which everything in the world is gathered up under a single ray of light. In speaking of the proper use and care of tools, he also emphasizes what Christians today would call stewardship. But more than anything, in his chapter on the cellarer and indeed, throughout the Rule, Benedict is stressing reverence—or respect, if you will—in our relations with one another as human beings created by God.

Specifically, in Chapter 31, Benedict says the monastery cellarer must be wise, mature, and temperate, and that he should “take care of everything” and everyone. He is to be kind and humble and not annoy the brothers or cause them distress when he must turn down their requests. He is to be concerned, Benedict says, with the sick, children, guests, and the poor. He regards all utensils and goods as sacred vessels of the altar, neglecting nothing. He is moderate, not wasteful or extravagant. He is to provide the brothers what they need “so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God” (31:19).

When viewed as a whole, what emerges in this chapter is not only the care of things, but the care of people. As Terrence Kardong, a Benedictine monk of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota, states in his commentary on Chapter 31 of the Rule:

Benedict puts much less emphasis on the objective element of supply and demand than on the manner in which the cellarer treats the brothers. The very first verse begins with a list of the qualities requisite in this official, and when we examine them closely, we see that almost all of them concern personal relations.

Every object, person, and circumstance in our everyday lives has sacramental significance. Everything and everyone is to be treated as a sacred vessel entrusted to us by God and offered to God on the altar through Christ, who is all in all. Fragile clay jars that we are, we nonetheless have the treasure of God’s promise within us. Let us, then, out of reverence for Christ, take care of everything and everyone, regard all as sacred vessels of the altar, and allow nothing to be neglected. As the Letter to the Ephesians says:

Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one Body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

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