The Rule of Benedict--An Introduction--Week 6

Week Six---Obedience

"… Benedict's concept of obedience is rooted in the ancient notion of listening. The Latin root words upon which obedience is based mean hearing in a way that involves meeting/encounter. The foundation of true obedience is a deep attention in order to receive more fully that which is being spoken/given. The whole point of the Benedictine life is to train your heart to listen for the Word that matters, and when it is hard, to respond with all your being, so that life springs forth."~~Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict.

1. The very first sentence of the Rule of Benedict tells us how very important listening is. Benedict says (paraphrased by John McQuiston II), "Attend to these instructions. Listen with the heart [in the original rendering of the Rule, "the ear of the heart"] and the mind; they are provided in a spirit of goodwill. These words are addressed to anyone who is willing to renounce the delusion that the meaning of life can be learned; whoever is ready to take up the greater weapon of fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding."

The Rule is a radical document that calls us to a much more profound life, one rooted in the present, and always with the needs and interests of others paramount to our own. We have been told many times in our individual pasts that we need to listen, or that we aren't listening. Think of and discuss a time when your failure to listen to someone and be attentive to their needs and interests resulted in the failure to be of help to them and to fulfill your Christian obligation to them.

2. In the film, Jonathan spent a considerable amount of time explaining what obedience means, and he also equated it with the ability to listen. In a monastic order in particular, but also in our ordinary lives, how does listening relate to obedience?

3. Consider this reflection and respond from your own perspective:

"It is very difficult for me to set aside my own concerns and tasks when my husband asked me for something, for example-- at all, much less at once. I remember a time when I was a teenager. My father asked me to do something and I stopped and asked him "Why?" He was outraged, and I shouted back, "Why are you paying all that money to send me to college, if you don't want me to ask why?" I felt entirely in the right.

Apart from normal teenage issues of asserting a separate identity from one's parents, it occurs to me that another issue here touches the core of obedience. The goal of a harmonious union of mind, heart, and spirit is utterly shattered by an inconsistence that each request/instruction be evaluated to determine if it is reasonable and appropriate. It is a form of insisting on separation that is poor training indeed for life in Christ. There must, at some point, be a simple willingness to do what the other asks out of love for the other-- simply because he or she asked. And painfully, that willingness must be expressed with a real live person, one whose frailties I see all too well.

4. If you are interested in forming a Benedictine Way Group to continue the study of the rule of Benedict, and the ways in which we can live the rule in our personal lives, along with our spiritual lives within our spiritual community, please let me know. I am very much interested in contacting people from other churches in Mount Sterling, and also perhaps other Episcopal churches that are fairly close to us geographically, such as Morehead, Winchester, or Flemingsburg. I have some materials from the Washington National Cathedral that I will be happy to share with you, and also some information from St. David's Parish in Washington DC. You may also find it helpful to access, if you have a computer, the website called Friends of Benedict. There you will find reading recommendations, other churches throughout the United States and elsewhere who have Benedictine Way Groups, and a way to contact Kurt Aschermann (who is mentoring me) for additional information you might need that I have not provided you. I thank you most sincerely for your participation in this adult Sunday school class, and I look forward to further discussions with you.

The Rule of Benedict--An Introduction--Week 5

Week Five---Work

In the monastic mind, work is not for profit. In the monastic mentality, work is for giving, not just for gaining. In monastic spirituality, other people have a claim on what we do. Work is not a private enterprise. Work is not to enable me to get ahead; the purpose of work is to enable me to become more human and to make my world more just.~~Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.

Benedict placed a great emphasis on work. All monks were required to work, to the level of their capabilities. There were no slaves on monastery grounds, even in times of slavery, and there were no servants. The most surprising aspect of the monastic tradition of work is the belief that no work is more important than any other work-- all work is required for the smooth running of the monastic community. A passage in Will Derske makes this perfectly clear:

"Tasks and activities may indeed differ in weight, but the one is not worthy of more attention (is "more sacred") than the other. This attitude is especially difficult to cultivate. It is very tempting and quite natural to view some activities is more worthy of our time and attention than others: the writing of an important executive notice, the preparation for crucial meeting with a generous philanthropist, the writing of a keynote lecture for an international scientific Congress, or the composing of a report for a meeting of bishops. But we might be tempted to consider other activities less important such as the following: repairing your daughter's bicycle tire, the recreational reading of a bedtime story to a child, or the careful scrubbing of your kitchen floor. But when we realize that all of these tasks, though not the same, are equally worthy, and that all of them deserve to be done attentively, as opportunities "to praise God," or, in a more secular vein, to attend and get things right, and when we respond to this awareness then all activities will increase in quality."

