CuadMon 30 (1974) 447-480 – By Dom Mauro Matthei, OSB and Dom Enrique Contreras, OSB – Paraphrased Translation by: Dom Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB
Meeting in the Temple
When the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple and raised in the arms of old Simeon, who moved stammered his Nunc dimittis, the nature and the role of youth and mature age in God’s plan were revealed in the fullness of light. Hypapante (Ὑπαπάντη), that is to say, “Encounter” which the Eastern’s call the salvific encounter contained in and reproduced by the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, popularly known as Candelaria. In fact, not only does the he encounter takes place between the Old and the New Covenant, between the expectation and the fulfilment, between the divinity offered and the humanity received, but also – by antonomasia – between the young and the old, between the vigor and wisdom. In the early light of that Candelaria that mutual exchange took place, that sacred trade between the generations that will be and is the secret of the vitality of families and Christian communities throughout the centuries: the silent delivery of the child answered the jubilant hymn and prophecy of the elderly; the poor and youthful offering of the Virgin echoed the praise of the widow. Jesus and Simeon, Mary and Anna the daughter of Phanuel, represent in advance, between admiration and joy, all driven by the Spirit which makes the encounter between men possible, that sacred reciprocity secular wisdom of the monks, condensed in the Rule of St. Benedict (RB), summed up in the sentence: “venerate the elders, love the younger.”
The two passages of the RB in which these recommendation appears are those of Benedict, in contrast to the Rule of the Master (RM), his model, which does not contain them, as noted by Adalbert de Vogüé o.s.b., (1924-2011†). It gives the impression that this issue is particularly dear to the editor of the RB, and also the passages which emphasise the importance of the opinion of the young before the elderly, are characteristic and peculiar to them. If you innovate with respect toward young people, Benedict follows the oldest tradition in the description of the role of the elders: these are the model that young people should imitate (7:55); to them they must submit in obedience (71:4); they must be treated with deference (63: 10-17); they are the comforters par excellence (27:2-3) and the guardians of the chastity of the young (22:7), and as gatekeepers (66:1) and master of novices (58:6) their mission being the welcoming of guests and postulants.
In respecting and cultivating these values monasticism finds its human balance and at the same time builds a guarantee for its continuity throughout time. This generational harmony depends mainly on two factors: the knowledge of the role that falls within the family or the community at each age and the implementation of the peculiar virtues of both the young and old, which nullify or soften the defects, equally characteristic and destructive of the relationship between both.
In the communities in which this wisdom and this practice occur, a bond is knotted between young and old, making possible the holy paradosis [παράδοσις], that is, the living tradition, the transmission of the spiritual experience, which is the reason for the continuity of the monasteries. Conversely, where young people, follow their seemingly characteristic tendencies, despising, dismissing and agitating the spiritual inheritance, and the elderly, in turn, shutting themselves up in petty harshness and stagnant repetition, the life-giving tradition is broken or not even formed. Therefore, the encounter or conflict of generations can occur – something that was already experienced in ancient monasticism – and depending on what happens, either one or the other will be the cause of life or death for the entire community. The problem, which seems so characteristic of our time, however had already been captured and lived by the early monks. Neither the so-called “youth of today” nor the “old” lack a very elucidating background of the monastic centres of the past. Looking into the past corroborates and relativises that which worries us today.
How the aged monks viewed the young
In an ingenious parable Isaiah of Gaza draws the parallel between the process of winemaking and youthful age, which reveals the tone of common opinion held by the desert fathers of this period:
“In the beginning, the wine ferments; It is the image of youth. This is agitated until it reaches the age when it stabilises. It does not become wine if a fermenting substance is not added in a prudent measure; it is also impossible for youth to progress with their own will if they do not receive from their parents the ferment that drives them on their way toward God, until God gives them the grace and they see for themselves. The wine is kept in the cellar until it is decanted; equally without recollection, mortification and all kinds of work, it is impossible for youth to reach their stability. If the wine is left with residues, it becomes vinegar; likewise youth, if it does not share with others the same holy way of life and the same asceticism, loses the form received from its spiritual Fathers. The wine jars are covered with earth to avoid losing their flavour; equally if youth do not learn humility in everything, their efforts will be in vain.”
In the same line abbot Matoes prompts when he says: “When I was young I used to say to myself: ‘Someday I will do great things’; but now that I’m old I do not see anything good in me.’ Therefore there is often an excessive impulse in the young. On that account the characteristic most defective in the young monk seems to be pride, or, if you prefer, a great confidence in their own strength. There is a lively effervescence in him with an illusion that often dominates his healthy realism.
Very typical in this sense is an episode that happened to a monk from a monastery near Pachomius. It is not expressly stated that he was young, but all circumstances make him assume. The fact is that the monk in question came to claim the post of economist, which his superior however, did not think he was competent. As he could not persuade the young man of the inconvenience of the appointment, being weak he lied, claiming that it was Pachomius who had advised against it. It was like pouring fuel onto the fire, because the scorned monk grabbed his arm, exclaiming his full of anger: “Well, we go to Pachomius and he will have to tell us why he has said these things against me.” We can already imagine what feelings the poor superior presented himself with the inflamed junior to Pachomius. He was on scaffolding, with the brothers building a wall for the monastery, and naturally he was surprised when the young man, in a fury, snapped at him: “Come down, liar and tell me of what my faults consist.” Pachomius was unable to say a word, so the candidate for economist said: “Your mouth is closed and there is no apology. Who forces you to lie, above all you, who pretends to be clear-sighted, when in reality your mind is obscured?” Thus rebuked, he responded at last, without understanding anything of what the other had purported: “Forgive me, I have sinned against you, and perhaps you have never committed a fault?” At this answer the brother finally calmed down. Pachomius descended from the scaffolding, approached the saddened superior of the brother and intrigued asked him: “What’s up?”. The superior, “in tears and with a broken heart,” confessed that he had abused his name to defend himself against the young man’s pretensions and, embarrassed, he asked a thousand apologies. Pachomius, who did not lack a sense of humor, said: “Listen to me, give him that position. If you help a man who is going through a bad time, you allow him to return to the true path, because the love of God consists of suffering for one another.” Returned home the rebellious brother was invested by the superior with the desired position. A few days later the new economist broke down in tears and, returning to Pachomius, embraced him and said haltingly: “Truly, man of God, you are greater than what is said, because I have seen how you conquered evil through good (Romans 12:21). The Lord knows that if that day you had insulted me instead of being patient and merciful, I would have apostatised from the monastic life and would have distanced myself from God. You are blessed, man of God, because thanks to you I live.”
In other circumstances living in excess which is pride, is manifested in the initiative to seek a spiritual father to one’s own measure, as that young man who told a famous old man: “Father, I would like to find an old man who conforms to my will and die with him.” The old man replied thoughtfully: “That is a good idea, Monsignor. And if you find an old man in accordance to your taste, are you going to live with him?” The young man, very sure of himself, said: “Yes, of course, as long as it is one according to my will.” The old man then said: “It will not be for him to follow your will and not you his and thereby be happy?”
At other times the impulsive young man, as soon as he has taken the habit, already believed himself to living in a state of solitude, like one who, enclosing himself in his recent seclusion and wearing his hood, said: “I am an anchorite.” The elders, having heard this new proclamation, threw him out of the compound and forced him to go from cell to cell humiliating himself and saying: “Forgive me, Fathers, because I am not an anchorite, but a debutante.” Faced with these attempts to be a soldier in monastic life under their own banners, the Fathers were quite categorical: “If you see a young man who by his own will ascends to heaven, grab him by the foot and throw him down, this will do him good.” This was true even if the young man was miracle worker: “The abbot Anthony heard of a young monk who had performed a miracle. Some elder reported the incident to Anthony. He only replied: ‘In my opinion this young man looks like a ship loaded with goods, but I do not know if he will reach the port.’ In fact, later we learn that the young monk sinned and died without being able to give satisfaction.
That excessive youthful self-consciousness, coupled with false modesty, also manifests itself with a difficulty which is often experienced by the novice in opening up to his spiritual elders, when this is precisely the most effective remedy against pride. “The devil, subtle enemy – says Cassian – will not be able to deceive the young man with his devices, unless he manages to hide his thoughts, either out of arrogance or due to shame. Because they say that it is a clear and evident sign that a thought comes from the devil when we blush when we reveal it to the elder.”
There are two other features that seem typical of young monks of all ages: a certain disdain for the “old” and a strong desire to change everything. A young monk named Hiero, a native of Alexandria, “a boy with outstanding garments, cultured ways, endowed with a clear mind and also pure mores,” relates the Lausiac History that even the famous Evagrius Ponticus thought mattered little, going so far as to say that those who followed his teachings “were unbelievers,” because according to him “you should have no other teacher but Christ.” Palladius adds that arrogance led this scion of monasticism to even misconstrue words of the Scriptures.
As for the revolutionary impulses, there is the funny story in the Apophthegmata about a certain novice who wanted to renounce the world and pestered the elder so much to directed him with successive projects of spare parts for doors, ceilings and protections against hypothetical lions, that in the end the elder desperate, said: “Oh, I want the whole monastery to collapse on me and for the lion to eat me, to be free of this.” Against these tendencies, at the same time disdainful and disturbing, the Pachomian Rules clearly warn young people: “Those who disregard the precepts of the elders and the rules of the monastery, which have been established according to God’s command, and who pay little heed to the warnings of the elders, will be punished according to the established ways until corrected.”
The novice monk also maintains, along with the idealism of his early years, a certain attachment to the mundane that is manifested, for example, having a taste for eye-catching clothes; a certain pretentious style; the desire to chat and laugh endlessly; in his gluttony; in a lack of control over life or the body, especially in regard to one’s self-restraint.
Other manifestations of youthful imperfections are restlessness and instability, evil against which the most seasoned teachers in the wilderness were forced to fight continuously. Proof of this is the observation by abbot Isaiah: “A novice who goes from monastery to monastery looks like an animal that jumps from one place to another for fear of being reined in.”
Finally, there is also a tendency among young people to be prone to disorder and indiscipline in liturgical matters. The Rule of Paul and Stephen mentions the case of presumptuous youths who overtake the elders during psalmody, inmatura festinatione, spoiling the divine office by inordinatam audaciam, which should be recited cum timore, wisely and not insipienter. The same Rule observes that such youthful antics cause magnas commotiones in the oratory.
The defects consigned among the young monks are not lacking among the nuns of the same age either. In the anonymous “Exhortation to a Virgin,” which was published conjointly with the “Life of Saint Syncletica of Alexandria,” it is necessary to insist that “it is not good for a young woman to live with another young woman, because they do nothing in earnest; one will disobey the other and the other will despise the other. On the other hand, it is healthy for a young woman to be under the authority of an older woman. The old woman, in fact, will not give in to the whims of the young woman. Damn the virgin that is not under the direction of a Mother, as it would be like a ship without a pilot.”
Weighing-up this sufficiently realistic picture of the defects of youth, the ancient monastic sources are far from ignoring the virtues that are most often found in young age. Standing out as an exemplar of radiant youthful sanctity, the famous “Life of Dositheus,” young man, ex-military “delicate and pleasant-looking,” stands out after only five years, for his filial and complete obedience and “for surrendering his own free will.” Exceeded the virtues of the most venerable elders. In the West the role of Dositheus is also played by a young man in the military, Martin of Tours: “He was ten years old when, in spite of his relatives, he sought refuge in a church and asked to become a catechumen … At the age of twelve he wanted to live in the desert.”
Dositheus and Martín embody that lack of self-interest and unrestricted commitment to others that is so often found among young people. This self-surrender is manifested in the helpfulness and obedience that led both to total self-forgetfulness. For example, in the case of the young Theodore of Ennaton, who, by baking bread for all the brothers who came, towards the end relegated the work to himself. This spirit of diakonia is manifested above all in the service of the sick, an eminently youthful virtue, sometimes carried to the extremes by the young man who drank the water with which he had washed the wounds of his old man. But it is also put to the test in the event where the service has to be surrender to difficult elders: this happened to a certain young man who lived with an old drunkard. Every day the product of both their work was invested in drink for the old man, while the young man only received a bread at sunset. “He worked like this for three years, without the boy saying anything.” In the end the patience of the young man turns the old man from his bad habit. Another young man showing equal perseverance in the service of an old man who lived in concubinage: the three ended up saving themselves, the woman to the status of nun.
As for the surrender that is manifested by obedience, there are many emulators of Dositheus, especially in Pachomius’s monastery. Contiguous to obedience is the ability, also praised among young people, to leave everything suddenly, even violently to pursue an ideal, like that young man who, to escape temptations which prevented him from becoming a monk, stripped literally of everything, running naked to the monastery. Later when it came to the topic regarding “renunciation” the elders pointed to this young man saying: “Ask that brother.”
Curiously enough, there are also observations regarding a special ability to pray, a certain enthusiasm for prayer among young people: “Abbot Isidore said: When I was young and sat in my cell, I did not measure my prayer; night as well as day for me was prayer time.”
It is Saint John Chrysostom who finds a most eloquent expressions to describe the advantages of youth over old age in the race toward sanctification: “He who embraces the monastic state at the end of his life spends all his time washing the sins committed in the previous age and in that work consumes all his energy, and even then the many times are not enough for him, but he comes out of this world with many old wounds as relics. On the other hand, the one who from an early age went down to the arena, does not have to spend all his time healing his wounds, on the contrary from the beginning he receives the prizes of victory. One has to content himself with repairing past defeats; the other, however, raises trophies since he embarks on the race and adds victories to victories and, like an Olympic champion who walks from an early age to old age in proclamation after proclamation, that is how one arrives at eternity, his head crowned without exaggeration.”
Mature age as reflected in ancient monastic literature
The congenital defect of old age, according to our sources, appear to be the harsh, a spiritual stagnation, which usually manifests itself in a certain incomprehension by the concerns and problems of the youngest. The experience of young Palladius in this sense is very illustrative: “One day when I addressed Abbot Isidore when I was still in my youth, I asked him for advice on the monastic life. Believing him to be in full effervescence of his age, there was no need for discussion, but of combats and fatigue of the flesh, in the way of a horse trainer, he led me outside the city walls to a place called the “Solitudes,” about five miles distant, and there he left me without further ado.” Within the curtness of desert manners, cases like these, of abrupt farewells are not very strange at all. The difficulty experienced by many elders to adjust, within certain limits, to the temperaments and problems of the young brothers, made Abbot Poemen exclaim: “Many of our Fathers have become very valiant in asceticism, but in finesse, very few.”
This leads us to the problem of lack of discretion and discernment: a very serious defect in certain elderly people, because it makes them incapable of exercising spiritual direction. Furthermore: sometimes that spiritual sclerosis can be the cause of a young person being lost permanently. “Just as not all young people are equally fervent, wise or of good mores,” Cassian observes in his second Conference, “neither are all the elders of the same degree of perfection or of the same exemplary virtue. For this reason what constitutes his true wealth are not precisely his white hair, but the zeal that they have displayed in his youth and the merit of his virtues and works throughout his youth.” Next, he illustrates with an example the evils that a young man can cause the lack of tact of an old man calloused by life. Having confessed to the one who believed a venerable old man the suffering caused by the sting of the flesh, the old man broke into insults, telling him that he was miserable, unworthy to bear the name of monk. The extreme despair of the young man would have resulted in a real tragedy, had not abbot Apolo, who consoled him and through prayer succeeded in transferring the temptations of the boy to the old man, thus punished with terrible carnal delusions. In the same place Cassian does not save expressions to condemn “deceptive greyness” and “deceitful longevity.” Furthermore the abbot Sisoes dictates that the fact of being an elder does not exempt one from vices or temptations: “A brother asked him: ‘Does Satan persecute the elders in the same way?’ The old man replied: ‘He pursues them more now, because their time is approaching and he is therefore alarmed.”
Anger, a trouble of the elderly who suffer with arteriosclerosis, seems not to have been lacking among the venerable men of the desert. Notable is the case, reported among the apophthegms of Abbot Gelasius, of an economist who in a fit of rage kicked a young man who had eaten a fish prepared for others. This case gave cause to many complications among the elders.
