Memorial of the Holy Abbots of Cluny at Mississippi Abbey

Remembering the Holly Abbots of Cluny is a good occasion to recall a central virtue of monastic life. Reverence comes naturally to sheep, but for us rational, free-willed creatures it takes discipline; what we call virtue. The prime virtue for monastic’s is reverence; it is Benedict’s first step of Humility: the fear of God. It is the beginning of wisdom and is more commonly called “Mindfulness”.   

Wisdom is the art of living well by making distinctions. Humility is living in the truth; it is the art of being human when the human is clear about what matters most. Monastic life is structured toward this; it is structured toward reverence for God and our sisters, brothers, and guests.

That reverence is the prime monastic virtue means that it is important; it is important because it makes a difference. That difference is that it keeps us mindful of where we truly stand in relationship to that which we find unchangeable or uncontrollable, i.e., in relationship to God and others. That mindfulness constitutes our separation from the world and our preference for Christ, especially in trying circumstances. It is truthful and it keeps us clear about what matters most.

So Cistercian reverence is undergirded by three things: truly seeking God, preferring nothing whatever to Christ, and preferring nothing to the Work of God. These are a desire, a motive, and a practice. Ch. 20 of the Rule of St. Benedict asks reverence at prayer and this should set the tone for all of our actions for the day. I have always admired the reverence of this community at the Office and especially at the Eucharist.

The greatest challenge, of course, is reverence for other community members. St. John of the Cross called community the greatest source of purification. It purifies resentment, self-centeredness, and self-will. Community members are our flock and we cannot follow the shepherd apart from them…from any of them! Scapegoating will not work. It grounds ones worth not on being in the image of God, but on not being “her: or “one of them”. Reverence is for goodness and shown first to Goodness Itself and then to others in His image. And it is shown because the other is in His image, regardless of diagnostic, ethnic or other categories one might regard as more important than being a sister or brother. The holy habit should remind us of that.

“Do not wish to be called holy before you actually are!” Benedict knew that the secret to a holy life is not reputation but attitude: the attitude of reverence for God, for the body, for others who are older or younger, unimportant, apparently useless, and even those who oppose us. Our work, done in the service of God, is also done with reverence. It is even shown to the tools as it is to vessels of the altar. It is shown at prayer (RB 20, 47, & 50), before making important decisions (64 & 65), and with superiors (31, 36, 53, 66).

Reverence is the mother of all moral life; it opens one’s eyes to value. By it the monastic is able to grasp value (authentic goodness) and appropriately respond to it. In other words, she chooses the important-in-itself over the merely satisfying. That distinction separates from the world.

Without a cultivated sense of reverence, we cannot put Benedict’s principles –OUR principles- before one’s own personality. And without that we rational, free-willed creatures cannot follow the shepherd.