Five Things I Learned from the Benedictines

St. Benedict narrowly averts his own death by poisoning, thanks to a well-timed sign of the cross (source:
St. Benedict narrowly averts his own death by poisoning, thanks to a well-timed sign of the cross (source)

The Benedictines are perhaps a little out of fashion today: maybe they always were. (After all, Benedict narrowly avoided being poisoned by the monks at his first monastery.) I feel incredibly blessed that the wisdom of the Rule of St. Benedict (hereafter, RB) and the warmth, hospitality, and guidance of countless Benedictine nuns and monks have profoundly shaped my journey from western North Dakota[1] to St. John’s University—associated with St. John’s Abbey—to where I am today. I feel profoundly blessed by the wisdom and holiness of my brother, a novice at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND.

Their gifts, however, are not merely regional or attendant on a certain sensibility.[2] I’m convinced that the Benedictines continue to offer important gifts to the world and the universal Church today. On the feast of St. Benedict, perhaps the best way I can show my gratitude to these men and women is to point to five enduring insights I have gained from the Benedictines:

  1. We need stability to grow with each other and God: “The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community” (RB 4:78)

Unlike most other religious orders whose vows are based on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Benedictines make vows of obedience to their superior, conversatio morum (a vow to conversion of life), and stability (RB 58:17). As my brother explained to me, this last vow is a vow of commitment to one’s monastic community for life (thus including the poverty and chastity necessary for such a commitment) and to the prayer life of that monastery. The vow of stability seems an apposite remedy to the contemporary fetishizing of the unencumbered individual always on the go and cursed with a short attention span. The Benedictine vision of holiness might be summarized as the process of learning to work, pray, serve, and share one’s whole life with other people who both image Christ and regularly irritate the hell out of you (literally). As Sr. Joan Chittister describes the vision of community resulting from this, “Stability says that where I am,” precisely in and among those who show me my strengths and weaknesses, “is where God is for me.”[3]

  1. Our interactions with one another ought to be governed by moderation: “Yet, all things are to be done with
    My brother, the Benedictine monk: Br. Matthew Rubbelke (courtesy of Assumption Abbey's Facebook page:
    My brother, the Benedictine monk: Br. Matthew Rubbelke (courtesy of Assumption Abbey’s Facebook page)

    moderation on account of the faint-hearted” (RB 48:9)

Benedict’s Rule is a masterful chastening of expectations regarding a “heroic” vision of monastic life. Over and over, Benedict counsels the leaders of the monastery to have moderation, and he himself sees the Rule as merely a “rule that we have written for beginners” (RB 73:8). My brother has sometimes expressed his frustration about such moderation, saying he expected the monastery to make him holier in a speedier fashion. But he almost immediately follows this by saying what he is learning: trust in the God who takes time to work in and through us and patience with that God’s designs. The Benedictine moderation that depends on God’s plans for the “long haul” sets a profound standard for our polarized and polarizing world, encouraging us to be patient and kind with others and ourselves out of deep trust in God’s faithfulness to us.

  1. Scripture illumines the world: “What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life?” (RB 73:3)

The life of a Benedictine has always been and continues to be permeated by Sacred Scripture. It is no wonder that innumerable hand-copied manuscripts were produced by Benedictine monasteries for centuries (a tradition which the St. John’s Bible continues to promote). It is also no surprise that the Benedictines developed the practice of lectio divina (sacred reading), slowly ruminating on a scriptural passage so as to hear God speaking to you here and now.[4] Indeed, Benedict recommended 2-3 hours of lectio to his monastics daily (RB 48:1 and passim). It is no exaggeration that the Word of God lights the Benedictines’ world, filling it with meaning and characterizing it by deliberate listening. In a nihilistic and often hopeless world, flickeringly illuminated by the endless “clickhole” flashing of our smartphones, this is a practice which can return us to ourselves and God.

