Preferring Christ: The Rule of St. Benedict
Today is the Feast Day of St. Benedict of Nursia. St. Benedict is among the posse of saints that surround my life, interceding for me before the LORD, our God. The Rule of St. Benedict which is so revered in the history of The Church is a rich tapestry of wisdom that is tightly woven with Sacred Scripture to guide us in living our ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
The Rule orientates us to the knowledge that God is everywhere, all the time, and because of this, every element of our ordinary day is potentially holy. Ascending to this truth that seems a little homely reorients us to our created identity because we learn to recognize that daily life is the grist for the mill of our consecration to our Creator. Does your day-to-day life seem stressful, challenging, hum-drum, or dull? Then St. Benedict is your guide through the ordinary into the extraordinary life in God.
The title, The Rule of St. Benedict, is better understood in its ancient context of the Latin word, regula, or guidepost. The prologue of The Rule begins with this: Listen, my child….incline the ear of your heart. Hearing and listening are two different things. Have you ever spent time with someone who hears you but doesn’t incline their spirit toward you enough to listen to you? Worse yet, do we hear the Word of the LORD without our spirit leaning toward him in order to really listen? St. Benedict emphasizes the importance of turning toward Christ with the posture of a child leaning into him to hear every word of beauty, goodness, and truth. In this way we are trained in preferring Christ above all things which is one of St. Benedict’s favorite themes. Praying with St. Benedict as we pray Sacred Scripture helps us look at our world through interior eyes. It helps us become better listeners to our Father and, in turn, better observers of the people and events of our lives.
Early in The Rule, we are guided in three monastic virtues: obedience, restraint of speech, and humility. Hmm? That sounds like the folk in the sixth century were just like us. St. Benedict makes it clear that these timeless virtues are inseparable. As we practice these virtues, we gain everything the LORD has promised us of the abundant life with Him. We, like St. Benedict, live in a culture of protest, excessive self-promotion, and overweaning pride. You and I can choose from the vices of the culture or we can pursue the virtues of God’s Kingdom; how is it going for you? It’s hard work to swim upstream in our downstream society! So let’s briefly consider these primary virtues.
Here’s a little side note, each of these virtues has its own chapter in The Rule. Obedience gets 19 verses of attention; Silence gets one verse of attention, and Humility has a whopping 70 verses of attention! Take a knee with me at this observation!
Regarding the virtue of obedience, St. Benedict writes that the first step of humility is obedience without delay. He encourages us to, immediately leave all that is our concern and forsake our own will, with our hands disengaged from what seems urgent to us. I am driven by goals, so much so that finding balance in the daily round is a consistent prayer I offer to the LORD. Do you suffer from tunnel vision as I do? Disengaging my hands from what seems so important to me in a moment takes monumental effort sometimes. I am learning to appreciate the slowness that St. Benedict emphasizes throughout The Rule because it is in slowing down my pell-mell thoughts and actions I’m trained in obedience. What I am discovering as I slow down is there’s very little in life that is worth the whims and appetites of my self-indulgent grasping.
Regarding the virtue of Silence, St. Benedict writes Let us do as the prophet says: “I said, I will take heed to my ways that I do not sin with my tongue: I have placed a watch over my mouth… He draws our attention to the importance of silence with scriptures from the book of Proverbs: In too much speaking you shall not avoid sin. (Proverbs 10:19) And, Death and life are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21) Oh, so much could be said here (pun not intended). I kindle to what fellow Benedictine oblate Norene Vest wrote about this: it seems to me that the more we love words, we tend to let ourselves be satisfied by them, thus stopping short of the true satisfaction [that comes from Jesus alone]. It calls to mind St. Paul’s observation that people are always learning but never understanding. I respond to that verse by praying, Lord, I don’t want to be so caught up in speaking about what I am learning at the expense of not understanding it and living it out. Lord, remind me that it is through listening and silence that you teach and lead me into rest.
And finally, regarding the virtue of humility, St. Benedict gives us extensive guidance, beginning with the straightforward point: the problem of the spiritual life is pride (self-exaltation); the remedy is humility. St. Benedict emphasizes the need to contemplate Sacred Scripture; it comes down to this, the more we immerse ourselves in praying with Sacred Scripture we become acutely aware of our prideful leanings.
He writes that we must, by our ever-ascending actions, erect a ladder, like the one which the proud and fearful Jacob beheld in his dream in his flight from duty and responsibility. Daily life offers plenty of opportunities to learn how to descend and ascend the ladder of humility. As we practice humility, the ladder is lifted by the LORD to heaven; I like that! Yet, some days when I’ve forgotten to allow the LORD to teach me this way, the Holy Spirit remains on each rung with me, guiding me. How about you, friend? When you face an old struggle and bristle at someone’s words or actions, does pride knock you off the ladder of humility? I regularly find myself flat on my backside, wondering how I could fall off the ladder again!
When we follow the guideposts in St. Benedict has provided us, we receive the remedy for the consumer-driven society that peddles discord, disenchantment, and dis-ease. We live in the chaos of evil times, full of anxiety, anger, and the noise of modernity! St. Benedict shows us the path away from it into preferring Christ over all things (no matter how entertaining or attractive they are) and abiding in the dailiness of our extraordinary life with God.
Let’s pray with St. Benedict:
O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, soul, strength…
I desire to prefer nothing to the love of Christ…To desire eternal life with spiritual longing…to pray often. To ask forgiveness daily for my sins, and to seek ways to amend my life…Not to desire to be thought holy, but to seek holiness…Never to despair of your mercy, O God of Mercy.
I ask this in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.