‘Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die’ are words of Saint Benedict, not the newly resigned Pope Benedict XVI. They were written more than 1500 years ago. Let me suggest why these words from a Saint illuminate the resignation of this Pope.
Saint Benedict was born in Nursia, now known as Norcia in the Italian province of Umbria, circa 480. Saint Francis of Assisi was born in Umbria too. Umbria was most recently in the news because of the murder of Meredith Kercher in the town of Perugia and the subsequent trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.
Benedict is known as the founder of Western monasticism, in the sense that he crafted the rules by which monasteries organize themselves. They came to be known as the Rule of Saint Benedict, although it is a collection of hundreds of rules to govern the daily conduct of monks. It’s a work of great beauty and wisdom; a living document, still in use.
Benedict wrote the Rule, circa 529, at the monastery he founded, the Abbey of Monte Cassino. It sits atop a mountain overlooking the town of Cassino about 80 miles south of Rome. Benedict’s remains are there. He and his Rule are a constant presence to every Pope. Indeed Pope Benedict chose his name in part because of this presence:
The name “Benedict” also calls to mind the extraordinary figure of the great “Patriarch of Western Monasticism”, St Benedict of Norcia, Co-Patron of Europe … The gradual expansion of the Benedictine Order that he founded had an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity across the Continent. St Benedict is therefore deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace; he is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization. [source]
On February 28, the last day of his papacy, Pope Benedict flies to the retreat at Castel Gandolfo on the Alban Hills, overlooking Lake Albano, just outside Rome. On a clear day, he will be able to see Saint Benedict’s Abbey of Monte Cassino. When a new pope is elected, he will spend the rest of his days in a cloistered monastery inside the Vatican.
Let him contemplate this:
The Rule of Saint Benedict is both a penal code and a liturgical code. It combines spiritual teaching with practical regulations to govern the daily life of the monastery. The very first line of the Rule tells us: ‘It is called a rule because it regulates the lives of those who obey it.’
The central metaphor of the Rule is the 12-stepped ladder reaching from earth to heaven, which the monk, like the angels in Jacob’s dream, ascends or descends (7.6). He ascends by the lowliness of humility. He descends by the heights of exaltation.
We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend (7.9).
The ladder, then, is a ladder of humility, of unceasing discipline and submission to the Rule and the command of the Abbot, God’s representative. It is a means of working towards ‘that perfect love of God which casts out fear‘ (7.67, emphasis in original).
A rule is a straight edge, but it is also a measure. A monastery is a machinery of spiritual ascent, but it is also an observatory of conduct. The Rule, above all, is a device for measuring the moral worth of monks, a system of spiritual accountability. The Gaze of God is all pervasive. ‘Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be’ (4.48).
The Abbot, who is ‘believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery’, examines the monks on God’s behalf and ranks them according to their virtue. At judgement day monks are answerable to God (‘the most just of judges’, 3.11). God examines the Abbot too and holds him to account for the souls in his care ‘and indeed for his own as well’ (2.38).
And here is the problem with the resignation of Pope Benedict:
Just as the Abbot is God’s representative in the monastery, the Pope is God’s representative in the Vatican. God’s will ‘appointed’ him through the College of Cardinals. It is not a position a Pope can ‘resign’ from—not without torpedoing the foundations of the Christian faith.
This is why there is no precedent. It is not that it was considered ‘taboo’. Rather, it was not considered at all because it was unthinkable.
It was unthinkable because to resign a Pope must elevate himself above God. It is an act of exhaltation, of pridefulness, the very opposite of humility. And that’s what Pope Benedict XVI has done. He has assumed a position of superiority over God. In doing so, he has shot right down the ladder of humility. Either he was overcome with intellectual vanity, or he was pushed.
Hence the awkward silence from Catholic theologians.
Update Friday 15th February, 2013
The International Tribunal into Crimes of Church and State here offers an explanation of the resignation of Pope Benedict.
I find all this most persuasive, but read it for yourself. It’s compelling reading.
Note what the second post has to say about the Church and residential schools in Canada, and the fate of women in the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland.
Pope Benedict was ‘pushed’.