St. Benedict: A Sixth Century Saint for the Twenty-First Century

St. Benedict’s rule was written for everyone. His goal was to “establish a school for the Lord’s service.” He hoped in creating these rules “to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”

 

Chesterton wrote that “it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” He argues that this is the reason why the 19th century chose St. Francis of Assisi, and the 20th century chose St. Thomas Aquinas, as their contraries—or more rightly, the saints chose them, the times only thinking they have chosen these saints as patrons. The 19th century chose “the Franciscan romance precisely because it had neglected romance.” The 20th century chose St. Thomas, the master of reason, precisely because it had forgotten how to be reasonable.

More than a decade into the 21st century—in the vast, universal, communion of saints—what saint will emerge as the help of his brethren who are still fighting for salvation? Who, besides Christ, can serve as our sign of contradiction for the post-modern world? “Any saint” might suffice as an answer, as our world desperately needs the witness of many saints— vastly different in a way that knights are different from monks, and complementary in a way that knights make excellent monks. However, by saying “any saint,” we fail to realize that not only is one age different from another—being set upon by its own trials and successes—but also each saint is different from another saint in his own trials and successes. Though there really is but one success: being a saint. That is, the 21st century has a craving for a specific saint, similar to a pregnant woman craving a specific, often odd pairing of food, like hot fudge covered pickles. Who will satisfy this craving; to whom will it give birth?

To answer this question, this writer takes his lead from the Holy Father, who chose the name of this sixth century Italian monk, St. Benedict of Nursia.  The father of western monasticism, Benedict is the saint who most contradicts the 21st century. He, the holy, black-clad monk, serves as the practical saint for an impractical world.

The world, particularly America, is impractical. De Tocquville describes America’s philosophical methods as one where “the precepts of Descartes are least studied but are best applied.” That is to say, the impracticality of the world lies in the materialistic, utilitarian, power-over-nature, ethos of our time. Where ideologues and “educrats” force impractical nonsense upon the populace, so much so, that the only places remaining for common sense are the jungles and deserts of the word—a place considered too simplistic by the educated for the educated to care about it. Furthermore, these locations are too untamable, even by using force. So, the only way for the ideologues to tame the untamable is to destroy it. Yet, these areas of uncontrollability are the very places where the inhabitants do the unthinkable, taming their surroundings, not by force, but by letting “the untamable” tame their souls.

As the story of St. Benedict goes, he comprehends his calling to monasticism, fleeing from the city to take residence in a cave, so as to imitate he, Christ, who was born in a cave.  Sometime later, others seek his advice. From this interaction with seekers, St. Benedict realizes one of the most practical things in the world: people need rules. Otherwise, we may become like G.K. Chesterton’s “broad-minded turnips” and “dogma-less trees.” Having done away with rules and dogmas, with an attitude so broad that it becomes limited and narrow, our culture does nothing more than backsliding, soon becoming little more than the things mankind was given to have dominion over. Dogs cannot control their passions, but humans must. Grass is delightful on which to lie, but because we lie in the grass does not assume that we have become no better than that on which we lie. So after much reflection and experience, he gave to the world the “Rule of St. Benedict.”

An examination of Benedict’s rule quickly reveals that this was not written for the elite, nor the enlightened, nor the rulers, nor only for the religious. No, his rule was written for everyone. His goal was to “establish a school for the Lord’s service.” In drawing up its regulations, he claimed that he hoped “to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”

In reading it, the first point to remember is that Benedict’s rule is about people. It is a social rule, written in a time where people still interacted, face to face, requiring charity. There were no faceless media, other than letters, to strip charity from the words of people (unlike today, where it is often so violently presented on the internet). In dealing with others, St. Benedict suggests that charity is key, stressing that it is “better to keep silent than to speak of all these and their disgraceful way of life.” The saint even goes so far as to recommend silence over giving praise. He believed that words do indeed have meaning, and should be carefully chosen so as to neither inflate the ego, nor detract from charity.

In addition, Benedict lists the different kinds of monks—those which were trustworthy and those not so—realizing something that much of our current world misses. The foundation for a culture or society is not an idea; it is a communion of persons. Though it is impossible to separate ideas from a society; it is not possible to have a society or a culture without people. Therefore, Benedict’s rule is primarily a civil, communal rule on how to live charitably in a society of people with whom you may or may not like. Simply put, it is a rule on how to deal with people when they are being people.

