St. Benedict: Stability and Detachment

Today is the feastday of St. Benedict of Nurcia, who is regarded the Father of Western Monasticism. He is also one of the Patron Saints of Europe, and our dear Holy Father Benedict XVI, who made a retreat at the saints own Subiaco monastery just before his elevation to the Papacy. Although I am a very bad Benedictine, I do my poor Oblate best to honor our founder, today, whose Holy Rule has shaped and defined monasticism for both Benedictines and Trappists and has even been adopted by corporations looking for a healthier and more productive way to effectively build their teams.

In the comments this morning, on another thread, someone quotes from the Holy Rule:

St. Benedict teaches that growth comes from accepting people as they are, not as we would like them to be. His references to the stubborn and the dull, the undisciplined and the restless, the careless and the scatterbrained have the ring of reality. Though Benedict was no idealist with respect to human nature, he understood that the key to spiritual progress lies in constantly making the effort to see Christ in each person — no matter how irritating or tiresome…

Stability means that the monastic pledges lifelong commitment to a particular community. To limit oneself voluntarily to one place with one group of people for the rest of one’s life makes a powerful statement. Contentment and fulfillment do not exist in constant change; true happiness cannot necessarily be found anywhere other than in this place and this time. For Benedictines, stability proclaims rootedness, at-homeness, that this place and this monastic family will endure.

Likewise, by fidelity to the monastic way, Benedictines promise to allow themselves to be shaped and molded by the community — to pray at the sound of the bell when it would be so much more convenient to continue working, to forswear pet projects for the sake of community needs, to be open to change, to listen to others, and not to run away when things seem frustrating or boring or hopeless.

In the post below, Father Robert Barron brings up the lesson that freedom comes from detachment, not just of things, but of our very lives and feelings. This begins, of course, with a detachment from the material, and in today’s reading of the Rule, here is what we find:

Whether Monks Ought to Have Anything of Their Own

This vice especially is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots. Let no one presume to give or receive anything without the Abbot’s leave, or to have anything as his own — anything whatever, whether book or tablets or pen or whatever it may be — since they are not permitted to have even their bodies or wills at their own disposal; but for all their necessities let them look to the Father of the monastery. And let it be unlawful to have anything which the Abbot has not given or allowed. Let all things be common to all, as it is written, and let no one say or assume that anything is his own.

Obviously, an oblate — living in the world and not “in community” — must adapt the Rule to his/her situation. For me, detachment means not owning a lot of stuff (and I still own more than I should) or more than I actually need. I still chuckle to recall an office co-worker who exasperatedly asked me if I didn’t something other than than the same two pair of shoes I wore, day-after-day, to work. She really didn’t understand why I didn’t need more than two pair.

But it is something I clearly struggle with and must ponder and pray on a great deal more. I must invite the grace of detachment into my life more fully — detachment from food, which is a crutch and a comfort; detachment from my fierce opinions, and from ego and all ambition. I like this article on the singing Benedictines at Abbaye Notre Dame l’Annonciation: “I really loved clothes,” one nun admits, “but there’s freedom in wearing my habit.”

It is a counter-cultural, radical way to live in a world where we are constantly told to get more, be more, buy more, but I’ll be saying more about that in my column, tomorrow, so I’ll stop there.

Benedict’s Rule was written in the 6th century, and it is less than 100 pages long, yet it speaks through the ages, to our own, and challenges our whole lifetime. I can’t imagine any Christian library being complete without it.

The Leadership Void; We Need St. Benedict
Benedict in Lent

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Jen

    Wow, so Elizabeth… are the monks not even allowed to have their own Bible? Prayer book? Journal for private thoughts?


