Schooled in the Service of Love

The single most important document for monasticism—intentional Christian community—in the western church, has without doubt been Saint Benedict of Nursia's Rule for Monasteries, commonly known as the Rule of Saint Benedict. Probably composed in its current form toward the end of Benedict's life, in Monte Cassino, Italy, the document is now close to 1500 years old. Although it was composed in the 6th century, it was in the 9th when, backed by Charlemagne, it became the "gold standard" for monasteries in Europe. Many other monastic rules have been drawn up over the years, but Benedict's is renowned for its moderation, common sense, and clear sense of an earth spirituality where Christ is found in the most ordinary of ways. It is a testament to the Rule's genius that, after close to fifteen centuries, it not only continues to inspire monks all over the world, but is even valuable for many laypersons who seek a deeper spirituality.

In the prologue of the Rule, Benedict, in describing the intention of the monastery, writes "we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service." I am reminded of the commonly heard description of the church: "It is not a museum for saints, it is a hospital for sinners." Like a hospital, a school implies a place where change for the better can take place, over time. A hospital is a venue for healing or convalescence; a school is designed for growth, development, formation, and the building of character.

It's a typically Benedictine imagery: he recognizes that the people who are drawn to the monastic life come not because they are holy, but come precisely because they are not—at the very least, not yet. To become a monk is not unlike going to college; only it is a college that confers no degrees and lasts for the rest of the monk's life! The novice monk ideally brings a "beginners' mind" to the cloister, seeking to learn, to grow, to be formed and transformed, and hopefully to find a deeper relationship with God in the process.

What, then, constitutes a "school for the Lord's service"? To fully understand Benedict's idea, one would need to read the Rule in its entirety. Benedict wants his monks to grow in virtues—especially humility, but also obedience (a challenging concept for many in our time, but think of "monastic obedience" as a commitment to good order and to seeking conformity with Christ), restraint of speech, devotion to daily prayer and scripture reading, a commitment to work for the good of the community, and a general commitment to "God's commandments." To be formed as such a "servant of God" included a promise from Benedict that sounds appealing even in our cynical age: "as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love."

For Christians, love—encompassing love of God, neighbor, and self—is its own reward. But when Benedict promised "the inexpressible delight of love" to his monks in the 6th century, he was foreshadowing another great monastic movement—the late 11th/early 12th century reform of Benedictine monasteries that, beginning in Citeaux, France, became known as the Cistercians.

Cistercian monks follow the Rule of St. Benedict, just like the Benedictine monasteries from whom the earliest Cistercians came. Therefore, Cistercian spirituality is a "school for the Lord's service" as well. But the early Cistercian fathers came up with a new metaphor for describing their life: Schola Caritatis, or the "school of charity" or "school of love."

I suppose this is really a subtle distinction, for after all, God is love, and therefore a school in the service of God would be a school in the service of love. But the emphasis that the early Cistercians placed on charity/love speaks to their recognition of how central it must be to the spiritual life. One of the founding documents of the Cistercian order is the "Charter of Charity." Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a text called The Mirror of Charity while William of St. Thierry wrote On the Nature and Dignity of Love. The greatest of the Cistercian fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux, not only wrote a masterpiece On Loving God, but also preached a series of sermons on the Song of Songs—the collection of love poems in the Hebrew Scriptures that became widely interpreted as a metaphor for the love between God and humanity. Since love/charity was so important to the first Cistercians, is it any surprise that they understood their common life as a curriculum for growing into that very love?

Service and love: related concepts, yet distinct enough to each deserve its own emphasis. An old proverb declares that "work is love made visible," and perhaps the same can be said of service. To this day, monks and nuns are people of prayer, but they are also people whose lives are shaped by unglamorous hard work. In their work, they serve God—and each other. Their service to God and one another makes love possible, and the love (a force of will more so than mere emotion) makes the ongoing service as possible as well. And herein lies one of the secrets to Cistercian spirituality.