The third endemic evil in old age is unfortunately the sadness of the good of others, that is, envy. The spiritual successes of the youngest, the confidence placed in them by the superior or the positions that they reach at a young age can provoke in the ranks of the seniors certain malignant exasperations, which are manifested by significant shrugs, disgusted murmurs and steely observations.
When the blessed Roman for the sanctity of his life began to attract many vocations to his Abbey at Condat, “the Enemy of the Christian name, under the pretext of giving him advice, threw the dart of his old envy. He persuaded one of the elders, who was burning with misgivings, to say: ‘Long time ago, holy abbot, I am meditating to suggest to your charity certain healthy things that have to do with your salvation and with your way of governing and now that the occasion allows us a particular interview, please allow me to open my healthy thoughts that I have been locked in my heart for a long time. As he was an old man-less than the sanctity of life that simply because of his advanced age, which inspired vain pretensions-the abbot gave him permission to advise him. ‘I feel sorry, dear father, said the senior, to see how you rejoice every day without reason of the enormous number of conversions and that you admit en masse to the cenobitic life to young and old, honest and dishonest, instead of selecting and intelligently separate an elite of proven monks and eliminate from the flock, as degenerate and unworthy beings, all the rest. Then the tormented old man suggested to his abbot a tour of the entire monastery to carry out this discriminatory examination.’ Abbot Roman answers him with a speech that occupies four pages in the edition of Sources chrétiennes “Life of the Fathers of the Jura.” The old man happily converted.
Additionally, at Pachomius’s monastery there had been a similar vexation of the Elders on the occasion of a spiritual conference entrusted by the holy abbot to young Theodore (the elders left the meeting hall), and following the appointment of Paulus Orosius as abbot of Chenoboskion (the Elders thought he was a beardless novice for such a position).
When the young Dositeo died, his abbot dismissed him saying: “Take your place close to the Holy Trinity and pray for us,” there were also very similar reactions to those at the Carmel of Lisieux a few days before the death of St. Theresa: “Some brethren began to get angry and said: ‘What has she done? What has been your practice to merit hearing those words?’ … They were outraged by the response sent by the old man to the young man who had only been in the monastery for five years, because they did not know his deeds.”
For all these reasons there are texts denoting a marked skepticism toward late vocations, for example, the so-called “Common Rule” of Visigothic Spain: “Many elderly novices often come to the monastery and we recognise that many of them promise the most for their forced weakness that for religious purposes … They have these in themselves the habit of not leaving their old habits and as before they know many things, often entertain themselves in vain parishes; and if they are ever corrected by some spiritual monk, they immediately explode in anger and for long periods of time had attacks of saddened morbidity; and they do not totally discard the evil grudge. Falling frequently and without moderation in such a vice.” The same reservation in such cases are found in Chrysostom.
Just as an old man who yields to the characteristic defects of his age can be a test for any family, those men who have devoted a lifetime to the service of God and his brothers, real elders, are the most precious gift a community can long for.
Among the virtues that stand out among the elders of the desert there is first of all one that constitutes the fullness of the old age within the plan of God: it is the capacity, or rather, the gift of spiritual fatherhood. “I have a Father of monks in my diocese,” says the bishop of Tentyris, speaking to St. Athanasius of Pachomius, and since he is a man of God, I wish you to establish him over all the monks of my territory as superior and priest.” This fatherhood of Pachomius was derived from his acute awareness of being a servant of God: “I am the servant of your Father,” explains the founder of the cenobitic life to young Theodore. The long years of Pachomius’s life prior to the reception of his first novices are a continuous preparation for this fatherhood. It reveals itself in many ways, first of all because of the capacity to console, to communicate to the afflicted brother the joy of the Holy Spirit: “The man of God (Pachomius) was careful to go through the monasteries, strengthening those who were afflicted by various temptations. And he taught them to overcome them by remembering God and gave them all kinds of useful prescriptions for the soul.” The same thing is verified by Theodore: “The abbot Theodore was established in his office and in all the monasteries the brothers were happy about this news, especially those who knew him from the beginning as a true son of Abbot Pachomius and knew that his word had grace and power to heal a troubled soul.”
The dignity of spiritual doctors who conferred the capacity to console to the Fathers of the desert, however, does not, in their opinion, exempt them from service, a virtue that is especially moving in the elderly. For this reason the sacrament of fraternal diaconia, which is the washing of the feet, occupied an important place in monastic spirituality. According to an anonymous apothegm “washing the feet is a job that according to the custom is fulfilled by the elders of the monastery.” However, the elders were not satisfied with the repeated fulfilment of this rite of the Last Supper, but they translated it into their daily lives in a thousand ways: “The abbot Isaac once said: When I was young I lived with the abbot Cronios. He never ordered me to do a job, to think that he was old and shaky; but he himself got up and served me and everyone.” “An old man said: Our Fathers used to go to the cells of younger brothers who wanted to live as loners … And if by chance they found someone sick or tempted, they would take him to church; they poured water (blessed) upon him and prayed for the sick; in that way he healed.” In the First Greek Life of Pachomius there is an impressive passage in which we see Pachomius as servant of the novices even in to their material needs. He himself recommends this practice to Theodore the Alexandrine in an admirable didascalia of the spirit of service that culminates with the words: “Take care of the sick as of yourself. Practice continence and carry the cross more than them, because you have the rank of Father. Be the first to respect the rules imposed on the brothers, so that they also respect them.”
Finally, among the virtuous elders, a quality that makes them particularly kind to men and similar to God, is healthy indulgence, compassion and comprehension. “It is good to be indulgent with the novices at the beginning,” observes Pachomius, “just as with a newly planted tree with which care is taken and watered until the novice takes root by faith.”
This quality of affectionate patience also shines in the old man who proposed to another who was younger: “Let us live together, brother.” But the boy replied: “Father, I am a sinner, I cannot live with you.” “Yes, we can,” insisted the old man. This was a very chaste man, who did not tolerate being told that a monk had impure thoughts. The young man then said: “Leave me a week and we will talk again.” After a week, the old man went to where the brother lived. But he, wishing to know his character, said to him: “Father, I sinned with a woman.” The old man asked without flinching: “Do you want to repent?” And as the other promised, saying: “Well, then I will carry half of your sin.” The young man replied: “Now I know we can live together.” And they did until death.
Physical age and spiritual age
We must take into account that the texts we have studied make a distinction between a physical and a spiritual age, so that not every old man is aged by virtue, nor is every young man immature. What is without doubt, decisive is, the spiritual age. By this verification we derives the so-called “law of the oldest,” so emphasised in the RB. In other words, as the entrance to the monastery means the beginning of one’s spiritual age, this entrance is the one that decides your order in the community. One who entered earlier has precedence over one who entered later, because it is assumed that having lived longer in the monastery the will also have more spiritual experience. Therefore, one younger physically, but one that entered earlier, precedes someone who is older, to the one that entered after him. “To someone who asks to enter the monastery and wants to live there, Cassian says, … henceforth he should not care about his age or the number of his years, … he should not be disparaged to submit even to the youngest, convinced of his condition as … an apprentice in Christ’s militia.”
A similar situation was also faced by Basil in his Rules when he made the following warnings to a younger brother in charge of an older one: “A brother in charge of instructing an older one should behave as if he were fulfilling an assignment received from his Master, in fear of incurring the condemnation of the one who said: ‘Cursed is he who negligently executes the work of the Lord,’ and keeps himself from falling, by pride, under the law of the devil.”
In embracing monastic life one is born again, one starts from scratch; so what causes a monk to be called and considered as an elder is the time he has spent in the “school of the service of the Lord,” that is, his spiritual wealth and not his white hair, even if both things usually come conjointly. Speaking of young Silvano, Abbot Pachomius said: “By age, by asceticism and by science, you are his parents, but because of his deep humility and his purity of conscience he is great.” According to Cassian that which constitutes true wealth is not white hair, but the zeal that has been displayed by the youth and the work that he has done.” A young man capable of speaking wisely is an old man, because spiritual wisdom reveals spiritual age: “Abbot Joseph once said that one day they were sitting with Abbot Poemen, he spoke of Agathon calling him Abbot. Then we told him: ‘If he is so young, why do you call him abbot?’ And Poemen answered: ‘Because his mouth causes us to call him abbot.’ These examples teach us to reciprocate the terms “young” and “old” and to value the time a man has spent in the monastery as a possible indication of his spiritual age.
