Monday, September 27, 2010

A Little Rule?! For Beginners!?!

There is a sentence at the very end of the Rule of Benedict that has probably been perplexing and terrifying monastics for over 1500 years. Benedict asks: “8Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners.” (RB 73:8) You can almost hear the centuries of anguished responses: if this is a little rule for beginners, what does the advanced rule look like?

As I’ve thought about it over the years I’ve come to think that maybe I have a sense of what Benedict is trying to say.

Most people, including most monastics, like to think that people who have chosen to live in a monastery are somehow more spiritually advanced, or at least more committed to the spiritual life. But the reality is that life in a monastery is actually easier in many ways than trying to maintain a deep life of faith in the midst of the world with the demands of family, work and without the support and structure of living in a monastic community.

The whole Rule of Benedict tries to set forth the structures that are needed to allow monastics to focus on the spiritual life without distraction. Benedict tries to make allowance for everyone’s needs and weaknesses so that there will be no excuses for not going deeply into the spiritual journey. People who have jobs in the monastery are given help if they need it, someone rings the bell as a signal to stop and go to prayer, people who are struggling are given wise elders to support them. Even the practical details seem designed to eliminate all the creative excuses we come up with for not staying focused on God. There is variety in meals so that everyone has something to eat. Every monk has his own bed and enough clothing. The daily schedule has specified times for prayer so that it doesn’t have to be fit in around all the other demands. In other words all aspects of the way of life are designed by Benedict to make it easier to grow in love for God and neighbor.

So perhaps “beginners” in the spiritual life are those of us who need more structure, more help to keep on the path. Benedict says that when people need more they should receive it and feel humble because they aren’t as strong as others.

Maybe those of us who live in monasteries need to feel humble when we reflect on the reality that we are very blessed to live a life in which we have the structures and encouragement to grow in relationship with God. In Chapter One Benedict talks about the four types of monks and calls cenobites (monks who live in community) the “strong ones.” But Benedict didn’t know about people seeking to live monastic values while juggling children, spouses, demanding jobs, the hectic pace of the modern world all while living without the structures of a monastery. If he was familiar with all the people living his “little rule” in the midst of so many demands I think he would say that these people are truly the “strong” kind of monks in our world today.

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