(A talk on the common will in Monastic Life)
Br. Philip, our Sub-Prior gave us this chapter talk this last Sunday. I found it extremely well done, as well as insightful. I would like to share it with my friends. Any path that seeks to lead us deeper into union with the Divine Will, is by that very fact counter-cultural and will be often misunderstood.
However, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. To live deeply one’s faith, no matter the vocation will draw one into a deep well of joy and peace, even if it is in the midst of suffering and conflict. I hope those who read this will be enriched by this mediation on the Rule of St. Benedict. –Br.MD
(The common Will)
From the very outset of the Holy Rule St. Benedict makes it clear to us that we, who intend to keep it, must be ready to surrender our way of doing things. From verse 3 of the Prologue: “This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all.”
This obligatory surrender of self will is emphasized and repeated in Benedict’s teaching on obedience and humility. In Chapter 5 we read: “Those who cherish Christ above all…immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished. With the ready step of obedience, they follow the voice of authority in their actions.” This “voice of authority” is not referring exclusively to the Abbot or the Prior, but it goes much deeper.
St. Bernard developed a concept of two opposing forces in the monastic life. One is our own will (voluntatem propriam) or self will; the other (voluntas communis) the common will.
Thomas Merton gives a wonderful commentary on this theme in his book “The Waters of Siloe”, and I will quote him here extensively. “The chief means for destroying self will is not merely obedience. It is obedience regarded as subordinate to charity, and as integrated in the common life.
“When St. Bernard treats of the destruction of self will, and the substitution of God’s will for it, he speaks very often, not of the will of God, but the common will; and this common will is indeed the will of God but with an important added note – that the will of others, the will of the community with respect to the common good of the community is God’s will, and to submit to our superiors and our brethren is to submit to God and become united to Him.”
“The problems of monastic life are resolved in this concept. The one thing the monk needs to live for is that common will – the will which is not peculiar to him alone, which does not seek his own momentary benefit or convenience, but which seeks the good of all in the will of God.”
Merton goes on to say: “In all matters that do not clearly involve a fault, even when the community may be wrong and the individual right, he can best keep united with God by following the common will, for the sake of peace and charity.”
This should not be misunderstood as blind conformity, but must be seen in terms of the infusion of faith, hope, and love into the heart of each one of us by the Holy Spirit (the Breath of God).
This is “the voice of authority” then, which is channeled through the community, “and expresses itself in the demands made on the individual not only by the Rule or particular house customs, but by every smallest circumstance of the common life.”
Now this may all sound very nice and perhaps idealistic, and we may be thinking to ourselves: “Well, that was St. Bernard in the 12th century – all well and good for him and his model monks of Clairvaux, but does that concept of his really apply here in the 21st century? At Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers? With these brothers of mine?
And I can hear you saying to yourself – “Okay St. Bernard, but with all respect; this brother of mine doesn’t show up for dish crew and this other one doesn’t even know that there is a dish crew!” “That monk doesn’t come to this office, and the monk next to him is always fashionably late – and you can count on it!”
You say – “I think brother so & so needs professional help – I think I’ll refer him to one of my shrinks.”
And you dare to continue, “On Saturday evening at the end of Compline, why does everyone leave while a remnant is left singing the Asperges?”
St. Bernard himself said this about a monk he apparently knew:
“He is very exact about his own particular doings and slack about the common exercises. He will stay awake in bed and sleep in choir. After sleeping through the night office while the others were singing psalms, he stays to pray alone in the oratory while they are resting in the cloister. He makes sure those outside know he is there modestly hidden in his corner, clearing his throat and coughing and groaning and sighing.”
I think we do need to laugh at ourselves sometimes because it can be exhausting and bad for our health to be pointing the finger all the time, or thinking we know what is best for the community.
St. Bernard wrote in one of his sermons: “There is, in the heart,
a two fold leprosy: our own will and our own judgment…..
Diametrically opposed to this evil is charity; and charity IS GOD.”
I suggest that we all reflect on our lives here; how do we respond to this “voice of authority”, this common will, which supposedly binds us together as a community – the mystical body of Christ.
Certainly we all fall short of perfection – however you want to measure it. But this is why Bernard would write such things….
because he believed in it. We should believe in it too.
We cannot go it alone, isolating ourselves, alienating our brothers. We need each other.
We need to look no further than our senior brothers for an example. I’ve heard one of them say on different occasions that throughout his time here in the monastery, it has been the community that has carried him. Our Lord said “the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:38) Such a one must give himself so completely to the community, to the common will, to be able to say humbly in return that he has been carried. We have many good examples in this room.
We all fall short at times of St. Benedict’s call to give up our own will, but we have come here with that intention, to surrender ourselves for something greater. “Those who cherish Christ above all…abandon their own will…and follow the voice of authority in their actions.”
And with God’s grace, combined with our own sincere efforts toward conversion, we will root out of ourselves all individualism, reactions of unwillingness, occasions of grumbling, murmuring, and sluggish and half hearted responses. We will then take on the good zeal of monks, and support each other with simple acts of kindness, encouragement, and compassion. Abandoning our will and holding back our own judgment, we walk with the community in faith. This is the common will we dedicate ourselves to – it is in loving one another – as brothers. For this is your will Lord. Amen.