BISHOP JAMES T. SCHUERMAN
St. Benedict, whose memorial we celebrate July 11, was born in the year 480 in the Umbrian town of Nursia or Norcia. As a young man, he went to Rome to be educated. Appalled by the moral corruption he encountered in the life of the city, he decided to seek a life of prayer and contemplation in the wilderness near Subiaco. There, people came to know him for his holiness, and soon he attracted followers who sought his guidance. Over time, he organized them into 12 monasteries. Later, he moved to the town of Casinum, called Monte Cassino, to seek a life of solitude. Once again, disciples gathered around him. This time, he gathered them all into one monastery, and wrote the first draft of what we know as The Rule of Saint Benedict – a rule of life for those seeking to live the monastic life. Benedict died around the year 550, at Monte Cassino.
The monastic practices described in The Rule of Saint Benedict are designed to help individuals become disciplined, prayerful, receptive and responsible Christians. Among the practices prescribed for growth in holiness are prayer, work, sacred reading, care of the sick, obedience and stability.
The Rule speaks of a well-ordered communal prayer life at established intervals throughout the day. Benedict describes the Divine Office in terms of Lauds, Prime, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline – regular intervals of prayer time to pray the Psalter.
The Rule describes work as a good and healthy thing, and excuses no one from kitchen duty or other types of labor except for sickness or being engaged in some other business of the monastery. Benedict saw a certain dignity in monasteries where the monks lived by the work of their hands.
Benedict encouraged lectio divina, or sacred reading, to refresh one’s soul and provide a good counterbalance to work. While he frowned on idleness, he understood the need to recreate, and sacred reading provided a life-giving leisure activity.
The Rule gives high priority to the care of the sick. Benedict believed that those who look after the sick live according to true Gospel values.
Obedience, as described in the Rule, is not simply a means of establishing order. Rather, it is an outward sign of love for Christ. Obedience to superiors is a sign that one is striving to do the will of God.
Benedict describes stability, which refers to the practice of remaining permanently in one monastic community, as a call to remain true to the practices that aid one on the way to holiness. The monastery provides the community structure in which to live the Gospel call. Physical stability gradually helps the individual to develop stability of mind and soul.
In the beginning of the Rule, Benedict states his preference for coenobitic monasticism (lived in community) over eremitic monasticism (lived alone). For Benedict, Christianity is communal. Being Christian means striving for harmony in the midst of a communal setting, common prayer, common work and common table. The characteristics which define us as human – care, concern, responsibility, piety, love for neighbor, humility — need a structure in which to find expression. The monastic community is designed to help individuals find holiness by living up to their potential.
Benedict saw a need for a balanced approach to life. Moderation is a key concept in the Rule. Prayer, work, leisure, food and sleep are all important. However, if any one of these elements is exaggerated, it creates problems. The monastic setting provides an environment to meet basic human needs in a disciplined fashion.
Although the monastic tradition takes a stance over and against the world, the monastic community does not exclude itself from the world. Hospitality is an essential virtue in the Rule, especially for the abbot, who has, among his many tasks, the responsibility of eating with guests and pilgrims. Benedict understood receiving guests into the monastery as receiving Christ himself.
Monastic life pursues holiness through life-long practices, which form individuals in community to be useful instruments of God’s will. Today, many monastic communities still exist, and many even thrive. Of course, most people do not feel called to the monastic life. Does Benedictine spirituality still have relevance for people in the world today? In many ways, it is just what our society needs. We live in an age when family members do little in common. Because of the disjointedness of work and school schedules, together with meeting obligations and sports activities, family members have a hard time even sharing a meal together, much less praying or recreating together. We live in an age in which people cannot always distinguish clearly between freedom and license. We put much emphasis on self-fulfillment and little on humility. We have lost a vision of harmony in society, because we have forgotten how to treat one another charitably and justly.
We do not have to become monks to live the spirit of St. Benedict. Studying The Rule of Saint Benedict might inspire us to appropriate values that we need to establish a disciplined approach to living a life of prayer and loving God and neighbor.