Today, 11 Jul 2012, is the happy feast day of St Benedict, abbot and founder of the Benedictine order, who lived mostly in the 6th century. Because he was attuned to God and willing to act upon the promptings of the Holy Spirit, he was led step by step into the writing of the Rule that has guided countless souls to holiness in monastic life. We owe him, and the grace of God which worked so powerfully through him a great debt of gratitude.
Without St Benedict’s ‘yes’ to God there would not have been Saints like St Gertrude the Great, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Scholastica, St Boniface, St Hildegard, St Bede the Venerable, St Adalbert and many other Saints who have made big and lasting impacts for good upon the world. Upon his ‘yes’ and upon his experience of monastic life for 25 years prior to writing the Rule hang so many other outstanding ‘yeses’ .It is a sobering thought that the outcome of many soul’s lives may depend upon my ‘yes’ to God today.
Always it is good to honour St Benedict, because he has been a constant prayer of companion of mine for many years. To do so we will read from some parts of the Rule that he wrote:
In chapter 45 he writes, ‘If one makes a mistake in chanting a psalm, responsory antiphon, on in reading a lesson, he must immediately humble himself publicly. If he does not, he will be more severely punished by his elders for he will not have corrected by humility what he did through negligence. Children should be whipped for these mistakes.”
This part of the Benedictine Rule shows a lot of wisdom. It reminds the monks that in serving God through prayer and worship that they are seeking perfection, and that the greatest perfection is what we should be aiming to offer to God our Father. Then when, as will happen from time to time, there is a stuff-up, that this is an opportunity for growing in humility – underlying just how important this virtue is. Seeking pardon of everybody is also reasonable because each and every stuff up distracts everybody from the spirit of prayer. I’m sure that you have noticed that after Mass people tend to discuss the stuff ups they noticed, prior to doing any discussion of the good things they heard in the homily or how uplifting the music was. So with the carrot of perfection and the stick of a public act of humility, St Benedict wisely obtained beautiful and dignified liturgy.
In chapter 22 he writes , “All the monks shall sleep in separate beds. All shall receive bedding, allotted by the abbot, appropriate to their environment. If possible they should all sleep in one room…. The younger brothers should not be next to each other. Rather their beds should be interspersed with those of their elders. When they arise for the Divine Office, they ought encourage each other, for the sleepy make many excuses.”
Separate beds was an innovation at the time Benedict wrote his rule. Even centuries later when St John of God was forging new paths in caring for hospital patients, ‘one patient one bed’ was a novel idea. This rule certainly lessens the possibility of anything untoward happening, which could have happened with 4-5 in a bed. Sleeping in one room helps keep the monks on the path of poverty, because having a private cell encourages people to think of that cell as ‘theirs’. Should you have ever been on a weekend or week long retreat or summer school with young adults, you will know just how often they will collude together to stay up late and get into mischief – necessitating older people acting as night-watchmen to get them back to bed. Staying up late means that the youngsters will be too tired to receive all that God wants to give them from the teachings and the activities provided. Separating the energetic youngsters is an excellent way of helping them keep out of trouble, and in particular of preventing them from developing favouritism among their peers. As someone who regularly has to get a teenager out of bed and moving in a forward direction, the wisdom of St Benedict in getting the monks to encourage each other in the sacrifice of their nice warm beds for the sake of God’s praise is a really good one. Happy and upbeat encouragement trumps whinging, groaning and moaning every time.
In chapter 57 he writes, “Craftsmen present in the monastery should practice their crafts with humility, as permitted by the abbot. But if anyone becomes proud of his skill and the profit he brings the community, he should be taken from his craft and work at ordinary labour. This will continue until he humbles himself and the abbot is satisfied. If any of the works of these craftsmen are sold, the salesman shall take care to practice no fraud…In pricing, they should never show greed, but should sell things below the going secular rate.”
St Benedict in this part of the Rule is showing his concern for the spiritual welfare of his monks and the need to safeguard the unity of the monks. As soon as one monk thinks he is better than all the rest, feathers get rubbed up the wrong way, and all kinds of nastiness and infighting begin. Gifts and talents are wonderful things if they are used with a deeply grateful heart in a spirit of service. As soon as someone forgets that the talent comes from God and is used with His permission, that person starts thinking that he or she is the ‘bees knees’ and deserves better treatment than anyone else – the short route to prima dona behaviour. What wisdom God gave St Benedict in recognising these temptations, and giving an effective way to counteract them!
These three excerpts from the Rule are very concerned with helping monks to grow in humility and to keep growing in humility. All of the Saints tell us what an essential virtue humility is for pleasing God. How strange it is that we don’t talk with each other about practical ways to grow in humility! Let us joyfully thank God for giving us these wise and practical tips from St Benedict which have helped generations upon generations of monks to reach true holiness.
St Benedict, father of Western monasticism, pray for us.