14th Thursday in Ordinary Time
Solemnity of our Father, St. Benedict
The Lord himself is giver of wisdom in every age. In the Bible, the inspired authors of wisdom literature were concerned not so much with how to think about spiritual matters, as with how to do the right thing, how to go about the practical business of living in the presence of the Lord. In post- biblical Christianity, the concerns of the wisdom movement were continued mainly in the monastic movement, beginning with St Anthony and all the great teachers of the Egyptian desert. For western monks and nuns, St Benedict is the greatest teacher of wisdom, both in the Rule he wrote and in the way he lived as a monk.
As St Gregory describes him in the second book of his Dialogues, St Benedict is mainly an ascetic and charismatic figure. He has all of the gifts that are a sign of the man of God: special power of intercession, ability to read hearts, discernment of spirits, and knowledge of spiritual matters. His prayer was uninterrupted and often accompanied by the gift of tears. His contemplation seemed to culminate in an extraordinary vision in which the whole world was concentrated, in a manner of speaking, in a single ray of light. These gifts were given to Benedict at the close of a rigorous ascesis, a life of wisdom, in which all his unruly passions became finally and forever at peace.
It is also the spirit of wisdom that is characteristic of the Rule of St Benedict. It is a guide to asceticism; it is also a handbook for regulating the daily life of the monastery according to the spiritual progress of those who live there. Benedictine monasticism continues to be what it has always been: a striving to live a life of wisdom according to the Gospel, separated from the world, awaiting the City whose architect and builder is God. In the monastery, the Rule takes care to avoid any excess, to make adjustments for different conditions, and impose no burdens too heavy for imperfect human beings to bear. It is this moderation that shows us that St Benedict understood the concrete possibilities of human nature and preferred to win people by gentleness rather than to lay down a series of hard-and-fast laws.
Bodily mortification is a part of any life of wisdom, and St Benedict refers to it, but he does not place too much stress on it. He seems to find the whole of asceticism in obedience. For him, obedience is the highest form of renunciation, since it acts on our self-will. He devotes an entire chapter of the Rule to obedience, because without it there can be no control of the passions, no monastic stability, and no fraternal charity.
But the most fundamental of all the characteristics that link St Benedict with the wisdom movement is the idea he forms of the monastic life and its special purpose. To him it has no other goal than to enable people to live according to the wisdom of the gospel, to follow Christ to the end. He does not focus on any secondary goal because he does not want his disciples to concentrate on that at the expense of what is essential.
St Gregory wrote that St Benedict, when he entered his solitude, had no other desire than “to please God alone”, soli Deo. These simple words, better than any others, explain the monastic vocation in the spirit of St Benedict. It springs from the desire to please God, or to seek God, as the Rule puts it in Chapter 58. This desire is so strong, so overwhelming, that it is the dominant desire of the monk, and he cannot be sidetracked for long into seeking anything else. From the novice to the senior professed, the one concern must be whether the person “truly seeks God, and whether he shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience, and for trials”.
No other criterion is mentioned here because this is the one thing necessary in discerning vocations to the monastic life in the spirit of St Benedict. To become a monk means to live a life of wisdom, to go to God by the path of detachment, to overcome self-will, to bear with humiliations, and to devote oneself to the Work of God, the liturgy, which is surely the most disinterested of religious actions and the one most centered in God. To be a monk means to have no concern for the conventional wisdom of the world, no ambition to play a role in society, and no immediate apostolic aims. The definition of a monastery is “a school for the Lord’s service”: its only purpose is to form Christians in the way of perfect love, perfectæ caritatis. That is the purest wisdom: to put nothing before our love of God.
Through the intercession of St Benedict, may all of us run with hearts expanded in the way of wisdom, and may Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.