After that let him live in the novitiate, where the novices study, eat and sleep. A senior shall be assigned to them who is skilled in winning souls, to watch over them with the utmost care. Let him examine whether the novice is truly seeking God, and whether he is zealous for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials. Let the novice be told all the hard and rugged ways by which the journey to God is made.
If he promises stability and perseverance, then at the end of two months let this rule be read through to him and let him be addressed thus: 'Here is the law under which you wish to fight. If you can observe it, enter; if you cannot, you are free to depart.' If he still stands firm, let him be taken to the above-mentioned novitiate and again tested in all patience. And after the lapse of six months let the Rule be read to him, that he may know on what he is entering. And if he still remains firm,after four months let the same Rule be read to him again.
Then, having deliberated with himself,if he promises to keep it in its entirety and to observe everything that is commanded, let him be received into the community. But let him understand that, according to the law of the Rule, from that day forward he may not leave the monastery nor withdraw his neck from under the yoke of the Rule which he was free to refuse or to accept during that prolonged deliberation." - Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 58.
I have had the privilege of seeing parts of this chapter of the Rule in action. When a man approaches the abbey asking to become a monk, he is tested. As the Rule has never been interpreted literally in any abbey, the process was somewhat different. Before he even begins to live at the abbey his background, criminal, financial, etc, is examined by professionals. He also undergoes psychological testing.
After this, he begins a novitiate, a period of testing whether or not this is the type of life to which God calls him. He is also tested by the community. Of course the biggest question being tested is whether or not he should be a monk. But he is also tested to see how he would fit in with the other monks. The most interesting test I've heard of, from one particular monk, was the diaper test. The community had recently experienced a monk's prolonged illness and death. During the final stages of his disease he had to wear a diaper. The monk describing this said when he looked at someone seeking entry he asked himself if he would be comfortable having this person changing his diaper at the end of his own life. Other monks describe listening to the candidate during daily prayer. Does his singing and prayer blend with others of the community?
Many candidates do not make it through this period. But if they do, they then take temporary vows, vowing to live under the Rule and in this community for a period of three years. At that point, if the community and the novice still are agreed on their life together he take permanent vows.
As an Oblate I've been privileged to listen to those about to take temporary and permanent vows and to see them take those vows. Almost all of them talk about their upcoming vows with the words "this is the place I will die." They say this with the upmost seriousness, showing that they are truly intending to live in this particular abbey, and to follow the Rule, for the rest of their lives.
When I look at the serious way the monks approach their vows, I wonder if we, as members of a denomination, take our vows with the same seriousness. Please note that I used the word "vows." As an Oblate we make a promise to follow the Rule up to the place where our position in life allows. The point is made to us that these promises, which must be renewed every year, are not vows. It is a serious thing to break a promise. It is much more serious when one breaks a vow made to God.
As Presbyterians we take vows when we join a congregation and/or we are Baptized. If we are ordained as a Deacon, Ruling Elder, or a Minister of Word and Sacrament we take much more extensive vows. I have been ordained to all three offices. I'm not really sure how seriously I took those vows until I made a pastor's vows. I often wonder how if others ordained to the first two offices take them seriously either.
For example, we vow to be guided by our Book of Confessions. I'm not sure if anyone not ordained as a pastor has actually even read the book. I know for sure that I never read it until I was preparing for pastoral ministry. Another vow we take is to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry. I must admit that as a Ruling Elder there were times I failed to remember that vow. And in some congregations where I have served as an interim pastor, I am relatively sure some did not remember it either.
Most of us will never be monks. But if we are pastors, or serve in other offices, we have made vows. I've started to make it a practice to re-read those vows so I can remember what I have vowed before God. I would hope those holding church offices would begin to do the same. A lot of congregational conflict could be avoided if this was a normal practice for us all. BTW if you are a Presbyterian, your vows can be found in the Book of Order and the Book of Occasional Services.
Although I am relatively sure that I will never take a monk's vows (I have learned not say I will never do something as it seems God takes that as a challenge and I inevitably end up doing it), I am grateful to Father Benedict for the reminder of how important my other vows are in each part of my life.
Brother Oscar Romero.