Another contrast can be seen in the fact that the United States is a country founded upon rebellion, celebrating rebellion of any sort. If one asked the country, as a whole: “What are you rebelling against?” its collective response might be: “What’ve you got?” This celebration of rebellion extends today to other countries, as well, most recently demonstrated by the street riots in Canada and London. This is the antithesis of Benedictine obedience.

Benedict’s rule celebrates obedience. The saint connects obedience with humility, two virtues seriously lacking in the world today. Both of these qualities admit, selflessly, that “there are others out there who know more than I do.” Today, on the other hand, it is sufficient, apparently, to qualify as an “expert” by merely having a blog and reading two, poorly-written, news articles, lacking particulars of any real substance.

Another point about the rule is that nowhere does it imply that anyone must forego their own free will in order to follow God, or St. Benedict’s rule, for that matter. It is exactly the opposite. Obedience is a celebration and glorification of one’s free will, in that it takes more of one’s free will to obey than it does to rebel against it.

Perhaps, the main way the St. Benedict, and his rule, most contradict the world is that, unlike the world, he is concerned with a balanced life of work and prayer (ora et labora). This contradicts a trend represented by the fact that supermarkets and stores remain open, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This mirrors a culture where some would choose to remain perpetually awake if they could. Perpetual hyperactivity is revered in our world today, making it a virtue to the extent that, if one is not in perpetual motion, then guilt ensues. Rest is equated with the vice of laziness. Excessive work—taking a person from family, friends, and fun—is made “holy.”  As a result of this confusion, most people in America now work at their play, play at their worship, and worship their work. It has become a world that has lost the rhythm of life—which might explain the need by so many to listen perpetually to music,an attempt to re-establish the missing natural rhythm with an artificial one.

The rule, on the other hand, sets out for the reader how to pray, what to pray, and when to pray, making an allowance for personal devotions and prayer. Likewise, the rule sets times for work, leaving the specifics of that work to the particular community.

Like the monks of old, who saved western civilization after the fall and destruction of Rome by the barbarians, another opportunity has emerged. A new dark age is coming to fruition where modernity—post-modernity, progress for progress’ sake, and relativism—have sacked the civilization which the monks saved centuries prior.  Literacy is being replaced by proficiency in watching videos.  In place of book learning, we have reality TV. Religion is being replaced by superstition.

The question now is: “How many decades till classical learning retreats back into the halls and oratories of the monasteries where they shall wait for the fires of Rome to die?”  What is certain is that once the smoke clears, it will be the monks, the culture, and learning—once held so dear—rising from the ash, once again bringing sanity back to the world.

Just one day before the death of Pope John Paul II, the then Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of St. Benedict, addressing the crisis of culture in Europe. The future Benedict XVI was receiving the St. Benedict Award for the promotion of life and family throughout Europe. He said:

We need men like Benedict of Norcia, who at a time of dissipation and decadence, plunged into the most profound solitude, succeeding, after all the purifications he had to suffer, to ascend again to the light, to return and to found Montecasino, the city on the mountain that, with so many ruins, gathered together the forces from which a new world was formed.

In this way Benedict, like Abraham, became the father of many nations. The recommendations to his monks, presented at the end of his “Rule,” are guidelines that show us also the way that leads on high, beyond the crisis and the ruins.

In brief, Benedict’s Rule is not burdensome and impractical, but the contrary. His rules lead one to freedom, assisting people to do what they must and ought.  Furthermore, his rule is practical wisdom, not only for monks, but for a world which despises wisdom. It is, in simplistic terms, “a guide for dummies” who live in a society. This world shuns moderation while embracing everything “x-treme.” But we would all do well to learn from the wisdom of this Italian, sixth century monk, who is most practical, most moderate, and according to modern thinking, therefore, quite extreme.

For more information on the life of St. Benedict and his “rule,” go to:
http://www.benedictinesil.org/life.htm
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/benedict/rule2/files/rule2.html#ch1


 

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avatar About Paul Catalanotto

Paul Catalanotto teaches theology at Pope John XXIII High School in Katy, Texas. He has articles published in Gilbert Magazine, New Oxford Review, and on CatholicExchange.com. Paul is currently working on an essay involving Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Comments

  1. avatar David Bird OSB says:

    An excellent article by someone with a very good command of English. I would like to see more that he has written. He is a joy to read. He also says good things about St Benedict.!! My blog is named “Monks and Mermaids”, and I confess that I have pinched your article, giving full credit to the author and acknowledging my source. I THINK that is what one is supposed to do. Happy Our Lady of Mount Carmel

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