St. Benedict's Rule for Today?

It was 480 C. E. and the old structures of the Roman empire were already crumbling.  This was to be one of the great pivot points of history.[1]  Into this world in transition, where those seeking to be most fully devoted to God escaped empire by fleeing to the desert as hermits or gathered around a guru, was born Benedict of Nursia.  Benedict’s Rule, a model of Christian discipleship that was community-centered, has endured as a living text for more than 1500 years, making it, according to some, the most influential text on Western society after the Bible.[2]  Even more impressively, Benedictines are widely credited with having saved Western civilization from the ravages of the barbarian invasions.[3]

While Benedictine history is unquestionably impressive, what is surprising is the contemporary revival of interest in the insights this storied tradition has to offer those seeking to craft lives of discipleship in today’s world.  The decades since Vatican II have seen a marked increase in the number of Oblates and associates—those with formal ties to monastic communities who apply the Rule of Benedict to married or single life outside the monastery. 
Additionally, a loose movement of Christian intentional communities, dubbing itself “the new monasticism” has purposefully sought to draw upon the wisdom of the Benedictine tradition to enrich its own practice.  Neomonastics have published a handful of titles and many others have added to those which draw upon Benedict’s Rule to offer the Christian mainstream Monk Habits for Everyday People and tips on How to Be Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job.  In continuity with these developments, this essay considers three relevant applications of Benedictine insight for those seeking to forge for themselves a way of life following Jesus in the contemporary Western context.



Benedictinism distinguished itself in Benedict’s day by the centrality of community in its Rule.  Benedict begins his Rule by identifying the four different types of monks, and asserting that Cenobites—those who “are based in a monastery and fulfil their service of the Lord under a rule and an abbot or abbess”—are “the strongest kind.”[4]  He contrasts Cenobite practice to the relational isolation of the hermitic Anchorites, the wandering pairs of Sarabites and the vagabond individual Gyrovagues, which he considers the worst of the bunch.  In these comparisons, two of Benedict’s central values emerge: relational and geographical stability.

Contemporary Western society is characterized by both a high degree of mobility[5] and a deep individualism, both of which, many have argued, inhibit churches efforts to form Christians and embody the gospel.  These two realities often function in tandem, individualistic thinking driving decisions to repeatedly uproot oneself or family, and a lifetime of relocation reinforcing an I’m-on-my-own mindset.  By contrast, the Benedictine vow of stability, which is a commitment first to a set of relationships and second to a place, intends to provide an adequate “environment for conversion of life”.[6]  Indeed, for the “Benedictine, life in community is the great human asceticism.”[7]

How might the wisdom of Benedict’s stability be applied today?  Neomonastics provide the most obvious example, making yearly renewals of commitment to their shared-residence fellowships, which are themselves deeply local.  But is there any meaningful ways that Christians could glean Benedict’s wisdom without converting to neomonasticism?  I believe so.  Two approaches can be imagined, with innumerable expressions.  First, one might resolve to remain in one place, one city or even one residence.  While many will inevitably come and go, others will spend long years and this can approximate relational stability.  Moving to be nearer to family—those most enduring of relationships—can be seen in this light.  The geographically stable might also seek lifetime employment in a single company, lifetime membership in a single church, even lifetime patronage at a single grocer or coffeehouse, all of which would result in increased stability in relationships.  A second contemporary approach to stability could take shape if a collection of friends decided that they wanted to spend their lives together.  The expression of this relational stability could be as thin as a commitment to gather yearly for a weekend getaway, or as thick as a vow to always live in the same neighborhood, and make any moves en masse.   It should be noted that steps toward either relational or geographical stability would increasingly leave one out of step with the mainstream as job offers that others deem too-good-to-refuse are passed up and the tug of white flight is resisted.      

A second dimension of Benedict’s insight for today lies in what Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister, calls Wisdom Distilled from the Daily. According to her, “Benedictine spirituality brings depth and focus to dailiness.”[8]  Benedict considers his a “little” rather than heroic Rule, and its daily routine is served up with large helpings of work and relationships—exactly the stuff of contemporary life for average men and women.  Rather than considering people an obstacle to contemplation or work a distraction from prayer, Benedict’s rule is founded on the “firm conviction” that “God is present everywhere.”[9]

Chittister proposes the relevance of Benedict’s doctrine of God’s omnipresence:

We have to learn to take the raw materials of our lives and 
turn them into the stuff of sanctity.  We can’t wait for the 
perfect person  or the perfect environment to call us to 
spiritual maturity.  The people in our lives are the people 
who will test our virtues, our values, and our depth.[10]

Benedict’s wisdom shatters the still-pervasive belief in a sacred-secular divide.  God, assert Benedictines, is just as present at your desk as at the cathedral, just as present at your dinner table as at the Lord’s Table.  It is for this reason that Chittister considers “sight” one of the two basic gifts of Benedictism for today.[11]  Those who seek to apply Benedict’s wisdom to their contemporary lives are challenged to discover that “…this dull and tiring day is holy and its simple labors are the stuff of God’s saving presence for me now.”[12]

While I agree wholeheartedly with Benedict’s wisdom here, I am concerned that a fair number of contemporary people make of it a license for lack of discipline.  Many seemingly believe that since God is everywhere, work is holy and people are ambassadors of the divine, there is little need for rest, solitude, prayer or scripture.  This brings us to Benedict’s third critical contribution for today.  It should be obvious, but it is oddly overlooked, how central prayer and scripture are to Benedictine spirituality.  Indeed, Benedict calls for four dedicated hours of prayer and three hours of reading and reflection daily.[13]  I agree with Chittister’s assessment: “We not be able to keep that particular schedule, you and I, but we must find a life rhythm that somehow satisfies…those elements.”[14]

