Feast of Saint Benedict

Today, July 11, has been celebrated as the feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia since at least the eighth century. Saint Benedict is most well known as the father of Western monasticism, having written his Rule for monastics around 530 while overseeing the community of Monte Cassino. In 1964 Pope Paul VI named Saint Benedict the patron of Europe, because of his fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture…changing the face of Europe following the fall of the political unity created by the Roman Empire, inspiring a new spiritual and cultural unity, that of the Christian faith (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience on Benedict of Norcia). Although Saint Benedict did not conceive of himself as founding a religious order per se, men and women flocked to his simple school for the service of the Lord (RB Prologue) that Benedict outlined and which to which I am drawn.

As many know, I have found inspiration in the Rule and Life of Benedict as I have tired to take serious a deep longing for God manifested in a desire for a richer spiritual life, daily structured prayer, and discernment regarding a nagging call to open our house as Casa de San Ysidro y Santa Maria. Although I first read Benedict’s Rule as an assignment for a class in medieval history while an undergraduate, it wasn’t until I returned last spring to reread the text with spiritual commentary that I was profoundly moved and wrote my reflections on the text. (I was recommended and chose The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Sister Joan D. Chittister published by Crossroad in 1992). The hallmarks of Benedictine spirituality are stability, conversion, obedience (the three vows all monks take), humility, community, prayer, work, and hospitality (how these vows are lived out).

Last year around this time I also wrote about my monastic impulses in conjunction with having taken parishioners to see Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence). I have continued my study with Dom Jean Leclerq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (about which I have also written some reflections) and now some primary texts suggested by such. My prayer has been inspired by the writings of the Trappist monks Michael Casey and Basil Pennington (see my post on lectio divina as gleaned from Casey’s Sacred Reading). I have also given a few presentations, including What has a monastery to do with me? for a women’s spirituality group in our parish, in which I emphasized that we can develop practices to find God in the everyday: to live life, a normal life, and yet make it a sacred life and Into Great Beers: Belgian Ales and the Monastic Spirit. A few key insights from Benedict’s rule I used there were:

make prayer the first step in anything worthwhile you attempt (Prologue).
to prepare ourselves for the journey before us let us renew our faith and set ourselves high standards by which to lead our lives. The gospel should be our guide in following the way of Christ to prepare ourselves for his presence in the kingdom to which he has called us (Prologue).
We must prepare our hearts and bodies to serve him under the guidance of holy obedience (Prologue).
With all this in mind what we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service (Prologue).
Those who are possessed by a real desire to find their way to eternal life…live not to serve their own will nor to give way to their own desires and pleasures, but they submit in their way of life to the decisions and instructions of another (Chapter 5).
The essential point is that nothing should be accounted more important than the work of God (Ch. 43).
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore all the community must be occupied at definitive times in manual labor and at other times in lectio divina (Ch. 48).
they will really be in the best monastic tradition if the community is supported by the word of their own hands (Ch. 48).
Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself (Ch. 53).
As soon as anyone knocks on the door or one of the poor calls out, the response, uttered at once with gentle piety and warm charity, should be thanks be to God or your blessing, please (Ch. 66)
Whoever you may be, then, in your eagerness to reach you Father’s home in heaven, be faithful with Christ’s help to this small Rule which is only a beginning. Starting from here you may in the end aim at the greater heights of monastic teaching and virtue in the works which we have mentioned above and with God’s help you will then be able to reach those heights yourself. Amen (Ch. 73).

Influenced by the writings of John Cassian (Institutes and Conferences), who carried the insights of Eastern Christian monasticism from its homeland in Egypt to the West when he founded two monasteries near Marseilles nearly a century before Benedict, Benedict’s Rule is unique not necessarily for its original content but for the manner in which he makes the ascetic life both accessible and rooted in community which accounts for its widespread use throughout the West, especially following the reforms of Benedict of Aniane in the late eighth century under Charlemagne.

The only biography of Saint Benedict was written about fifty years after Benedict’s death by one his followers, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, in the latter’s Second Book of Dialogues: Life of Saint Benedict which is regarded by many as the model medieval hagiography from the Pope who set the agenda for the early medieval Church. What Gregory wants us to see is that Benedict lived his entire life focused on the desire for God above all else. We would follow Benedict as he followed Christ do well to keep this singularity of purpose in mind.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I visited Prince of Peace Abbey while I was in California for my sister’s wedding. I posted some photos of the abbey. Some other notable monasteries, especially those that have influenced the shape of liturgical renewal, include Maria Laach (in Bavaria), Saint John’s (in Collegeville, Minnesota), Solesmes (in Belgium), and Stift Heilegenkreuz (a Cistercian abbey that just released a chant CD that has climbed pop charts in the UK).

As I have spent more time reading about the history and spirituality of Benedictine monasticism, I have been gradually drawn into the insights of the Cistercian reform, which called for a return to the strict observance of Benedict’s Rule in the twelfth century. You can expect more of my reflection on this ongoing journey to be posted on August 20, the feast day of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who carried out the Cistercian reform…

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