The Feast of St. Benedict
Prv 2:1-9, Eph 4:1-6, Lk 22:24-27
This past Monday during Vigils as I was thinking about what I might say in my upcoming homily today, I was struck by a phrase from a hymn we were in the midst of. The four words that caught my attention were, “joined in common purpose”. That seemed to describe well something important to monastic life: “joined in common purpose”. We all share a common purpose, and that brings us together and keeps us together. If we were individually living this common purpose I think we would be weaker and less efficient. But when like-minded people join together around a common purpose, it makes things smoother, easier, and more potent. We all have our ups and our downs, our moments of strength and our moments of weakness — and as a group, we can help carry each other through all those vicissitudes.
At this point in his life Br. Nikolas is strong. And that strength is put to good use pushing Br. Lawrence around in his wheelchair. I have no cooking skills, but I’m carried along by members who excel in it like Fr. Gerard, Fr. John, Br. James, and Br. Paul. Sometimes we’re running low in our fervor or enthusiasm, or just kind of feeling down on ourselves. Our fellow team members who are in a more “up” place at the time can be an inspiration for us and help get us back on our feet.
But this living together under a common purpose needs organization. And that’s where the feast we celebrate today comes in. St. Benedict had that Roman knack for organization. He was able to synthesize the monastic tradition he had inherited and put it together in a Rule that was practical enough and flexible enough to withstand the changes of times and circumstances. Think how different the society was that Benedict was living in in Italy in the 500s. And yet, in western Christian monasticism the framework he put together has become the dominant model. I think it is a tribute to the balance he was able to strike in fitting together all the disparate elements that make up monastic life.
Curiously, though, his Rule seemed to find a more fertile ground in European society and the areas it colonized like America. At the time of Benedict, you had the Greek-speaking eastern Church and the Latin-speaking western Church. The eastern church eventually became the Orthodox Church, not in union with Rome. For them, the Rule of St. Basil has always been a favorite, and Benedict never took hold. Just a different mentality, I guess.
And think of how Christian monasticism was flourishing in the 300s and 400s in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria, and in Cappadocia. There were thousands and thousands of monks. St. Pachomius and his Rule were so successful in Upper Egypt. And yet, no one follows his Rule anymore. It wasn’t able to withstand the test of time. Other than Basil’s Rule, those other styles of living Christian monasticism have pretty well died out, although you see remnants of the lavra in the Carthusians and Camaldolese. But they aren’t exactly flourishing these days. Somehow, Benedict was able to organize monastic life in a way that struck the right balance for the western mentality.
And when you look at Benedict’s life, it kind of evolved into what we remember him for today. He was sent to study in Rome but was so scandalized by the dissolute lifestyle there that he left to settle in the country, away from its harmful influence. A monk named Romanus eventually took him under his wing and he lived as a hermit in a cave for three years at Subiaco. I’ve been there and it’s such a beautiful and peaceful place. I can see how his spirit soared and he would never want to be disturbed. Then he sacrificed his own preferences for the sake of a community that needed an abbot. Only to have an attempt made on his life when they tried to poison him. I guess they thought he was too strict. He returned to Subiaco and soon so many monks had gathered around him that he was back to being an abbot again. In fact, he ended up founding 12 monasteries in that area. He founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in 530 and died there in 547. Lucky for us, he allowed God to use him as an abbot, and through trial and error and a lot of grace put together the legacy of his Rule.
I guess we can learn from him to allow God to use us to accomplish great things. The more we relinquish our own will and embrace God’s, the more lasting impact we will have.
St. Benedict is famous for his phrase, “Ora et Labora” — Work and Pray. Let all of us strive to keep the proper balance in our lives of temporal things and spiritual things.