Source: Scuola Ecclesia Mater via Messa in Latino (original text in Italian)
Homily preached by Father Benedict Nivakoff, O.S.B.
On the Feast of the Holy Father Benedict
Basilica of Saint Benedict
July 11, 2014
“The memory of a saint is like music at a feast with wine”. This is what the book of Wisdom tells us in today’s Epistle reading from chapter 49. Like music that accompanies drinking wine, or even beer if you prefer, but in any case in the context of a great feast where one eats and drinks well, and where one as well hears beautiful music. This rings true especially for us who live here in Norcia, this poetic description of a festive banquet in which we celebrate a special occasion, a day marked by solemnity, an important person. We think, in this context, of every March 21st, the day on which we celebrate the transitus of Saint Benedict, his passing to eternity.
There are processions, special dress, dinners, the participation of the civic officials, there are fireworks, and so forth. But although this great feasting makes this event solemn and happy, it also can obscure the reality that is being celebrated. For this reason we can take advantage of July 11 for a more intimate form of festivity, we monks with the citizens of this town who venerate Saint Benedict.
The reading from the book of Wisdom helps us very much to understand what we are celebrating in the person of Saint Benedict. “Et ut in musica in convivio vini”. We can say so many things about Saint Benedict. Even better, so many things have been said about Saint Benedict that are repeated year after year. But when have we heard him compared to music played at a banquet with wine? Everyone likes music, whether it is rock, jazz or Gregorian chant, and there are very few people who are not able to have some appreciation for music.
But to have a feast: is it really necessary to have music? Can we not imagine a feast without music? Even wine: can we say that it is really indispensable? And in the end, do we really need a feast to remember a person? But in fact, the idea to have a feast day belongs to a deep level of Catholicism. It means to put aside the rhythms of daily life to celebrate, without any sense of necessity or usefulness. But it is the very fact that a feast is not necessary or indispensable or useful from the vantage point of productivity that gives it its character of joy and makes it a true feast.
A feast day is not necessary, nor is music--nor are monks. And this is the important point in understanding the monastic life as Saint Benedict wishes it to be lived: it is a life that is totally “useless”. The world likes to classify things, to put them into a frame, and in this way certain sayings from the Rule of St. Benedict have become famous like “Ora et labore” or “Put nothing before the love of Christ”, as if Saint Benedict had in his mind to leave behind a book of witty and attractive sayings. No. Saint Benedict believed that his Rule would be a humble guide given to those who participate in the spiritual life. His purpose was to create the conditions for a life in which monks would dedicate themselves to only one thing: to seek God.
To seek God, dear brothers, does not carry a sense of usefulness for the world. What does it mean? What does it produce? What it its purpose? In a practical sense, it deals with a life that feasts and plays. Yes, I say that has feasts and enjoys a sense of play. The then Cardinal Ratzinger described the Liturgy in terms of “play” in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. In Saint Benedict’s Rule there are many rules. For example: how to eat, on the question of having more than one glass of wine, how to dress(with one’s knife on one’s belt), how to pray (remembering that we are always in the presence of the angels), how to walk (with bowed head). There are also many rules pertaining to the discipline of prayer. The Saint prescribes a rite that goes far beyond mere necessity: not only all of the 150 psalms every week, but including as well the repetition of 40 of the psalms. On feast days we monks do not sleep longer as do many others, but we get up even earlier, that is at 3:20 instead of 3:40. We are speaking here of rules that will never make any sense to the world that is only interested in utility. And these rules, which at times seem not only to the world but to the monks themselves a great absurdity, do not however have the effect of making us prisoners in the monastery, but rather of making us free from the world that is obsessed with only what is useful.
And it is for this reason that the Liturgy has and must have the central role in the life of the monk. And this is one of the reasons for which our community has adopted the older form of the Mass for our Conventual Mass every day, the so-called Extraordinary Form. It is precisely in its apparent archaisms, in certain gestures that seem to have no usefulness or obvious meaning (for example “no one” hears the Canon said softly) that we find fully the spirit of worship that a monk must have.
All oriented to God! The life of the monk is like a life of a continuous festival, because while he eats, while he sleeps, while he works in the fields, while he makes beer, or while he is doing whatever else he does, he is working for a purpose, an end, that is not immediate and evident, but to honor and adore a God who seems to be always hidden! The monk of Norcia remains therefore always a sign of contradiction.
Everyone marvels at the joy of the monks, at their smile, at their way of looking at things in a different way. As far as this is true, the reason lies in this spirit of “play”, where they are not looking for the utility of things but rather for their beauty, as in music. And those of us who have seen children playing know that they are so happy because at the same time they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The monk has nothing to lose because he has already lost, or better has already renounced, as the Gospel says, his mother, father, brothers, sisters and property, and even a wife! Mirabile dictu for today’s world.
But what is most difficult of all is that the monk has renounced and continues to renounce every day himself. To get up early becomes easy if it is compared to the getting oneself up spiritually day after day, amidst spiritual battles that never end. And what contradicts most the merely human way of looking at things, is that the monk wins most when he loses the most. God wants to try our weakness, not our strength. As Bernanos says, the monastery is not a house of peace, but a house where we, through the war of our prayer, hope to win peace to give it to the world, to you. We are not able to keep enclosed in our cloister what the world most desperately needs.
The life of Saint Benedict, which today we celebrate in a family way, offers us a great reason to celebrate a feast, to make music. But the struggle of the monk is to remember always that music is the consequence, not the cause of our seeking God. Saint Benedict knew this well, and he shared it with his disciples, his monks.
It is up to us to receive his teaching in a way that is ever more authentic and coherent, and then to offer to the world the same message: through this the monk “will receive one-hundred-fold, and will gain eternal life (Mt. 19,29)
Translated by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla