Despite being one of the most influential Christian documents (aside from the Sacred Scriptures), Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries is anything but a precise and clear set of rules, regulating daily monastic life, and leading to holiness. Again and again, Saint Benedict seems to present noble spiritual ideals only to enumerate instances when these ideals might be adapted to special circumstances or even compromised. Yet, it is precisely the flexible and adaptable character of this centuries-old rule that has allowed it to withstand the test of time and ensure its contemporary relevance.
Importantly, this flexibility and adaptability also allows a corresponding relevance across the entire lifespan of the monk’s life—from the days of early fervor and energetic zeal, to the years of maturity in the ranks of the wise seniors. Nevertheless, this hoped-for progression does not always occur—or when it does is seldom smooth and without crises and frustrating obstacles to be overcome. Progress towards the desired goal of eternal union with Christ thus requires that, each monk replicate in his own life something of the process that went into The Rule’s development.
This is to affirm that Benedict’s Rule is a masterful blending of ideals alongside lived experience—each informing and guiding the other. This blending accounts for the sometimes imprecise rules and guidelines, the exceptions, adjustments, and even compromises that he incorporates. Unless the monk is able to do the same in his own life so that, while never losing sight of the final goal, is able to endure failure and adapt to weakness, he will either give up entirely and leave the monastery, or he will forget the eternal goal, give up on the ideals, and settle for a sad and miserable life of mediocrity and compromise.
Accordingly, ideals and reality have to be patiently and humbly held together so that the strong having something to strive for, and the weak nothing to run from—to quote Benedict. Otherwise, after an initial brave and idealistic effort at reaching the goal and failing, we will abandon the ideal, forget the final goal, and settle for the exceptions, the adjustments, the compromises, embedded in the Rule. Then, instead of eventually running with hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love, we will stall and stagnate with hearts contracted in bitterness and regret.
This feast-day of our Holy Father Benedict, is a graced opportunity to evaluate how well we are holding ideal and reality together. And to the degree that we are failing, let us invoke his intercessory assistance in resuming our journey along that narrow road that leads to salvation. For through patience and sharing in the sufferings of Christ, we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.