Saturday, September 17, 2016



This past week Novice Br. Simon Peter and I have been studying St. Benedict’s teaching about poverty: the principles, rationale, spirit and practice of monastic poverty. A discussion of the topic immediately involved us in discussions of several related aspects of monastic life, such as humility, community living, and trusting in God alone.

In brief, the monastic approach to material goods is that a monk may possess nothing of his own, but receives everything that he needs from the community; private ownership is considered a vice to be rooted out. The rationale for poverty is that it is a precondition for following Christ, which, like celibacy, points beyond the present world in anticipation of the world to come; it is an outward sign of depending on God for everything.

Coincidentally, just as we finished our study of poverty, the community met with our lawyer to discuss the advisability of each monk's drawing up a new will. Each of us had signed one when we made solemn vows, leaving everything to the abbey. I can’t even remember if I signed a new one when Newark Abbey was established.

So why does a monk need a last will and testament? The simple answer is that he doesn’t: he doesn’t own anything. As I understand it, the purpose of will is to avoid any complications arising from some unforeseen event such as a bequest to an individual monk who who dies before he can sign the check over to the monastery. So, having a boilerplate will is a simple way to avoid confusion or even contention over unforeseen events.


This morning during Vigils I began thinking about my last will and testament. I remembered the wisecrack, “You never saw a U-Haul behind a hearse!” If there’s anything in my personal U-Haul, than I have slipped up somewhere. I don’t own anything, so I don’t have to worry about who gets my stuff. I thought of a second wisecrack I heard maybe fifty years ago: “Life is a game; the one who dies with the most toys wins.”  

As I was reflecting on the notion of not having collected any toys to bequeath to anyone,
Fr. Philip went to the lectern and began reading, “From the writings of Saint Hildegard of Bingen.” I immediately realized that Hildegard, whose feast we are celebrating, didn’t have any “stuff” to leave behind, but instead had bequeathed to the world  her writings and her songs.

So I began thinking about what I will leave behind some day. The first thing I thought of was the effect I may have had on the thousands of students I’ve taught, or the hundreds of people who who have heard me preach a Sunday homily. I’m not sure why, exactly, but this line a thought made me uncomfortable. U.S. Presidents worry about their legacy, and so do College football coaches. That's okay for them, but in my case it seemed that I was loading up a U-Haul with my accomplishments for no particular reason -- they may not be material possessions, but they started to look just as silly in that U-Haul.

My monastic disposition objected, “Who cares about your legacy?" I could hear echos of the final sentences of the Prologue to the Holy Rule of Benedict:

For as we advance in the religious life and in faith,
our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments
with unspeakable sweetness of love.
Thus, never departing from His instructions,
but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching
until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ
and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.

In other words, just live each day as faithfully and lovingly as you can, so you can one day arrive at the Kingdom. When you get there, nobody's going to ask you about your legacy -- or about your stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment