St. Benedict, Sarabaites, and a Good Rule to Live By

St. Benedict delivering the rule

Before he gets into the details of his rule of life for monks, St. Benedict speaks of the kind of monk that none of his disciples should be:

In their works, they still keep faith with the world…They live without a shepherd…in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is their desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.

Now, the life of the other kind of monk—the diligent, faithful, obedient one; the invisible one who quietly changes the sheets of the guest-room beds and washes the commodes before the sun rises, and then sings the psalms with the brothers in the chapel with a heart full of joy—the faithful monk’s life teaches us, better than anything else, what our Christian lives must be like.

Our goal is to reach the antithesis of what St. Benedict condemns. The greatest trap for any soul is to believe that what I will is what God wills. The greatest freedom is actually to will what God wills. The temptation is to regard as God’s those things that I like. The liberation is to like God’s actual things.

The way from the one to the other does not involve rocket science. No one needs special genius to follow the path from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. The way from calling my will God’s to willing what God wills is simple: Living for years, decades–an entire lifetime–as a humble son or daughter of Mother Church, going every Sunday to Mass and every month to Confession.

I do not claim to have any spiritual insight whatsoever. I certainly am not holy enough to lay down any rules. But I guarantee that this method will work. Doubt nothing that the Church teaches. Go to Mass every Sunday. Go Confession every month. Fifty to sixty years of this will do a person a great deal of spiritual good.

Benedict’s Disciples

An old friend of mine, a family man, once told me that he had picked up two books in his life that immediately impressed him. These two books, he said, offer practical, kind-hearted, fatherly wisdom on every page. He read them both cover-to-cover, and could hardly put them down, because they made so much sense. He wanted to drink in the calm and realistic Christian spirit that these two books possess.

This friend of mine has had a successful professional career. He has a lovely, musical wife and charming children, who are now young adults. You couldn’t pick this man out of a line-up of Washington lawyers, consultants, and defense contractors. Perfectly ‘normal’ guy. His two favorite books ever are: 1) The Code of Canon Law, and 2) The Rule of St. Benedict.

Our Holy Father the Pope obviously holds St. Benedict in the highest esteem. He explained why he chose Benedict’s name. For one thing: the humble, thoughtful, diligent way of life which St. Benedict taught made Europe Europe. Countless people living the Benedictine way built our civilization with their quiet lives.

And for another thing: St. Benedict’s Rule offers a simple precept by which a person may always guide his or her life: Prefer nothing to the love of Christ. Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

Commentators agree that the Rule of St. Benedict has two particularly notable qualities. First: the Rule establishes the monks as a family—living, praying, and working together. A monk, by definition, seeks God in solitude. But St. Benedict grasped that one best succeeds in doing that by submitting yourself to the family life of a monastery.

The second distinctive quality of the Rule is its legendary emphasis on welcoming guests. St. Benedict does not stipulate that the guest-master must put little chocolate mints on the pillows in all the guestrooms. But the saint does command that all visitors must be treated as if Christ Himself had just walked in out of the rain.

My old friend knew real wisdom when he found it. May we learn to prefer nothing to the love of Christ, with St. Benedict helping us from heaven to live lives of humble, diligent, daily service of God and neighbor.

Monticello Monastery

Sometimes, the world-famous internet maddens you with its lacunae. One cannot read St. Augustine’s second sermon on the Apostles’ Creed in its entirety on-line. That said, it is well worth reading the parts of the sermon that Google Books offers, to prepare spiritually for Trinity Sunday…

…Upon entering the reception hall in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, the visitor espies a familiar map on the wall. Perhaps, gentle reader, you will recall the joy with which we considered the Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia a few months ago.

What made Thomas Jefferson? Can we say that, above all, he was the son of the man who had made Virginia colony’s most excellent map?

…My peregrinations have taken me to Monticello, to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and to the Cistercian Abbey of New Melleray in Peosta, Iowa, among other places.

Monticello reminds me more of New Melleray than it does of Mount Vernon. Jefferson conceived and built a hilltop cloister to house his quiet life of study and meditation.

Everything about the clever, simple, orderly way in which the necessaries of Monticello are arranged recalls the refreshing straightforwardness of the architecture of a monastery.

And, of course, the quadrangle of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson designed, feels like a brick neoclassical cloister.

Perhaps Sally Hemmings could report that Jefferson did not live his 43 widower years as a perfect monk. But there is no question that he built an edifice designed for reading, working the land, hospitality, and contemplation. This is precisely what St. Benedict directed.

It is ironic, since Jefferson despised monks. Like repels like.

Someday, perhaps, the Lord will afford me the leisure to write the book I have always wanted to write: The Untold History of the Contemplative Life in the United States.

Chapter 1 will consider Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.