the primacy of love

for Fr. Robert Hale, OSB Cam.

8 September 2018

A friend of mine who lost his mother recently sent me this poem that he had read at her funeral. I thought it was also a fitting introduction to this celebration of the life of our beloved Robert. It’s from a 12th century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher named Judah Halevi.


‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be ―

to be, and oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

and a holy thing,

a holy thing to love.

For your life has lived in me,

your laugh once lifted me,

your word was gift to me:

to remember this brings painful joy,

‘Tis a human thing, love,

a holy thing to love what death has touched.[i]

Isaiah asked me about a week ago what I was going to preach on for Robert’s funeral. And I said, “The primacy of love.” And Isaiah said, “Of course.”

Of course! Anyone who knew Robert as a Camaldolese monk would also know that this was his theme. In the chapter he wrote for the book on Camaldolese spirituality, Robert said that “Koinonia/love constitute the very substance of our heritage, whether in the hermitage or in the monastery, and … reveal to us the way to the kingdom itself.”[ii] He was of that generation, along with his dear friend Andrew, who was raised under the loving gaze of Don Benedetto Calati, who served as our Prior General from 1975 until 1987, and this was Benedetto’s favorite theme as well. Don Benedetto was a great scholar of the monastic tradition, so much so that he was asked to found the Monastic Institute at Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine University in Rome. But for all his erudition and education, Benedetto did not brook any idealization or romanticizing of the monastic life, especially of the eremitical life; and he was a fierce relativizer even of the sacred Rule of Benedict. Monks were no more made for the Rule than people were made for the Sabbath, said Benedetto. Like the ancients taught that we start with the Book of Proverbs and then finally move on to the Song of Songs in our spiritual growth, Benedetto said the same about the Rule: it was like the Book of Proverbs, a brief rule for beginners, but it too needs to move on to, and end in, the Song of Songs. It needs to lead us to the primacy of love. Here’s how Benedetto describes it:

When one speaks of the “primacy of love,” you should not understand this to be an idea, an abstraction, but the concrete epiphany of the person, within which the Holy Spirit draws up a covenant of love. From this pours forth [an] asceticism not of reading or of observance, but a journey of exaltation that leads to the freedom of the children of God.[iii]

The original phrase from our tradition is actually the “privilege of love”–privilegio amoris. It comes from St. Bruno Boniface’s Life of the Five Brothers, a foundational text for our congregation. St. Bruno has a confrere named Benedict who he describes as “the other half of my soul” and says that they were “like two who should be one person.” Bruno is trying to convince Benedict to join him on a mission to evangelize the Slavs, and he writes: “I, who used to hear him call me ‘my brother’ in the privilege of love …”[iv]

Our Fr. Thomas notes that Bruno Boniface doesn’t use the word ‘amiticia’––‘friendship’ to describe the bond that united the group around St. Romuald but this phrase instead, ‘privilegium amoris––“the privilege or primacy of love” because those first followers of St. Romuald understood the experience of the love they shared to be like the koinonia of the Acts of the Apostles and the agape of the 1st Letter of John.[v] Of course, besides Don Benedetto and the Life of the Five Brothers, Robert would often simply cite the Gospel of Matthew, when a lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ … And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[vi] They are inseparably bound together. It could be argued that there are really three loves there––love of God and love of neighbor as well as a healthy love of self, because we will only be able to love our neighbor as well as we actually do love ourselves.

Jesus often teaches something and then tells a parable to flesh out that teaching. So let’s say the teaching is the above––“love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Short of offering a eulogy instead of a homily, I think we could safely use Robert’s own life as a parable of that teaching.

Robert loved aphorisms, pithy wise sayings. He had them taped all over the walls of his cell. I found four of them taped to the closet door in his temporary cell. And I want to use those four aphorisms within these thoughts. The first one was a quote from Pedro Arrupè, former general of the Jesuits, concerning the love of God.

