sacramentum et exemplum

(cyprian, Holy Thursday)

When the Church Fathers refer to the washing of the feet, they refer to it as both a sacramentum and an exemplum––as both a sacrament and an example. A sacrament in the same way that Jesus’ whole life was a sacrament, God coming to us and purifying us, making us clean, not because of anything that we have done, but by pure grace, a total gift that cannot be earned, but only received. But the washing of the feet is also an exemplum, an example, in that every sacrament comes with a moral obligation to it: if we receive a sacrament we commit ourselves to a way of life. We can’t earn it, but if we receive it we have to embody it: ‘I have given you an example so that what I have done you also must do.’ A sacrament is a commitment to a way of life, in this case, a life of self-sacrifice to the will of the Father and to each other in service.

I’ve been reading The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse’s final novel. It’s about a man named Joseph Knecht, who is raised in a monastic type environment of an order for the intellectual elite in some remote land in a distant future. He is eventually inducted into the order and finally made the Master of the Game, the Magister Ludi. Spoiler alert: he eventually leaves the order, mainly because he thinks that true life is found not in “…taking pleasurable strolls in the garden of culture” which “tends somewhat toward smugness and self-praise”­­––but in service.

Interestingly enough, their order, the Castalians, is often contrasted with the Benedictine Order, which Hesse in this novel at least, holds up as a paradigm, the opposite of the Castalian Order, because the Benedictine monks, personified by a wise old scholar named Fr. Jacobus, know their place in history. They understand “responsible action controlled by dispassionate reflection” and have “consciousness of the social responsibility.”

I, however, actually thought that the hero’s critiques of his own Castalian order were good warning shots across the bow for monks of all kinds too. Even in our protected world of contemplative life, we can never forget that the way of Jesus Christ is the way of the seed falling in the ground and dying so as to yield a rich harvest, the way of the salt that dissolves into the food, the way of the yeast in the dough, and, as St. Benedict reminds over and over again, the way of humility and obedience. I thought that this one passage that Joseph hears as he is inducted into the order was particularly appropriate for Holy Thursday, and I used it as an introduction to the washing of the feet this year:

…every step upward on the ladder of offices is not a step into freedom but into bondage. The higher the office, the tighter the bondage. The greater the power of the office, the stricter the service. The stronger the personality, the less self-will.[1]

Or as Jesus says simply in the Gospel of Luke: ‘From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.[2]

 Much has been entrusted to us in the gift of Jesus’ sacrament and example of self-sacrifice!

Much will be demanded of us!

‘What I have done, you also must do!’


[1] The Glass Bead Game, 142.

[2] Lk12:48.

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