Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why Have Benedictines Survived?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Benedictine life has both changed and remained consistent over the centuries. In 1980 Benedictines celebrated the 1500 year anniversary of the birth of Benedict. During these 1500 years the sons and daughters of Benedict have spread to every continent and have continued to live according to Benedict’s Rule, a guidebook for living the Gospel.

One might think that people all living according to the same guidebook would look very similar, that Benedictines in England in the year 1000 would look a lot like Benedictines in Cameroon in 2000. Or at the very least Benedictines in Australia and South Korea in the year 2010 would have a pretty much identical way of life.

But the reality is that Benedictine monasticism has proved to be both extremely flexible and extremely resilient over the centuries. It has managed to hold on to the essential while adapting to changing times and circumstances. Whether in the year 1000 or 2000, whether in Europe, North America, Africa, or Asia, Benedictines have managed to maintain a life focused on God in a way that fits with the time and circumstances.

So I wonder what is essential about Benedictine monasticism? What is it that unites Benedictines across centuries, cultures, and types of commitment? I suspect that the answer is very simple and prosaic. We are united by a practical yet flexible structure that allows us to live a common purpose, a life focused on God. The exact nature of the structure changes with time, circumstances and needs, but the key is that it is a way of life in which we get the support we need to seek God. With a flexible structure we can live a life in which prayer is possible, we are accountable for the commitments we have made and we can more easily do the hard work of transformation that draws us deeper into the heart of God.

The scaffolding of Benedictine structure is community. Most of us like to think that we are capable of building our own structures but to be a Benedictine is to admit that we need help in our journey, we need the support and structure of a community. All Benedictines across the centuries have shared this sense of community. For some community may be the very traditional, enclosed, vowed community of everyone living under the same roof their whole adult lives. For others it may be being part of a community at a distance, living and working away but united in commitment and purpose. The key is the commitment to being part of a particular group of people all living this particular way of the Gospel. To be Benedictine means that we go to God together with the unique, motley crew that we have said we would journey with until, in Benedict’s words, we come “altogether to everlasting life.”

If the scaffolding of Benedictine life is community then the foundation and building material is prayer. Prayer, simply being in relationship with God, is the essence of this way of life, this way of living out the Gospel. Prayer is both the Divine Office chanted seven times a day in the common oratory and the prayer muttered while driving to work in the city. Prayer echoes across centuries and continents in an unbroken chain of men and women uniting their hearts and their longing for God in this way of life. Prayer is the structure of our daily life that allows the God whispers deep in our souls to urge us on, to push us ever deeper into the journey of transformation. The ways in which we pray may not be uniform but is the foundation of the structure of our life.

So across continents, centuries and types of commitment we Benedictines are united by simple things, by structures and practices, by a deep, unceasing longing and hunger for God. We journey together knowing that we need one another’s help along the way. Together we are united in the foundation of prayer, formal or informal, eloquent chant or inarticulate groaning, we come before God in our need, and together we will go to God in this ever ancient and ever new way of life.

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