Benedictine Spirituality

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The word "Benedictine" is relatively modern; it scarcely existed before the 17th century. It evokes the name of St. Benedict, who lived in the 6th century, together with all those who have been inspired by the Rule of Benedict and associate themselves with the Benedictine spiritual tradition. Since Benedict was a monk, the spirituality which is based on his rule, is fundamentally monastic.

Monastic Spirituality. The thing that distinguishes monks from other religious in the Catholic Church is not primarily a matter of governmental structures or observances; all of these are found in other forms of consecrated life. It is rather the fact that monastic existence is a form of religious life having not secondary or ministerial purpose. It is specified solely by a commitment to God sanctioned by public vows. Tradition assigns no other end to monastic life than to "seek God" or "to live for God alone," an ideal that can be achieved only by a life of conversion and prayer. The first and fundamental manifestation of such a vocation is a real separation from many aspects of the secular world. All monks are by definition "solitaries," for this is the original meaning of their name, which comes from the Greek word monachos, derived from monos, to which corresponds the Latin solus (alone). The second characteristic of the monastic vocation is that it demands a life of which a privileged part is given to prayer. Personal or private prayer is traditionally exercised under the form of meditative reading of Holy Scripture and of authors who explain and reflect on it, according to the three phases designated by the words "reading" (lectio ), meditation (meditatio ), and "prayer" (oratio or contemplatio ). In monastic life public prayer is only one observance among those which help the monk seek God. It is not one of the distinguishing characteristics of early monastic life. Only in later centuries and especially since the 19th century has it occupied a more important place in monastic life than in the observance of the majority of non-monastic religious congregations, with the consequence that it is usually considered a special feature of monastic life and spirituality.

The ascetic and contemplative orientation of the monastic life was accompanied historically by such cultural activities and manifestations as were compatible with a separation from the secular world, conversion, and a life of personal prayer.

Benedict's Rule and Spirituality. Christian monasticism had been in existence for a long time before Benedict wrote his rule. In the East it dates back to the 3rd century with St. Anthony, and in the West to the 4th century with St. Martin and other founders of monasteries. It was not founded by a particular saint. It appeared little by little wherever the Church took root, a spontaneous manifestation of the Holy Spirit urging Christians to become monks in response to the counsel given by Jesus in the Gospel: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions , follow me " (Mt 19.21). Thus when St. Benedict appeared, monasticism was already solidly implanted in Egypt, Syria, Palestinethe whole East and in Ireland, Gaul, Italy, Spain, and Africa in the West. The term was applied to two principal types: the hermits who lived alone or in small unorganinzed groups, and the cenobites who lived in community. There were also other forms of monastic life, but they were more or less eccentric in comparison with the two main types and sometimes led to abuse. Hence the spirituality that we find implicit in the Rule of Benedict was dependent in many ways on earlier sources, though he was certainly wise in what he incorporated and what he left behind.

What gives the Rule of Benedict its exceptional quality has commonly been called its "discretion," in the double sense of the word: discernment and moderation. It sets up a framework of life, an institution, of which the essential and constitutive elements are firmly determined: life in common under the government of a superior called an abbot, who has the help of a prior and other officials and takes counsel of the whole assembly of monks, even the youngest in the community. As for details, Benedict left much to the discernment and initiative of the superior. Furthermore, he avoids anything that would be excessive or beyond the capacity of the average monk. He neither innovated nor broke with tradition. He simply organized a form of cenobitic life in complete conformity with the demands of the monastic vocation, which is but integral Christian life. Thus the rule refers frequently to the "divine commandments" and often cites the Bible, particularly the gospel. Its principal source is the Word of God and its model is Christ.

The diffusion of the Rule of Benedict in the West was slow. It acted and penetrated not as a legislative text imposed from without by authority but rather as a leaven by virtue of its intrinsic power. In the 7th and 8th centuries it was often combined with other rules, especially that of St. Columban (d. 615). Little by little, however, the Rule of Benedict became the principal rule, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries and in Italy. Where it was adopted, it was looked upon as a venerable text but not necessarily requiring observance in all its prescriptions. It was considered as proposing a spiritual program, while daily life was regulated by "customaries," to which succeeded, from the beginning of the 16th century, "Declarations" and "Constitutions" as well as the "Ceremonial." Even the Cistercians, who in the 12th century had intended to return to a faithful observance of the rule itself, added numerous statutes.

The rule did not become a text of the past or a dead document; rather it continued to live and to vivify, but its very fecundity, its inexhaustible youthfruits of its discretionexplain how it was able to inspire different realizations. More than a founder in the juridical sense of the word, its author had been an educator, or better, a spiritual father, and he aimed at forming consciences capable of spiritual liberty. He did not intend to impose uniformity; he foresaw and intended diversity and reserved to each monastery the possibility of adapting the rule's prescriptions to various circumstances, provided the essential values of monasticism were safeguarded. The principles of evolution just enumerated enable us to understand why within one and the same Benedictine spiritual tradition there could appear and subsist different tendencies. Prosperity and ties with temporal society often led monasteries, especially the larger ones, to depart more or less from certain fundamental observances required by the rule, notably separation from secular society, real simplicity of life, and manual labor. Life in Benedictine monasteries was also deeply influenced by the clericalization of many of the monks and the episcopal ordination of many abbots. From the middle of the 20th century there appeared in Europe, America, Africa, and elsewhere monastic foundations that, drawing their inspiration from ancient sources, tended to return to forms of monastic life that are simpler and more contemplative.

Benedictine spirituality is essentially contemplative even though many who follow the rule are deeply involved in intellectual or manual work as well as in ministerial service to others. The Benedictine tradition has frequently presented examples of spiritual men and women, many of them venerated as saints, who in the line of their monastic vocation have sought to unite themselves to God by the eremetical or solitary life, normally in dependence on their superior and in the neighborhood of their monastery. The Cistercian Order reinforced the eremetical character of the cenobitical life itself. But for all, the ideal has remained "solitude of heart" with God, guaranteed by the "order of charity" in the community institution. From the 13th century, Benedictine monasteries have often felt the influence of spiritual movements coming from non-monastic sources. The devotio moderna is an example. In this, affective piety and the contemplative study of the mysteries of God were no longer so strictly united as in the preceding centuries, in which the patristic tradition had been preserved. Benedictine writers often appealed to methods of prayer and asceticism that were foreign to the monastic tradition.

Characteristics of Benedictine Spirituality. The Rule of Benedict opens with the word "listen" (ausculta ). This is the key to Benedict's whole spiritual teaching. A monk should be above all a good listener. One of the primary functions of the various monastic structures is to provide conditions in which the monks can concentrate on learning the art of listening. Monks are to listen "to the precepts of the master" but their primary and ultimate master is God. It is only in a secondary sense that Benedict himself, speaking through the rule, and the abbot of the community are masters. The whole spiritual life of the monk consists in listening to God by "inclining the ear of the heart." This listening is not merely an intellectual or rational activity; it is intuitive, springing from the very core of the monk's being where he is most open to God and most open to the word of life that God speaks. God speaks to the monk through Christ, but the monk is called to see Christ not only in the superior but also in the guests, in the sick, in the young, and in the old. In a very special way God speaks through the Scriptures, through the liturgy of the hours (opus Dei ), and through personal prayer. This means that the monk must be very quiet and still within himself, but also very alert and attentive if the word of God is to resonate properly within his innermost depths so that he is enlightened and nourished by it. Benedict calls the monastery a "school" because it is the place where the monk is to be taught by God. This invitation to listen came to Benedict from the heart of the Old and New Testament traditions. The monk's listening is to be modeled after the prayer of Jesus who spent long hours listening and attentive in the presence of his heavenly Father.

Humility is also a dominant theme in Benedictine spirituality; in fact it is closely related to contemplation. It is humility that takes the monk beyond the myth of his own grandeur to the grandeur of God. If he gets the grandeur of God in place, he is apt to get the rest of monastic life in place too. Humility enables the monk to stand in awe before the world and to receive the gifts of God and others. In Benedict's rule, humility is not the same as humiliations, for humiliations degrade the person. The rule is marked by a strong sense of the individual monk's personal worth and dignity. Humility is the ability to recognize one's rightful place in the universe and to see oneself as a mysterious combination of strengths and weaknesses. The rule invites the monk to recognize the presence of God in his life, a presence which is neither gained or won or achieved but simply given.

Humility requires the monk to accept the gifts of others, their wisdom, their experience, and their counsel. But it also requires that he let go of false expectations concerning others. When a monk is aware of his own littleness, he is not driven to satisfy his own ego more than his true needs. He does not harbor illusions of grandeur but senses that all of his life is simply gift. Hence he is able to receive others in the community, including guests, with kind consideration. Through contemplative prayer, the monk becomes an emptiness so there is space for God as well as space for others.

A monk spends his whole life becoming humble. St. Benedict speaks of steps in humility, comparing them to the rungs of a ladder which we climb one by onean image that implies not a strict order of ascent but a more general sense of movement growth. Humility demands that the monk take God seriously, that he take others seriously, but that he never take himself too seriously.

Closely related to both listening and humility is the virtue of obedience. Benedict's treatment of obedience must be understood in light of his understanding of authority. It is God who is the primary author of life for Benedict's disciples; hence the monk's obedience is above all to God and God's word which the monk finds mediated into his life through a wide variety of persons and experiencesin the rule, in the abbot, in the community as a whole, in the young and the old, in the sick and in guests, in the liturgy of the hours and in personal prayer, in sacred reading, in work, and in silence. One of the great challenges in the rule is that the monk obey others not only in their strengths but also in their weaknesses, for it is tempting to see others in their weakness as simply burdens rather than as gifts.

Benedict's community might well be called a formation community in which all, including the abbot and other superiors in the community, are in the process of being formed all of their lives into the likeness of Christ by attentive listening to the word of God, and a loving response to that word mediated into the life of the community by Christ's own offer of friendship through the communication of the Holy Spirit. Hence, conversion to Christ and response to his love through the power of the Holy Spirit are the goals of obedience. It is likewise through that response that one becomes free to be and develop as the person one is called to be. The ideal of this pattern of conversion is meant to be incarnated in a special way for the community in the abbot, who is expected to be a symbolic center exercising a centripetal force that draws individuals into a truly Christian community of life for God and others in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Simplicity of life and a sense of stewardship are also characteristics of Benedictine spirituality. The monk is called to discern how the Benedictine tradition speaks to the basic human condition, often characterized by blindness and greed. At the heart of his contemplative tradition are values which are directly opposed to blindness, materialism, and greed. Poverty of spirit, simplicity, sharing and giving, self-denial prompted by love, freedom of heart, gratitude, care for persons, and sound judgment with regard to created things should proceed from exposure to God in prayer. Certainly the rule does not see material privation as an end in itself; it is in no way part of the Benedictine tradition to assess everything economically by materialistic standards or to override aesthetic or other values for the sake of cheapness or squalor, for such a mentality narrows the monk's horizons and even creates those very evils accompanying destitution which all Christians have duty to banish from the earth. Benedictine simplicity of life is understood properly with the reality of Christ and his mission in mind. It is rooted in faith, and like Christ's own simplicity of life must be an outward expression of trustful dependence on God.

Of all creatures, the human person is in fact the neediest. But the monk's development, like that of all human beings, requires both material resources and the help of other people. One of the sure signs of monastic maturity is the honest acceptance of one's need for other people in community. Hence the monk must be poor psychologically because he realizes his dependence on others. Consequently he accepts the services and ideas of others, the gifts of life, and community. He is called to live in the rhythm of alternating between receiving and giving, accepting the gifts of God and others, while sharing generously jut as others share generously with him. This pattern of sharing is a basic characteristic of a cenobitic community.

The monk's own attitude toward his life then is one of stewardship. Instead of being possessive and manipulative, he is called to grow in detachment which manifests itself in the constructive and creative use of things. He realizes that attachment to oneself and one's talents or goods brings anxiety, a bondage that ties the human spirit down to the earth and allows no enlargement of either one's horizons or one's heart. Benedictine detachment does not imply a disparagement of good things, nor a fear of their power, but rather a just appreciation of all things as gifts of God.

Being poor with the poor has characterized many religious from the time of the Middle Ages, but Benedictines, because of their cenobitic life and their cultural inheritance, are often rich. But if they are rich communally, they must be rich for the many people who are poor not only materially but also intellectually, culturally, spiritually, and humanly. Benedictine monks have often received freely from their families and educators, from the rich Benedictine tradition, from the abundant life of their own communities, and from the many mercies of God. Hence they are rich compared with many who come to the monastery for help. That is why the ministry of hospitality is such an important part of the Benedictine heritage.

On a personal level the rule calls the monk to live a life marked by frugality, simplicity, and gratitude for the many gifts of God. He is called to witness in a materialistic world to the dependence of all men and women on God, and to their need and destiny for a happiness that lies beyond material fulfillment.

In chapter 72 of the rule, Benedict encourages his monks to be zealous, "supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body and behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else." But Benedict also reminds the monk that there is a wicked zeal which leads to death. If a monk's life is not grounded in God, he is tempted to put himself in the place of God. To be empowered by anything less than the God of love is to risk evil zeal in the name of vengeance. When the monk has zeal for God, he will come to see that he is consumed not only with love for God but for everything and everyone else that God has created.

It is the balanced spirituality that one finds in the Rule of Benedict that has made it attractive to many men and women throughout the ages. It is that same balance that has made it attractive today to those countless lay men and women who are not living vowed lives in a monastery but who are associated with Benedictine monasteries as oblates attempting to live their lives in the secular world according to the spiritual values set out in the rule.

Bibliography: Marked for Life: Prayer in the Easter Christ (London 1979). j. chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York 1992). d. rees et al., Consider Your Call: A Theology of Monastic Life Today (Kalamazoo 1978). c. smith, The Path of Life (Ampleforth, England 1995). k. vermeiren, Praying with Benedict: Prayer in the Rule of St. Benedict (Kalamazoo 1999). a. de vogÜÉ, The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary (Kalamazoo 1983). e. de waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Collegeville 1984).

[j. leclercq/

r. k. seasoltz]

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Benedictine Spirituality

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