  1. The monks of St. John's Abbey (Collegeville, MN) at prayer (source:
    The monks of St. John’s Abbey (Collegeville, MN) at prayer (source)

    The liturgy is central to the Christian life: “Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (RB 43:3)

In my first theology course at St. John’s University, Fr. Michael Patella, OSB, required us to attend one session of his community’s prayer. Drearily trudging through the snow towards the massive Abbey Church, I can remember sitting far from the monks’ chairs and dreading the half hour I would lose. Pulled to the choir by a monk, I begrudgingly participated, only to find that—for the first time in my life—I was praying what I experienced in my heart. It was as if the Psalmist was writing what I felt. Not only does our interior correspond to the liturgy’s prayers, but we are to be shaped by the liturgy. Benedict counseled his monastic communities to pray the Psalms seven times daily (RB 16:1), and while most non-reformed Benedictine communities now pray four times daily, this still means that at least 10% of a Benedictine’s day is spent at the liturgy. There can be no Benedictines without the liturgy (that is, the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours). It is thus no surprise that the foremost leaders of the nineteenth and twentieth century Liturgical Movement were Benedictines: Prosper Guéranger, Lambert Beaudoin, Odo Casel, Virgil Michel. Benedictines like these understood that the liturgy was meant to be participated in by all the faithful, and they envisioned a world transformed by this liturgical participation. Indeed, as Benedict wrote, “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere […] [b]ut beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (RB 19:1-2). (Perhaps the most beautiful evocation of this is Kilian McDonnell’s “The Monks of St. John’s File in for Prayer.”)

  1. Virgil Michel, OSB, at St. John's Abbey (source:
    Virgil Michel, OSB, at St. John’s Abbey (source)

    Social justice is intrinsically connected to the liturgy: “The liturgy is the indispensable basis of social regeneration” (Fr. Virgil Michel, OSB)

It may be true that St. Benedict could not have imagined the wide-scale defense of the poor and zeal for social justice that characterizes the Catholic Church today. Even if Benedict singled out the elderly and children (RB 37), the sick (RB 36:1-3), the stranger (RB 53:1), and the poor (RB 53:15) as images of Christ, he saw them as such solely within the context of the monastery. The extraordinary monk of St. John’s Abbey, Fr. Virgil Michel, made the connection between the Benedictine life centered on the liturgy and social justice. A friend and influence on Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker movement, Michel was credited with introducing Compline to the CW daily routine.[5] Tying the Benedictine understanding of the liturgy’s centrality to the social issues of the day, Michel highlighted how the liturgy transformed Christians into the Mystical Body of Christ, enabling the world to be transformed through their action. It was his great hope that greater participation in the liturgy would transform the world. Michel’s Benedictine legacy stands as a sorely needed antidote to the often contrasted terms “prayer” and “action.”[6]

The nuns of Annunciation Monastery at prayer (source:
The nuns of Annunciation Monastery at prayer (source)

Benedict continues to speak to us today in our distracted, flakey, polarized, and increasingly secular world. Though these aspects cannot serve as a quick fix to our problems, they orient us to the wellspring of life whom Benedict: Christ, to whom we ought to prefer nothing (RB 72:11). May we listen to his call as well as the call of his sons and daughters: “Listen […] with the ear of your heart” (RB Prologue:1), that more and more you might “let God be glorified in all things” (RB 57:9).

[1] No other religious order has shaped the lives of Catholics in western North Dakota like the Benedictines. The first bishop of the Bismarck Diocese was Vincent Wehrle, OSB, and there are still two Benedictine monasteries for women (Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton and Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, associated with the University of Mary) and a Benedictine abbey for men (Assumption Abbey in Richardton).

[2] As Kathleen Norris has so beautifully described in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, there is indeed a sort of in-built resonance between those geographically shaped by the Great Plains and the Benedictine ethos.

[3] Joan Chittister, OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 151. Chittister’s whole chapter on stability beautifully extends this point.

[4] For a quick guide to this practice, see this handout by Luke Dysinger, OSB. For a more in-depth treatment, see Michael Casey, OCSO, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina (Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1996).

[5] For an illuminative and beautiful account of Michel’s friendship with Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, see this piece by Mark and Louise Zwick.

[6] On this connection, see Rita Ferrone’s interesting account of Virgil Michel’s legacy.