St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries orients the lives of countless men and women, be they monks, nuns, oblates, lay people; be they saints, penitents or strugglers; whether they live today or a thousand years ago. Why is this? How is it possible that this way of life, first articulated in the Sixth Century, still speaks to women and men around the world, in cloisters, in classrooms and parishes or missions, in family life or in the marketplace? It’s a temptation to say that this Rule describes a way of life much like our own in the Twenty-first Century. It seems to describe a busy life: something is always happening, whether it’s praying psalms long before dawn or receiving guests or serving meals or bringing in the harvest. I’m almost tempted to say that it gives hope to people as active as we are today, that our busyness just might be a way to God, might somehow touch the business of God.
But as I reflect more deeply on the Rule, I wonder whether the strength of this Way is evergreen because it is so essentially different from the world of today–as it was essentially different from the world of the Sixth Century! How can I square that with what I just said about the busy life it seems to describe? Well, for one, the Rule of St. Benedict does not describe the unfocused, distracted, technology-driven, profit-generating, materialistic world we live in. Let’s follow just one line of orientation in the Rule: work. St. Benedict recommends, for example, that the craftsmen of the monastery should sell their wares cheaper than their secular counterparts. The point of labor is not to amass as much capital as possible but, on one level, to make a living and no more. The point isn’t to accumulate buying power to consume more but to get by and not sap other people’s wealth. It’s not to grasp as many gadgets and gizmos as might be available but to cut back and live simply; to unlearn those consumer dependencies that enslave us. Do we really need to twitter and text while driving or at the dinner table or during a meeting or conversation? Instead of sitting on the side-lines and commenting on life, couldn’t I just enter fully into my life? Couldn’t I just do without these extras and concentrate on one thing at a time? Can’t I learn to eat in such a way that I respect the food that nourishes and delights me? That I honor the labor that produced it and the Creator who offers it? Couldn’t I be grateful for the human effort that nurtured the bounty from a changing climate, from diminished water supply, the underpaid migrant who put in long, back-breaking hours to harvest it? Can’t I still recognize the good that sustains us and not just the price I pay, the money I shell out for it?
To me, this suggests another dimension of work: it’s not just a means to the goods I want to acquire. Work is the privilege connecting me to the necessities of life. Give us this day our daily bread–no more, no less. Work is the creative access to that necessity. When I prepare a meal or move furniture or collect data for a survey or wrap fruitcakes, can I be present to what I am doing, rather than evading tedium? Might I be engaged by the process, even under pressure, because it might lead to a good end and foster creative living? In and of itself, does it not have its value as more than a pre-condition for my leisure? In this regard, St. Benedict says something very challenging: Then they are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands. Is that how we view work in our society? As a way to truly seek God? To sanctify time? To humble pride and self-absorption? Consistently enough, St. Benedict teaches that the tools of the monastery should be handled like the vessels of the altar. Is that the way I use a vacuum-cleaner or a computer? Am I ever grateful for these tools or recognize their sacramental role? Even their creative possibilities? Do I ever let them teach me the wisdom of mundane and hidden living or are they just distractions from my personal limits?
Perhaps St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries continues to orient so many men and women because it bothers to challenge us in a culture too ready to affirm us in our mediocrity, in our insecurity and self-satisfaction. The Rule boldly proclaims that I do not have to be trapped in my neuroses but actually can forgive. I can willingly surrender my “free time” to sacred duties. I can ungrudgingly obey what is uncongenial to me. That in a culture of perpetual adolescence, I can mature by facing the harsh realities of life–I can even face my own life and personality!–and discover God-given hope. That, in a world of disappointment and death, I can grow up and, as an adult, meet the actual, living God rather than substituting that frothy cocktail of my own wish-fulfillment.