1. What rhythms of prayer and work shape your life? Whether you are together or not, how do you share those rhythms with others?

2. "The Benedictine view of work is rooted in spirituality. Through our work we serve God by serving one another. In our work we use the gifts that God has given us in a generous, responsible, and humble way. Work is important but it doesn't define who we are. Work is an occasion to "step aside" and let our actions glorify God. Through work we can exercise and hold our "Christian muscles." We can seek God as we do each task of the day. Our true work as Christian people is to be Christ's body here on earth, committed to the work of fulfilling the promises we make in our baptismal covenant: to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being."

What does this mean to you, and how does it work out in your own life?

3. John McQuiston II, while not speaking specifically about professional work, has some interesting things to say about works, and it relates to what we have been talking about above:

If you want to live

the life that only you can live,

do good for others,

and when you have done good,

you will have life abundantly.

A life without good works

is a shadow life.

A life centered on itself

is an empty life.

Seek to do good for others, and you will find fulfillment.

Forget yourself

and you will discover what you're seeking.

And if we do good works,

we should not do them in the hope of reward,

nor in the desire for betterment,

nor can we be proud or self-righteous

on account of our good works.

We must credit the good we do

to the hidden foundation of good,

and be grateful to serve as its medium.

How do you think this relates to your own specific professional work?

Homework

Try to incorporate the information given in these five lessons into a one-paragraph summary and affirmative statement of how the Benedictine way could improve your life significantly.

The Rule of Benedict--An Introduction--Week 4

Week Four-- Prayer and Lectio

In the movie, Jonathan mentioned something that Benedictines do when they read the Bible-- he called it lectio divina, or "sacred reading." Lectio is a kind of reading with which we are vaguely unfamiliar-- when we read, especially biblically, we normally take a passage at a time and then reflect on that specific passage. Lectio takes this a bit further. Michael Casey speaks of lectio as "more than the pious perusal of spiritual books. Lectio divina is a technique of prayer and a guide to living. It is a means of descending to the level of the heart and finding God. In the past two decades many people have been initiated into lectio, although often this is been merely a matter of refining an existing practice. It has been a common experience to discover that binding prayer to the Scriptures is an effective means of overcoming the obstacle of subjectivism and of finding a way out of what had become a blind alley of blank spiritual experience."

Christine Valters Paintner and Lucy Wynkoop tell us that lectio "is a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures, which leads us to union with God. It is an invitation to listen deeply for God's voice in Scripture and then to allow what we hear to shape our way of being in the world." Paintner again describes it this way:

  • The rhythm of lectio's four movements reflect the natural opening of the Spirit in prayer

  • The foundational belief of lectio that God speaks through the sacred texts in unique ways to each one of us at a particular moment in our lives

  • The cultivation through lectio of our capacity to listen deeply for God in the whole of life

"Lectio divina is a practice of being present to each moment in the heart centered way. We invite God to speak to us in an unmediated way. Our memories, images, and feelings become an important context for experiencing God's voice active in us, and we discover it when we pray from our hearts those words moving through us break open God's invitation to us in this moment of our lives and call us to respond."

According to Benedict, Scripture has four "senses." These are what we would refer to as the literal sense, the Christological sense in which we find added meaning to Scripture through the use of allegory and metaphor, the behavioral sense, which is also referred to as the moral or tropological sense, meaning the way in which Scripture shapes our beliefs and values so that our behavior is eventually evangelized. The final sense is the mystical sense, which is the sense that refers to the leading of us deeper into prayer.

Each of the senses requires different responses on our part-- the literal sense engages our intellects, the Christological sense engages our memory, the behavioral sense engages our conscience, and the mystical sense engages our spirit.

So how does one choose texts for prayerful reading? There are any number of ways in which this can be done. One may choose a brief passage from any part of Scripture, and then using that daily for two or three days. One may use the lectionary in the same way. Ancient monks would select a book of the Bible and began at the beginning, and then pray with the words until a particular word or phrase struck them, either positively or negatively (even disturbing words or phrases can be used most effectively), and then they paused there to allow their prayer to unfold. When they returned to the text they picked up at the same place and continued forward from there. In this way a specific book of the Bible might sustain a prayer for many weeks. And the passages chosen do not have to be from the Bible. Other texts can be used, such as noncanonical texts or other spiritual books, such as those I have referenced from Richard Rohr, Michael Casey, Joan Chittister, and others.

