Learning From the Benedictines – Why a Rule of Life?
In the late 1800’s two French Benedictine Priests were sent to Louisiana. For some reason, they were not embraced there and had to leave. The Abbott of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Oklahoma explained to our students that God took these two French Benedictine priests who were not wanted to a land that was not wanted to a people that were not wanted to do what He wanted to be done.
Leaving Louisiana the Benedictine priests settled in Oklahoma where they began an amazing ministry to the Indian tribes that were moving into the Oklahoma territories. They started schools for the Indian children all over the territory and eventually founded a Catholic girl’s boarding school, St. Gregory’s University and St. Gregory’s Abbey.
For four days and three nights, our doctoral students and we had the privilege of being with the monks at St. Gregory’s Abbey. Having read and studied the works of Saint Benedict (c.480-547) and his rule of life made the time with the Benedictine monks more meaningful.
Benedict (c.480-547) lived in Italy during the disintegration of the Roman Empire. As a young man, raised in a wealthy, Roman home, he left Nursia to attend school in Rome. There he became disgusted with the paganism he saw and renounced the world to live in solitude in a cave some thirty miles from Rome. It was there he began his robust, deliberate God-centered life. In this cave Benedict sorted out what it means to live the Christian life in a pagan world; which eventually began the monastic movement committed to living life in a counter-cultural way.
In the unsettled strife-torn Italy of the sixth century, Benedict’s Rule offered definitive direction and established an ordered way of life that gave security and stability.
Life at St. Gregory’s is patterned after the calling of Saint Benedict toward humility as expressed both in contemplation (a life of prayer) and community (a life of love) and lived out in community within a rule – “regula”. Hence, “the life of prayer” is seen in their commitment to pray 5 times a day as a body (some Benedictine communities honor 7 times daily prayer).They meet in the chapel singing antiphonally through the entire book of Psalms every two weeks. In each time of prayer they read portions of the Old and New Testaments until they are finished and then repeat.
The “life of love” is carried out through their work. Each monk or priest has a job to do the proceeds of which are given over to the community to live on. The monks and priest have no personal possessions but all in common. Each has taken a vow of fidelity to those people, at that place for life.
The monks graciously allowed us to participate in their hours of prayer held in the beautiful chapel on the campus five times a day and to eat our meals in their dining room while they were present. We sat separately. The breakfast and evening meals are eaten in silence and the monks depart from the beautiful dining room chanting the Psalms.
While we, as Evangelical Protestants, may not be called to live the communal life of celibacy as a priest, we can chose to live a life anchored in the Presence of Christ with a desire to be His hands and feet in an increasingly disintegrating culture.
We can include in our Rule of Life the answer Jesus gave to the scribe who asked “what is the most important commandment?”
“The most important one, Jesus answered is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment that those.” Mk 12: 29-31.
Observing the ordered life of the Monks at St. Gregory’s had a soul impact of all of us. They do not hurry! Their ordered life, their rhythms, their commitment to the Scripture, to prayer, their global view of reaching the world with the love of Christ through tangible works of service, their sense of stability and fidelity to their fellow monks in community and their submission to God and their vow to serve Him until death were all compelling.
Consider this: what disruptions in my soul do I need to attend to? What of the frenetic pace of my life do I desire to be altered? What do I need to add or remove; what practices or rhythms do I need to include or replace to help me live a more ordered soul-anchored life?
May each of us be encouraged in the Presence of Christ such that we may love others and serve Christ ourselves that Christ will be seen in and through us in an increasingly pagan culture.
For further reading: Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of Saint Benedict. Vintage Spiritual Classics. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Macchia, Stephen A. Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way. Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity Press, 2012.
Photograph Courtesy of Gail Seidel