St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

It is strange how an apparently trivial image can impress itself on the brain to the exclusion of others. This morning at Vigils I kept coming back to an incident in the life of St Teresa Benedicta which we know of only by hearsay. The train which carried her to Auschwitz stopped at Breslau, the town where she had grown up, and the gate of one of the trucks was opened for some reason. One of the railwaymen reported that a woman dressed as a nun stood in the open doorway and looked out over the city, murmuring that she would never see it again. It is a scene easy to imagine. The stifling August afternoon; the smell of coal and human sweat; the despair in the trucks; men going about their ordinary tasks outside. It reminds us that heroic sanctity doesn’t look particularly heroic to onlookers: it is ordinary, drab, even dull. It is only later that we see its significance, how it illumines and redeems the evil it confronts.

I have written about St Teresa Benedicta before, both in iBenedictines and its predecessor, Colophon, (e.g. see here), but this morning it is that image of the saint gazing at Breslau which stays with me. She was brave and she was brilliant, but instead of the anger we might have expected, there was a calm acceptance of the death she was to undergo. Her last words to her sister Rosa were allegedly, ‘Come, let us die for our people.’ She is one of the few people who have managed to live up to her name, ‘of the Cross’; and like the Saviour who hung there for us,  she ‘was never wroth’. There is a lesson there for all of us.


A Different Way of Acting

Yesterday’s post looked at some aspects of the cellarer’s duties and the personal qualities needed to perform them well. The second half of RB 31 goes into greater detail about how the cellarer should behave in various demanding situations.

Benedict has already reminded us that everyone and everything is, potentially at least, holy — imprinted with the divine image and to be treated with the utmost respect. Now he says that the cellarer should ‘above all’ possess humility and answer kindly if he is unable to meet a request (RB 31.13, 14). There is real psychological insight here. When someone is responsible for the welfare of others, not being able to provide what is necessary can be hard to bear. A crotchety manner, a rough answer, apparent indifference, they are all ways of masking the inadequacy and failure that the person feels. Benedict will have none of it. The cellarer must have an interior freedom about his service which will enable him to answer mildly and with patience. Moreover, just because he has the power of giving or withholding goods, the cellarer mustn’t think he can behave in a superior manner, as though he were conferring a benefit on others. There must be no arrogance or delay in giving the brethren their food, for example (RB 31. 16).

Benedict is aware, however, that the cellarer himself must be treated with consideration or nothing will get done as it should. The proper times for asking for things must be adhered to, and there should be assistants if the community is comparatively large (RB 31.17, 18). What Benedict aims at is, above all, peace and harmony in community.

I have myself been cellarer in a large and comparatively rich community as well as in a smaller and poorer one. I’m not sure which presents the bigger challenge. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictine life. Monks and nuns in richer houses become too comfortable, forgetting the fervour and zeal with which they began. What was once enough becomes in time not quite sufficient, so that yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity. In poorer houses, the need to economize and make do becomes in time a kind of institutionalized miserliness. It is not too much to say that the cellarer bears a great responsibility for steering a middle course, ensuring that legitimate needs are met but no luxury or excess creeps in, not even in inverted form.

There is only one way of ensuring that the cellarer is equal to his responsibilities: fidelity to prayer and constant watchfulness over his own behaviour. To some, what Benedict has to say may sound naive. All right for monks and nuns, perhaps, but not for people in the ‘real world’. It depends what you think is real, I suppose. Benedict’s recommended way of acting is different from that of some of our corporate mega-stars, but I have a hunch that it makes for greater happiness in this world and the next. It certainly makes for greater fairness. What do you think?