Discernment Retreat Week Nine
Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.Ch. 72, On Good Zeal
St Benedict began his life of faith in the small town of Norcia, just outside of Rome. As a young boy he was sent to Rome to study: he found himself unhappy there and so left for Affile, a small town roughly thirty miles east of Rome. It was here that he felt a strong call to solitude. He went to Subiaco and made his home in a small cave. It wasn’t long before word spread that there was a ‘holy man’ living at Subiaco. One day an entire community of monks from a neighbouring monastery came to see him and begged him to become their Abbot.
So what had begun as Benedict’s solitary search for God, soon became a communal way of life. This search for God was now lived out with a group of brothers.
The whole structure of the monastery is built on a life that is held in common. Benedict’s Rule is a guide for the communal search for God and much of it is his teaching on prayer, work and relationships. These are solid, practical guidelines that are designed to ‘safeguard love’.
The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.Rule of St Benedict, Prologue
St Benedict knows that the path can be difficult and so he has in mind two sources of strength for the community: his written Rule and the teaching of the Abbess. The Rule gives explicit and implicit guidelines for living together. It is the Abbess’ job to steer a steady course between following the Rule and adapting to the particular circumstances of the monastery.
The primary focus of a monastic’s day is the praying of the Liturgy of Hours. This strong emphasis on communal prayer is hallmark Benedictine life. St Benedict urges monastics to pray in such a way that the bonds of community are made stronger:
let us stand to sing the Psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.Ch 19, The Discipline of Psalmody
The monastic liturgy is so arranged that everyone has their part to play. Some community members will have very specific roles in the liturgy and others will play their part by coming prepared and ready to sing. The contribution of each individual is valued. Monastic liturgy is never a musical performance, it is always an act of humble communal service.
St Benedict arranges the monastery timetable so that at least 5 hours are spent doing manual work. Many imagine monastic life as fairly sedate with not much activity: in fact, each day is timetabled and full. St Benedict wanted his monks to ‘live by the work of their hands’ and so have a sense of shared responsibility for the life of the monastery. The Rule gives very wise advice on how a monastic is to understand their work and warns the monastic against becoming proud:
If there are artisans in the monastery, they are to practice their craft with all humility, but only with the abbot’s permission. If one of them becomes puffed up with his skilfulness in his craft, and feels that he is conferring something on the monastery.Ch 57, The Artisans of the Monastery
There is a strong ethos in Benedictine communities of valuing each type of work. We would try to do all of our work as best as we can, whether that is emptying the bins or writing a talk. We would also show respect for the work of another.
Throughout the Rule there is one central truth: Christ is really present in each member of the community. The love, respect and honour which we show to each other, we show to Christ. This loves underpins all that happens in the monastery. Living with the same group of people day in day out isn’t always easy. St Benedict knows that irritations can build up and he has several safeguards against this:
Assuredly, the celebration of Lauds and Vespers must never pass without the superior reciting the entire Lord’s Prayer at the end for all to hear, because the thorns of contention are likely to spring up. This warned by the pledge they make to one another in the very words of this prayer: Forgive us as we forgive (Matt 6:12), they may cleanse themselves of this vice.Ch 13, The Celebration of Lauds on Ordinary Days
St Benedict puts great store by the virtues of patience and forbearance. Daily life in the monastery presents many opportunities to work towards these virtues. In Ch. 72, On Good Zeal, St Benedict’s words are simple and hugely challenging:
This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.
Biblical Perspectives on Community
You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received – Jesus Christ the Lord; you must be rooted in him and built on him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving.Colossians 2: 6-7
You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you: now you must do the same. Over all of these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love.Colossians 3: 12-14
If our life in Christ means anything to you, if love can persuade you at all, or the Spirit that we have in common, or any tenderness and sympathy, then be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind.Philippians 3
Father, may they be one in us,John 17:21-23
as you are in me and I am in you,
so that the world may believe that it was you who sent me.
I have given them the glory that you gave to me,
that they may be one as are we are one.
With me in them and you in me,
may they be so completely one
that the world will realise that it was you who sent me
and that I have loved them as much as you loved me.
- Copy out each of the quotations from the Rule of St Benedict. Notice the words and phrases which strike you. Which text do you find most challenging? Use that text first for your reflection during the week.
- Use the scriptural quotations for your reflection. Can you see any parallels with the quotations from the Rule of St Benedict?
- Reflect on your experience of community. Have you any direct experience of living in community? How was this?
- What is your experience of belonging to a parish or faith community?
- Does your work situation give you a sense of community? Does this enrich your life?
- What most attracts you about monastic community living?
- What do you think the challenges might be of living in a monastic community?
Rule of St Benedict: ©1981 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.
Scriptural quotations from THE JERUSALEM BIBLE, ©1966 by Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd. and Doubleday, a division of Random House/ Penguin, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.