    [Benedict was very sensible about this. While no one actually "owns" anything, because everything belongs to the community, Benedict held that each member of the community must be allowed to keep near what is necessary to do his work. So, a scholar might need 20 books around him for research, while a less-scholastic brother might need one or none. Each is supplied with a bible, prayer books as needed, journals as needed, of course, but the brother doesn't "own" any of it; it all reverts back to the community -- in this way, he is freed from attachments. Benedict says a brother who needs more should be humbled for the need, rather than feeling proud for the access. If, for instance, a family member sends something meant for the brother -- like a sweater, or something -- the abbot may choose to allow it to remain with that brother, or to give it to a brother who really needs it, and if no one needs it, he may elect to make a gift of it to a visitor or the poor. It's all just stuff. There is a nice article by a Dominican monastic nun (who as a Dominican follows the Rule of Augustine) and she describes how when a novice is clothed, the community sews her habit for her:

    In our Dominican tradition, on the day the young nun receives the habit she is clothed piece-by-piece, by the prioress and novice mistress. It is a passive action. The new sister kneels there and the tunic, belt, scapular, cappa, veil, rosary, and crucifix become the symbol of her intention to become transformed by Christ into the new person reborn through obedience, transfigured by Christ Crucified.

    In our monastery the new novice sews none of her future habit. This is because in being given the monastic habit, being given clothing not her own, she becomes a member of this monastic community. From this day forward everything she uses -- including everything she wears -- belongs to the community. With the community she holds all things in common like the first Christian Community of the Acts of the Apostles. She throws in her lot with this communio trusting that through them God will provide for what she truly needs


  • shana

    Blessings to you, dear sister in Christ, on this holy Feast of your order! I rejoice with you in your founder, who inspired millions through the ages to renounce all for Christ. My own little blessed Father Francis also saw a great blessing in holy poverty – so much so that he personified Lady Poverty, whom he could serve as a noble knight, and he devoutly served “her” all his life. It is a struggle for me, too, to renounce attachments to things that I may use things without giving my heart to things.

    Pax et Bonum!

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I like this Lenten article by Fr. Ron Rolheiser about excesses. He quoted Mary Jo Leddy:

    “It’s enough. I have enough. I am enough. Life is enough. I need to gratefully enjoy what I have.”

    As a former mail order queen, I need this. I cut it from my local paper and keep it close. I don’t know if I can post a link here, but just search his name and go to the archives. It’s from 2/6/11.

  • Victor

    Forgive me folks but while watching and listening to the sisters singing, I couldn’t help hearing a brain cells quietly asking Jesus if He was sure that they couldn’t even play spin the bottle?

    I hear ya! Victor St. Benedict teaches u>s (usual sinners) that growth comes from accepting people as they are, not as we would like them to be. His references to the stubborn and the dull, the undisciplined and the restless, the careless and also the scatterbrained cells who have the ring of reality on occasions coming out loud and clear.

    What do you mean by that Anchoress? :)


  • cathyf

    I had a friend in college, a graduate student in art, who is a Benedictine brother. He had a great story about filling out financial aid forms.
    “siblings: 287 brothers, 0 sisters”
    “vehicles: 127 cars, 4 pickup trucks, 5 vans”

    He also enjoyed telling the story of being at lunch, and one of the brothers coming up to ask a tablemate to borrow his car. The one with the car responded, with a grin and greatly exaggerated piety, “that’s ‘may you borrow our car,’ brother.” To which the asker grinned and responded, “Ok, can I borrow your keys to our car?”

  • Jeanne

    Thank you for the Chant from Avignon! Here is an excerpt from their interview..

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Elizabeth, I prayed for you in a special way this morning, thinking of your being and oblate and all. I was transported, in my mind anyway, to Montecassino 2002. I was fortunate enough to be there for vespers on the eve of Benedict’s feast. What a gift.

    [Thank you, Fran, you're so kind! I am always so grateful (and humbled) when I learn that someone has remembered me in prayer. Montecassino is a goal for me. I went to Subiaco in '10, but I need to return to Rome and to Italy, again and again! :-) -admin]

  • Sal

    “My Lady, I have broken our false teeth.”
    Time for a re-read of ‘In This House of Brede’.
    What a lovely statue!
    Belated best wishes for the feast.