Conflict between the generations and the rupture of tradition
The monastic texts, as we see, do not grant any privilege or preference to any age; but they are unanimous about the disastrous result that occurs when young and old are locked in themselves, stop cultivating their values and peculiar virtues and allow their typical faults to prevail instead, scandalous of course to the opposing party.
Sometimes it seems as though the responsibility of the generational conflict is attributed to the elderly, particularly because of their considered predisposition toward jealousy and envy. One of the most representative cases of this type of confrontation occurred in the Pachomian Thebaïd: “In those days Pachomius called Theodore and said: ‘When the brothers leave the refectory this afternoon, entrust your service to someone else, and come to the where we are gathered for the Sunday catechesis.’ Later, when Theodore came to the catechism, Pachomius said to him: ‘Stand in the midst of the brothers and tell them the word of the Lord.’ It was the place where Pachomius himself used to speak to the community. Obeying this order Theodore, against his desire, stood up and began to teach according to what the Lord inspired him. Everyone was seated, including Abbot Pachomius, who listened as if he were one of the brothers. However, some of the older monks were irritated by their pride and went to their rooms so as not to hear him; because in terms of human age, the speaker was younger. “Pachomius did not notice during the conference, but once finished, he spoke and referred to the case with severe reflections, saying that those who had left the room in those circumstances “they made themselves strangers” to the mercies of God. “If they do not regret their outburst of pride, it will be difficult for them to achieve Life.”
The elderly are equally culpable in the case of other defects, “An old man had a proven virtuous disciple. One day when he was in a bad mood, he placed her at the door.” Another elder had a bad time bringing his novice because of his own fondness for wine. One who lived near Alexandria, in the so-called “eremitic” cells, literally guided his young woman to martyrdom, because “he was extremely arbitrary and devoid of patience. He insulted her like a dog every day …, he spat in her face and almost every day he placed her at the door.” In all these dramas in the wilderness, the conflict did not reach its ultimate consequences thanks to the angelic patience of the young.
But young people were not always so angelic. Our sources do not ignore many cases in which the contest was born in the youth sector: “An old man had a boy as a companion. Seeing him doing a bad deed the old man told him once: ‘Do not do that.’ But the young man did not obey him. The old man did not worry about the thing and did not become judge of the fault. However, the boy locked the door of the pantry and left the old man without food for three days. Not even then did he say, ‘Where are you? What are you doing outside?’ A neighbour noticed the silent conflict and asked: “What about your young brother who takes so long?” To which the old man responded with a gesture that we can imagine somewhat between magnanimity and resignation: “He will return when he feels like it.” Abbot Poemen, on the other hand, had a younger brother who, with his impertinences, “afflicted and paralysed” him, a very graphic expression to indicate the impediment that the existence of restless and brazen young people can have in a community.
Equally among the consecrated virgins there are usually certain clashes, although not always in circumstances as aggressive as the one narrated in the Lausiac History, in which a novice unjustly defamed was thrown into the river and drowned; for which the informer, took a rope, and hanged herself. Fortunately such melodramas were not common among ancient nuns.
The disappointments suffered by the elders on the part of the younger generation gave rise to more than a pessimistic reflection on the future of monasticism, like that of the old man who observed with a sigh: “The prophets wrote books; our Fathers who came after them studied these writings a lot; Then the successors learned them by heart. At last came this generation that currently exists; she has written all the wisdom on papers and parchments and has left it unused in libraries.” Abbot Poemen, for his part, notes with disenchantment: “After the third generation of Skete and Abba Moses, the brothers do not make more progress.” No less fatalistic is the sentence of an anonymous monk: “The present generation does not care about today, but about tomorrow,” which highlights the absence of evangelical spirit in young people. In the group of elders who one day was meeting with Abbot Ischirion, “making predictions about future generations,” the balance naturally proved favorable to veterans of asceticism: “We have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The question arose about how those who came after them. The sentence had been unanimous: “Well, they will try to reach half of our works.” As regards the grandchildren and monastic great-grandchildren, Ischirion said: “The men of that generation will not make an effort at all and will be tempted, but those who are approved at that (calamitous) time will be considered greater than us and our Fathers.”
The humour contained in so many of the conflicts that we have narrated should not deceive us about the scope of these clashes. For the one who looks from afar, as happened to the editors of the apothegms and happens to us, every war can seem a story of Lilliput, not to mention that compared to the majesty of God all sin has something small and ridiculous . But finally we end up in an even more serious fact: that the disengagement within a monastery between elders and youngsters can produce the interruption of that flow of life that is the spiritual tradition. The treasure acquired by some through a long life of adoration and service, because of this conflict remains sterile and irretrievably lost for others. The elderly begin to feel complex of bachelors and young people feel orphaned. Pachomius is the most alive conscience he had of this tragedy. In a prayer rapture, as it used to happen while working, he glimpsed the future destructions and sufferings of future generations because of that spiritual discontinuity that we already pointed out. The impact of this vision must have been very great, because when the abbot revealed it to the community “everyone was crying, in great fear. ‘I have conscience’ – said Pachomius finally – ‘that after my death the fate of the brothers will be terrible, if they do not find someone who can console them in the Lord as is necessary, and pluck them from their troubles.’ According to this the evil of the conflict and the fraternal rupture could only be corrected by the active presence of spiritual fathers.
Also the disciple of Pachomius, Theodore, was distressed by the fact that “many monks (of the new generations) began to move away from the elder brothers in their way of life.” This desolation made him fasting, watching, praying and visiting silently at night the graves of the brothers. He also went to the tomb of Pachomius, praying that the abyss between yesterday and tomorrow would not open even more.
Of the same tenor is the consideration of an anonymous elder: “When I remember the brothers of that time who followed the Lord, I see that they had a fervent spirit and that the word of the Lord was in their mouths. But today, when I think about the warmth of the brothers and the strange words (to their state) that they proffer, I feel like a man exiled in a foreign country, where he does not recognise himself.”
This suffering of the most lucid Fathers of the Thebaid reveals the magnitude of the intergenerational problem hidden behind small quarrels – or that seem to us such -, and the extreme difficulty of maintaining the complementarity of young and old, which is the conditio sine qua non of a living tradition.
The holy koinonìa of young and old
If the generational conflict occurs first of all when the typical defects of each age prevail, the pleasant and constant fraternity between old and young is built on the contrary when both manage to develop their own virtues, in other words, when each one is faithful to the age that the Spirit assigns to him in God’s plan. Hence the fundamental importance that the doctrine of vices and virtues has always had for monasticism. The testimonies of a cordial coexistence between the brothers of very different ages and the practice of reconciliation to overcome the inevitable tensions, are numerous in the ancient monastic literature and show an irresistible charm.
Cassian, after having criticised in a long passage those elders “whose grey hairs serve the enemy to deceive the young,” and the damage they can cause in youth, hastens to exalt in what follows the advantages of the coexistence of the two ages, even when certain faults occur and to illustrate it resorts to nothing less than the example of Samuel and the priest Helí: God wanted the young prophet, “whom he had called to live in his intimacy, was formed by a man who he had offended, for the sole reason that he was an old man … Samuel’s vocation God had reserved for himself; his formation, however, He wanted to entrust to the priest Helí.”
But he is the Father of the anchorites, Saint Anthony the abbot, so happy in his way of dealing with young people, the first to recognise the value of this generational exchange when in his mature age he confesses to his disciples: “It is good to exhort each other in faith and encourage us through exchanges. You as children bring to your Father what you know and I, your elder brother, give you what experience has taught me.” We can say that with this declaration dialogue was instituted in the monasteries.
This dialogue is not made only by words and meetings – amply witnessed both in the Life of Saint Anthony and in that of Saint Pachomius – but, first of all, by mutual patience. We have already met that old man in a bad mood who had thrown his disciple out of the cell, but now we are interested in the continuation of the story: «The disciple sat outside and when later the old man opened the door he found it right there. Then the vice prostrated before him and said: “You are my Father, because your humility and your patience have disarmed my bad character. Come in, for now you are the elder and the Father and I, the young man and the disciple. By your way of acting you have overcome my old age.”»
