What Is Community? Learning from Saint Benedict

Today, July 11th, is the feast of Saint Benedict. On the day when this father of Western monasticism died, communities around the world will celebrate the gift of his life and witness. People throughout history have turned to The Rule of Saint Benedict for the same reason that people in sixth-century Italy flocked to Benedict himself: they saw a way of life that made sense and offered real hope.

Last year, I got to spend several months with Benedict’s words, reflecting on the ways they’ve shaped communities throughout the history of Christianity. After nearly a decade living at Rutba House it’s been a joy to sit with Benedict’s ancient text and ask what it has to say to folks who want to follow the Jesus Way with their whole lives today.

This, then, is my prayer for this paraphrase: may it stir in you a passion for the promises of the gospel life; may it challenge you to leave old habits behind; may it help you see what it could mean to share real life with God and other people where you are; may it catch you up in God’s movement and make us all a people of light in dark days.

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As we remember and celebrate Benedict today, here’s a little taste of his stirring vision for the life that we’re made for. It’s saturated in Scripture, more fundamental than the fundamentalists, and as inspiring as the most spirited alter calls I’ve ever heard. From my paraphrase of his Prologue to the Rule:

So, let’s go! The Scriptures are stirring us, like fire in our bones: It is high time now for you to wake from sleep (Romans13:11b). Let’s open our eyes wide to the light that shines out from God, and open our ears to the voice from heaven that shouts out every day: O that today you would hearken to his voice! (Psalm 95:7b). And, again: You who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 2:7). What does the Spirit say? Come, children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord (Psalm 34:11). Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness of death overtake you (John 12:35).

The Lord calls out to his worker in the midst of a crowd: Is there anyone here who wants real life and longs for abundance here and now? (Psalm 34:12). If you hear the call and your heart cries, “Yes!” then God speaks these words to you: If you want the good life that lasts forever, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from lying. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:13–14). Once you all have done this, the Lord says: “I’ll keep my eye on you, and I’ll hear every prayer; even before you ask me, I will say to you, Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9). My brothers and sisters, what is more delightful than to hear this voice of our Master calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way to real life! Putting on the uniform of faith and good works, let’s set out on this way with the gospel as our guide. Let’s chase after the King who has called us to his kingdom.

We will never be able to live out our days in the household of this King unless we run ahead by doing good works. But let us ask the Lord as the psalmist did: Who can stay in your dwelling place, Lord; and who will find rest on your holy mountain? (Psalm 15:1). After this question, listen closely to what the Lord says. He is showing us the very way to come and live with him when he writes: One who walks blamelessly and does what is right; who speaks the truth from his heart and does not slander with his tongue; who has not wronged his neighbors nor listened to lies about them (Psalm15:2–3). This one has overcome the devil at every turn, turning his back on him and his temptations—keeping them far away from his heart. While these bad thoughts were still sprouting, he grabbed hold of them and dashed them against the rock that is Christ (cf. Psalm 137:9).

Note this: people who dwell in the household of God fear the Lord (Psalm 15:4). They do not get overly excited about their own good works. They know it is the Lord’s power—not their own—working good in them. They praise the Lord, as the psalmist says: Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name alone give glory (Psalm 115:1). In the same way, the apostle Paul refused to take credit for the power of his preaching. He declared: By God’s grace I am who I am (1 Corinthians 15:10a). And, again: whoever boasts should boast in the Lord (2 Corinthians 10:17). This is also why the Lord says in the Gospel of Matthew: Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on a rock; the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall—its foundation was solid stone (7:24–25).

With this altar call, our Lord concludes his Sermon on the Mount, waiting for us to put it into action. So, you see, our whole life is a gift of the truce God has declared—a chance for us to re-learn the life we were made for. As Saint Paul says: Don’t you know that the whole point of God’s patience is to give you time to change? (Romans 2:4b). All the while, the Lord assures us of his love: I don’t want sinners to die; I’m dying for them to turn back to me and live (Ezekiel 33:11).

Brothers and sisters, we’ve asked the Lord who can live with him, and he has shown us how we can. Life with God is possible—but only in the way that God has shown us. We must get ready then—heart, mind, and spirit—for the great struggle of learning to listen to God’s word. For what we cannot do in our own strength, let’s ask the Master for the help of his grace. If we want to find the life that’s really life (and not simply a way of postponing death), then let’s run on while there’s still time to accomplish these things by the light of life. Let’s start to do now those things that will benefit us forever.

