Sister Edith, who teaches at St Scholastica, recently blogged in Monastic Musings on St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, modern monasticism and the older brother of the real St Scholastica. Prior to Benedict, monks were generally solitaries living in deserts or other remote areas far from society. Benedict has his religious live in communal societies in monasteries or convents organized upon the dictum Ora et Labora, Prayer and Work and on the fact that we need other people to assist us on our spiritual journey.
A young boy in the 5th Century flees from the corruption of student life - not only its physical debauchery but its intellectual and spiritual torpitude. He runs into the countryside, to an area of steep hills where he can find, among some hermits, a mentor to help him begin the spiritual way of life.
The boy takes up residence, alone, in a small cave. For three years, he lives alone, reading and studying scripture, learning the life of prayer - and grappling with the demons of temptation as angry, greedy, and sexual thoughts disturb his peace.
This is, of course, the young Saint Benedict, whose life is depicted in fresco on the church walls at Sacro Speco (Holy Cave) in Subiaco. All ancient stories of monastic life begin with this fugi mundi, turning aside from the ways of the world. To some extent, Saint Benedict never abandons this stance. When he lists the tools of the spiritual life in his Rule, he states quite baldly: Your way of acting should be different from the world's way (4.20). He follows this up with a line that is both the reason for acting differently and the measure of whether one is doing so: The love of Christ must come before all else (4.21).
Life with others.
Benedict differs, though, from the Egyptian monastics who fled far into the desert to minimize dealing with the modern way of life. After three years, he emerged from the cave, and never lived in solitude again. His spirituality recognized the necessity of other people on the spiritual journey: where else will we encounter Christ if there are no sick to care for, no visitors or pilgrims at the door? How can we struggle and learn humility if there is no one to whom we promise and owe mutual obedience? To stay in the relationship even when it is hard, which Benedict calls stability? It is clear to all who study the Benedictine way of monastic life that it is not about running away from other people.
What about running away from the world, though. The stereotype of the monk is someone so enclosed that the styles and events of the world simply pass by, unknown and unnoticed.
Here is the core of Benedict's wisdom: he does not flee other people, but he sets careful limits on the influence that the ways of the world will have. In his days, as the Roman empire was crumbling, his monks were sent on necessary journeys - but instructed to maintain their schedule of prayer. On short journeys, they should simply carry food or fast, rather than fall into idle conversation and recreation. Guests should be welcomed, but not engaged in coversation. Reading might extend beyond the books of the Bible - but only holy and orthodox authors were considered. Monks would work alongside lay people in harvesting and farming; would take goods to market; would provde food or help to the needy.
Living with discretion.
Rather than fleeing the world, Benedict lives in a dynamic tension with the society of his time. Aware of how easily people can be distracted by outside events, and forget what is most important, he tells his monks Prefer nothing to Christ and designs a way of life that will reveal - and heal - their shortcomings.
One of the stories in the life of Benedict is that of the wayward monk, who kept slipping out of prayers before they were done. Benedict waited outside, and saw that a demon was tugging on his scapular, tempting him away. In his complacency, he did not know why he was unable to keep to his prayers. Benedict, who does not feel the influence of this outside force, is able to send away the demon and heal the monk. (In the fresco from Sacro Speco, at right, the wayward monk is clothed in white, as a Cistercian, the rival order that considered itself to have "reformed" the lax Benedictine practice of the time - certainly a political statement by the artist.)
The traditional monastic term for these limits on the influence of the world is discernment - sharing the same root with the term discretion, which the dictionary defines as individual choice or judgment but also the result of separating or distinguishing. Benedict is asking something more difficult that fugi mundi : he asks his monks to grow in discernment.
To know with senses other than vision.
This stance of discernment is what is most needed by the Christian in the modern world. Few of us - even in monasteries - can remain untouched by the slogans, products, and practices of consumer culture. Many of them are helpful and good. We appreciate fresh vegetables in the depths of winter, accurate information about the events of the world, and, yes, the chance to write and talk with people around the world. Benedict's way does not blindly reject technology, but asks us to consider when we are using it for God's glory, and when it begins to use us, or to control our lives.
The tools that Benedict recommends are effective even in the modern world. Times of silence help one to recognize which media are helpful, and which merely taking up mental space. Commitment to a schedule of prayer and of community life limits self-indulgence. Attention to simple manual tasks - cleaning, cooking - and sharing them with others grounds a person in the realities of everyday life.
Benedict urges his monks, Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so (4.62). This describes the criteria for success - holiness, not fame or fortune - and sets a high standard - authenticity, not appearances. It is only in living with other people, and in dynamic interaction with the world, that this is possible. We may need to flee the world for a time, to get our bearings, to re-set our inner compass. But we can only do the hard work of spiritual growth when we move back into the world, to serve Christ as we care for the needs of our brothers and sisters. Monastic Musings