Elements of a Benedictine Life:

January 13, 2008


Elements of a Benedictine Life:
A Way of Spiritual Development

The Ideal. Above all, Benedictine life is aimed at seeking God. Everything in the Rule of St. Benedict is intended to facilitate this holy purpose, to which lesser ends are invariably subordinated.

Prayer. Prayer for the monk is less an activity than a whole approach to reality and to God. Awareness of God’s presence in time and in place; openness to the wondrous mystery of God’s will; readiness to conform his life in accordance with that will — all these are part of the monk’s prayer. Gathered with his brethren throughout the day in the Opus Dei, the Work of God, the monk journeys spiritually from sorrow for his own sins and failings to joy at God’s goodness. Both the sorrow and joy of life are given voice in the monk’s prayer and praise. In a special way, these themes of compunction, joy, and praise come together in the Eucharist, the sacrificial celebration of God’s saving plan.

Lectio Divina. The monk’s day contains time for meditative holy reading, lectio divina. Through this means, the message of God as conveyed in Scripture and interpreted by the Church Fathers and saints of every era is heard and appropriated by the monk for his own spiritual growth. Thus he obeys the command of St. Benedict at the very beginning of the Rule: “Listen.”

Silence. Before we can listen, before we can truly hear the Word of God addressed to our hearts, the spirit and practice of silence is essential. Silence for the monk is not a rejection of the neighbor but rather a recollected attentiveness to what lies at the heart of reality once all the ephemeral clutter of daily life is cleared away. Only one who has learned how to be silent, who has learned how to go beyond the noise from inside and outside himself, will be able to hear the cry of others, as well as the call of God.

Community Life. Benedictines pursue personal holiness as members of a community committed to the monastic life The support of a group of like-minded individuals assists the monk as he makes his way to God. Within the community he finds guidance, advice, correction, fraternal love, and frequent opportunities for the exercise of charity. “May we learn to prefer nothing to the love of Christ,” exhorts St. Benedict , “and may he bring us all together to everlasting life!” In the midst of his brethren, the monk seeks to make the Kingdom of God a reality already now, in a community where nothing is preferred to the love of God.

Poverty. The monk receives all that is necessary for material and spiritual sustenance from God through the community. He can therefore avoid the temptation of making the accumulation of possessions the centre of existence. He seeks to own nothing — and to let nothing own him. Trusting that what he needs will be provided, he is free to focus his attention on that which truly matters.

Conversion. Aware that internal weakness and external temptation pose constant challenges to spiritual growth, the monk dedicates himself to what St. Benedict calls “conversatio morum.” This is the monk’s commitment to reject complacency and ever to be open to the voice of God, so that the crust of self might be shattered and the kingdom of God might be established within him.

Stability. A Benedictine monk vows to spend the remainder of his life in the community of his profession. This distinctively monastic vow forces a person to confront his problems where he is, without the possibilities of escape and evasion which a transfer might offer. Stability is, however, for the monk more than merely self-discipline, for it permits a monastery to take on many of the characteristics of a family, where individuals over a span of decades journey together to God, benefiting along the way by the diverse gifts each one has to offer.

Prophetic Witness. The early Church appropriately saw monks as the successors to the Old Testament prophets. Every genuine prophet is a witness for God, and a monk’s life should be a silent but eloquent witness to the primacy of God which is possible when the ephemeral and transitory aspects of existence are set aside. The “flight from the world” characteristic of monasticism is in essence a public statement that God’s kingdom is to be valued above all else.

Celibacy. As a sign of the monk’s total dedication to God and His Kingdom, the monk forgoes the good of marriage. Instead, he promises celibacy, a visible sign of the spiritual pilgrimage he has chosen. Like all Christians, monks are obliged to the virtue of chastity, best defined as honesty in relationships with others, never permitting the impulses of the moment to take the place of permanent commitment. The monk’s permanent commitment is to a religious fellowship with God which frees him for service to those around him.

Obedience. The essence of St. Benedict’s teaching is that a monk must, like Christ, lay aside his own will in order to be free to do that of the Father. It is in this context that the monastic vow of obedience must be seen: as freedom, not enslavement. More precisely, obedience means freedom from the enslavement of sin and self-will in order to allow growth in spiritual maturity as sons of God.

The Abbot. In St. Benedict’s thinking, the will of God, revealed first by Scripture and then applied in general terms by the Holy Rule, is given concrete expression by the Abbot’s direction and commands. Far more than an administrator or even a teacher, the Abbot for his monks is a spiritual father charged and empowered by God to bring the monk safely home.

Sacrifice. With morality as with diet, bad habits lead to obesity, to a weighing down of the person that hampers the full and proper enjoyment of life. The monk seeks to prepare himself for his spiritual quest by giving up all that is bad — and even what is good, if that good is an obstacle to the attainment of God which for a monk stands above all other goods.

Work. Every sort of work compatible with the structure of life laid down by St. Benedict is suitable for the monk, and so he can with joy and a clear conscience undertake whatever activity is assigned by his Abbot. In a community which maintains the Rule’s balanced approach to work, each monk will have opportunity to use his talents within the larger framework of a life of prayer, and no monk will have excuse for either laziness or workaholism.