Let's experiment with a couple of passages taken from different sources. The first passage we will take from the book of Exodus (3:1-5).

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

The second passage is from the Rule of Benedict, Chapter 31.

Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. Let him not think that he may neglect anything. He should be neither a miser nor a prodigal and squanderer of the monastery's substance, but should do all things with measure and in accordance with the Abbot's instructions.

And finally this one, a poem written by the great Persian poet Hafiz:

Now is the time for the world to know

that every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time for you to compute the impossibility

that there is anything

but Grace.

Now is the season to know

that everything you do

is sacred.

Homework

Begin the practice of lectio divina, either on your own or with the company of others. Typically, monastics did their reading in groups, though they were silent during this time. It can be done in any way, and please know that there are no hard and fast rules about how it may be done. It is simply a matter of using spiritual texts in order to deepen one's prayer.

The Rule of Benedict--An Introduction--Week 3

Week Three--Stability

In every context we might practice alertness in one way or another, in the faithfulness the moment demands of us: in a telephone conversation, in your work as a maintenance mechanic of a Boeing 747 of El Al, and the preparation of a meal for your family, in your participation in a meeting of the group council, in your contact with a colleague during a reception, while repairing a leaking bicycle tire. In all of these things, the rule applies: things prosper when we pay attention to them-- and we ourselves prosper at the same time.~~Will Derske, The Rule of Benedict for Beginners

The vow of stability affirms sameness, a willingness to attend to the present moment, to the reality of this place, these people, as God's gift to me and the setting where I live out my discipleship. We are discouraged from fantasizing some ideal situation in which we will finally be able to pray and live as we should. Instead Benedict says, "Be here; find Christ and the restless teenager, demanding parent, insensitive employer, dull preacher, lukewarm congregation."~~Elizabeth Canham

1. Joan Chittister refers to stability as a "revelation of the many faces of God." What do you think she means by this?

2. What is it that often demands your attention when you are doing something else?

3. Do you see any connection between vulnerability, attention to the present moment, and beginning again?

Homework

Noreen Vest, writing in Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, says the following about stability:

"Recently I have become aware what a demanding spiritual discipline is this simple practice of attention to the present moment! At times of stress, I find myself enmeshed in a complex pattern of self denunciation, guilt, frustration, and weariness, which effectively blocks me from being aware of what is actually going on. Basic simplicity of the heart, rooted in the truth about what really is, turns out to be the disposition of profound spiritual maturity. I find myself having to begin over and over, needing to start yet again as a novice, in humility. Yet, oddly, there's often a greater gentleness and self-care in such simplicity that there is in complex psychological assessment. Both are needed, of course, but how liberating it is to be able to imagine and hope for the possibility of simplicity as the truest reality of my being!"

Reflect on this during the week, and try to take note of the times you are able to bring yourself back to the present moment in the midst of all that is around you at any given time.

The Rule of Benedict--An Introduction--Week 2

Week Two-- Humility

It should be the work of Christians who believe in the Paschal mystery to help people when they are being led into the darkness and the void. The believer has to tell those in pain that this is not forever; there is light and you will see it. This isn't all there is. Trust. Don't try to rush through it; we can't leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it. That means that in our life we will have some blue days or dark days. Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God, who works in the darkness-- where we are not in control. Maybe that is the secret: relinquishing control.~~Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs.

1. How was humility defined in the video? What does it mean to be “at the center” of the Rule? What models of humility do we celebrate?

2. Does humility have a relationship with vulnerability? What does Rohr mean when he says that God “works in the darkness?”

3. In Chapter 7 of the Rule, Benedict outlines what he means by humility. In the process of salvation, which could also be called liberation, humility plays a crucial role. But it isn't in the sense of which we ordinarily think of humility-- "although it may indeed manifest itself in a manner that is self-deprecating, it does not do so out of a sense of low self-esteem. Rather, it is a simple recognition of the reality of one's limitations, especially in relation to God. To be humble is to be realistic about what one can or cannot achieve by personal effort. It is opposed, not to self-esteem, but to the illusion of personal autonomy." (Dumm, 2008) Why might we refer to this understanding of the process of salvation as liberation instead?

