Chapter 58: The Procedure for Receiving Brothers

1 Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry, 2 but, as the Apostle says, Test the spirits to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). 3 Therefore, if someone comes and keeps knocking at the door, and if at the end of four or five days he has shown himself patient in bearing his harsh treatment and difficulty of entry, and has persisted in his request, 4 then he should be allowed to enter and stay in the guest quarters for a few days. 5 After that, he should live in the novitiate, where the novices study, eat and sleep. 6 A senior chosen for his skill in winning souls should be appointed to look after them with careful attention. 7 The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and whether he shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials. 8 The novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God. 9 If he promises perseverance in his stability, then after two months have elapsed let this rule be read straight through to him, 10 and let him be told: “This is the law under which you are choosing to serve. If you can keep it, come in. If not, feel free to leave.” 11 If he still stands firm, he is to be taken back to the novitiate, and again thoroughly tested in all patience. 12 After six months have passed, the rule is to be read to him, so that he may know what he is entering. 13 If once more he stands firm, let four months go by, and then read this rule to him again. 14 If after due reflection he promises to observe everything and to obey every command given him, let him then be received into the community. 15 But he must be well aware that, as the law of the rule establishes, from this day he is no longer free to leave the monastery, 16 nor to shake from his neck the yoke of the rule which, in the course of so prolonged a period of reflection, he was free either to reject or to accept.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

The principle of not giving newcomers an easy entrance into monastic life is a very good principle. This tests the man who wants to come to the monastic life. The way of making that entrance difficult may change from age to age and from monastery to monastery and from culture to culture. The principle is the same: don’t let someone into the monastic life too easily.

On the other hand, today most vocations have to be encouraged and not discouraged. Men in our time and in the western cultures tend to be much more fragile in lots of ways than before.

But it is clear that the monks appointed in charge of vocations must be skilled at winning souls. In the past, in many monasteries, there was very little effort to win souls. Vocations were numerous and it was very simple to weed out anyone who did not cooperate with the life or with the personnel. This situation often brought about rejecting candidates who required more attention and more work.

Today, with the enormous decline in vocations in most “developed” countries, there can be a too easy acceptance of vocations. On the other hand, communities must learn to draw vocations, to work with them and really to form them. We no longer have the cultural structures that in the past kept monks in monasteries even when they probably should not have been there.

The great challenge is formation: helping a man truly become a monk. Helping a man put all of the energies of his life into being a monk.

There is so little commitment today that even after solemn vows a monk can feel quite free to leave monastic life if it no longer pleases him. This same phenomenon happens in marriages today, so we should not be surprised. Again, the challenge is formation in commitment, formation in suffering, formation in an authentic spirituality.

May the Lord help our community attract vocations, help us to form them with grace and in nature, and help them and us persevere until death!

Verses 17 – 29

17 When he is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. 18 This is done in the presence of God and his saints to impress on the novice that if he ever acts otherwise, he will surely be condemned by the one he mocks. 19 He states his promise in a document drawn up in the name of the saints whose relics are there, and of the abbot, who is present. 20 The novice writes out this document himself, or if he is illiterate, then he asks someone else to write it for him, but himself puts his mark to it and with his own hand lays it on the altar. 2 1After he has put it there, the novice himself begins the verse: Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope (Ps 118[119]:116). 22 The whole community repeats the verse three times, and adds “Glory be to the Father.” 23 Then the novice prostrates himself at the feet of each monk to ask his prayers, and from that very day he is to be counted as one of the community. 24 If he has any possessions, he should either give them to the poor beforehand, or make a formal donation of them to the monastery, without keeping back a single thing for himself, 25 well aware that from that day he will not have even his own body at his disposal. 26 Then and there in the oratory, he is to be stripped of everything of his own that he is wearing and clothed in what belongs to the monastery. 27 The clothing taken from him is to be put away and kept safely in the wardrobe, 28 so that, should he ever agree to the devil’s suggestion and leave the monastery–which God forbid–he can be stripped of the clothing of the monastery before he is cast out. 29 But that document of his which the abbot took from the altar should not be given back to him but kept in the monastery.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

We conclude the Chapter on Receiving Brothers today. We recall that there was no period of temporary vows in the time of Saint Benedict or for centuries afterwards. Instead, the man coming to the monastery before the time of Benedict often became a monk immediately simply by putting on the habit. Saint Benedict introduces a longer period of formation and seems actually to have invented the word “novice.” Many aspects of the profession ceremony as it is described here still exist today. The novice writes his own document of profession, it includes his promised and a reference to the saints whose relics are present and also a reference to the abbot. The novice sings the Suscipe. Now the triple Suscipe is sung only at Solemn Profession in the Subiaco Congregation. At solemn profession the monk must rid himself of all possession and becomes, under Canon Law, incapable of owning anything.

The spirituality of all of this can make a very deep impression on the monk and on those who are witnesses of a monastic profession, especially the profession of solemn vows. The ceremony itself speaks eloquently of dying to the world and putting on Christ more and more in one’s life.

Today it is very easy for almost anyone to get dispensed from solemn vows and this is probably a mistake. On the other hand, it does give an incredible freedom to the monk. We should know that when monks persevere, they do so from this point of freedom.

May we be free from the temptations of the evil one to leave our monastic commitment. May we grow in that commitment and become more and more completely servants of the Lord.