St. Benedict’s Rule has remained popular for centuries. I believe that this is true for one very simple reason. It answers a question that serious Christians all ask. “If the power and presence of God are real and effective, what does this mean for human experience in day-to-day life?” Put another way, “What does Christ offer to men and women and what does he ask from them in return?” How do we recognize him, know him, respond to him?
People, including most Christians, have various images in their minds about God. Some think of him as entirely and always benevolent while others think of him primarily as wrathful. Some want to know what God will do for them while others wonder what God wants from them. The real question, I believe, is this: “Can all the holy aspects of the divine Being somehow be reconciled in our minds so that our hearts are warmed by the interior reality of Christ in the human soul?” Where is God when I suffer? Is God good, truly good? Can his promises be trusted, especially when life deals us a cruel blow?
St. Benedict answers these questions in ways that very few classical Christian writers do. He does so by appealing to what is called lectio divina (“divine” or “sacred reading”). He believed, like many after him from the fourth century down to the present, that such careful, sacred reading is essential to a deeply spiritual life. This kind of reading is more than reading a text, or scanning material for useful facts and Bible information. (This is why I despise “Bible trivia” games of all sorts!)
There has been a magnificent recovery in recent decades when it comes to reading the Bible as narrative, or story. In this reading we are seeking to really hear the Scripture in the context in which it was written. We can even discover a plot line that leads to a climax, as in the decisive act of a drama. (This is one of several reasons we call my own mission ACT 3.) But lectio divina is a meditative approach. The reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of the passage, even of a phrase within a passage. It is contemplative reading. The reader is deeply moved and shaped by the text, not just informed and taught. This kind of reading also invites the reader into something that is beautiful and true, namely into the Trinity.
Yesterday I mentioned the four steps of lectio divina that are stressed by St. Benedict, as well as others who have followed him. These are: (1) To read, (2) To meditate, (3) To rest in the sense of God’s nearness and, (4) To increase one’s desire for the holy Trinity wherein all that is truly lovely and unspoiled might be discovered in one’s real interior experience, not simply in the mind or by concept. This kind of reading, if you follow what I’ve said, is really prayer itself. Indeed, it is in this kind of prayer that God manifests his presence to us.
Fifteen hundred years ago a young man studying in Rome became so totally disgusted with paganism that he decided, like others in his time, to seek a cave some distance from the city where he could live in solitude and seek God. Thomas Moore says, “In that decision Benedict enacted a fantasy that has inflamed the hearts of men and women before and since–the idea of making a life apart from the crowd, in a style at odds with the norm.”
In some ways it is in spite of this story that Benedict came to pursue God and the development of his interior life in a way that has touched millions over the centuries. Most people will never practice Benedict’s Rule in a monastic setting. But multitudes practice it nonetheless. Why? Behind the Rule is the imagination of a pilgrim learning how to seek after God’s own Being.
I have often been confused by various approaches to spiritual life but the Rule of St. Benedict allowed me to see that genuine spirituality can never be separated from local, real (incarnate and human) community. (This is why we read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in the ACT 3 Cohort groups.) If a deeper interior life is shaped by a constant struggle between obedience and freedom, between listening and speaking, between possessing and letting go, between clinging to stability and embracing change, then we need community in our lives. We dare not do this alone.
The simple truth is that virtually none of the church communities that we belong to in our time foster these struggles in a healthy way. It is uncommon to find such a place where life is free but ordered. We are extremists today and we are so far out of balance that rare is the place where you find harmony.
The spirit of St Benedict's Rule is summed up in the motto of what is called The Benedictine Confederation: pax ("peace") and the traditional ora et labora ("pray and work"). Compared to other precepts, the Rule provides a moderate path between individual zeal and formulaic institutionalism. This is why it appeals to me so deeply. It carves out a middle ground.
It is this reality that prompted me to create the ACT 3 Missional-Ecumenical Cohort training course. I want to create a safe place where freedom and discipline are developed. I want to find ways to help hungry souls find what they desire.
Personally, I am weary of books about theology that do not lead me to God alone as my living hope. Abstractions do not feed me, they merely give me arguments. I need a sensible, sane and practical way of becoming more like Christ. St. Benedict’s Rule has helped me. This is why we will work it into the new ACT 3 Cohort groups that are forming this year.