2/15/2010

A School for the Lord's Service: Thoughts on Benedictine Fatherhood

We intend to establish a school for the Lord's Service -St. Benedict

When I first read the Rule of St. Benedict, in a small room during a parish retreat, I skimmed quickly over the chapters about the qualities of an Abbot. I found much that was immediately relevant in Benedict's guide for 6th century monasteries, but an Abbot I certainly was not and that role seemed most removed from my daily life.

Soon after, however, I realized that those chapters I had skipped were more relevant to me than anything else in the Rule. I may not be in charge of monks, but I am the abba of 3 young boys and directly responsible for their spiritual and moral development. Our home is not a monastery, but it is a community and Benedict's insights into communal life are unparalleled.

Like Benedict, I intend to establish a school for the Lord's service. And as he says, my job is more like caring for the sick than exercising authority over the healthy. It does not take very long to discover that your children are sinners in desperate need of the great Physician. Here is some Benedictine wisdom that has been particularly helpful to me:

  • They [abbots] should reflect on what a difficult and demanding task they have accepted, namely that of guiding souls and serving the needs of so many different characters; gentle encouragement will be needed for one, strong rebukes for another, rational persuasion for another, according to the character and intelligence of each. It is the task of the superiors to adapt with sympathetic understanding to the needs of each so that they may not only avoid any loss but even have the joy of increasing the number of good sheep in the flock committed to them. (ch. 2)

    Strangely, almost eerily, the Rule comes up in many of the discussions about discipline that I have with my wife. His insight here is indispensable: you simply cannot parent your children as if they were all the same. Incentives that work for one may not be best for another. Punishments appropriate for one may be too harsh (or too lenient) for another.

    Benedict's comical description of how boys in the monastery may need to be "smacked" for disobedience (ch. 30) lays out the primary justification for spanking: some children are too young to understand why they ought not do something, too young too understand punishments that would be appropriate for older children - removal of priveledges, etc. But they can understand "when I do that, it hurts". The immediacy and shortness of spanking is why it works: quick, just after the disobedience, take a moment to repair the relationship with the child, move on. This is good for young children who are always living in the moment.

    Young children need to be taught proper behavior before they can understand why. As they age, "don't do this because it hurts" gives way to "don't do this because it is not good for me". This is also how Benedict describes spiritual growth: obedience to Christ is formed in us by obeying even (especially) when when we do not want to. Through that obedience we grow into desire, understanding, and love, but obedience comes first. The purpose of punishing children, like monks, is to form Christ in them and teach them to be whole, moral people. It is not to win - inordinate strictness beyond what the child can understand or reasonably obey is not helpful to their formation. Proper discipline is not at all easy - it requires a Benedictine care and gentleness and, most of all, a deep knowledge of your child.

  • When any business of importance is to be considered in the monastery, the abbot or abbess should summon the whole community together and personally explain to them the agenda that lies before them... We have insisted that all the community should be summoned for such consultation, because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the youngest. (ch. 3)

    One of my besetting temptations is to underestimate my children. This seems to get worse as my family grows, so that I'm more prone to underestimate my youngest than my oldest. It's not uncommon for me to discount something a child says as silly nonsense, only to realize later that they had seen something that I had missed. Children have a lot to teach us about how to relate to God - He is very fond of using foolishness to confound "wisdom".

  • The oratory must be simply a place of prayer, as the name itself implies, and it must not be used for any other activities at all nor as a place for storage of any kind. At the completion of the work of God all must depart in absolute silence which will maintain a spirit of reverence towards the Lord so that anyone wishing to pray alone in private may not be prevented by the irreverent behavior of another. (ch 52)

    A home with many children is a noisy place and likely won't have room for an always-quiet space like a Benedictine oratory, but as they grow children need to be taught the value of silence, self-reflection, and prayer from their parents.

  • But if even this [severe punishment] does not bring reform and if - may God forbid it - the guilty one is puffed up with pride to the point of wanting to defend wrongful actions, then the superior must follow the practice of an experienced doctor. After applying dressings and the ointment of exhortation and the medicine of divine scripture and proceeding to the extreme resource of cauterization by excommunication and strokes of the rod, and if even then the superior sees that no such efforts are of any avail, yet another remedy must be brought to bear which is still more powerful, namely the personal prayer of the superior and of all the community that the Lord, who can do all things, may himself bring healing to the delinquent. (ch. 28)

    I am not anticipating the need to kick any of my children out of the house, but the simple faith in the power of prayer that Benedict describes is a powerful reminder that the strongest tool we have in the training of our children is not what we do for them but what we ask God to do for them.

  • Further frequent reflection on that future reckoning before the Good Shepherd who has committed his sheep to them [abbots] will, through their concern for others, inspire them to greater care of their own souls. By encouraging through their faithful ministry better standards for those in their care, they will develop higher ideals in their own lives as well. (ch. 2)