The monastic tradition has played an important part in shaping my spiritual life. Many of the great teachers of prayer as well as my own spiritual guides have been monks and sisters. I also have benefited from many retreats at monasteries where prayer governs daily life. T. S. Eliot’s words about the chapel at Little Gidding are most appropriate for a stay at a monastery:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
The Rule of Benedict governs life in most Christian monasteries. Even though it is a sixth century document, which seems at bit out of touch at first glance, I have found it is one of the most helpful spiritual guides of all. Something that has worked well to nurture Christian community in monasteries for 1500 years surely has something to teach us today.
Benedict says that the purpose of the Rule is “to provide a school in the Lord’s service.” It provides guidance about several things we hear little about today: the priority of community over the individual; the importance of humility and obedience; the need for daily discipline in prayer, sacred reading and silence; and the primacy of Christ’s love and compassion in all things. I like the way Katherine Howard sums up the central message of the Rule of Benedict that “God is present and active in our world and in each of us, always waiting for our awareness and response… Only when we … become firmly grounded in the Divine presence can we make the decisions and take the action that is truly good for us, our families, nations and earth” (Praying With Benedict, p.29).
The Rule has to be adapted for life outside the monastery, but the basic principles are clear. I am to follow daily prayer and meditation (at least in the morning and hopefully the evening as well), and to honor and enjoy the Sabbath. I am to follow the way of humility as a servant in my family life, my church life and the various levels of community wherein I participate. Closely related is the way of obedience to the will of God, as it is made known to me through God’s living word and through family members, church members, teachers and not just those in authority but also through “the least of these my brothers and sisters”. I am to spend as much time listening as talking, and cultivate habits of silence. I am to practice hospitality and generosity, and be a good steward of all God has entrusted to me, including the beautiful earth. I am to seek ways to live more justly and compassionately.
Since little of this may be accomplished by my own effort, I need the support offered by others and the constant encouragement of the Spirit, who lives within me and within the Christian community. Monastic communities are a support because they offer the wisdom by which Christians have lived for 1500 years. By way of practical help there are several books (written by those far more qualified than I) about what the Rule of Benedict offers people outside the walls of monasteries: Living With Contradiction (1997) by Esther de Waal; Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (1991) by Joan Chittister, who has written several books on this theme; Praying With Benedict (1996) by Katherine Howard; and “Monastery Without Walls”, the letters of John Main, edited by Laurence Freeman (2006). There is also a very good on-line resource, Monasteries of the Heart, (http://www.monasteriesoftheheart.org).
It is also my hope that churches would read the Rule and reflect on its guidance, and see how congregational life might benefit from the monastic tradition. True community is what people long for, and Benedict teaches us it may only be found in God.