Going Sane With St Benedict
I first encountered The Rule at the beginning of the 1990s when Esther de Waal came to Australia and offered a seven-day Benedictine Experience or Retreat here in Melbourne. This involved a group of very disparate people coming together for a week and living out, in as faithful way as possible for a group of 20th century Christian non-monastics, the Rule of St Benedict, at the Santa Maria Convent in Northcote. We kept most of the hours, though not in the middle of the night, and we maintained the Great Silence. During some of these prayer times, Esther included short addresses and reflections on the life of Benedict, or the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Over lunch, she read to us sections from Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary.
That the 24-hour day can be structured seems obvious. But before this time I had never reflected on this as a way to live a flourishing life. This little Rule, ‘mimimam inchoationis regulam’ (little Rule for beginners), designed to ‘set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome’ (RB P.46) was received from an earlier Rule of the Master, then breathed into with new life by an Abbot psychologically astute and very sensitively to attuned human foibles and fallibilities. The Rule of Benedict is a third in its size to the Rule of the Master, but there are some significant differences in its 73 brief chapters. These variations seem not so much to do with how a monk ought to structure his day, but the sort of communal culture that is fostered in his community. Both Rules know the importance of apportioning time so a human being can live amongst others and have all essential needs, personal and corporate met. Both Rules recognise the variations inherent in each season of the year and the church year. But it’s Benedict who understands community life in a much more down to earth, humanistic way.
This understanding about how to shape our movements through time each day, like learning the steps of a dance, was new to me. The Rule came at a time in my life when I was moving out of a crisis period. I’d had my own powerful experience of God’s love a few years before, the consequences of which instead of enhancing my life, had completely upended it and shattered me. The structures of work, the pressures of study, the responsibilities of marriage, all those artificial external rubrics which can hold together a person’s life including mine, were gone. At this point, I was in painful limbo. In this brief Benedictine life of seven days, I learned what the primary building blocks for a human life journeying on this earth are. I experienced moving through time in a regulated gentle balanced way; a way which is a framework that held me no matter my emotional state. The spirit of this rhythm of life wasn’t drawn so taut as to fracture if you fell out of step; nor was it so loose that you could choose to dance only to your own heart’s content. The rhythm involved being attuned to persons around you as they danced as well. Here was a balanced life where no part was exaggerated or out of proportion to another.
For me, the monastic hours are like the Grand Staff and the five lines ruled out on sheet music. They set the tempo, the bars, the repeats. They give sense, shape the space and offer a holding place. The key this piece is played in and the notes set down, are put in place by the vows. The vows are “not a profession formula, but rather a rubric.” (https://www.idahomonks.org/sect805.htm) They are not separate, but rather integral to each other. They are like the fine music giving artistry and meaning to the interplay of melody lines through life. The vows give coherency and strength; they recognise there is a reason for this rhythm. Journeying through the hours, these three inner commitments keep us attuned to our inner spiritual life so that even when we may be derailed, we find renewal and new ways ‘to run on the road of God’s good words’ (trans. Wilson Hartgrove p 6) with ‘our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.’ (RB P.49)
There are three images from the Rule which speak to me about what it means to be human; human living alongside and rubbing shoulders with others.
Towards the end of the Rule, St Benedict spells out some of the different roles in the monastery. In chapter 66 he writes about The Porter of the Monastery. The actual Latin word is ‘ostiariis’, from which we get the word - ostiary. And an ostiary is the mouth of a river, but also more pertinent here, one who keeps the door, especially the door of a church. This role of the ‘porter’ is very specific.
The doorway referred to here is the portal which stands between the ordered self-sufficient world inside the monastery where ‘all necessary things such as water, mill, garden and various crafts may be within the enclosure’ and the much wider life outside which in Benedict’s time was unsettled, strife ridden 6th century Italy. The Porter is at the door ‘so that the monks may not be compelled to wander outside it, for that is not at all expedient for their souls.’ The doorway to the monastery is a powerful place to situate someone. Benedict tells us: Place there ‘a wise old man’ or ‘a sensible old man.’ A man who is mature and not himself tempted to wander off. He must also be a man of ‘fervent charity.’ He is to welcome strangers with a blessing. As always, keenly understanding the requirements of the job, Benedict makes sure that the porter is to be provided with a room near the door, and perhaps a younger brother to help him out.
In John’s Gospel 10 we are told that Jesus is the ‘gate for the sheep,’ and that those who come in or go out, find pasture. I heard recently Dorothy Lee talking about this image of the shepherd in John, as one who is both called to keep the sheep secure, as well as provide an environment for them in which to flourish. This echoes to me about the nature of the porter’s role here in Chapter 66. The doorway of the monastery to the outside world is a place of crossing over and of transition. The inner environment is to be protected, but also not overly stifled or totally removed from the influence of outside environs.
