Saturday, March 21, 2009

Feast of St. Benedict

Happy Feast of St. Benedict!

For those of you who are wondering, this isn’t the big, official Feast of St. Benedict which is celebrated by the Church on July 11th. March 21st is celebrated by Benedictines as the date of the death of Benedict. Since it is Benedict and we are Benedictines we figure we are entitled to celebrate twice.

It is a big feast day here at the monastery. That means we have a Sunday schedule, special prayers from the feastday office book, the dining room is decorated, special placemats with Benedict are on every table and everyone is dressed up. It is a day when a number of us made profession, there will be a lot of reminiscing around the dinner table.

Since this commemorates the death of Benedict, I thought I’d reflect a little on what that meant to Benedict.

For Benedict death was very clearly the entry into eternal life, the culmination and goal of a life time centered on the work of conversion and transformation. In chapter 72 of the Rule he entreats God to “bring us altogether to everlasting life.” Everlasting life for Benedict is something that happens in the context of community. We are responsible for one another in our work of conversion. Benedict’s is not a spirituality of “me and Jesus,” he sees this life as a journey in the company of our sisters and brothers and we are responsible for one another. We run this race together. Benedict would say we don’t have an option of leaving the slower ones behind or of allowing the faster ones to go on ahead of us. We are community, we go to God together.

The only information we have about Benedict is a hagiography (biography of a saint) written by Pope Gregory the Great in the 7th century. At the end of this work he describes the death of Benedict:

“Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.”

Here we see the same motif as in the Rule, even as he died Benedict is literally upheld by his community. They support him as he had supported them to run the way of the Gospel. He ran the way of faith with his community and they would continue to run the way guided and supported by his example.

Our communities, whether cenobitic or oblate, are very different than Benedict’s, but the principle is the same. Our faith life is lived in community. Community doesn’t just mean people we like and choose and who are similar to us. Community often means people that challenge us to grow precisely because we would not have chosen them! Benedict knew this when he called his disciples to support “…with the greatest patience one anothers weaknesses of body or behavior.” In patience we become the presence of Christ for one another, knowing what it is to uphold someone just as they will hold us up at the times we need.

Community is an exercise of humility. We are reminded of our weaknesses, our limitations and at the same time stretched to offer our gifts on behalf of those who share our spiritual commitment. It is humility to continue in commitment even when it is difficult and stretching for any variety of reasons. In the rough edges of community we come to realize that we cannot rely on ourselves, we come to depend on God who often takes the guise of the people who we most like to get away from. Rugged individualism and self-reliance are not Benedictine values.

For Benedict death was the ultimate point of transformation and it happened as he was held up by the same community that had both supported and challenged him throughout his life. Death was the destination of the journey that would now continue into eternity. While we celebrate the moment Benedict ended his race, let us keep in mind that all of us are still on the way, still supporting and encouraging one another toward the destination of our final transformation.

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