It could also happen the other way around: that the old man had to deal with a vicious young man. It is the case of that “great old man,” from whom a young man stole “everything he possessed.” Instead of getting upset, the teacher made the magnanimous reflection: “I think that brother needs those things” and he began to work twice as much to feed the thief. When he was about to die, he called him, kissed his hands and said: “Brother, I thank those hands, since because of them I will now enter the kingdom of heaven.” Also in this case the patience worked the total conversion of the other.
A beautiful example of mutual love, beyond human conflicts, is provided by Abbot Poemen “who lived in Skete with his two brothers; the youngest bothered them until the affliction. Therefore he said to his other brother: ‘This young man paralyses us; get up and leave here.’ And they left. When the young man saw that they were late in coming back, he realised that they had gone far away and began to run quickly behind them shouting. Abbot Poemen said: ‘Let us wait for the brother because he is afflicted.’ When the young man had reached them he prostrated himself before them saying: ‘Where are you going? Are you going to leave me alone?’ The old man said: ‘We’re leaving because you bother us too much.’ The young man said: ‘Yes, yes, let’s go all together where you want.’ The old man, recognising the absence of evil in him, said to his brother: ‘Let’s go back because he did not do those things with full conscience, but the devil made a bad move.’ And the three returned and lived together in the same place.”
As the last example of this mutual patience built not on idyllic daydreams, but on sufferings redeemed by virtue, let us return to the case of that arbitrary and patient old man who lived in the eremitical cells, on the outskirts of Alexandria. “A young brother heard about him and made the following pact with God: ‘Lord, for all the evil I did I will live and persevere with that old man in order to serve him and seek his rest.’ God, seeing the patience and humility of the brother, mistreated daily by the elder, after six years had spent with him, showed him in dreams a fearsome personage carrying a large parchment; half of it was covered in writing, the other was erased. And he said: ‘See that the Master has already reduced your debt by half; fight for the rest. There was another spiritual elder who lived in the neighbourhood and who noticed how the old man got out of control and tormented the young man at all times and how the young man prostrated himself before him and the old man denied reconciliation. Every time the spiritual elder met the young brother he asked him: ‘What’s new, my son? How was your day? Have we made any progress? Have we erased something from the scroll?’ The brother, knowing that the old man was a spiritual man, did not hide anything from him, but responded by saying: ‘Yes, Father, I have suffered a little.’ If, from time to time, a day went by without the old man having insulted him, spit on him or thrown out of the cell, the young man would go to the dusk where the neighbour would tell him, moaning: ‘Woe to me, Father, the day has I’ve been bad, I have not won anything, but I spent it in tranquility. ‘After another ten years the young brother died; and the spiritual elder said: ‘I have seen him, he was with the martyrs, praying with great confidence to God for his old man and saying: Lord, just as you took pity on me through him, also take pity on him in consideration of your mercy and me, your server.’ Forty days later God took the old man to the place of peace.”
As we see in these and other examples, if the monastic life is not free of tensions, peace and reconciliation always have the last word. And not only the last … In this world of wars and painful human conflicts the peace and strength of the Gospel can lead to situations like the following: “Young John of Thebes, disciple of Abbot Amoes, spent twelve years serving that Elder while he was sick. I stayed next to him, sitting on the mat.” Amoes was a dry character and did not pay much attention to the young man’s diligence. Nevertheless, “when it was time to die and being surrounded by the other elders, he took the young man’s hand and said:” May God save you, may God save you, may God save you.” And he entrusted him to the elders saying: “He is an angel, not a man.”
Mutual consideration produces a circuit of life whose benefit is felt not only by those directly affected, but also by neighbours. This is particularly noticeable in the service of the sick, since reciprocity was established more vigorously there: the benevolence and blessing of the elder was answered by the young man’s service. This happened in the case of an old man from Skete who fell ill and suddenly felt a craving for fresh bread. A young brother, “who was a good runner,” decided to make the patient happy by fulfilling his wishes. Running he went to look for the longed for bread in the city. “The elders of the neighbourhood were amazed at the sight of the fresh bread and the young man’s thoughtfulness,” but the patient felt delicate scruples and, dramatising the situation a bit, refused to eat the bread with the argument that “it was the blood of his brother.” But the elderly neighbours insisted that for God’s sake he should eat that bread, which he finally did, to the happiness of the people around and the young man’s reward …
The supernatural camaraderie is also established when both the elder and the young man interpret the signs of God. After Pachomius received in Tabenna the vocation to build and organise a great monastery, he returned to his Father Palamon and told him about the event. “He was sad (at the prospect of separation), because he looked at him as his true son; Pachomius, for his part, tried to persuade him. At last the two went to the place (of the revelation). Having built a hut, that is to say a small hermitage, the old saint said to him: ‘I think that order comes from God. Let’s agree, then, not to live apart from each other in the future, to visit each other, you once and I again.’ And this is how they did it while the true athlete of Christ lived, Palamon.”
Related or similar, based on a common spiritual sensitivity, we find with Abbot Moses and his young brother Zechariah. Among them, the following dialogue took place: «The abbot Moses said to Brother Zechariah: “Tell me what I should do.” Upon hearing those words the other threw himself at his feet saying: “Father, are you the one who is questioning me?” The old man replied: “Believe me, my son, Zachariah, I have seen the Holy Spirit descend upon you; that’s what forces me to ask you that question.” Then Zachariah took off his cap and trampled on it saying: “If one is not trampled like that, he can not be a monk.”»
Also in the nuns of Egypt we have a testimony of the “likeable” relationship, in the true sense of the word, between an abbess (Amma) named Talis and her disciples. It is in the city of Antinopoli where that spiritual mother “had eighty years of asceticism.” But Palladio admires even more is the record fact of the sixty nuns who lived under his motherly direction “loved her in such a way that the monastery was never locked by key, as it happened with other monasteries, as they were kept there by their love for Talis.”
The lived experience of this harmony produced in the ancient monastic literature true directories on the mutual relations between elders and young people, as is chapter 63 of the RB, which has inspired us in the present work. The Rule of Paul and Stephen presents the following didascalía on the subject, which is not only a theoretical statement, but also reflects a certain picture of life: “That the elderly treat the youngest with paternal affection and when there is need of order something do not do it with excited animosity and clamorous shouts, but rather order the necessary things for the common usefulness confidently, with the calm simplicity and the authority that confers a virtuous life, that the younger ones obey the most elderly with sincere subjection and do not respond with anger to anything, or deny with disdainful spirit and negligent ear to the one who commands, but unanimously agree to rush into the realisation of both the spiritual work and the work of the earth.”
To produce this vivifying exchange, the initiative must start with the elders; that’s what all our sources agree on. It is not primarily the veneration of the elders by the young that causes the benevolence and charity of the elders, but the other way around: to the extent that the elders give an example of holy life and doctrine, young people they will feel stimulated to respond with their devotion and devotion. If John the Baptist, according to Luke 1:17, as the new Elijah will convert the heart of the parents to their children, in the prophet Malachi it can be read that the hearts of the children will also turn to their fathers (Malachi 4:6). Veneration (of the young) is a reflection of charity (of the parents), not the other way around. This is how ancient monastic literature is not so full of complaints about the failures of the youth of its time, as about the absence of holiness, example and doctrine among the elders. The iuniores diligere must precede so that the seniores venerare can be given. It is in that ideal order that we are going to deal with the respective themes.
The root of all appreciation for young people is in fatherhood. To the extent that the seniors are mature men (and not large children, as Cassian says), that is, true fathers, they can also pour pure affection on the younger ones. Significantly, it is the Vita Pachomii that insists more on the idea of this paternity together with the capacity for friendship. Pachomius was the “father of the monks” by antonomasia, but at the same time the great and unforgettable friend of his disciples. According to the great Theban abbot, one became the father of others “by age, asceticism and knowledge (of God),” but all this is a gift and prolongation of the fatherhood of God: “I never thought that I was the father of the brothers, because only God is Father,” he said on the same occasion.