This leads me to ask a more psychological question: what or who in me, do I place, do I choose to stand at my doorway; that interface or portal between my inner world and external environment? What inner space are we called to protect, yet at the same time not stifle to the point where we become invulnerable to the knocking call of the stranger outside?
Of the three Benedictine vows, the one which I gravitate to and yet increasingly find the most challenging, is the pledge to undergo inner renewal -‘amendment of manners’, ‘fidelity to monastic life’, ‘conversion of his life’: conversatione morum. (RB 58.17) ‘The monastic profession is a way of life which involves conversation, communication, between the monk and God, the monk and the abbot, the monk and other monks, the monk and the surrounding world, a conversation that is prayer or prayerful,’ writes Oblate Catherine Mary Magdalene Haynes, Oblate O.S.B. (https://www.idahomonks.org/sect805.htm)
If I translate this into my own life, which is not monastic but hopefully a few stumblings on the spiritual path, then here there is recognition that the practice of awareness in conversing is one I am asked to cultivate. Stay awake, consciously unselfconscious in my own conversation with others, with God, with Scripture. We need to keep the doors of our ears open and listening, but also give time to take time to return to our inner room in which we each converse with Christ. This space inside us is a touchstone, a spring from which habits of the heart are fashioned. Here is the place for new life. Equally so, if we leave it uncultivated or fill it up only with our own ego-driven agenda, this inner place stultifies, at worst distorts us towards coercive action.
So, the porter is an image of standing at the gateway: willing to embrace the unknown stranger, welcome in, greet with the blessing of Christ; but, also to hold back, protect the inner ground that has already been prepared over and precious. There’s a boundary between that which is self-contained and self-sufficient, has integrity; but not so fenced off from an openness that allows the foreigner, the itinerant, to offer change. This is not about becoming resilient or impervious to outside influence; but about being discerning, prepared to be vulnerable because that’s the place where Christ as shepherd also stands. And it’s the steadfast love of Christ who holds us there. This vow of ‘conversatione morum’ is a radical vow in our world today; it’s counter-cultural because of its refusal to take sides. It consciously recognises that standing here in this tension between what you protect and what you let in requires wisdom, and potentially it is the place which can offer a community, as well as a person, deep inner growth.
My second image, is really two images but they complement one another in the Rule. They are places where the community regularly gather together. The oratory and the refectory, or literally ‘mensa’, ’the common table.’ The value of and high regard for these two gathering spaces is very apparent in the Rule. When a monk takes his vows he does so in the oratory, in the presence of all and before God and the saints. (RB 58.17). Sometimes Benedict speaks about the behaviour of monks in oratory and at ‘the common table’ in the same chapter.
The oratory and the refectory are two places which enable monks to cultivate and enjoy their second vow, stability. The etiquette of behaviour in both these places is highly regulated. The Rule, by our standards, seems meticulously to set out how the ritual of the hours are conducted in the oratory: which readings apply, psalms sung and in what order. These vary according to the seasons of nature and the church year. The oratory is a place set apart for only prayer - ‘Nothing else is to be done or stored there.’ (RB 53.1). Such demarcations of place and definitions of monks’ roles are very important in the Rule. There are strictures about arriving late to these communal gatherings - all monks must strive to arrive on time - a lesson too in learning to live with the unfinished. A late monk is never to stay outside the oratory or go back to bed. He must sit in a place in the oratory set aside by the abbot for such offenders, a place apart from the other other monks to ‘shame’ them in to amending.’ (RB 43)
Repeated throughout the Rule is the phrase - ‘subject to the discipline of the Rule’ - ‘disciplinae regulari subjaceat.’ There are a number of references to punishments for different offences. The process of this discipline often seems to involve the separation of a monk from the close and active engagement within the common life of the whole community, in particular exclusion or ‘excommunication’ from joining others in the oratory or the refectory for a period of time. In Chapter 24 of the Rule Benedict makes it clear that anyone who is guilty of a lesser fault is to be excluded from the common table and eat at different times. This also includes the monk not being able to lead any readings or psalms in the oratory (RB 24.4). If the fault is even more serious he will be excluded from both the common table and the oratory. (RB 25)
