Benedictine Rules: Finding Communion through Community

Editor's Note: Below is a "Monday Sermon," from our series of sermons at the Patheos Preachers Portal that pastors can enjoy and learn from. It is our hope that this particular series from Daniel Harrell, which preaches through the Church Fathers, will encourage pastors, show them a way of approaching theological education from the pulpit, and refresh their theological memories. See Reverend Harrell's columnist page for more information.

Daniel M. HarrellMy first experience at a Benedictine monastery occurred several years ago at the behest of a former spiritual director. Sensing that I could do with a bit of solitude, he shuttled me off to St. Benedict's Priory, a small monastery in central Massachusetts. I arrived at the plain, barn like structure, rapped on the huge oaken door, and was warmly greeted by Father Xavier, a middle-aged monk properly dressed in his black cowl and tunic. He led me to my cell—a Spartan chamber equipped only with the most austere of amenities, from which I entered into the simple rhythms of monastic life.

The Benedictine cadence consists of a balance between work (both manual and intellectual) and rest punctuated seven times daily by the divine office—a liturgy of prayer, chant, and oration that commences each day with Vigils at 2 a.m., followed by gatherings at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 p.m. The day concludes with post-dinner Vespers, after which there is silence until Vigils starts it all over again. A bell would chime calling the monks to the office. They'd pad into the chapel and take their seats in the choir. The abbot would knock this little knocker and signal the start of the chanting, as Benedictines have been doing it for nearly 1500 years. The sound engulfed the chapel like air from heaven.

However, not everything is like it's been for 1500 years. Immediately following one morning's office, a younger monk, as soon as the benediction was pronounced, pulled off his cowl and tunic to reveal a business suit. He then grabbed his briefcase and umbrella and dashed out the door, presumably in order to beat the traffic.

The draw of Benedictine monastic life is its community. "Community" is one of those terms that has been batted around among Christians somewhat superfluously over the last few years. There's been much written and spoken about intentional community and authentic community and radical community and transformational community. At its core, Christian community connotes a deeply felt spiritual oneness; a belonging without fear of betrayal, rejection, or loss; a being accepted and unconditionally loved as by Christ. As one Lutheran pastor put it, "Real community is a place that dares us to become more than we once were. It is where we encounter the transformative work of God."

While all well and good, from St. Benedict's standpoint, it remains somewhat incomplete. Most modern dreams for community emphasize attributes such as belonging, safety, growth, and togetherness. Yet as such the goal of community in the end, so it seems, is only good community. For Benedict, community was but a means to a greater end; namely, lifelong obedience to God.

Aware that Christian obedience is wrought with impossibilities when attempted solo, Benedict advocated a corporate body life of mutual effort that bound men and later women together in an unwavering pursuit toward holiness. Unlike those who might settle for some sort of ambiguously felt religious warm fuzzy, Benedict insisted that the spiritual life is a physical life lived not for yourself but in submission to the greatest commandments to love God and your neighbor. It demanded hard work, honest prayer, and rigorous study. Because selfless living is never easy living, Benedict devised a Rule to guide communities toward perfect obedience in a very imperfect world.

Undergirding the practice of Benedict's Rule that structured the aforementioned elements of prayer, work, and study, was a vow of stability. A monk swore to remain within his community until he died. By this vow of stability, Benedict brought transience and mobility—which he believed to be the tangible expressions of human pride, independence, and self-will—under the healing influence of obedience. In a day when people flow in and out of churches like bath water, imagine the effect that stability could have on our ability to love one another, bear each other's burdens, resolve conflicts, and forgive each other. The knee jerk reflex when strife and contention arises is to run, to dodge, to flee, to avoid resolution for the sake of preserving pride and self-dignity and nursing resentment.