Commemoration of Benedict of Nursia, (480? – 547?)
Founder of Western Monasticism
Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.
He who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.
— St .Benedict of Nursia
Years and years ago, I found a book by Rumer Godden called In This House of Brede, a novel whose main character is an important, respected and, admittedly, worldly person but who gives it all up to become a Benedictine nun in a cloistered monastery. The chronicle of her struggles to live up to the rules of the order and to fight her personal demons intrigued me, but so did the extended periods of silence and the ordered life of prayer and work. I was ready to sign up except for a few details — I wasn’t Roman Catholic, didn’t really want to be Roman Catholic (despite loving much about the faith and practice of that church, not to mention the music), and the thought of having to get up at 3:15 every morning! Still, I loved and still love the book, getting from even the work of fiction a small sense of the peace that the holy lives of those who follow Benedict’s rule in community and in practice. Still, 3:15am —
Benedict of Nursia didn’t invent monasticism, rather he molded it through his own sense of dedication to living a religious life and in his writing of the Rule, a book of short chapters that is read through in every Benedictine house and by those practicing a Benedictine way of life several times a year, year in and year out. The term Rule seems a bit harsh, like an unbending set of regulations or dogmas that must be followed and, in a sense the Rule is a set of regulations. Every year, at the very outset of an EfM group’s first meeting of the term, members establish norms, rules that they agree to follow for the coming scholastic year. If there is something a person can’t live with or feels they cannot subscribe to, that proposal is either reworked or removed. Ultimately, what we end up with is an agreed-upon set of guidelines which we revisit when necessary and hold ourselves to live within. The Rule is sort of like that; a person seeking to enter the Benedictine order must know what they are in for, and the rule gives them those guidelines. The Rule applies to each member, from the abbot/abbess to the oldest member to the newest novice alike. Still, there is wiggle room in parts, giving the abbot/abbess and the community a bit of leeway in enforcement when circumstances require a bit of elasticity. The rule St. Benedict wrote in the early 6th century is still the guiding force for many who embrace a life of prayer, work, service and study in the Benedictine manner.
Benedict believed in balance. He made sure that there was time during the day for the work of prayer, meditation and study, but also times for the body to be active in work that benefited the community and could provide a necessary service for the surrounding village or villages as well as bringing in income for the monastery’s needs. One thing that speaks most strongly to me is that at the beginning of Lent each year, each member is given a book to read, selected by the abbot or abbess, and they are expected to read it as part of their Lenten observance. Frankly, I would have a horror of being given something weighty and ponderous, maybe like something from Augustine, but then, it might be not just a good practice for Lent but also something I would find I needed to read, whether or not I really wanted to. It seems it would be an exercise in trust, trust that what I was given was not a whim but a considered decision given in love rather than given as punishment. It would also be an exercise in obedience, something Benedict stresses many times in his Rule.
Balance. Now there’s something the world could stand to learn from Benedict and his followers. Out in the world we are so busy, busy, busy — trucking the kids to ballet and soccer, rushing to work, rushing home to cook, clean and mow — it’s no wonder we are always exhausted. Even on vacation we’re rushing from activity to activity, place to place, museum to amusement park to whatever we think we can’t afford to miss or have the children miss. Benedict knew that it was necessary for the body to do something manual, something physical, to keep it running efficiently and also to do a share to provide for the needs of the community as a whole. He also understood, though, that there needed to be time to sit, to pray and meditate, to listen and learn, to study and exercise the mind as much as the body had been exercised. Even in work, however, there should be a spirit of prayer included, a listening of the heart as the hands were busy cultivating, mopping, cooking, caring for an ill member, or tending to the laundry. I need a bit more balance in my life, and I’m not always self-disciplined enough to do it alone.
I will, though, try to take Benedict’s words about laboring while praying to heart. I notice that he doesn’t say “Pray while laboring,” which makes work the main focus with prayer as just a sort of add-on. I think of my iPod, my lifeline and “white noise” that I use at work. Usually I have Baroque church music on (with an occasional nod to the joke, “I can’t believe it’s not Rutter!”) and I find myself mentally reciting or singing the words along with the recording. I think of it as a sort of Buddhist prayer-wheel that keeps sending prayers heavenward even after the last person to pass by them has gone. Maybe, in a very small, very odd way, I have at least part of Benedict’s lesson right. Now I just need to reverse the order and let my work be as much a prayer as the music is now.
Maybe I could make better use of the 3:15-3:30 A.M. awakening I usually have. The boys usually start getting antsy for breakfast about then, and once they have me awake I seldom get fully back to sleep. Perhaps that’s a nudge to use the time more profitably than merely pounding the pillow and turning over with a deep sigh. I’ll have to give that some thought.
And maybe I just need to follow one rule of Benedict’s, “Listen and attend to the ears of the heart.” That’s an internal cultivation that I think would be most profitable — at any time of the day.