The Rule of St. Benedict has long held my heart and mind. Like the Gospel from which it emanates, it declares timeless principles so relevant to our age.
A few years ago, I began writing a book — a Protestant pastor’s attempt to practically transpose the Rule and its wisdom for my parish. (It’s one of those things in progress–simmering on the back burner, crocking in the pot.)
Perhaps you’ll overhear something worthwhile from this ancient path of wisdom as I share with you from my emerging essay:
It’s a question I’ll leave to academia: the comparisons and contrasts between Benedict’s times and ours.
It’s not that there isn’t room for such a discussion. There’s animosity at (and within) the borders. An abundance of competing philosophies vie for our devotion. The Church has its share of glaring shortcomings which converge –inviting too many to (legitimately) question the Gospel and its relevance: too many spectating worshippers, too many “shopkeeping” pastors, syncretism and relativism threaten to sweep Orthodoxy away, “functional atheism” abounds whereby creed and deed become two separate things. An “Empire” wanes. “Civilization” (at least as it is known) seems endangered. Christians, as if jolted from a nap, struggle to define themselves in a place and time they do not remember.
Yes, the comparisons are there—as are the contrasts. But, they should not and will not consume us here. Our real need is affirming and embracing the practical handles for faithfulness and effectiveness which Benedict and his Rule offers us–as disciples, as communities, as pastors.
But, while a depth analysis of the times may be too impractical, there can be no taking away from Benedict’s conception of the times and the relevance of that conception to ministry now… and at all times.
“Society was regarded… as a shipwreck from which each single individual person had to swim for his other life. They were the ones who believed that to let oneself drift along passively, accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society was purely and simply a disaster. They knew they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.”
While Nouwen and Merton were referring to the early desert fathers, these words could just as well have been spoken of Benedict and his followers (who surely drew inspiration from these Spirits).
Consider the rich imagery which serves as a backdrop to his Rule – imagery which serves to portray our pilgrim existence in this world and the purpose of life in community:
• needing to wake up and get up;
• seeking a place in the Lord’s “tent” (reminiscent, perhaps, of the tabernacle… in a hostile wilderness… in the Exodus journey… halfway between slavery and promised land?);
• establishing a school for the Lord’s service”;
• preparing “heart and bodies for the battle” at hand.
Admittedly, it might be a case of “eisegesis” on my part (the bane of every preacher whereby we are tempted to read into a text what we want to see or hear), but, for me, there is ultimately the overwhelming and overarching image–however latent and informal–in the Rule: of the monastery as a fortress set amidst and against a hostile world. Moreover, Benedict’s is a world outlook which includes fundamentals like hell and judgment. Altogether, it invites us to remember and affirm that we are “resident aliens”–“in the world, but not of the world.”
For all the ways and reasons we do not need to bog down in an analysis of Benedict’s times vis-à-vis ours, this may be a fundamental (and timeless) truth we need to reclaim… on the way to a reclamation of our discipleship, our community, and our pastoring: namely, that, as much as we’d like to pretend or hope otherwise, there will forever be an animosity between this World and the life of Faith and the Spirit and, because of that, there will forever be ways in which Christ and discipleship and ministry must stand in opposition to this World and its ways and its values. Ministry which tries to make friends with this world and its ways is diametrically opposed to ministry which sees this world and its ways as delusional and fallen, in need of redemption. Ministry which affirms that Hell and judgment are real is diametrically opposed to ministry which believes that any old life will do, any old way will get you there.
To be sure, we need to be careful here. Being at odds with this world does not mean being at odds with “people” per se – as Benedict’s emphasis on hospitality surely makes clear. Affirming “Hell” and “Judgment” does not give us license to scream fire and brimstone. To be sure, while our argument is with the World, the real “battle” is within. (Otherwise, why would Benedict’s first words call us to “listen carefully”… with the “ear of our hearts”?) Yes, caution is in order. Things are not as easy as they appear.
Still, be advised, Church: you can’t have it both ways! On these things, Benedict was more than clear—and clear from the outset: society is a shipwreck, ministry is lifesaving, Jesus is Lord, life is a battle, the monastery is a stronghold. Such is the ground of his Rule… and its vitality through the ages. Such is the ground of vital congregations and faithful disciples throughout the ages. Until and unless we, as disciples and as congregations, recover a sense of our unique mission, its urgency, and the passion for discipline that it demands, our work—as, indeed our lives–will have no more meaning than the proverbial rearrangement of “deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.”