What Is Community? Learning from Saint Benedict

What Is Community? Learning from Saint Benedict July 11, 2012

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.

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