8/10/2007

Benedictine Spirituality

I fell in love with the Rule of St. Benedict a few weekends ago, on a church retreat at Prince of Peace Abbey[1]. In my simple but comfortable room was a copy of The Benedictine Handbook, which contained the Rule as well as several essays on Benedictine spirituality, some example liturgies for the daily office (abbreviated for lay use), and a brief history. St. Benedict had my attention after the first paragraph of the prologue:

My words are addressed to you especially, whoever you may be, whatever your circumstances, who turn from the pursuit of your own self-will and ask to enlist under Christ, who is Lord of all, by following him through taking to yourself that strong and blessed armor of obedience which he made his own on coming into our world.
That weekend I attended as many of the monk's daily services as I could[2] and read most of the rule in addition to several of the companion essays. The tender, fatherly spirit drew me. Most of my exposure to monasticism has been from the Eastern church. And, while there is much to commend in it, I had never run across anything so compassionate, or so immediately relevant.

Of course, I am still not a monk and I can no more sing through the psalms 8 times a day than I can recite the Jesus prayer 17,000 times. But I am called to renounce my own will no less because of that, and St. Benedict's spiritual advice is directly relevant. It struck me that there is no time specifically set aside for individual prayer in his Rule. It is expected to follow from the daily rhythm of manual labor, contemplative reading, and the services of the daily office. And that is something that I can learn from, because I too have a daily rhythm. His advice on prayer is likewise comforting:
We really must be quite clear that our prayer will be heard, not because of the eloquence and length of all we have to say, but because of the heartfelt repentance and openness of our hearts to the Lord whom we approach. Our prayers should, therefore, be free from all other preoccupation and it should normally be short, although we may well on occasions be inspired to stay longer in prayer through the gift of God's grace working within us.

St. Benedict is acutely aware that the monastic life is lived in community, and much of the Rule is devoted to structuring community in such a way that the members are drawn together toward holiness. Now, my home is not a Benedictine monastery. But there are more parallels than you might think. Like an abbot, I am in some sense responsible for the spiritual care of my children. And the spiritual discernment which St. Benedict requires of abbots is both frightening and challenging.

My idea of the character of monasticism changed that weekend. As I read, I scribbled on a nearby scrap of paper: "Monasticism is not solitude. Monasticism is obedience." Obedience (to Christ and one's superiors) is, I think, the heart of Benedictine spirituality. It is in setting aside our own wills and enrolling in a school for the Lord's service, such as Benedict meant to establish in his monastic community (and I in my home), that we learn to take upon ourselves the easy yoke and light burden of the Father.


[1] This was a Roman Catholic monastery, but luckily there are Anglican Benedictine orders.

[2] These were almost entirely sung, roughly a half-hour in length, and consisted primarily of chanting the psalms. I usually find that chant distracts me from focussing on the meaning of a text, but that didn't seem to be the case here. Maybe because I was participating instead of listening, or maybe because it was just done better. At any rate, the chant had a quality that stayed with me long after the service was over.