The Rule of St. Benedict: 7 Radical Values of Catholic Monasticism and their Secular Counterparts
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On July 11th in the Liturgical Calendar, and on March 21st in the pre-1970 calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, father of Western Monasticism. Saint Benedict’s name has garnered more attention of late due to the conversation across the Catholic and Christian blogosphere over Rod Dreher’s best-selling book, The Benedict Option.
Benedict was the son of a nobleman in the Umbrian region of what is now Italy, in the late 5th – early 6th century. As a young man, he left Rome and his prospects for a comfortable, urbane life and struck out upon a life as a hermit, eventually – if unintentionally at first – founding what 1500 years later we understand as the Western Monastic tradition. Saint Benedict is one of the patrons of Europe but is also venerated in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Many Catholics wear the blessed and exorcised St. Benedict Medal as a sacramental and devotional for protection.
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Far beyond our compartmentalized notions of “the monastery” or “monasticism,” Saint Benedict can be credited with a great deal that we take for granted today. As an aside, I look forward to seeing Bishop Barron’s full episode on the patron saint of Europe as part of his Pivotal Players Series.
The providential life of Saint Benedict and “CATHOLICISM: The Pivotal Players” filming updates brought to you from inside the cave where 14-year-old Benedict began his monastic life. For exclusive YouTube videos that go deeper into these topics: https://PivotalPlayersFilming.com
Posted by Bishop Robert Barron on Tuesday, July 25, 2017
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But in honor of one of my own most favorite saints, let’s look at the 7 core values of his “rule” for monks, which still, even for most of us – lay men and women who live in the world – have much to teach us about the necessarily counter-cultural life of a Christian disciple.
What struck me as I looked at this list was just how resonant these values are to the contemporary mind – Christian or not, Catholic or not, conservative or liberal, and so many other dichotomies and divisions we set up in our minds, boxes we like to put people in. Whether it’s the hipster who longs for authenticity, the Millenial who sees and suffers from the errors of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the ex-hippy Baby Boomer… these are simply HUMAN values, corresponding to the good, to nature (ours and the planet’s), to harmony and happiness. They are not the least bit “medieval” or out of touch; they speak to us NOW because they speak to the human heart – which is a miraculous phenomenon that does not “evolve”… it has a nature to it, so transcendent values like Truth, Beauty, Generosity, Goodness, Love, etc., always speak to human hearts, across time and cultures.
St. Benedict’s Rule vs. Worldly Ways:
1. Seeking God vs. Seeking material things
Even atheists, agnostics, and non-Christians today recognize the spiritual wreckage wrought by materialism. They might not realize or agree with the Catholic belief that God IS the alternative, but, it’s not as if we hear people advocating for blatant, greedy consumerism and materialism on the other hand. It’s simply ugly, and that sensibility is not exclusive to Catholics. Most of us instinctively understand that the unbridled desire for and accumulation of stuff is not good for us.
2. Concern for the Common Good vs. Individualism
Similar to #1, no? When you spell it out in black and white terms, don’t we have a certain aversion to individualism? This is probably – at least in part – what has made Socialism attractive (albeit erroneously so!) for so many of a certain younger generation who’ve never lived under a socialist regime… a pang of sincere sorrow over extreme socioeconomic inequality.
That being said, and though I’m neither a monastic, nor an economist, it’s so important to make two distinctions here: Smallness and God. A monastery (which is the unique and particular setting for St. Benedict’s rule) is a small, voluntary but highly regimented and even hierarchical context. In other words it is not a town, a city, a state, a country or a conglomerate. Furthermore, common-good concerns can be monitored, submitted to in love, and maintained in a monastery not just because of its small scale, but because of its members’ rootedness in the Sacraments, in prayer, in the Gospels, and in Christ. A community of monks is simply not comparable to a worldly equivalent on the level of the state. That being said, the family unit is a lay analogy. Authority, sharing, commitment to the well-being of the unit and sublimation of the individual ego for the sake of the marriage and the children… this communal appeal and function starts to make sense to us.
And perhaps another relatable analogy for many of us is team sports. If you’ve ever experienced that “sweet spot” when the whole becomes better than the sum of its parts, when a team of ostensibly incompatible characters get over themselves and their individual egos for the sake of the collective pursuit. A well-constructed, disciplined team can achieve something difficult and maybe delicate and beautiful together by renouncing selfishness. We get that. It rings true and attractive – even as we know it’s very hard to come by.
3. Commitment vs Non-involvement
Slogans and cliches today like “lean in,” or “Just Do It,” smack of a sort of corporate gross-out factor, but it’s obvious that the ad industry is onto something, no? They’ve zeroed in on our attraction to commitment.
Monasteries became hubs of culture because regular lay people “set up shop,” so to speak, around the anchored, peaceful, cultivated and spiritual place where monks made their commitment – to the physical monastery, to their abbot, to their vows. Roots were put down. Rough, craggy land was subdued, irrigated lovingly. When a man knows he has to stay, when leaving is not an option – when one makes a promise – his option is to learn how to love a thing, to care for it.
Examples of this spirit of commitment include the medieval cathedrals – that not only took forever to build, but were built for forever! They were built with a mind and heart for a permanence and gift to subsequent generations. They include things like gardens (that take years to build and tame), illuminated biblical manuscripts (again – painstaking work, but unmatched for beauty by modern technology). But these values apply to the layperson today, too: To the parent who makes the child commit for the full sports season, rather than quit after two weeks… a lesson in commitment. To the cellist who works for months at a difficult piece of music because he wishes to perform, for love and beauty. To the husband and wife who keep and live their marital vows through ups and downs, and who live the richness of life together that would have been lost if one had bailed out in selfishness.
