Speaking about hope these days may seem somewhat out of place. A discordant note. Nevertheless we are called to give an account for the hope that lives within us; of the hope that carries within itself the capacity to demonstrate authentic faith and love in their ability to transform hearts and history. The question is serious, the restlessness of a man who questions himself, the answer and judgment on the hearts of men and their willingness to accept it are serious.
Faith and hope are intrinsically interwoven to each other, they grow one within the other. I know, I believe, that there is a greater, exceeding Love, which has planted the cross and the Resurrection in the heart of history and it is within this love that nothing must be placed before it, as the Rule of St. Benedict clearly states, that which inserts our hope, hope not so much for us to possess that Love, but for ourselves to be possessed by it.
So what then, is the path of hope that the Rule of St. Benedict outlines for us?
On October 24, 1964 Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter ‘Pacis Nuntius” the pope declared Saint Benedict Patron Saint of all of Europe, announced in the homily for the Dedication of the Basilica of Montecassino, rebuilt after the allied bombing in World War II: “[…] the Church and the world, for different but converging reasons, have a need for Saint Benedict to leave the ecclesial and social community, and surround himself with his enclosure of solitude and silence, and from there allow us listen to the captivating accent of his sedate and engrossing prayer, and call us to the thresholds of his cloister, to offer us the picture of a workshop of the “divine service”, of an small ideal society […] St. Benedict return to us and help us recover the personal life for which we are craving so and so breathless for, and that development of modern life, to which we owe the exasperated desire of being ourselves, suffocating whilst awakening him, deluded whilst bringing him to consciousness […] and if Saint Benedict’s escape from Rome was motivated by the decadence of society, from the moral and cultural pressures of a world which no longer offered the spirit a possibility of consciousness, of progression, of conversion … Today, it is not the lack of a social life leads toward the same refuge, but exuberance. Excitement, the uproar, restlessness, exteriority, the multitude menace the interiority of man; It lacks the silence with its genuine interior word, he lacks order, he lacks prayer, he lacks peace, he lacks his very self […]
In the Rule it is said that the Lord among the crowd of men will seeks his worker “Who here is the man who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” If you answer “I do” the Lord will shows us the way of life. (RB Prol. 15-20)
What is required of those who come to the door of the monastery to initiate their journey? Si revera Deum quaerit RB 58.7. If he truly seeks God. The desire for life lies in this search, this path of hope. St. Benedict refers to this hope always dynamically in search, also using the terms of desiring, running, searching.
If we wish to dwell in the tent of this kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds. RB Prol. 22.
If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then–while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life – we must run and do now what will profit us forever. RB Prol. 42-44.
And at the end of the Rule: But for anyone “festinas” hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection… are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners. RB 73.2 and 73.8.
The “journey” of the monk is not the speed gained by our liquid society, where patience, the virtue of waiting and the wisdom of living no longer exist, where everything thrives on instant connections. Without the capacity to wait, we loose gratuitousness and the sense of time. For the monk, this patient expectation is an anticipation of the Kingdom which obviously must never be passive. The servant awaits his master remaining vigilant, hope fills this time of waiting. Virgins can also fall asleep (both the wise and the foolish) but the heart watches (as the Canticle says). This waiting is not boredom. It’s difficult to find a bored monk. If you find a bored monk, then you will know that this is the clearest sign of a lack of vocation.
In chapter 4 of the Instruments of Good Works Benedict writes: Spem suam Deum committere – Place your hope in God alone RB 4.41, reminds us of the importance of placing our trust in God alone. We encounter advice which is very simple and yet at the same time very difficult. We want to place all our hope in God, but often we do so only when there is no other possibility! As a last resort so to speak. We are invited to learn how to place this hope in God before we get into a situation when we have no other choice left. To the novice who makes his monastic profession St. Benedict poses the verse of Psalm 118 on his lips:
Suscipe me Domine secundum eloquium tuum et vivam et non confundas me ad expectationem meam. Psalmi 118:116 (Vulgate). Sustain me, O Lord, by your promise that I may live; do not disappoint me in my hope. Psalm 119:116 (NABRE)
Even physically, while singing this text three times, the act of delivery of the monk shines through: the arms spread on the cross, the bowing deeply. “My little hope is grafted onto the great Hope that You are for my life, You promised it, do not disappoint me”. And this is also an act of trust, of hope towards his superior, towards his community and precisely towards Heaven: the profession document that the novice signs and places upon the altar is drawn up in the name of the Abbot and of the Saints whose relics are reserved within the monastery.