This is why we want to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its code of conduct, we hope to avoid anything harsh or burdensome. Even so, the good of everyone involved may compel us to establish some rules that seem strict. Know that it’s not for the sake of the rules, but rather it is to help heal our brokenness and to safeguard our love. Don’t be overwhelmed by fear and run away from the way that leads to salvation. It’s bound to be hard at first, but as we move on in this way of life and in faith, we will run on the road of God’s good words—our hearts overflowing with delight. We’ll know what it means to live in the way of love, even if there are no words to describe it.

This, then, is our resolve: to never turn away from the Lord’s teaching, but to put every good word of his into practice, sticking with our brothers and sisters in community until we die. Such patience, we know, will lead us to share in Christ’s sufferings, but we trust it will also make us worthy to share in his kingdom. Amen.

  • Matthew

    I wonder why so few in the evangelical community — for example — have not embraced the idea of community and spiritual disciplines that the early church embraced. I´m not trying to be overly critical, but I have found myself in these circles over the years and there seems to be a genuine lack in these areas. Even if one dismisses church history as an example of where such practices were implemented, the bible also speaks of such as these — does it not?

  • Ben

    Indeed, why do evangelical christians persist in the (false) notion that the christian bible (NT) somehow pre-dates the traditions of the church? They are always advocating the need to ‘get back’ to a form of new testament christianity that never actually existed!

  • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

    The old KJV of Paul’s letter to Timothy comes to mind: “discipline thyself unto godliness.” The fear in evangelical Protestantism has been that “discipline” came dangerously close to “works righteousness”–that this might be a back door for some sort of legalism to slip. What we often missed was that legalism, being the chief temptation of religion, walked right in the front door. In a very peculiar way, “accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior” can become the one thing you have to DO in an attempt to say that you don’t have to DO anything–that salvation is by grace through faith.

    But I think you’re right. Biblical faith–the faith that’s at the heart of both evangelicalism and the rest of God’s church–teaches a grace that becomes real in our lives through disciplines that re-shape us into the image of Christ. No one understood this better than Benedict. It’s why we so desperately need him now.

    • Matthew

      Maybe I should take this question “off line” … if so just delete the post.
      Ben (or Jonathan) — why is there this argument, if you will, regarding traditions of the church in later years and the “actual” NT church? It seems to me that the early church was without a NT and the congregations that are being described in the NT were loosely associated groups of believers who relied on the apostolic teaching mainly for their instruction. As such, I would think spiritual disciplines that are not specifically instructed in our NT today would have been O.K. during the first centuries of the Christian church.

      • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

        The root of the problem, I suspect, is that we were cut off from the tradition that the early church did have to draw on–namely, Judaism. This was a notion that John Howard Yoder, the great 20th century critic of Constantinianism, was working on at the end of his life. The good news is that much has been done in the past 50 years to recover the Jewishness of Jesus, and hence of our movement. So, there is no Benedict without Moses. And that’s a good thing.

  • jerry lynch

    AA says what Benedict said this way: “principles before personalities.”

    The complete message of Christ is to “turn, and become as little children.” The one true, only and sure way to turn and become as little children is to offer ourselves daily as “living sacrifices.” This basic is usually lost in the hubbub of our notion of “advancing the kingdom.” Most prayers reflect this misguided urge. We ask for healing, deliverance, strength, prosperity, guidance, wisdom, and so forth, never once thinking, for most, to accept what is as it is. The only shortcoming of the moment we are in is our own unreasonable expectations.

    God sends test in this way and this way only: it is an “I” chart, a measure of our perception.

    As to the rules, they absolutlely cannot be taken as regulatory but only revelatory; a meditative technique. The function is to die to self. There is no virtue in following the rules and not realizing an inner transformation.

  • jerry lynch

    The Tao says that any effort to achieve The Way will thwart you and no effort will do the same. It is a seeming paradox and one that has perplexed the Western Church needlessly for centuries about the nature of Grace. This can be attributed to their addiction to Reason. Simply put, it is both and neither.