From the reading of our sources it seemed to us that this love for young people that springs from the fatherhood of the mature man is expressed mainly in four points: the dedication to the formation of young people, the attitude of service, the appreciation of values and the fact of giving confidence and responsibility.
The first natural channel of paternity is, then, in the tasks of spiritual direction or initiation to the monastic life of young people. “The first request of the elder and the main subject of his teachings-since he is trying to introduce the novice along the path that leads to the highest peaks of perfection-will be that he learns to overcome his will,” observes Cassian book IV (8-9) of the Institutes, where he describes the novitiate. The senior responsible for the novice must not only love him by teaching him, but also by sharing with him his life and his ascetic endeavours. When Pachomius surrenders young Silvano to the care of the venerable Psenamon, he tells him: “For the love of God, take care of this young man and bare a part in all of the tests with him until he is safe..”
Such love does not exclude the trials and severe reprimands: “The abbot Isaiah said: ‘Nothing more useful to the one who begins the monastic life than insults. The young man who bears the insults is like a tree that is watered every day’.” The Rule of St. Augustine, the same, with such a broad and kind spirit, he does not ignore the rigour of this point: “If the reprimands to be directed to the youngest brothers by the demands of the discipline, sometimes you are forced to speak loudly to them, even when you are conscientious of having exceeded the measure, you are not required to ask for forgiveness, unless those who are bound to submit an excess of humility unnerve the authority of (spiritual) direction. But, nevertheless, ask forgiveness from the Master of all, who knows with what benevolent affection you surround even those whom you reject perhaps excessively. It is not among you carnal affections, but of spiritual affection.” The doctor of Hippo could not have spoken more clearly or precisely. So to reprimand is as essential the exercise of fraternal love that Pachomius does not hesitate to let himself be corrected by more young people, thereby giving them a living example.  The austere teaching of the spiritual Father thus pervades the soul of the young disciple forever, preparing him so that in his time he will in turn become a spiritual father: “As in the case of purple, the first tincture never passes,” abbot Isaiah declared on the teachings and experiences of the novitiate.
Nothing had to do, then, with sentimentality or the practice of an outpouring of charity in the tasks of spiritual formation of the youngest, as it is noted in a famous sentence by Isidore, priest of the desert: “It is necessary that the young disciples love them as parents who are truly their teachers and fear them as their superiors and do not lose their fear because of love, nor obscure their love out of fear.”
The second channel through which the charity of the elderly flows towards the youngest are fraternal services, which the superiors do not evade, as the evangelical nobleness also obligates. As always, it is Pachomius in whom we most notice this spirit of deferential diakonia towards the brothers, even minors. Having been blessed by his obedience to the commission of God with the arrival of many novices, “it was he who prepared the table at lunchtime, he sowed the vegetables and watered them, he responded when someone knocked on the door and if any of the brothers were sick he personally cared for him and assisted him at night.” The biographer of Pachomius observes that this somewhat unusual situation occurred because “the novice brothers had not yet reached a willingness to become servants of one another.” From this we can deduce that Pachomius saw no other way of instilling that evangelical disposition than by giving an example himself. But, moreover, the Father of the coenobites gives another reason, revealing his fatherly love towards young people: “The object of your vocation, brothers – he tells them – must be the end of your work: to memorise the psalms, to meditate on your heart the other parts of the Bible, first of all the gospel. I, on the other hand, by becoming a slave of God and yours, according to the order of God, I find my rest.” Fraternal charity was so embodied within the spirit of service of Pachomius’ being, his usual language being Coptic, he came to study Greek “with ardour,” as his Life says, “in order to be able to animate often” the young Alexandrine Theodore. It is not difficult to find many other examples of this type among the leaders of ancient monasticism.
There is no true charity without appreciation of the brother’s values. Also in this sense the ancient abbots knew how to demonstrate that they possessed it. So the old man to whom Abbot Pastor had come in his youth to consult about three problems – I had forgotten one, but then, remembering him in his house, he had remade the long way to the old man’s cell to reconsider everything – he said full of affection, seeing the zeal of the young shepherd to sort out matters in the rule: “Yes, you are a true shepherd of the flock and your name will be pronounced in all the land of Egypt.”
This mentality to recognise the values of the youngest, thus promoting his desire for holiness, was also demonstrated by the elderly Serapion (while the text in PG 65 has Carion ), when he verified that he had indeed done more corporal asceticism than his disciple Zacarias, but had not achieved the measure of his humility and his silence. Macarius of Egypt also had a similar experience with two young men who had looked over his shoulder at first, because they seemed “delicate and formed among riches” and of which only one had a beard, while the other “wanted to have it.” In a long story Macarius narrates his conversion, caused by the luminous example of sanctity that these young people gave him. Later, both of them died, he used to take his visitors to the cell of the disappeared to declare: “Come and see the sanctuary (martyrion) of these young foreigners.”
Elsewhere we see that Pachomius “cared about the life of the novices in every way and that he was happy when young people progressed in virtue and grew in faith.” The warmth of that fatherly appreciation made them “emulate each other in doing good.” Faced with the excessive hardness of Theodore with his carnal brother Paphnutius, Pachomius gives him a piece of advice typical of his jovial heart: The novice must be respected and appreciated in the same manner as a newly planted tree.
As the fourth aspect of Iuniores diligere we have pointed out the paternal magnanimity that impels us to give confidence to the son, to share responsibilities with him. Pachomius was not unaware that this disposition, at the same time that he expressed his appreciation for the young man, fostered in him a sense of responsibility. When his disciple Theodore was only thirty years old he appointed him superior of none other than Tabennas, his first foundation, retiring himself to Pabau (Faou ), a secondary monastery. The biographer of Pachomius expressly observes that he had taken such a step “having recognised (in Theodore) the required spiritual qualities.” The new abbot reacts with equal magnanimity, since the trust placed in him made him more involved with his father: “Promoted to that rank, he behaved as if not promoted. The word of God had made him pass through the fire and strengthened in view of the meditation of the heavenly things. He put all his zeal in loving God with all his heart, according to his commandment. And progressing himself, edified the brothers, because his word was also full of grace.”
Pachomius had equal generosity with Orsisio, whom he established as his superior in the monastery of Chenoboskion (Schenisit), his second foundation, even though the murmur had immediately risen that he was still a “novice” to receive such dignity. It is not necessary to make explicit that such criticisms came from the ranks of the seniores. Pachomius, in any case, responds with fine irony: “We must not believe that the kingdom of heaven belongs only to the elders,” and continues seriously: “A brother, no matter how old he may be, if he murmurs against another brother is not old, even more: he has not even laid the foundations of monastic life. God asks nothing of man other than adoration and charity; Now, charity does not harm our neighbour. I tell you: with the progress that Orsisio has made, he is a golden lamp in the house of the Lord and the word of Scripture will be applied by him: ‘I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.’” (2 Corinthians 11:2) This deep trust, deposited by the eldest in the youngest, made “the abbot Orsysius in the midst of the brothers try to imitate the life of Abbot Pachomius.”
All this wealth of interpersonal relationships naturally presupposes mature personalities, of balanced affectivity. Knowing this, the ancient monks were very sensitive to the danger of a possible emotional imbalance, even more so of unhealthy affections in the relations between seniores and juniores. There was a rule on which much emphasis was placed: the inconvenience of the presence of children of immature age in the monastery. Against the beardless the Desert Fathers had a real precautionary measure. Known is the inability of adolescents to endure long-term reality such as silence, meditation and monastic discipline in general, because this is a discipline for adults. Their presence, especially when there are several, can spoil the atmosphere and life of a whole monastery. The damage rises to a point when one of the “elders,” by an influence that is not necessarily abnormal, but that in any case was going to be delirious, stands guard over some of these unsettling youngsters. The warnings of our texts in this sense are repeated with insistence: “the appearance of women” are not suitable for a serious monastic life. The precise motive of such disgust is almost never indicated, but we could risk some explanations:
- The children create a climate of hustle and bustle: “If any of the brothers are caught laughing or playing too much with the children – says a rule of Pachomius – if he has friendships with the younger ones, he will be warned three times to break those ties and remember the monastic discipline and the fear of God. If he does not amended, he will be corrected as he deserves, with the most severe punishment.”