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. … Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

It’s obvious that from very early on Robert was drawn to religion, to spirituality, to religious life. He loved being a Christian; he loved being a Catholic (a “Cat-lick,” as he would say), though he always loved, cherished, and respected the Anglican tradition from which he came as well; he loved being a monk and a priest. It was almost embarrassing to go out with him in public. Everywhere we’d go he’d inevitably find some reason to say, “We’re monks! I’m Fr. Robert! Come and visit us in Big Sur!” But the jewel on the crown was this: it was only when he was in the hospital that most of us found out that Robert had the name of Jesus tattooed over his heart. (Of course we never would have known that; proper decorum would never have allowed him to take his shirt off in front of people!) It’s as if he took the Song of Songs literally: Set me like a seal on your heart.[vii] He loved Jesus. And love of God in the monastic life, as don Benedetto taught, then translates into love for the Word of God and love for the liturgy of the Church as a celebration of koinonia. In that same chapter Robert himself quotes don Benedetto saying that “because of the ‘primacy of Love . . . our very life is liturgy.’”[viii]

But Robert didn’t just love his religious life: Robert loved his life. I’ve never known anyone who wrote so many versions of his CV and his biography, or had so many timelines and charts of his life and his ancestry, and kept more mementos than he. Whatever hardships might have been a part of his early life, he came out of it with a very strong sense of his own goodness, knowing that he was loved and valued. The walls of his cell are lined with photos of the people he loved, and on one wall in the midst of photos is the saying: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”[ix] One wall was filled just with pictures of all the people he was going to see in heaven. That was his vision of heaven, as he wrote, when we would be “ushered into the fullness of this koinonia and love, reunited with loved ones, established in communion with all the redeemed and the whole heavenly host, sharing in the very life of our loving ‘Three-Personed’ God.”[x]

That sense of himself was intimately, intrinsically tied to knowing himself to be a part of a family, part of a community of believers, part of an order, a tradition, a heritage, a congregation of monks, a community of oblates––even a virtual community on Facebook––, and a very concrete community here in Big Sur. The privilege of love wasn’t just an idea, an abstraction––it was a concrete epiphany.

And the most poignant parable of that from Robert’s life to many of us was watching the friendship between him and Andrew in the last days of his life. We think that one of the reasons that Robert began speaking Italian when he woke up for that brief period from his coma was because his best friend had been by his side every day for the previous two weeks urging him in Italian to wake up and open his eyes and squeeze his hand. Robert told Ignatius that his time in Rome were the happiest days of his life. No wonder he woke up speaking Italian: it was the language of amicizia, the language of the privilegio amoris, the language of koinonia for him. I watched that friendship and I thought to myself, “If monasticism can produce that kind of fraternal affection, then it’s worth it.” And the opposite too: If monasticism cannot or does not produce that kind of fraternal affection––as the Letter to James says about religion without works––it’s worthless.[xi]

If it is Christian spirituality, and if it is to be specifically Christian monasticism, it has got to include all aspects of this greatest commandment––the koinonia that is the church, that is community, not some abstract notion but concrete expressions of brotherhood, sisterhood, of family. Mind you, this is not something that necessarily happens naturally, even, maybe even especially, in a monastery––it has to be cultivated. It’s not a feeling; it’s an action, whether we feel like it or not. But it’s also not just one nice sentiment that Jesus offers among others: it’s a command on the way to the Cross. Love, and wash someone’s feet. Love, and sit with your brother when he’s sick and dying. Love, and seek out the poor and the lost. Or as one more of those four aphorisms on Robert’s closet door said, a saying from St. John of the Cross: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” And Robert taught us that that’s why we have the Rule. Don Benedetto was trying to get away from a moralizing spirituality and a moralizing approach to the Rule. St. Benedict legislates only to establish and sustain and protect koinonia–community. In other words, we have the Rule until we learn how to love. That’s why Benedetto went back over and over again to Chapter 72, “On the Good Zeal of Monks”––which monks must foster with fervent love: showing respect, supporting each other with patience, competing with one another in obedience, the pure love of brothers, unfeigned humble love. If you want to draw out love, then you have to put love where there is no love.

