Those of us who had the privilege of attending Terryl Kinder’s wonderful lectures on Cistercian Art and Architecture will perhaps recall that series of slides highlighting beautiful and intricate medieval monastic stonework. And while we were admiring the impressive workmanship, she delighted in informing us that we were actually looking at detailed views of monastic latrines, water systems and barns. And the point she so clearly illustrated was that the same attention and care expended on the stonework in the church and monastery were likewise clearly evident in the latrines, water drains and barns. And in this we encounter what we might today term the degree of overall integration and wholeness in those early Cistercians whose spiritual lives were not something interior and divorced from the world around them. Instead their lives centered on Christ incorporated, imprinted and transformed their environment and the buildings they lived, worked and prayed in.
And as we admire and resonate with this wholeness and integration, we recall that these Cistercians came into existence because of their desire to return to a more authentic living of the Rule of St. Benedict. Thus they were not medieval innovators representing a completely new approach to monasticism, but, according to their intention, were simply returning to a more literal and integral living out of Saint Benedict’s wisdom encapsulated in his Rule. Accordingly, our early Cistercians and their important legacy provide vivid insights into the man we honor today and help explain their enduring influence within Christianity. And what seems to lie at the heart of this enduring attraction is the heartfelt desire of many to mend the varying degrees of disconnection between their lives of faith and prayer and the rest of their daily lives.
However, what it is that accounts for Benedict’s ability to continue to inspire authentic Christian life and wholeness is not immediately obvious with a casual reading of the Rule. It is only with prayerful reading and alertness that those subtle clues hinting at integration and wholeness of life are identified. One thinks, for example, of his instructions to the cellarer who is to regard all utensils and good of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, or the integrating effects of maintaining the necessary balance between and among prayer, work, and study along with what he terms the proper amount of food and drink. It is likewise evident throughout the Rule in Benedict’s appeal for moderation in all things and, yet, as he instructs the abbot, in such a way that the strong will have something to yearn for while the weak will have nothing to run from.
And perhaps one of the most powerful descriptions of the mature, integrated Christian life is given in his Twelfth Step of Humility, where Saint Benedict tells us that the monk who reaches this pinnacle of the spiritual life always manifests humility in his bearing no less than in his heart; so that it is evident at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey, or in the field, or anywhere else. This is a monk for whom there is no longer tension between his inner and outer self; no longer areas of the monk’s inner life or spirituality cut off or disconnected from the rest of his life–all now is an unified whole such that the monk acts with all of himself in everything that he does and in whatever situation or circumstance he happens to find himself in.
This is surely something that we all desire for ourselves and for one another. Accordingly, on his annual Feast Day lest us hearken once more to Saint Benedict summoning appeal: Let us get up, then, at long last, he tells us, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep. Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.