- Children, by demanding attention, care and vigilance, distract the monk from his specific tasks and in this way can become an obstacle to his spiritual progression. That is why the sentence is very absolute: “The Fathers said that it was not God who led children to the desert, but Satan, to ruin those who want to live piously..”
- Children can cause disturbances in communities by becoming, without realising it, the cause of many community disasters. Abbot Isaac opined that “four communities of Skete had been deserted by fault of the children.”
- The frequent mention of children and adolescents in relation to the theme of the devil suggests perhaps more serious dangers (pederasty). This is stated in an apothegm: “The elders said: ‘More than women, children among monks are the weapons of the devil.” Another saying states: “Where there is wine and children there is no need for Satan.” In a more graphic and scathing way, another apothegm is expressed: “The elders said that one day the devil went to knock at the door of a monastery. A child came out to take care of him. Seeing him the devil said: ‘Since you are here, I am the other.”
Faced with these texts, at first glance so negative and shocking for our mentality, three clarifications would have to be made: 1. The word paidíon (παιδῐ́ον) with which the Greek original designates young children, also includes adolescents. Their presence could attract to them and their problems the exaggerated affectivity of the elderly, incapacitating them to establish a fruitful connection with the mature disciples who are the iuniores. This is what Abbot Abraham calls a “superfluous struggle.” 2. The prevention of the Desert Fathers against children does not mean that they ignore the evangelical doctrine of spiritual childhood, quite the contrary. 3. So much Pachomius, like the Master, like Benedict and other authors of monastic rules accept the presence of children in the monastery; but they create for them a special regime and discipline that serve to alleviate the inconveniences that the anchorites saw in the cloistered children.
What immediately comes to mind when listening to the precept of “venerating the elders,” are certain signs of deference, which in all cultures the younger ones pay tribute to older men and women. In the RB it is chapter 63:10-17 that embodies this attitude under the general motto of Romans 12:10: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” But also Isaiah of Gaza, so similar to Saint Benedict in matters of monastic courtesy, has numerous precepts about the specific way of honouring the elders.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to impose limits on the scope of the precept to venerate the elderly at the mere level of courtesy. Like the precept of love for the young, that of veneration for the elderly has different channels of expression.
The ancient monks included in their veneration the desire to imitate the virtues seen in the elderly. Taking someone as a living example is a very deep way of respecting them. When the young Anthony begins his ascetic career, he is inspired above all by the living model of the elders: “An old man lived in the neighbouring village and from his youth he led a solitary life. Anthony saw him and rivalled him in good.” The same source tells us that Anthony, like a bee which searches for nectar in different flowers, was inspired by the different virtues that he saw shine in his models.
So important is this imitation of venerated elders that their virtues become a rule that is not suitable to be exceeded: “The means of easily reaching true discretion,” Cassian teaches, it consists in marching in the footprints of the elders. We do not have the pretentiousness neither to innovate, nor to trust, for whatever, to our own senses; but let us always walk the path that his teachings which his holy life have taught us.” On the contrary, there is nothing that can make the monk fall more easily than contempt of his advice and confidence in his own judgment. This is the wisdom that the Rule of the Master and that of Benedict, following Cassian, summed up in the so-called eighth degree of humilities, for a monk to: “do nothing except what is authorised by the common rule of the monastery, or the example of his seniors.”
There is another degree of humility closely linked to the veneration of the seniores and is the fifth: the opening of the young man to the old man, especially to his spiritual father. Perhaps there is no recommendation more repeated than this in the primitive monastic literature. Spiritual introversion is always considered a real danger, as well as a lack of love and respect for the greater. In the Life of Pachomius it is related that “none of the brothers stopped confessing to the abbot Theodore in particular his state of soul and each one told him how he was fighting against the enemy.” The solitary and problematic young man, who prefers to devour himself inwardly rather than confide in an older one, and who, due to his internal tension, is difficult to coexist with, generally also lacks a respect for the elderly.
The step that follows the opening of the heart is obedience to the advice of the elders, another form of the seniores venerare. Also this obedience must be understood as wrapped in a reverential feeling. Isaiah of Gaza advises that once the opening to the elders is done “do not listen to other opinions,” but that what the elders say will be done with faith, “and God will give peace.” In the same line is the anonymous statement: “In the young man who begins to convert, God does not seek anything other than the work of obedience.”
Another very specific aspect of the expression of veneration is the service of the elderly, especially when they are sick, as the RB masterfully expresses in chapter 37: “Since their lack of strength must always be taken into account, they should certainly not be required to follow the strictness of the rule with regard to food, but should be treated with kindly consideration and allowed to eat before the regular hours.” Fructuosus of Braga sums up this attitude of reverential service in chapter 23 of his Rule: “Monks who have aged in the monastery with a righteous and godly life should be placed apart in a more spacious cell, with servants chosen by the abbot; and there, when they are weak and decrepit, they have to prepare the food at the time of sext.” From Pachomius it is said that “in the presence of the elderly and the sick … he was overwhelmed with compassion and cared for their lives in every way.”
The concrete practice of all these forms of veneration is creating in the monasteries an atmosphere of great human gentleness. This is illustrated by the story of that old man from Thebaid who had a very virtuous young disciple. The old man used to instruct his disciple in the evening, teaching him what was useful for his soul. After having made the exhortation, they prayed their prayer together and then sent him to sleep. One day the old man, being tired, fell asleep while talking to his brother. The young man waited patiently for the old man to wake up to pray together, as was his custom; but the old man slept soundly. After having waited a long time, the disciple was assaulted by the tempting thought of going to sleep without having received permission; but he controlled himself, resisted the thought and did not retreat. After another hour, he again felt like sleeping, but this time he also remained firm. This happened to him seven times and he was always able to master his thinking. A good part of the night had passed when the old man woke up and found the young disciple sitting next to him. “You’ve stayed here until now without leaving!” He said surprised. “Well, Father, I stayed because you had not given me permission to leave.” “But why did not you wake me up?” “I did not dare to touch you, for fear of causing you an upset.” They got up, then, and began to recite the prayers of the Vigil. And when the prayer was over, the old man gave the signal for rest.
When veneration, through a long practice of charity, has reached its fullness, words and even gestures cease, to leave room for an entirely contemplative and mysterious silence, equivalent in the horizontal plane to what happens in the vertical when reaches the prayer of stillness: “Three brothers went to Abbot Anthony. The first two asked him about his thoughts and the salvation of the soul; but the third was completely silent, without raising any question. After a long time Abbot Anthony told him: “So many times you have come here and you have never asked me any questions!” The other replied: “One thing is enough for me, Father: SEEING.”»
The transmission of spiritual experience in the communities
The gospel is not only a good news to be announced, a doctrine that must be spread, but also a truth that must be lived (“to do,” as Saint John says). This truth, lived through years, constitutes the spiritual experience and when this experience of God in prayer and in the service of the brothers is lived communally, a wealth accumulates this term can be referred to as the Pauline term depositum. Normally this deposit does not remain inactive, but when it is transmitted to the next generation, it grows and, as it were, it yields interest. The younger generation, having the disposition to receive the spiritual inheritance of the elders, in turn enriches it with their own experience; although in the transmission one can attribute a certain loss in the flow (because there are unique and non-transmissible experiences), that which is lost is recovered from the new contributions of the youngest. This delicate process of life, repeated throughout the ages, is the tradition, the holy paradosis. It supposes, then, the existence of two poles, one the transmitter and the other a receiver; the latter in turn, to the extent that it currently only receives, will gradually become a transmitter. If one of the two poles fails and, as it were, short-circuits, the transmission stops. We have already witnessed this in Antiquity through numerous examples with the reasons that cause and the circumstances which can produce such an interruption in this life-giving spiritual current. Now we have to look at what the Fathers teach us regarding the process of keeping the transmission of this heritage alive.
