September 18, 2013
A central figure in the life of a Benedictine monastery is the cellarer. Hmmm. What does that have to do with me? I’m not a monk or nun and what the heck is a cellarer anyway? In Chapter 31 of his holy rule, St. Benedict clearly defines what kind of man the cellarer should be, and light bulbs went on when I read this section of a document that guided the lives of many beginning over 1600 years ago. I should care and it does have a lot to do with me and everyone else today who calls himself Christian. How?
The cellarer, called the “steward”, is the monk charged by the Abbot with the whole administration of all temporal things at the monastery. He is the one everybody must go to for food, clothing, tools, supplies, etc. Obviously, this is a person of power because he has authority over the distribution of earthly goods necessary to daily living, not unlike the head of a family today, the pastor of a parish, the boss at work, etc. In a way, most of us are cellarers because most of us have some charge of earthly goods in relation to others. We have now leapt from the 400s into the 21st century.
Attributes of the cellarer
As cellarer of the monastery let there be chosen from the community one who is wise, of mature character, sober, not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable, not offensive, not slow, not wasteful, but a God-fearing man who may be like a father to the whole community.
How many of us can claim all of these attributes? They don’t depend on age, but on humility and self control and placing God at the center of our lives. At about this time I want to prostrate myself before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and knock my head on the floor like the Asians did when coming before their emperors, physically demonstrating their lowliness in the face of a person with the highest dignity in their culture. I have not been a good cellarer a large part of my life.
Let him have charge of everything. He shall do nothing without the Abbot’s orders, but keep to his instructions. Let him not vex the brethren. If any brother happens to make some unreasonable demand of him, instead of vexing the brother with a contemptuous refusal he should humbly give the reason for denying the improper request.
No doubt all of us have run into people who glory in the control they have over things, and seem to take perverse pleasure in telling others “no” to any request, and not in a kindly manner. The one asking may truly not realize he is asking something unreasonable, or he may be trying to manipulate the steward, but in any case, St. Benedict tells us if we are in the position of steward we must be humble in our communication and not put the other person down. Certainly we should not be yelling and screaming and arguing with him no matter how irrational he may be.
Moms and dads often have to deal with whiny kids afflicted with the “gimmies” as my Mom called them. We might be tempted to impatience and growl at them, but what if we instead, by deed, taught our children to be generous and giving rather than demanding and taking. I don’t mean giving in to whiny children here. I’m talking about formation of the mind and heart that cuts down on the “gimmie” behavior.
One Christmas I collected toys from my contacts to give to a family living in the projects in Dallas. I was truly edified when one family asked their children to give their favorite toy away.
Let him keep guard over his own soul, mindful always of the Apostle’s saying that “he who has ministered well acquires for himself a good standing” (1 Tim. 3:13).
Keeping guard over one’s soul means doing our duty to God in worship, striving with His grace to develop virtue, spending our time constructively rather than in dissipation of all kinds, and developing our relationship with God every day so that we become more attached to Him than to anything or anyone else.
Let him take the greatest care of the sick, of children, of guests and of the poor, knowing without doubt that he will have to render an account for all these on the Day of Judgment.
Yes, let’s not be short sighted about the implications of Whom we are serving. In all, it is the Person of Christ. Sometimes He shows up with a runny nose, a fever, not smelling very good, has annoying habits and appears at times that are inconvenient to us. St. Benedict is reminding us of what Jesus said in Matthew 25: 34-46.
Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. Let him not think that he may neglect anything. He should be neither a miser nor a prodigal and squanderer of the monastery’s substance, but should do all things with measure and in accordance with the Abbot’s instructions.
We can see in these two paragraphs that St. Benedict treats first of persons and then of things. All monastery goods, and all goods that we have, are to be held precious. Why? Because everything from small to great belongs to God. He is letting us be in charge of these things to meet our needs.
The family cellarer
Father G. A. Simon in his commentary on this section of the rule, notes some things that apply to the family too, which Pope John Paul II referred to as “the domestic church”. In fact, every family can be likened to a little monastery that would be all the healthier and happier if influenced by St. Benedict’s rule. No doubt there would be a lot less fighting over money, over what’s “mine” and what’s “yours”, a lot less rivalry for power, and a lot more kindness.
The monastery is par excellence the house of God. This is why, according to Cassian, the religious look on everything that enters there as a holy thing, consecrated to God, which must be neither abused nor misused.
To a lesser degree, yet very really, the goods entrusted to all Christians by Providence should be regarded as God’s goods. The one who possesses is the steward and, to use the monastic expression, the cellarer of God. If he is the head of a family, he should know that he has no right to squander goods which are more the property of his dependents, whose well-being they assure, than they are his own. According to the Church’s traditional doctrine, the individual exists much less for himself than for the family of which he is constituted the head, the guardian, and the protector. And he is also God’s steward with respect to the orphans, the poor, the sick. He must not fail to come to their aid according to his means. He who performs no charity fails in his religious duties.
In this commentary we have a perfect description of what a father should be and how he should act. If the mother is the head of the family for whatever reason, this applies to her. Here is a prescription for unselfishness and the practice of orienting ourselves to the common good of the household. Moreover, we have an example of living the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5: 3).
Again and again I am struck by how the Christian being a good steward fulfills many admonitions of the Gospel, and how great and precious the Holy Rule of St. Benedict is in this regard. Imagine what could happen in our souls and in our families if we concentrated on being good cellarers for just one year. Imagine what could become of this impoverished world, this consumerist-throw away society if we all developed the habits St. Benedict admonishes in chapter 31.
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