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Lenten Lessons: The Wisdom of St. Benedict

Benedict wants a community that is led, not driven. . . .The function of authority is not to control the other; it is to guide and to challenge and to enable the other. . . . Those who hold authority in a community are not to be above the group, they are to be the centers of it, the norm of it, the movers of it. They themselves are to mirror its values. Their job is not simply to give orders. Their job is to live out the ideals. (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, 38-39)

The practical spirituality of the Rule—the practice to which men and women give assent and vow to continue faithfully, in one community, under the authority of their spiritual leader—is continual and joyful prayer and work, ora et labora. Benedict sought balance for those men and women in the communities living by the Rule, and the day is thus divided up between public prayer (praying the hours), labor for the benefit of the community, and private prayer and reading. In all things, Benedictines understand that they are offering what they are doing to God and that what they do is done in the presence of God. It is a continual seeking after God we could emulate in our own lives, whether we are washing dishes, filling out spreadsheets, or mowing the lawn.

This sort of faithful prayer and practice in community changes and shapes people. I know: for three years of my life, at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, I worshipped, prayed, studied, worked, played, and took communion with brothers and sisters from across the Church. In many individual churches (and in other social institutions), people tend to associate with people who believe like they do, vote like they do, or look like they do. It's human nature. In our seminary community, thanks be to God, we were not given that choice. We had to embrace stability—and, if we were going to live into our vocations as Christian leaders, we also had to learn to embrace each other.

Like the medieval Benedictines, we were a cross-section of our society. Some of us came from money and others from the working classes; some of us were high church and others low; some of us were politically, culturally, or theologically conservative, others directly opposed.

But in the course of those three years, we prayed, worked, and lost football games together. We laughed together, we fought with each other, we cried together, and we received communion at the altar rail together. At the end of three years, I knew that I would never warm to a few folks, but I was amazed at the depth of love for all and friendship toward most that had been planted in my heart—and still flourishes there.

The most famous dicta of the Rule has to do with hospitality: Let all who come to us be treated as though he or she were Christ himself. This is a powerful practice to attempt, but it is limiting to suggest that this call applies only to the stranger at the gates. We should practice this sort of hospitality not just to the one-and-done stranger we will never see again; we should practice it daily within our families, our businesses, our faith communities, our friendships. As Laura Swan, glossing the Rule, concludes,

Our hearts are cultivated when we extend hospitality to all, honoring the Christ in one another. Hospitality proclaims the Immanence of God present in our midst, a reverence for life, Christ's love and compassion. Hospitality is a powerful proclamation of the good news of Jesus. (The Benedictine Tradition, xx)

And so it is—and a powerful proclamation of the fruits of Benedictine spirituality. So our lessons this week: from a commitment to pursuing stability, obedience, and faithful spiritual practice in community comes individual betterment and communal love that empowers us to live out the good news in visible ways. Radical and loving hospitality is the sign of Jesus at work within us and in the world.

Next week, we'll seek the spiritual lessons in the life of and tradition attached to Mary, the Mother of God. I leave you with this prayer from the Benedictine Rule (4:20-26):

Your way of acting should be different from the world's way: the love of Christ must come before all else.
You are not to act in anger
or nurse a grudge.
Rid your heart of all deceit.
Never give a hollow greeting of peace
or turn away when someone needs your love.

May God give us the strength so to live, until we meet again. God bless you.

3/30/2011 4:00:00 AM