Benedictine Spirituality

14Aug07

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What is Benedictine Spirituality? To properly answer that question we would first have to answer the question, what is spirituality? An excellent definition of spirituality is “sensitivity or attachment to religious values.” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) Thus, Benedictine Spirituality can be defined as “sensitivity or attachment to religious values, which proceeds from the precepts of the Rule of Benedict.” Certainly a key message from the Rule of Benedict is a constant love and respect for God and the world God has created. So Benedictine spirituality must be spirituality, which is sensitive to this dual responsibility.

The Rule of Benedict originally promulgated to control the community life of Benedictine Monks has, fairly recently come to be seen as a guide for not just monks, but for Christians from all walks of life seeking to perform Christ’s work on earth. There are more than a few unfortunate similarities between the world of the 6th Century and the world of the 21st Century. Now as then, God has been pushed to the background of mans awareness. Disbelief in God, and in many circles, an overt hostility to God or religion are rampant. Our world, just as the world of the 6th century is increasingly consumed with egotism, violence and despair. The good news of Christ’s redeeming love falls on deaf ears.

Benedict, faced with all of this, responded by setting out for his followers some very simple precepts. Benedict’s “Rule” is actually a collection of 73 chapters dictating in great detail the day, life and living habits of monks. Much of it in fact has little application to the modern world, but just as much of it is as valid today as it was 14 centuries ago.

To those of us involved in Catholic Social Action there is a particularly acute example of Benedictine Spirituality in our “patron saint.” Dorothy Day was a Benedictine Oblate. In 1955 at the age of 58 Dorothy Day became an oblate of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois. Thus, this woman, who had committed virtually her entire adult life to social justice, decided to bring yet another element, the element of Benedictine Spirituality to her work. The merging of work, prayer, and hospitality to the dispossessed was for her, the essence of Benedictine Spirituality. She gives an example in her writings of the problem most of us face as we struggle to maintain our Benedictine Spirituality in a world consumed by woes. “ I say the rosary, I read my Psalms. At home kneeling by my bed, or in the bitter cold, lying in my bed, my prayers are brief, half conscious, and the planning, the considering, the figuring of ways of making ends meet goes on.”

Dorothy Day an exemplar of the person we would all like to be admits to letting the cares of the world, and the frailties of human nature impinge on her best efforts to communicate with God. In this matter, just as in so many others she offers to us the promise that our work is not in vain. Her work was not in vain, and neither is ours.

Following are some Benedictine principles, which can help us use our religious values to bring good to our world. At all of them Dorothy Day excelled, and with hope and trust in God we can do the same.

Listen: The very first word of the Rule of Benedict is “listen.” “Listen my son to the words of the master . . .” (Prologue Rule) Too often in our lives we are too busy “telling” to “listen.” Our prayers are usually prayers of importuning when we should take time to simply and meditatively “listen” to what God is trying to tell us. We must learn to “listen” to those around us, without a compulsion to interject and suggest. What are their needs, what are they seeking? Listening is a difficult skill to master in our results-oriented culture. Most of us have been taught not so much to listen as to gather facts, and once we have the facts to come up with a solution. A sorely lacking skill in our society today is the ability to simply listen, quietly, with compassion and not with an objective of suggesting a solution. There is no dearth of problem solvers in our culture but we are sorely lacking in good listeners.

Pray: Benedict laid out in great detail how and when the monks of the monastery should pray. In fact 13 of the 73 chapters of the rule are devoted exclusively to the times, forms and manners of prayer to be observed. Lay Benedictines, could not, as a practical matter come close to observing literally Benedict’s strictures on prayer. What we can do however, is to specifically commit time in our life, at least in the morning and evening to formal observance of a duty to pray and use that time to give our hearts and our souls to that process. A specific time must be set aside each day, and dedicated to the commitment to prayer. It need not be lengthy but it must be sincere. Benedict himself cautions “We… know it is not on account of our wordiness that we are heard…therefore prayer ought to be short and pure…” ( Rule 20 – 3 & 4)

Benedictines whether professed or lay should make their prayer session one with their community, and for this reason should center their prayer around one of the recognized offices. Lauds, as a morning prayer and Compline as the final prayer of the day can make the perfect “bookends” to a work schedule or business day which does not allow much time for prayer and quiet repose.

Hospitality: “All guests who present themselves are to be received as Christ.” (Rule 53-1) This rule, obviously written to the monastery as a hostel, should be a guide for our daily lives. It actually flows from the above admonition to “listen”. People generally will not present themselves to us as guests literally seeking a place to stay. Quite often though people will present seeking the hospitality of our companionship, comfort or solace. We may not be able to do much concrete to address their problems or fill the voids in their lives, but we can always offer the hospitality of time, kindness, courtesy and consideration. In an increasingly rude, crude and inhospitable world, followers of Benedict should stand out as exemplars of hospitality, offering what we can to all who seek.

This is obviously a very brief introduction to a topic, which could keep a room full of theologicians and philosophers busy for days. However if all of us could keep these very simple ideas constantly before us, and strive to follow them we, and the world would be much improved. The Rule of Benedict offers its greatest value in today’s world not as a set of proscriptions but as a suggestion for arriving at the best possible frame of mind. Listen well, pray regularly, and see all as Christ.

Written by John O’Hagan, Benedictine Oblate Monastery of Ascension and writer for Boise Catholic Worker Paraclete.

Boise Catholic Worker is a group of Lay Catholics who study and live the social teachings of the Catholic Church in their daily lives through the guidelines set down by Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day. Catholic Workers give comfort to the homeless and suffering as well as promote social justice through education efforts and action. We welcome all faith based volunteers to Boise Catholic Worker.

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