One last point, in this parable… Quite often these last years Robert spoke of Teilhard’s notion of “The Divinization of our Passivities” from The Divine Milieu, how at some point we need to accept our diminishment. This was very real for Robert as he aged, even before the accident, but all the way through the first period of rehab––never a word of complaint, nothing but thanks and joy and acceptance. That brings me to the last two aphorisms that were taped to Robert’s closet door. The first is from St. Teresa of Avila. This could have been nothing if not a reminder to himself about his own diminishment during this final illness: “You repay with some tribulation, Lord, those who do you a service.” (I believe what is also part of this saying is the apocryphal quip, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”)

You repay with some tribulation, Lord, those who do you a service. What an inestimable reward this is for those who truly love You, if they knew its value!

Further evidence that this was about his own diminishment, taped onto that was this from St. John Chrysostom:

And even if sufferings had no other reward than being able to bear something for that God who loves you, is not this a great reward and a sufficient remuneration? Whoever loves, will understand what I say.

There was love everywhere! Even in suffering. That leads me to Thomas Merton’s poem “Hagia Sophia” that was sent to me by one of our oblates, saying it reminded him of Robert’s last days.

Who is more little, who is more poor

than the helpless man who lies asleep in his bed

without awareness and without defense?

Who is more trusting

than he who must entrust himself each night to sleep?

What is the reward of his trust?

Gentleness comes to him when he is most helpless

and awakens him, refreshed,

beginning to be made whole.

Love takes him by the hand,

and opens to him the doors of another life, another day.

Love Divine, all loves excelling, awaken and refresh our beloved Robert:

Let this be that other day when you open the doors of that other life,

the day when he shall behold you face to face,

the day when he shall be like you, his Beloved, for he shall see you as you are,

the day when the Lord will wipe every tear from every eye,

the day of a new heaven and a new earth,

when you will change his lowly body into a glorious copy of your own,

the day when you usher him into the fullness of koinonia, the fullness of love.


[i] Or Yehuda HaLevi (1075 – 1141).

[ii] The Privilege of Love, “Koinonia: The Privilege of Love.” Peter-Damian Belisle, ed., 114.

[iii] Il primato dell’amore, 259.

[iv] VQF, 4-5, Belisle, 48, 50, 53.

[v] Thomas Matus, The Mystery of Romuald and the Five Brothers,98.

[vi] Mt 22:34-40

[vii] Song 8:6.

[viii] “Koinonia,” 102.

[ix] The full quote is “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. ‘Be still,’ they say. ‘You are the result of the love of thousands.”

[x] “Koinonia,” 114.

[xi] Jas. 1:26.

Share Button


  1. Perfect. I’ve cried rivers and thought I’d finally stopped until I read this. I so wish I could have been with you today. Father Robert had a loving, nurturing way of cutting to the heart of the matter with simplicity and humility. Knowing him as a friend and as my Chaplain was a great privilege for me. This is a beautiful and send-off for Robert, and, I am confident he has been ushered into the fullness of love.

    Post a Reply
  2. A homily and parable to know Robert more intimately; the Rule that grows in love in a monk that shared his journey of transformation with those of us so hungry for direction, example, and inspiration, and given so willingly.

    If you have a copy of Robert’s book, “Love on the Mountain” read “Mary 8th” pages 146 to 147 then 148 to 150. This gives one Robert’s thoughts and feelings of end of life issues as he waits for the results from a biopsy that tests prove be benign and the result is a life changing experience for Robert.

    Thank you Cyprian, Andrew, and all the monks, priests, and staff that attended to our friend as far as we could accompany him on his journey home.

    Post a Reply
  3. Thank you Cyprian for sharing this. The service was so lovely, a fitting tribute to our dear Fr. Robert. It was a blessing to have been able to be in attendance, and to be able to re-read your lovely words. Yes, “Robert didn’t just love his religious life: Robert loved his life.” G-d bless.

    Post a Reply
  4. When I came to the Hermitage: I was a man w/o a Grandfather: one I had never met and the other had gone to God.
    Fr. Robert was like a grandfather: he shared with me a tender wisdom.
    You lined that reality of Jesus, “meek and humble of heart”—a blessing to break bread w/ you one last time, before that Eternal Feast.
    Thank you, dear friend,
    chad (charbel)

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *