Comments on The Rule



And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.
St. Benedict, from the Prologue to the Rule.


            There are any number of good books written to help laymen understand and live the Rule of St. Benedict, most of them written by Protestants, mostly Anglican or Episcopalians. The names of Kathleen Norris, Esther de Wahl and Norveen Vest come quickly to mind.[1]  I enjoy their writing and have learned much from reading them, but I still have a bit of a hard time with this, if only because Benedict is clearly an important part of the heritage of the Catholic Church and I wonder if the Church has lost sight of him.  I'm tempted to do my own book just to help correct the balance, but I'm not the one to do that.  What I can do, is put some notes up here as I read and study and pray over the Rule and, by doing so, perhaps help other Catholics gain some insight into what I believe to be a valuable resource for Christians today.


            Why am I so intrigued by this small document written over fifteen hundred years ago?  Above all, because Benedictine spirituality is grounded in the ordinary.  Benedict didn't believe in running off to a mountain top, or some small fishing village in Mexico to "find oneself."  He would have agreed with Flaubert, "Your Paris is here, or it's nowhere" or the more recent, "Bloom where you're planted."  The Rule presumes that the monk will be humble enough, grounded enough, not to run away but face himself where and as he is.  This is expressed in many ways and I'll try to very briefly discuss three of them below. 


            The first word of the Rule is "listen."  Every time I read the Prologue, this word grabs my attention and won't let go.  Listen to whom, for what?  And here I am sitting in a room with television, radio and an iPod close at hand, it's pretty hard to hear much above the din.  Truth is, if I let them, these things allow me to immerse myself in noise and distraction in order to avoid listening for the most important things, like God's voice or the voice of someone nearby who could be helped if I would stop and listen.  I can choose to isolate myself in my own little world, but Benedict warns against that.  He realizes this will be a struggle, he says we must be prepared for it in the same way we would be prepared for battle, it can be that hard.  Yet, he wants us to make the effort to stop our busy-ness so that we can just stop and listen.  A quote from Fr. Flavian Burns[2], writing about Thomas Merton, describes what I think would concern Benedict the most:


I believe that the writings of Father Louis on prayer and contemplative living give much practical aid and inspiration for improved attentiveness to God applicable to any way of life. If our way of life is too busy or too filled to permit our being a hearer of God's Word, then let's face it: our way of life is too busy and too filled. Not to have room for attention to God is pragmatic unbelief!


Busy-ness is a trap I find myself constantly falling into; following Benedict's way forces me to make time to slow down and listen.  I need to take time to look at the mountain on the drive into work, or watch the rain fall, or take a few minutes for solitude and, another essential for Benedict, prayer.


            For Benedict, prayer is done both in the community and in private prayer.   Private prayer is mostly practiced through lectio, or holy reading, but also constant meditation.  I am attracted to the fact that Benedict doesn't expect his followers to engage in great spiritual exercises, or to have extraordinary mystical experiences.  I have proved to be utterly incapable of such things myself.  What Benedict does ask for with prayer, as with everything else, is moderation.   What he's hoping for is not miracles, but purity of heart achieved over a lifetime of constant prayer.  That may seem to be nothing other than a super-human spiritual exercise, yet it is done simply.  One way is by the constant repetition of a simple prayer or phrase from Scripture, such as the Jesus Prayer.  Thomas Merton describes the effectiveness of this: "The practice of keeping the name of Jesus ever present in the ground of one's being was, for the ancient monks, the secret of the 'control of thoughts,' and of victory over temptation.  It accompanied all the other activities of the monastic life imbuing them with prayer." 


            The communal aspect of prayer is expressed by regular participation in the opus dei, the liturgical hours of prayer in community.  The hours are scattered throughout the day and other activities are dropped immediately to take part in prayer with my wife.  What I can do, is pray the Morning and Evening and frame my day in prayer.  I find this helps keep a great many things in their proper perspective.  It also highlights the third element I find so attractive in Benedictine spirituality, community, or as it's more commonly referred to, stability.


            As I mentioned above, Benedict would not approve of the modern idea of running away to find oneself.  He would say, rightly, that simply changing geographic location does nothing to change who or what we are; we can't run away from ourselves.  Neither can we run away from the situations we find ourselves in everyday; there will always be the difficult co-worker, the impossible task, the incompetent boss.  I find, in my own experience, that there are some people who change jobs constantly.  They seem to think that the grass is always greener in some other situation, and they almost always end up just as unhappy. 


What Benedict asks is that we face up to the underlying causes of these situations.  He would not say that we should stay in an abusive relationship, but with the ordinary difficulties of everyday life, he would ask us to find the solution within ourselves.  He would say we should honestly face up to who we are, here and now, and deal with the problem, here and now.  That is the only way to "find ourselves."  I know that I often feel like I'd rather just not deal with some problem, particularly a difficult relationship, I'd rather leave.  Now I remind myself of Benedict's vow of stability and try my best to deal with whatever the situation is, working within the community in which God has placed me.  It usually works much better.


            What I hope I have described here is simply Benedict's insistence on the ordinary; the listening for God in ordinary, daily events, moderation in the practice of prayer, and building community, "blooming where I am planted," trying to follow God's will in the situations I find myself in every day.  These things are what make a document written centuries ago so relevant to my own life today.


[1]  There are several resources by Catholic authors that I think are especially good.  One is, The Rule of St. Benedict for Beginners, by Will Derkse, and another, Finding Sanctuary, by Abbot Christopher Jamison of Worth Abbey.  A third is How to be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job, by Brother Benet Tdvedten of Blue Cloud Abbey.  Finally, a good general resource on monastic wisdom is Essential Monastic Wisdom, edited by Fr. Hugh Feiss of Assumption Abbey in Jerome, Id.


[2] Fr. Burns, O.C.S.O was the Abbot of Gethsemane Abbey at the time that Thomas Merton went on his final journey to Thailand in 1968.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on September 15, 2008 11:00 AM.

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