1. The first precaution is the permanent cultivation in monasteries of the constituent values of the monastic life, or, to put it in words of Cassian: “Monasteries are not governed according to the opinion of each of those who renounce the world, but in accordance to the inheritances (successions) and traditions of the elders. (Only) so (the monasteries) remain or are founded to remain.” This basic thought, in our opinion, is formulated by Cassian with regard to the recent founding of a monastery in southern France and precisely because he wants this new foundation to remain, that is, to be stable and serious, he says that “the reason why he believes it necessary exposing what was formerly established by the Fathers and still kept by the servants of God throughout Egypt, is that this new monastery, novice in Christ, be educated from their earliest childhood in the oldest institutions of the first Fathers.”
Very close to the appreciation for these constituent traditions of the elders, we find, at least in Pacomian monasticism, the veneration for the memory of the founder, which, as is known, is considered by the decree Perfectae caritatis as one of the fundamental principles for an appropriate renewal. Of abbot Petronius, the immediate successor of Pachomius, it is said that during his brief term “he governed the brothers with the word of God and in memory of his Father.”
2. To set in motion the process of transmitting the patrimony, because the mere contemplation of these values is not enough, men are needed “instructed in all disciplines of the virtues,” spiritual elders capable of transmitting beneficial precepts. This condition applies especially to the superior of a community: “Nobody is chosen to govern a community, declares Cassian, if before presiding over a community he has not first learnt to obey, what he has to transmit his people and which he has practiced himself the rules of the elderly which he should teach to the youngest (iunioribus tradere).” The same requirement is established with respect to all those who must help the novice towards letting go of his own will: they must have lived in their youth what they later teach in their mature years. With this we have pointed out, then, the poles of transmission: the spiritual elders, the superior and the master of novices.
These two poles keep the process of paradosis alive by two means: the first, always, is that of example; in other words, in their lives they must have embodied the values that are presented to the community as supreme. Where there are elders who have “fatigued for a long time in the exercises of common life (ascesis),” there will also be young people willing to become “men who live true Life.” With this example, the aforementioned agents of the tradition are not exempt, even in their most advanced age, because when their forces begin to fail, their mere attitude must bear witness. Regarding the most invalid of a community, St. Basil the Great observes the following: “As long as they have strength, showing the activity of their zeal and give an example of all the observance. When their strengths are lacking, they live in such a state of mind that on their faces and in their attitude it appears as though they are convinced to be under the gaze of God and in the presence of the Lord, manifesting in their conduct those properties that the Apostle considers characteristics of charity: ‘Charity is patient and benevolent, it is not envious, it does not act at the wrong time, it does not inflate, it is not scornful, it does not seek its own interests, it is not irritated, it does not think badly, it is not happy about injustice, but rejoices in truth. It supports everything, believes everything, expects everything, suffers everything. Charity will never end’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). All this can be realised even with a weak body.”
Second in place only we mentioned as a catalyst the transmission of spiritual doctrine of the elders, superiors and formators of novices. Cassian graphically describes this process through teaching in his Institutions: “The elders who have during their lives witnessed so many falls and so many mistakes in the souls of monks, often talk about these things in their conferences, especially in order so as to instruct the young people. And often, while I listened to them speak and tell of their experiences, I had occasion to recognise in me more than once some feature of what they said in their conversations … I learned from them, without leaving my silence or giving to anyone news of my affairs, the cause of the vices which tormented me, as well as their effective remedy.”
There is a last point that stands out in this analysis of the transmission poles of tradition, and it is the need to take into account the spiritual age of the receiving agent. Pachomius expressly refers that “is not revealed to the brothers but contributes to faith and to their edification.”
3. As for the conditions of the receiving pole, that is, of the younger generation, our sources emphasise the first and unavoidable disposition of openness: the new converts who come to the monastery to seek God must not impose their way of life, their criteria or their ideas. Ancient monasticism does not admit that community life is built on the impulse of the “youth of today,” nor does it allow that, in view of each new candidate, the entire regime of coexistence and service to God is questioned again. In other words, the receiving pole must practice the 8th grade of humility in the RB, concerning which we have already spoken. The young person must understand that the authentic Gospel does not necessarily identify with the “new” and in contrast with the old on many occasions. “These words are hard.” Is it that old monasticism leaves no initiative to the young man? Do you not value the contribution of youth? Faced with the first question, it can be affirmed that in the perspective of the sources that we consulted, openness and docility were not identified with passivity. The young people we find in ancient monastic literature do not in any way give the impression of being timid, inhibited or lacking in spontaneity, quite the opposite in fact. Faced with the second question, it would have to be said precisely to make the contribution of youth fruitful and useful, it was considered necessary to purify it of its previous ambiguities and detritus. A spiritual father does not improvise: hence the long preparation in which young people were subjected in view of their future tasks. Those who are the receiving pole today will have to be tomorrow’s transmitters, as the principle of tradition demands.
4. The process of transmitting the patrimony is not made between isolated individuals, but requires a favorable vital medium, which is the community. Hence the cultivation of community values (doctrine of vices and virtues) in Pachomius, Basil and Benedict, to mention only the main. But neither the Father of the anchorites, abbot Anthony, is unaware of its priceless value to the community. When the disciples of Pachomius went to visit the great solitary one day, whom they greeted as “light of this world,” he answered them: “I am going to convince you by my reply. At the beginning, when I became a monk, there was no cenobium to educate the souls of others: each of the monks practiced asceticism individually and in isolation. It was your Father, who with the inspiration of the Lord, created this beautiful institution.” What Anthony calls “education of souls” is precisely the process of tradition that we are talking about. The better and more deeply the community lives, the more intense the flow of holy paradosis will be between the generations.
The starting point of our investigation has been the desire to investigate the deep reason of the vitality of certain communities and the spiritual anemia of others, whether they never came to flower or, after fortunate years, have experienced painful ruptures. Such a problem can be addressed from several angles; we have preferred to consult the sources. That is why above all we wanted them to speak for themselves, even if sacrificing the systematisation of thought a bit. More than an elaborated thesis we wished to present themes for reflection. Although many conclusions could be drawn from the revised material, we would like to highlight the following:
1. The non-intellectual nature of conflicts between young and old is striking. If there are clashes, it is not about doctrinal matters, nor about the general orientation of the monastic or particular life of the different tasks within it. There is no discussion about how to conduct a monastery or to fulfil certain offices within it. In other words: there are no objective divergences; With rare unanimity the sources place the origin of conflicts always from the depths of the human soul, attributing them to the lack of some virtue, to the emergence of some vice. In contrast to the modern tendency of objectifying and externalising all human conflicts, neglecting the psychological subjective aspect of the issue, the ancients emphasise precisely the psychoanalysis, with little interest in the objective “topic” that is discussed in the conflict. His descriptions of interpersonal relationships are radiographs, not photographs; being interested in the “intentions” and not so much the “reasons” and on this basis their judgment falls on the interior of man and not on his external realisations.
2. The monastic sources do not give rise to privilege in any of the ages. Both have their greatness and misery. The word “young” has neither a laudatory or praiseworthy sense, nor does the term “old” which is pejorative and, above all, neither of them has an absolute meaning, since there are old young and young old. The ideal is for the community to be composed of both, because they need each other. So a gerontocracy like a dictatorship in the noviciate can lead to a rapture of tradition, which usually means the death of the community.
3. It is necessary that the two generations know their typical defects and fight against them in the light of the traditional doctrine and that they know how to take advantage, on the other hand, of the virtues that the tradition discovers in them or that they wish to see developed in them. This in turn requires knowledge and acceptance of the old monastic psychology, later expanded and explored in greater depth by St. Thomas.
4. Above all failures and disappointments we must always bear in mind that the sources confirm that the healthy coexistence of different ages is not only possible, but has also produced the most beautiful fruits in the history of the monks. If with healthy realism they do not disguise the existence of conflicts within a community of consecrated persons, on the other hand they do not stop emphasising the mystery of reconciliation as an always renewing factor of human stagnation. Above all tensions should always prevail the optimism that exudes from the testimonies of the origins.
5. The principle Seniores venerare et iuniores diligere, more than a precept of fraternal courtesy is for us the gateway to a great mystery, that of a mutual appreciation and a mutual distribution that make possible the transmission of the spiritual patrimony, and this, in turn, constitutes the life of the communities and their chance of survival: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love as brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to everlasting life.” (RB 72, 4-12).
Las Condes – Los Toldos