The oratory and refectory are two places that gather everyone in and in so doing remind them of their corporate identity. They are places which anchor the monks communally in place and time. The strictness of keeping rules is for the sake of the whole group. Good practices on the part of each member in the community enables the good functioning of corporate life for all. ‘The good of all concerned….may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and safeguard love.’ (Prologue 47). But these regulations are premised on mutual respect and love. (RB 71) As we read further along the Rule more and more concessions seem to be given for the particular needs and frailties of the brothers. The opening Psalm 94 at Vigils is to be said ‘slowly and deliberately’ (RB 43.4), with the implication that the community needs to give their brothers extended time to arrive. Benedict writes that for Sunday vigils, if ‘God forbid, the monks happen to arise too late…(then) the readings or responsories will have to be shortened.’ (RB 11.11) Adjustments have to be made when events go haywire. And monks must be sensitive to the needs of their brothers; when departing the oratory monks are instructed to leave in silence, ‘so that a brother who wishes to pray alone will not be disturbed by the insensitivity of another.’ (RB 52.3)
Likewise, the timetables for meals and the amounts of food consumed at the table are regulated. But again these may vary seasonally and concession is given for more food during times of hard labour (RB 39:6). Weekly kitchen service is mandatory, unless you are sick or otherwise engaged in important business. (RB 35.1) Those who are not strong are given help, and all kitchen servers are to be given extra portions of food and drink before they serve meals to their brothers so they should not be tempted to grumble. (RB 35.12-13) And in Chapter 40: ‘The Proper Amount of Drink,’ Benedict seems to all (but not quite) completely crumple before what seems even then the Italian cultural mores of daily imbibing wine. He writes: ’We read that monks should not drink wine at all - but since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately and not to excess.’ (RB 40.6) He finishes the chapter by admonishing grumbling brothers in other monasteries where drinking wine is subject to tighter regulations, monks ‘there should bless God and not grumble. Above all else we admonish them to refrain from grumbling.’ (RB 40.9)
In all this, discernment and leadership as to when to exercise strictness or be lenient is a decision undertaken by the abbot. The abbot, like all leaders in a Christian community, is seen to ‘hold the place of Christ’ (RB 63.13). He himself is to stand in awe of Christ and be subject to the Rule. He is a ‘steward’ whose ‘goal must be profit for the monks not preeminence for himself.’ (RB 64.8) For the community to be stable, the abbot must be grounded and integrated in Christ. Much explanation is given to the role of the abbot at the beginning and the end of the Rule. ‘Goodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one to be made abbot.’ (RB 63.2). He is a physician of souls, and called to move with or discipline the monks in a way that 'use prudence, avoid extremes’ (RB 64.12).
When I was young, stability meant that when you ‘grew up’ you were materially well off, had permanent employment and family relationships were strong and secure. I was taught that stability had nothing to do with having an inner life. If one followed conscience as directed by the Catholic church teachings, the catechism, one’s spiritual life would be taken care of. To experience psychological or emotional health issues was to be weak. Concessions were morally judged. To be stable in mind, meant one had firm opinions that were based on some immutable truth that was seemingly shared, obvious to some (not me) and leading to strong unquestioned convictions. Again, not me. Stability meant one could be totally self-reliant and effortlessly take action in the world. It would give one a sense of permanence, a moral rightness, a definition. To me stability spelled only one word - LONELINESS.
This is not the understanding of ‘stability’ that I encounter in Benedict’s Rule. Reading the Rule now, I have this strong sense that real stability comes out of a recognition of the need to cultivate a healthy inner life which can flourish in a community of imperfect human togetherness, made perfect only in Christ. It’s akin to the African ubuntu: I am because you are. A community founded on the love of Christ is about establishing ‘peace for all members’ (RB 34.5) In ‘Holy Living’ (p34) Rowan Williams writes in his Chapter on St Benedict: we have to grow in ‘steady unselfconsciousness about the steady environment of others.’ That’s stability. This is a gathering of persons who intentionally attempt to foster that sense of each person being loved and cherished by God, and who are also called to serve one another.
This doesn’t mean I must not live alone. Most of us move in a number of different environments of all sorts of variations each day. Driving in traffic even though girded with steel like some knight encumbered by armour, is another environment I’m called to move ‘steady’ in amongst others for a short space of time. In many different spaces as I rub shoulders with other bodies, I draw from the Rule’s understanding that to be stable is to recognise that you are part of a group of persons of all different types and talents and human frailties.
We also help steady one another. Often in the Rule we read how modelling is very important: the older, more experienced mentor the young. The Rule’s own occasional contradictions highlight the reality of human imperfection. It’s willingness to give concessions, reveal the importance of taking place and context into consideration when making regulations. The sick and the elderly are given extra support. The wayward, are treated by the Abbot as if by a physician and given much time and patience to come to recognise where their error lies.
