How A 6th Century Monk Still Guides Us In Troubled Times

Painting of St. Benedict, seated, wearing black robe, handing copy of his monastic “Rule” to three standing monks.
Illustration in the British Library of St. Benedict offering his monks “The Rule of St. Benedict,” penned in the monasery he founded in the sixth century in Cassino, Italy. The monastery is still in existence.

I often say I made at least two right decisions in my life. One was to marry my best friend, my husband Charles Reynard. The other was to become a lay associate of Mount St. Scholastica, a Benedictine women’s monastery in Atchison, Kansas.

To many, monastic life might seem like a hopeless throwback to the past. I think of it as a window to a future we desperately need: one that stresses community over competition, consensus over conflict, listening over talking, simplicity over consumption, service over self-aggrandizement, and silence over the useless chatter that infiltrates our lives.

Lay associates of Benedictine monasteries, known as “Oblates,” make promises to live those values of listening, community, consensus, hospitality, simplicity, and service in the context of their secular lives . They might be married or single, have jobs in the work world or not, be Catholic or not.

What I learned from witnessing the lives of the Benedictine sisters in Atchison — and other monks and sisters I’ve had the privilege to meet — is that a life of meaning comes not from what we acquire, but from how much we extravagantly give of ourselves in compassion and service to others.

At Mount St. Scholastica Monastery, Atchison, KS in 2019. The Benedictine sisters have been an enduring presence in this part of America’s heartland since 1863. (Photo by Kathy England)

July 11, the Feast of St. Benedict, is usually a time for me to pause and reflect on how well I’m living the Benedictine values I promised to uphold. This year, I can’t help but consider as well how much those values speak to the crises facing our country: a spiraling rate of COVID infections, economic devastation for so many families, and urgent calls to address our enduring stain of racism.

What we are seeing in the public arena is widespread division, deceit, suspicion, and fear. Writing in his famous Rule for monastics, St. Benedict offers an alternative vision:

“You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace, or turn away when someone needs your love … Speak the truth with heart and tongue.”

The historic St. Scholastic Chapel on the campus of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery, Atchison, KS. (Photo by Kethy England).

How different our world might be right now if we were all following a Benedictine playbook!

Though he lived in the 6th century, St. Benedict is very much a saint for our time. He wasn’t a priest or any sort of church official. He came of age when the once-mighty Roman empire was crumbling. Corruption was rampant. Illness was widespread. The public had lost confidence in traditional institutions. Leaders seemed incapable of solving the most pressing problems.

Sound familiar?

As I write in my book, How to Live, St. Benedict saw the world crumbling around him and refused to crumble with it. He proposed an alternative society — one built on the pillars of community, hospitality, humility, work, prayer, and praise.

He envisioned community as a way for people to link arms, lift each other up, and help each other grow. He saw in the building of community not only the salvation of society, but of souls.

On the Feast of St. Benedict, I joined with Oblates from across the country on a Zoom call to pray together in word and song. (Thanks to Vermont Oblate, singer, poet, and photographer Pat Leyko Connelly for organizing the call). I was impressed with the prayers that individual Oblates offered.

That the current epidemic will open our hearts and move us to greater compassion.”

“That our country be healed in every way.”

“For all the people who have died or will die of corona virus and their families.”

Not one person prayed for himself or herself, but for others. It recalled for me yet another yet passage in the Rule, reminding us that we “descend” when we exalt ourselves, and we “ascend” through humility.

One of the many versions of “The Rule of St. Benedict.”

Every morning at dawn, while most of the rest of us are still asleep, monks and monastic sisters pour into chapels across the world. They gather several more times for prayer over the course of the day. They are praying for our fractured, often fool-hardly world.

In other words, they are praying for you and me. Sometimes I think these prayers are our best hope of climbing out of the many messes we are in.

“Day by day, remind yourself you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do,” St. Benedict urges in his Rule. He goes on to say, “While there is still time, while we are in this body,” let us run toward the values that last. Words that seem particularly apt amid the crises we are facing.

My book reflecting on the main themes of the Benedictine Rule and their application to today’s world.

This week, can we reflect on what on what we are doing to build community where we live? How well are we practicing the Benedictine values of listening, hospitality, humility, service, simplicity, and compassion?

As we continue to pray for our world, let us also offer gratitude for the lives of monks and monastic sisters. Their prayers just might be what is holding the world together.

Here are some links for learning more about the Benedictine way of life:

www.mountosb.org

www.osb.org

www.beingbenedictine.org

www.benedictine-oblates.org

Pages from an ancient manuscript of “The Rule of St. Benedict,” handwritten in Latin.

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.