The monk professes his faith: this is certainty, He is there. God is faithful to His promise. The monk exercises hope: that I may see Your face.
On November 30, 2007, the encyclical letter “Spe Salvi” (in hope we were saved) of Pope Benedict XVI (a monk at heart, just like Paul VI), summarises the concepts expressed, he proposes three “settings” for learning and practicing hope which are adequately suited to monastic hope within the Rule of Saint Benedict.
I. Prayer as a school of hope. When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. God listens to our prayer. Certainly in the times and modalities of his inscrutable wisdom. The psalms that weave monastic prayer are a voice of hope. (A journey of hope could be followed by returning to the book of Psalms 24, 30, 36-39, 41, 42, 45, 51, 59, 60, 61, 63, 69, 70, 79, the longest 118, 125, 127, 129, 130, 137, 145). In prayer our hearts overflow with the inexpressible delight of love (RB Prol. 49 dilatato corde) becomes free for God and for others. Praying is an inner purification, a continuous conversion (Benedictine monastic vow) that makes us capable for God and for men. Benedict saw “conversion” both as a moment in time when we turn towards God and also as a continual process of growth. He believed that movement toward God may begin with one turning, but it must continue with the many small choices of daily living. You learn to ask things that are not superficial or convenient, of the moment, hopes that are small and petty. The encounter with God awakens consciousness and makes it capable of listening to Good itself. In this sense, liturgical prayer also becomes a great act of communal hope. And here I would like to recall a scene from the film Of Gods and men: the embraced monks who sing in church despite the overwhelming noise of the helicopter overhead which is patrolling the area. Of course the Liturgy itself, some “liturgies”, have been emptied themselves of their symbolism of union between history and eternity, have lost their point of reference to the dimension of the eternal. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” Psalm 19:2 tells us. Yet today it seems as though the heavens no longer narrate the glory of God, at best they inform us about what kind of weather we will have tomorrow. These are liturgies in the image of today’s man compressed on the present, with no more hope, in the grip of “sad passions”: impotence, disruption, lack of meaning. A man folded back upon himself, no longer stretched upwards, the crooked man, as St. Bernard had also noted. What is worrying is the high demand for psychological help especially for young people. Despair is a cancer of the spirit. Unable to give a footing to hope, we have closed ourselves to the transcendent. Perhaps the high number of suicides among psychiatrists is a tragic commentary on the drama of being god to oneself, entrusting everything to one’s own strength.
Monastic asceticism is training for “the body and spirit” (RB Prol. 40) preparing our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions and to be ever more “capable of great hope, and ministers of hope for others, keeping the world open to God”.
Action and suffering as settings for learning hope. All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action. I can still always hope even if for my life or for the historical moment there is nothing further to hope for. The great hope, which is God, sustains the certainty that my life, that history, within the indestructible power of love and thanks to it, they make sense. The Kingdom of God is a gift, and is the answer to our hope. Of course, we do not deserve heaven with our works, it is always a gift far beyond what we deserve, however our actions are not unheeded before God, nor is it uninvolved in the development of history. We can open ourselves and the world to the coming God of truth, love, beauty which is a song to hope. Acts of hope were all the works that the monks have undertaken; Father Gérard Calvet, founder of the benedictine traditionalist Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux, in Vaucluse, France, said that monasteries are indices pointing towards the heavens. The Cypress trees that are planted near the abbatial church plastically reinforce this idea. Medieval cathedrals also meant the same thing.
