Rules of Life: The Benedictine Life

I’d considered the possibility of a call into monastic life about 15 years ago. I was attracted to many aspects of the life but was also quite aware that the monastic life wasn’t what many imagine it to be. There’s quiet but it’s sometimes an external quiet that makes the inner struggles all the louder. And even the best of monasteries can go through turmoil such that the external quiet also disappears. The world follows you into the cloister.

On the whole, there’s order in Benedictine monasteries, those that survive for more than a few years, but that order can itself be disturbing. We modern men don’t deal well with the death of the self by humility and discipline even when we know that death leads to our rebirth in a Christ-like form. Even the most highly motivated young monk has to struggle to accept the rules of a life he’s not yet made his own. There’s maybe a chance for personal study but only after years of studying Latin and chant, the Rule of St. Benedict and the lives of Benedictine saints. There’s maybe a chance to carve out one’s own niche in the way of a woodworker or ale-brewer or bee-keeper if study is of little interest, but that also will be years in the future. Until then, you do humbler work to support the established routines of the monastery.

If things work out for me, I’d like to start a house of studies as a Benedictine oblate community. And I’d like to start it near, or even proximate to, a good monastery such as St. Mary’s Monastery in Petersham, MA. It seems to me to be a potentially effective way to continue my efforts to understand God’s Creation in light of Christian revelation. This may not ever happen. I might spend the rest of my life feeling the frustrations of being in a place and a situation which are not mine.

Sometimes, devout and traditional Catholic that I am, I feel I’d like to live near an Amish or Mennonite community. There are lessons in the Rule of St. Benedict which apply to the life of Christian laymen in a form much mitigated from the monastic original. The Amish and some Mennonites live as if they were following a rule of life for laity based upon the Rule of St. Benedict. Wendell Berry. farmer and poet and essayist, writes of morally proper lives of farmers as if he’d studied the Rule of St. Benedict and absorbed its wisdom so deeply that he can adjust it to different circumstances as a matter of course. Then again, a morally well-ordered life is what it is, whether it comes from a Benedictine tradition or the agrarian traditions of Kentucky.

I’ve always had mixed feelings with the environmental movement, thinking it to have some good ideas but far too devoted to finding technological fixes that avoid asking the relevant moral questions. There are some who advocate a retreat to an inhumane sort of primitive life.

We don’t need to give up technology nor complex social and economic and political systems. We need to nurture the wisdom to develop technology and our various social and economic and political systems to meet human needs, the needs of creatures who serve as stewards of small pieces of God’s Creation. St. Benedict had a great deal to teach us, a wisdom which — again — overlaps greatly with the wisdom manifested in the lives of the Amish and the Mennonites and the likes of Wendell Berry.

Writing this entry has inspired me to go down to the storage room in the cellar of my sister’s house. I’ve retrieved my copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, a printing with commentary in honor of the 1500th anniversary of the births of St. Benedict and his twin-sister St. Scholastica. (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1981 — the anniversary year was 1980.) I’ll start browsing in this Rule which is a wonderful commentary on the art of becoming a Christ-like man. I’ll re-read the small section devoted to the rules of spiritual advancement (somewhat similar to the rules of modern ten-step programs to fight addiction). I’ll spend time contemplating the wisdom that allocated more food and wine to those doing the physical labor than to those running the monastery. I’ll wonder at the wisdom that mandated that the youngest and least experienced should be involved in important decisions — after all, they might provide the creative options. For the sake of efficiency, routine decisions could be made by the Abbot and Prior and Cellarer (the one in charge of physical resources including money).

Benedictine wisdom, like that of our Lord Jesus Christ, has such a concrete feel to it.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Catholic Church, Christian spirituality, Christianity, Monasticism, Rules of Life

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