St. Benedict in quarantine
I want to use this post to develop some thoughts I’ve had recently on what the monastic traditions - specifically The Rule of St. Benedict - have to teach us about living in community, and how they might help us a bit during this time of quarantine.
Saint Benedict wrote his Rule in the sixth century, intending to lay down something of a constitution for monks living in community under the authority of an abbot. In monasteries, bits of the Rule are read daily, and they cover in a firm-but-flexible way many of the major tasks of a monk: what to do, when to do it, and what happens if things go sideways. Some of the rule is quite firm; other parts leave a fair bit of space for human weakness, local conditions and seasons, and so forth. It’s been in use for fourteen centuries, so there’s got to be something to it. Much of the Rule devolves to the Beatitudes, and therefore to Christ Himself - the route and destination for a monk (and the rest of us besides). What can The Rule teach a layperson? And can any of it help make sense of the sudden enclosures we find ourselves in? I’m beginning to think that it can.
True, those who enter a monastery do so while (or after) long periods of discernment - they’re called by God to this particular place, for this particular reason. None of us discerned our way into a pandemic. Yet here we are, enclosed to various degrees and wondering how not to throttle each other.
One of the vows made by Benedictines is stability. He or she promises to remain within the monastery, leaving only with the permission of the Abbot. Thomas Merton wrote that he was entering into the “four walls of his freedom,” for far from becoming a monk to get away from humanity, what you find within those four walls is humanity writ large. It’s there that you will find Christ - in, with, and through the community. So it is for us. If we can’t find God in the everyday moments, we won’t find him anywhere. Stability means that we are precisely where we are supposed to be, and it is this present moment where time intersects with eternity. A kind word - or a cruel word deferred - in this particular moment might very well rock the very planets from their orbits. Stop. Pull away from the second-by-second waterfall of news. Recall, within yourself, the silence that you have all but forgotten. It is there that you will find Him, waiting. The first word of the Rule - literally, the very first word - is listen. Listening can be difficult in the best of circumstances; it’s nearly impossible in the daily cacophony we raise around us.
The other day, the daily reading was Chapter 45. Not quite ten lines on how it’s better to own a mistake immediately than to let it fester and come out some other way. This seems pretty obviously useful and relevant as the pressures of suddenly close quarters start to wear. We would do better to strive for a bit of humility, surrendering some pride, and acknowledging our mistakes immediately. The Rule says that a greater punishment awaits the one who “would not correct by humility what he did wrong through carelessness.” What greater punishment than to damage our relationships with the others around us, knowing that an immediate confession and apology could have headed the whole thing off? We teach our children as much, and then forget it ourselves in maturity - that the cover-up and lie is often worse than the actual mistake.
Much of my understanding of St. Benedict’s Rule as it applies to the laity is informed by Esther de Waal’s excellent Seeking God: The Way of Saint Benedict. To assist in my daily reflections on the Rule, I’m using Georg Holzherr’s The Rule of Benedict: An Invitation to Christian Life which I find wonderfully situates the readings in history, providing extensive context and copious footnotes.
For further reflection: obedience? Conversatio morum? Definitely lots to mull over.