From our work springs forth hope both for us and for others. Paradoxically, a source of hope can also arise from suffering, which one cannot eliminate. You cannot escape the fatigue and pain without slipping into an empty, meaningless life. “Stay with your spirit in the underworld and do not despair” so Christ called upon Silouan of Mount Athos in a moment of great perturbation and inner suffering. He remained there learning to cry and pray for the whole world, for all men, for all creation. He became the embodiment Adam who hid from the sight of the Creator, to His insistent voice: “Adam, where are you?”. And now he is no longer able to find his way back. To recover it, Christ descended “to the underworld” in our humanity. Redeeming suffering, without ceasing to be suffering, it becomes a song of praise. The Douay-Rheims incipit of Psalm 39 is beautiful and in Latin it is also used as a Gregorian offertory: Exspectans exspectavi Dominum, et intendit mihi … “With expectation I have waited for the Lord, and he was attentive to me. And he heard my prayers, and brought me out of the pit of misery and the mire of dregs. And he set my feet upon a rock, and directed my steps. And he put a new canticle into my mouth, a song to our God.” Psalm 39:2-4 (DRA 1899)
Or again Psalm 129 the De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuae intendentes in vocem deprecationis meae… which is not only the psalm “of the dead” or of penance, but it is a song of hope that the Church has wisely inserted into Christmas Vespers. Christ entered into our humanity as flesh and blood out of compassion and to vivify our hope, making us capable of consoling to take the sufferings of others and also making us capable of suffering for the sake of truth. In our many sufferings we also need a little hopes, but in grave trials, certainty of true great Hope becomes necessary. For this we need witnesses, martyrs who have given themselves totally. The saints were able to walk the great path of being men and women in Christ (the true witness of hope, from which the form and style of hope are drawn) so that they will be filled with great hope: St. Alexander, St. Benedict, Ven. Antonio Pietro Cortinovis O.F.M. Cap. better known as Frá Cecilio, Elisabetta-Betty Ambiveri, Servant of God Giulia Maria Gabrieli and many others whose names are written in the book of Life. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” Hebrews 12:1-2. True hope is always community hope together, there is given to hope as a Community as a Church.
The final judgment. St. Benedict always warns in chapter 4 of the good works: diem iudici timere RB 4,44, fear the day of judgment, and Gehennam expavescere, think with terror of the reality of hell; but then he recommends waiting for eternal life with spiritual concupiscence, ardent desire and spiritual ardour (vitam aeternam omni concupiscientia spiritali desiderare – Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. RB 4.46😉 et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare – And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy. RB 4.74.
The monk knows that just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is also a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life and it is within this “fire of ardent love” that his hopes are purified (RB 72).
Despair of salvation and the presumption of being saved without merit are both sins, and against the Holy Spirit. Benedict in the Rule warns the disciple against these dangers. And the image of the final judgment as Pope Benedict said “is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. Our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love.The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or παράκλητος – parakletos (cf. 1 John 2:1).
As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too, the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.
To the expiring monk, the brothers gathered around him to sing the Suscipe just as on the day of his monastic profession.
Soon at the end of Compline the Salve Regina will be sung. This Marian antiphon was composed by Blessed Hermann of Reichenau (July 18, 1013 – September 24, 1054), also known as Hermannus Contractus or Hermann the Lame, a Benedictine monk of the Reichenau Abbey, who died in 1054 at the age of forty-one, who despite his disabling condition, was known as a prodigy of knowledge.
To you, advocate and our hope, we ask you to show us, after this valley of tears, your Son Jesus and our hope will finally be consumed in the joy that will never have end.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way! Amen.
p. Dom. Ugo-Maria Ginex Erem. Dioc. (csr)
- Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Rome: November 30, 2007.
- M. Letizia Romeo, Teologia di San Benedetto con una breve analisi delle virtù teologali nella regola benedettina, Borla: 2014