Beautiful things, like families, gardens, paintings, dissertations, a job well done… these take work, patience, investment. Investing in anything or anyone (except God) opens us up to the pains of injury, failure, risk, fatigue, frustration, and so on. But without persevering through those discomforts, what are we left with? If we don’t commit and invest ourselves, we might avoid pain, but we will never reap the rewards of beauty and love that true commitment offers to us.
4. Mutual Sharing v. Competition
This certainly relates back to #2, above. It entails a spirit of truly willing the good for the other and not seeing his success as a threat to myself. But monastic communal life is – again – uniquely designed to facilitate sharing and diminish competition. The strong carry the weak, but the weak have some important skin in the game as well. Your good benefits me, and vice-versa.
Contemporary life for most of us in the West is steeped in competition. Even innocent children’s activities have been co-opted by highly professionalized organization, training, and high-stakes competition. The technocratic conveyor belt of daycare-to-preschool-to-school-to-college… to exclusive internship to corporate life (if you’re lucky?)… this notion of the “good life” doesn’t really sound so attractive to most of us, but the world still frowns upon simpler ways of life built on sharing, and we hardly know how to safely step off the treadmill. On the other hand, we see more and more ideas like co-ops, community gardens, car and bike shares for city dwellers and community-minded ventures. These make us happy. They make for feel-good stories on the news. Why?
In an anti-Christian world of constant competition, we unwittingly begin relationships with a latent mistrust and/or jealousy of the other, rather than the healthier posture of presumption that this stranger is truly my brother or sister. How much more salutary for the body, the soul, the community, is such a thing as sharing and the common good?
5. Hospitality v. Rejection
Hospitality: a virtue that resonates with everyone. The Christian sees it as more than simply a nice thing, but a charge we’ve been given by Jesus, while across so many folk cultures hospitality is highly esteemed. But today, for many of us, it’s grown so detached from other virtues (h/t G.K. Chesterton) that we’ve largely forgotten how to do it. Suburban living, screens in every room of the home (and now in the hands of everyone in the family) are certainly inimical to hospitality. Arguably, the voluntary isolation of contemporary life is just as problematic as rejection from relationship or community.
But, regardless of our religious inclinations, we can understand the attraction of hospitality. Like the cozy grandmother whose hugs melt even the most frigid; the guileless eye-contact of the friend, the teacher, the listener; even our material sensations that make the sofa more appealing than the concrete bench. We long to be welcomed. We fear deeply the wounds of rejection. Out of this fear, we often choose isolation rather than either seeking someone else’s hospitality or going the extra mile of offering it, ourselves. But we must seek out and provide hospitality. It’s in our nature, and to deny it is to cut ourselves off from our roots.
6. Care of the earth v. Exploitation
There’s so much to be said on this topic, and it can and should bridge the growing gap between factions on the political spectrum. Stewardship is the term which comes most strongly to mind… an admission that our land and its bounties (including animals) are gifts that we must care for.
Man’s exploitation of the planet is undeniable and tragic. That being said, environmental exploitation is also a symptom of a larger disease: the forgetfulness of God and His order of creation. Use vs. Love. It should come as no surprise that the same broken culture that so greedily, carelessly and wickedly abuses the planet also tolerates, winks at, and even encourages the greedy, careless, wicked use and abuse of human beings, starting with the scourge of abortion.
It is helpful to consider the monastery model. Its permanence, its limited, small parameters (compared, say, to a mega-sized industrial food factory or meat-processing plant), necessitates stewardship, long-term sustainability, personal investment (you might call that love). I cannot solve the problem of toxic industrialization, but I can change how and where I shop. I can cultivate my own garden. I can support small farmers… not making an idol of these values, but keeping to and living by them in context of my Catholic faith.
7. Peace v. Violence
We are not brutes or beasts. We are men and women, created – miraculously, beautifully, and uniquely – in the image and likeness of God. Original sin and all its children – i.e., vices of every kind – have inclined men to do violence to other men ever since the Fall. Children fight. Siblings bicker. Nations go to war (often out of greed).
Human formation and the Gospel mitigate and redirect these unfortunate impulses, whereas malformation and breakdown of the family and the moral order give fuel and breathing room for them. The family-like structure of the monastery sets up parameters of peace, but it remains an ongoing work of purification, obedience, and love, to conquer the violence that lurks just under the surface of anyone’s heart, even the monk. The harmony and happiness that result from peace are palpable, and they tell us that peace is what we’re made for, even as we detect our own proclivities to violence… if not blatant physical violence, all the more often it’s emotional, spiritual, psychological and ecological violence. And most of the time, we don’t even realize the violence we inflict on the other!
While I will not be joining a monastery, called as I am to the lay, married state, I have much to reflect upon from St. Benedict’s Rule. Consider focusing on and developing one or two of these virtues at a time in your own life, as a spiritual project of cultivation. Give it a month, then add another and focus on it for the next month, and so on, taking care not to abandon the earlier ones once you’ve habituated them.
What if each of us were to become radiant hubs of virtue, subduing and tending to our own hearts and wills (like gardens) such that, in small and eventually bigger ways, rippling outward, we might start to reclaim territory for Christ the way Benedict’s Rule slowly and quietly civilized a continent and preserved and transmitted the faith for 1500 years (and counting).