My third image is ‘possessions’.
In one evening session with Esther de Waal during the Seven-Day Experience she asked us to practise looking at objects around us, there in the convent and when we went home, and say: ‘this is on loan to me from God.’ In other words, these materials around me have been received by me, but paradoxically, if I wish to truly have them then I must give them back. By acknowledging my material possessions are not simply mine own to accrue and then dispose of as I wish, loosens my hold on them. And it frees me also from their grip on me. This practice reminds me as a Christian that as valuable and lovely as objects can be, to be treasured for many reasons, there is still something even more valuable. There is something even more real.
Esther de Waal’s practice is about developing right relationship with the tangible world.
How do we enter into this right relationship with our material world?
Before becoming part of the community, the Rule of Benedict states that a brother must give away all his possessions to the poor or formally donate them to the monastery ( RB 58.24). He must be ‘well aware’ beforehand that from the day he becomes a member ‘he will not even have his own body at his disposal’ (RB 58.25). In the oratory before the community he is stripped of everything that he is wearing ‘and clothed in what belongs to the monastery.’ (RB 58.26). The Rule is unequivocal in its strictness that monks have no possessions. ‘…without an order from the abbot no-one may presume to give, receive, or retain anything as his own, nothing at all..’ (RB 33.2) Relatives are not allowed to give personal gifts to a brother; they must be for the whole community. (RB 59) Beds are to be inspected frequently by the abbot ‘lest private possessions be found there.’ (RB 55.16) ‘In order that the vice of private ownership may be completely uprooted, the abbot is to provide all things necessary’ (RB 55.18) But note again, this is checked with a concession: ‘The abbot, however, must always bear in mind what is said in the Acts of the Apostles: Distribution was made to each one as he had need (Acts 4:35). In this way the abbot will take into account the weaknesses of the needy, not the evil will of the envious; yet in all his judgments he must bear in mind God’s retribution.’ (RB 55:20-22)
A short time after the Benedictine Experience I visited St Mark’s Priory as it was known then, in Camperdown. Joan Chittister’s ‘Wisdom Distilled from the Daily’ had just been released and Dom Michael was encouraging visitors to read it. At the end of her reflections on the Benedictine way of life, Chittister tells the story: ‘Once upon a time a preacher ran through the streets of a city shouting, “We must put God into our lives. We must put God into our lives.” And hearing him, an old monastic rose up in the city plaza to say: “No, sir, you are wrong. You see, God is already in our lives. Our task is to simply recognise that.’ P 207.
In an address exploring human identity, Rowan Williams says that a person can only fully be a person when he or she recognises that they are part of a network of relation. And this involves an acknowledgement that we are dependent. He goes on to say: ‘…for the Christian believer that dependence is ultimately a dependence on ….a comprehending and comprehensive gaze. We are held in a look, a divine look, a divine contemplation of us; which leaving nothing out, judging and rejecting nothing of us, holds us. A comprehending - that is, an empathetic and interior awareness; a comprehensive - an inclusive vision of who we are.’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVx8dfMIR7k) This is our identity in Christ and this is the gaze of God, and God’s contemplation of the world God has made.
The monk’s relationship with the material world as set out in the Rule, I want to suggest, is not simply about sacrifice or denial, giving up personal possessions, but rather more importantly a new taking on. He puts on the new clothes of the monastery. The call to obedience, which is the third vow, draws on the primary recognition that he is always and in all places seen by God: ‘let him recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God’s sight’ (RB 7:13) Everything in a monk’s life becomes occupied with this turning towards God’s gaze on him. For him to turn this gaze onto personal possessions, can only be a distraction.
Obedience to Christ is about continual tuning in to God’s ‘comprehending and comprehensive gaze.’ Our task is to recognise that God is already in our lives. In Chapter 7 of the Rule, the first step on the ladder of humility involves quoting Psalm 35, that a ‘man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes.’ If we understand the intention of the Rule to facilitate the life of a person who flourishes in community, and that the divine gaze of God is one of contemplation of His creatures in love, then fear, or ‘timorem’ here can’t mean that the monk or we are to experience the type of terror a school yard bully could elicit or the paranoia a 24-hour surveillance camera in a work place can evoke. The fear is much more akin to overwhelming ‘awe’. It’s there on the first rung of the humility ladder because this is the primary ground where we recognise that we are the clay and dust God has chosen to breathe life into. And God is still breathing life into this body. And, as much as we would have liked to, or sometimes even think otherwise, we didn’t make ourselves.