4. As Jonathan mentions in the film, Benedict wrote the rule specifically for beginners. It is always for beginners, and for no other level, because Benedict believed that there was no other level. People who have been monastics for 30 years, or 60 years, or two days, still remain novices. Every day, and always, we began again in our spiritual life. As Rohr says, we are not born again-- we are born again and again and again. Derske explains it this way: "With Benedict, there is only one level: the level of the beginner, and there's only a slow tempo: the level of the beginner: the one from day to day where we practice piecemeal spiritual improvement management, which is called in Latin conversatio morum (one of the three vows which the monk makes). Do you find this to be disappointing? Why or why not?

Homework

It is important to become aware of where we are in our journey. We need to understand what we bring of ourselves and our history to the exploration of the rule of Benedict. As Tomaine says, "What we bring to an experience greatly impacts what we take from that experience." As recently as a few weeks ago, Cherie Collins asked me to critique her performance at the Arts Center as she was releasing her new CD. I mentioned to her that I found her stories enchanting, but in a wistful sort of way, bordering on stereotype. She was quite surprised-- she said that she didn't think it was that way at all, but it was just an honest look at the lives of people in the mountains. I explained to her that I had read a great deal of Appalachian literature, and was most acquainted with the sorrows and struggles of mountain people, as well as with their joys. I told her that these things color my perspective of mountain people and so I will see things differently than someone who has no knowledge of mountain people at all. Had she asked each person in the audience to critique her performance, she would've gotten many different views, each colored by that person's own experience. Take a few moments to identify three things that you are bringing to the study of Benedict and his Rule by answering three questions:

Who am I? (Answer whatever comes first for you-- there is no need to make it extensive or Freudian).

What is going on in my life? (The key things that are happening in your life right now).

What is the desire of my heart for this study? (What would you most like to experience or achieve? Of course, if you have no desire in your heart for this study, that is important to know too).

Since everyone is in a different place in their lives, the Rule will touch everyone differently. It all depends on your personal characteristics, the events in your life both in the past and presently, and the desires that you hold. While you are studying the rule, keep all of these things in your mind, and try to apply what you learn of the rule to your own life.

The Rule of Benedict--An Introduction--Week 1

Week One—Introduction

Always we begin again...”~~~John McQuiston II

1. An overview of the six-week course

  1. Watch short film The Rule of St Benedict: An Introduction with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Paraclete Press, 2012)

  1. Questions for discussion

a. Jonathan notes that the Rule proposed an alternative social order in the midst of the Dark Ages. How do you see the patterns and practices of the Rule challenging today's social norms?

b. Why is obedience difficult for us? How does the Rule safeguard against abuses of authority? Why does Benedict think of learning to listen is so important to our growth in Christlikeness?

c. How might the posture of a "spiritual seeker" make us "slaves to our own will?" Why is Benedict concerned about this and what promise does the practice of stability offer?

d. What does the Rule propose as a plan for how we can learn to always be listening to God?

4. Homework

"Benedict spent some time talking about the differences between "wicked zeal" and "good zeal." Consider the following quote from Joan Chittister:

Prayer in Benedictine spirituality is not an interruption of our busy lives nor is it a higher act. Prayer is the filter through which we learn, if we listen hard enough, to see our world aright and anew and without which we live life with souls that are deaf and dumb and blind.

But prayer can be an easy substitute for real spirituality. It would be impossible to have spirituality without prayer, of course, but it is certainly possible to pray without having a spirituality at all. There are business people of our generation, for instance, who go to prayer breakfasts regularly and then raise interest rates on Third World debts and increase mortgage rates on housing loans and refuse aid to farmers but easily advance money to munitions companies. There are people who go to prayer groups and never give a cent to the poor. And there are monastics who go to chapel and forget that the function of reading the gospel is to become a gospel person, not an ecclesiastical hothouse plant.

The fact is that the way Satan gets to the holy person may be through sanctity. "The wicked zeal," Benedict calls it, "which leads to separation from God" (RB 72:1). Even sanctity, we're being warned, can become a barrier to growth. Unless we can hear the needs of the other as well as the words of our favorite prayers, the prayer itself may be worth nothing more than hypnotic hollowness. It may make us feel like good people, but it will hardly make us better people."

When you come back next Sunday, be prepared to discuss the nature of prayer, and whether there's a difference between what people think of as prayer and what is or would be considered true prayer. Next Sunday's lesson will be about humility. What did Jonathan say humility was, and how does it relate to true prayer?