Benedictine Poverty

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CHAPTER XXXIII. Whether Monks Ought to Have Anything of Their Own

11 Mar. 11 July. 10 Nov.
The vice of private ownership is above all to be cut off from the Monastery by the roots. Let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot, nor to keep anything as their own, either book or writing-tablet or pen, or anything whatsoever; since they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power. But all that is necessary they may hope to receive from the father of the Monastery: nor are they allowed to keep anything which the Abbot has not given, or at least permitted them to have. Let all things be common to all, as it is written: "Neither did anyone say that aught which he possessed was his own." But if any one shall be found to indulge in this most baneful vice, and after one or two admonitions do not amend, let him be subjected to correction.

The Vice of Proprietorship

The drive to acquire things, to possess and claim them as one's own is a vice to be cut out of the monastery by the roots. What is a vice? A vice is a sinful disposition reinforced by the repetition of concrete actions to the point of becoming habitual and pervasive. The inclination to stand over something and call it "mine" is incompatible with the monastic way of life.

Our Constitutions say this:

"The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20).
136. The poverty of the Son of God on earth that Saint Matthew describes in so few words, exemplifies religious poverty. Our holy patriarch honours this poverty by enjoining his sons to claim personal ownership of nothing. Freedom from personal possessions cannot but please one whose life is a sacrificial oblation, and who must live in this world as one already dead to it, constrained by necessity to make use of things with detachment, and in a holy indifference with regard to ownership. The monk who embraces this precious poverty will find himself filled with riches, knowing that the emptiness of creatures makes for a plenitude of God.

Radical Disappropriation

To the vice of a proprietary spirit Saint Benedict opposes the virtue of a radical disappropriation: "Let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot, nor to keep anything as their own, either book or writing-tablet or pen, or anything whatsoever; since they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power." The monk renounces ownership even over his own body and his own will. This is the profound meaning of the Suscipe (Psalm 118:116) that, with hands raised towards heaven, and standing before the altar, the monk sings on the day of his profession:

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Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum , et vivam;
et non confundas me ab expectatione mea.

Take me up, even unto Thyself, O Lord, according to thy word, and I shall live:
and let me not be ashamed of my hope.

Sacrificial Victimhood

For Saint Benedict, the monk is a man offered, an oblation, a victim made over to God in sacrifice. By monastic profession, a man places himself upon the altar together with the oblations of bread and wine. Doing this, he becomes, according to the teaching of Saint Augustine a sacrificium.

A true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. And therefore even the mercy we show to men, if it is not shown for God's sake, is not a sacrifice. For, though made or offered by man, sacrifice is a divine thing, as those who called it sacrifice meant to indicate. Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God. For this is a part of that mercy which each man shows to himself; as it is written, "Have mercy on your soul by pleasing God." (Sirach 30:24) Our body, too, as a sacrifice when we chasten it by temperance, if we do so as we ought, for God's sake, that we may not yield our members instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but instruments of righteousness unto God. (Romans 6:13) Exhorting to this sacrifice, the apostle says, "I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service." (Romans 12:1) If, then, the body, which, being inferior, the soul uses as a servant or instrument, is a sacrifice when it is used rightly, and with reference to God, how much more does the soul itself become a sacrifice when it offers itself to God, in order that, being inflamed by the fire of His love, it may receive of His beauty and become pleasing to Him, losing the shape of earthly desire, and being remoulded in the image of permanent loveliness? (The City of God, Book X, Chapter VI)

Configured to the Lamb

The highest expression of Benedictine disappropriation (poverty) is found, then, in that sacrificial victimhood by which a monk is mystically (that is really, but in a hidden way) configured to Christ, the Lamb of God, "the pure victim, the holy victim, the immaculate victim" (Roman Canon)

1 Comments

This is so beautiful and powerful, Father. I'm so far from this ideal of divine freedom.
What few things I posses, I own, I need, I want, I know that it is always too much, too often.

Here are a few lines by a Polish saint (and I can't remember his name!) that I read about and put on my refrigerator door:

In the year of Our Lord fourteen sixty-two,
St. Peter's chains' day, I took the cloister's bonds.
In Gnielniow, Peter begot me, but Peter,
most kind, in the cloister enclosed me: smashed my chains.
Thanking good God, with the Psalmist I sing:
'You have broken my bonds, O merciful God,
By a wretch be thanked, that I may fulfill my vows;
That I may end well, to a wretch be gracious.'

(Agnieszka)

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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