In Benedictinism, prayer and scripture are comingled.  Benedictine prayer is dominated by language from the Psalms and Scriptures, which is “intended to immerse the monk in a world where God’s presence is felt and where God’s goodness is praised.”[15]  Indeed, for Benedictines, belief and awareness of God’s presence everywhere and at all times is dependent upon a set aside time and space for immersion in this reality.  This presence according to Chittister, importantly, “demands a total response.”[16]  The features of Benedictine prayer identified by Chittister have pointed relevance.  Benedictine prayer’s regularity makes a claim on the true purpose of time, and confounds modern self-importance.[17]  Its universality anchors it in the needs of the entire universe, rather than those of the of the praying individual, making it an antidote to narcissism.  Its reflectivness offers the possibility of integrating the fragmented pieces of our lives.[18]  Benedictine prayer is converting, serving as a practice that calls for a change of mind—and an opening to the cries of those in need.[19]  Finally, prayer in the Benedictine tradition is communal, challenging rampant individualism and binding the praying community together. [20]

The primary Benedictine practice of engaging scripture is lectio divina, which is being rediscovered widely.  In lectio divina, scripture is approached meditatively and reverently and the intention of the reading is affective rather than cognitive.[21]  Through quiet repetition, “the text serves as a mirror that brings inner realities to consciousness” and this “heightened awareness exposes our need for divine help and readily leads to prayer.”[22]

Applying the centrality of disciplined regimens and psychologically astute practices of prayer and scripture to contemporary life need not be complicated, though it will not be easy.  Time must be set aside.  Many, even Protestants, are experimenting with praying the divine hours, as fresh titles attest.[23]  Evangelicals have long promoted “daily quiet times” of morning reading and prayer.  While this practice, as I have learned firsthand, is often used inappropriately as a gauge of spiritual health and maturity, it no less has much to commend it.  Whether they elect to pray the hours or keep a quiet time, or follow another disciplined pattern of prayer and scripture, contemporary disciples who wish to integrate the wisdom of Benedictine spirituality into their lives will have to set aside dedicated time for these central practices.  There is simply no way to be in any meaningful sense “monastic” without prioritizing these basic Christian practices.

The Benedictine wisdom we have surveyed is both timeless and timely.  Relationships have always been and will always be a primary means of grace, and the Benedictine practice of stability capitalizes on this fact—something of particular relevance to our hyper-mobile society.  Most people must spend the lion’s share of their lives engaged in the mundane tasks of daily life—working, eating, conversing—and Benedict challenges us to discover God’s presence even here, even in the 21st century.  Scripture and prayer are among the most fundamental practices of Christian tradition and Benedict has invited believers for 1500 years to set aside time for these—and his invitation extends to today’s world in which these increasingly seem overly pious and pass√©.  May Benedictine wisdom find expression today in Christians and churches who exercise these practices and therein find the God Benedict knew to be everywhere.

Related Posts
Tasting the Future: New Monasticism's Eschatological Basis
Not Quite Neomonastic: What Churches can Learn from Christian Intentional Communities

Bibliography
Brook, J. (1991). The School of Prayer: An Introduction to the Divine Office for All Christians. Liturgical Press.
Chittister, J. (1991). Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. HarperOne.
Marett-Crosby, A. (2003). The Benedictine Handbook. Liturgical Press.
Okholm, D. (2007). Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. Brazos Press.
Tickle, P. (2007). This Is What I Pray Today: Divine Hours Prayers For Children. Dutton Juvenile.
Tvedten, B. B. (2006). How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job: An Invitation to Oblate Life. Paraclete Press.
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[1] The Benedictine Handbook, 227.  Robert Atwell.
[2] ibid, 269.  Colman O Claibaigh OSB.
[3] Chittister, 210.
[4] The Benedictine Handbook, 14, 15.  The Rule of Benedict.
[5] According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 12.5% of Americans over 1 year old, or 37.5 million people, changed residences in the last year.  Accessed at: http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/ mobility_of_the_population/cb11-91.html
[6] The Benedictine Handbook, 298.  Dwight Longenecker.
[7] Chittister, 167.
[8] Chittister, 104.
[9] The Benedictine Handbook, 43.  The Rule of Benedict.
[10] Chittister, 114.
[11] ibid, 40.
[12] ibid, 41.
[13] Chittister, 99.
[14] ibid, 99.
[15] The Benedictine Handbook, 104.  Demetrius R. Dumm OSB.
[16] Chittister, 53.
[17] ibid, 29.
[18] ibid, 33.
[19] ibid, 35.
[20] ibid, 36.
[21] The Benedictine Handbook, 107.  Michael Casey OCSO.
[22] The Benedictine Handbook, 106.  Michael Casey OCSO.
[23] See, for example: The School of Prayer: An Introduction to the Divine Office for All Christians by John Brook and This is What I Pray Today: Divine Hours Prayers for Children by Phyllis Tickle.

2 comments:

  1. This is really great! Could you tell me the author of this article as I would like to reference it in my uni essay. Thanks for the insight, it is really helpful!
    Lahna

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well,Lahna. The author would be me: Christopher B. James.

    ReplyDelete