The Spirit of St. Benedict

“Flee the world!” “Pray and work.”

Sometimes, these two tag lines are thought to summarize Benedictine monastic life. As with any motto, there is some truth to them, but there also are fundamental elements that go missing.

St. Gregory the Great relates in the second book of his “Dialogues” that the young Benedict, known to be “blessed by grace, and blessed in name,” was born around the year A.D. 480 in the area of Nursia in central Italy but raised in Rome. St. Gregory writes, “As much as he saw many by reason of such learning fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance with it, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf.”

‘Benedict Option’

Benedict did, in fact, flee the world. And in a 21st-century sensibility, it might be said that he gave up on the world and abandoned the common life of Rome and its culture. His next move was to a secret, sparse cave, now known as Subiaco, where a monk named Romanus brought him bread on occasion.

Benedict seemingly flees the world to Subiaco as a harsh judgment on fifth-century Roman culture. This response, fleeing the world (or fuga mundi), has been seen as a necessary part of Benedictine life since the saint himself set the example. Even in our day, there is interest (and criticism) of that principle. Following the publication of Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” in 1981, there has emerged a line of thinking called “the Benedict Option.”

Conservative writer Rod Dreher, who wrote a book called “The Benedict Option” (Sentinel, $25), explained it like this: “The Benedict Option ... is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.”

In every instance, to be faithful to the mind of Benedict, one must flee, one must enter the cave of solitude, one must embrace a lifestyle of listening with the heart that envisions, plans and provides for a positive response to culture. And one must be ready to change self and world.

Subiaco becomes for Benedict the seedbed, the seminary for a way of life that will indeed impact the world. Benedict’s three years of solitude almost immediately resulted in the establishment of monastic life at Monte Cassino, a life placed squarely on the virtues of community living, concern and love for the other, good order, conversion and an intentional life. It’s not that Benedict took three years of living in a cave to write the prologue and 73 chapters of the Rule, but that in the silence of his rustic Subiaco hermitage, he envisioned a life that could serve as example and antidote to the corruption he had witnessed in Rome. No wonder, then, that when Charlemagne, more than 200 years later, seeks to establish good order, he turns to the Rule as the example for all religious life.

The Power of Listening

Since some Benedictine monasteries are the setting for priestly formation, the question of St. Benedict’s influence on the lives of seminarians and priests has long been entertained, sometimes with the mindset that monks shouldn’t push their Benedictine views on diocesan clergy.

After six years of ministry in two different parishes — one smaller and more rural, and the past five years at the Cathedral of St. Benedict in Evansville, Indiana (a city of 120,000), and 14 years of seminary work before that — I can see that the Rule, the dream that Benedict envisioned at Subiaco and lived out at Monte Cassino and other early Benedictine monasteries, has plenty to offer the priest who is open to challenge. Just as any other saint’s wisdom can shape and bless our ministry and identity, so can the wisdom of St. Benedict.

First, from the very beginning of the Rule, Benedict calls the follower to “incline the ear of the heart” to the wisdom of the master. This is no mere reference to a vow or promise of obedience. This is about a posture of spirit, mind and soul that loves learning from various sources, that sees life better lived by the simple yet challenging act of listening deeply to the other. Effective priestly ministry must start with listening to seminary professors and formators, to fellow seminarians and lay students, to the call and needs of God and the Church, especially in a particular locale. A priest who will not listen to the Lord in prayer will easily be bankrupt and lost when it’s time to preach the living word of God in word and deed.

Listening is exemplified in the choral praying of the psalms — where one listens to the word as the psalms are alternated between sides of choir or between cantor and choir. The rhythm of prayer is clearly established: speak and listen. If prayer is merely speaking to God, then God’s response is not a part of life. But listening to the Lord helps us know his response. And listening to the Lord must influence every decision that priests make, so often affecting the lives of those we serve. Listening to the Lord is the foundation for effective preaching. No one is habitually given the faculty to preach in the Catholic Church without a concurrent promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. The wisdom of this discipline is not to make diocesan clergy into monks, but to call all who speak in the name of the Church to the isolated place of prayer after the example and heart of Christ. Ministry is directed by and flows from deep listening to God.

While the prologue begins with the listening heart, the first chapter of the Rule is about the four kinds of monks: Cenobites, Hermits, Sarabaites and Gyrovagues.

The Sarabaites

A sarabaite monk enshrines as law what he fancies. He forbids what he dislikes. Benedict says his character is soft as lead. Could it be that Benedict saw in the sarabaite monk the very corruption that he abandoned in Roman culture? Instead of any objective good, the base appetites govern the life for the sarabaite. Instead of envisioning and working toward a common good, the sarabaite chooses what is best for himself. Instead of self-sacrifice after the example of Jesus, the sarabaite seeks only comfort for himself. The sarabaite never seriously considers the custom, tradition, environment or common life that he walks into. Holiness for this type of monk centers on the other becoming like me.

5 'Rules' For Priest To Live By
From the Rule of St. Benedict:

Too easily, we might dismiss the wisdom of Benedict’s understanding of the sarabaite monk as some ancient view. But when a pastor is tempted to move the tabernacle on his first day in a new assignment, pay heed! When a new associate completely ignores the liturgical style of the pastor — not liturgical abuses — for the preferences that he has fostered outside a parish setting, pay heed! When a priest legislates his own piety independent of liturgical law and diocesan norms, pay heed!

The sarabaite priest is not merely a relic of the past. And the soft character of this type of living does such harm to the growing faith of the faithful. Commitment to a common good, to respect for traditions and customs, to listening to the voice of God for what is truly important — these are the antidotes to the life of the sarabaite.

The Gyrovagues

The gyrovague monk is also detestable to Benedict. The gyrovague is always on the move, sowing the seeds of discontent and criticism wherever he goes. His currency is excess in every instance. His character flaws cannot be addressed because he stays on the move. He lacks the maturity of those engaged in real growth in holiness. He, too, is a slave to his own will. He easily spins out of control, indulges narcissistic tendencies and follows appetites even to death.

The gyrovague parish priest skims across the surface of the community, never attentive to any situation that would require depth. He is involved in everything except the parish where he is assigned. He seeks intimacy in any outlet except the deep intimacy that comes with engaging the beautiful humanity of the sheep he’s called to shepherd. Gyrovague ministry lacks relationships of substance and flees any personal encounter. Plainly, the gyrovague priest is ineffective because of his own self-centered fears.

The Cenobites

Instead of choosing these two types of living, Benedict sets out his Rule for the strong type of monks, the cenobites. The cenobites find their strength in communal living, where rough edges are smoothed. cenobites know the rigors of community and rejoice in the better life that living together brings. Communal life calls the peaceful person to some balance between different meaningful parts of life: between community and solitude; work and prayer; private prayer and communal prayer; serving and being served; wisdom and learning; needing others and being needed; personal benefit and common good; my own great ideas and the good ideas of the abbot or bishop or brother priest or parishioner; death and life; the present and that eschatological promise to be fulfilled.

Like the early disciples described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the cenobites bring all they have to be held in common, so that those in more need have what is required and those who have less need rejoice in God’s grace.

Priests are made for service, and service necessarily requires attention to the other. No matter our age or assignment, we’re called to life within a community of faith.

Our responsibility is to our people — Catholics and all others, too. Our responsibility is to be that strong, joyful, balanced, committed, self-sacrificing, reverent presence of Christ. And if we will listen with the ear of the heart, then we will know the Way who leads us.

The Hermits

The fourth type of monk, the hermit, has flourished in the cenobitic life and is deemed ready for “the solitary combat of the desert.” Not in their first fervor, the hermit’s life follows after much order and discipline as a cenobite. Perhaps the hermits of the diocesan clergy are the retired brothers who have passed through the challenges and blessings of community for the solitude of later years.

St. Benedict envisioned a community of good order. And the majority of the chapters of the Rule are addressed to maintaining that good order, to the definition and description of the cenobitic life that brings work and prayer and all of life into proper focus, into a life of peace. Whether he’s instructing the monk in the ways of accepting the will of the superior even when that seems impossible, or in the way that the psalms should be prayed, or in setting prices for their work as a way of giving glory to God, he simply calls each who will follow him to this new way of life that radically welcomes the other and fundamentally considers the other’s good first.

Benedict articulates a vision that was obviously the result of much prayer and a creative response to a corrupt culture. Far from fleeing the world as mere rejection or abandonment, he goes away to a lonely place to pray and find the way to assist in the progressive transfiguration of the world in which he lived, in loving the world around him.

Leading a Spiritual Renewal

Perhaps best summed up in Chapter 72, titled “The Good Zeal Which They Ought to Have,” Benedict teaches that good zeal separates the monk “from vices and leads to God and to everlasting life.” Relying on the wisdom of St. Paul, he exhorts his followers to anticipate one another in showing honor (see Rom 12:10), to bear one another’s burdens and to show obedience even to one another. They are to prefer nothing whatever to Christ so that he might bring us all together to everlasting life.

Imagine if priests took time, maybe on retreat, to envision a new life for our time — a new life for ourselves, our communities, our world. Imagine if priests inclined the ear of the heart to the precepts of the Master, embracing life in the community of the Church, where harsh edges are addressed and meaningful relationships were the order of each day.

Imagine obeying one another out of respect and carrying one another’s crosses. What leaven would we become in this world of ours?

Criticizing and complaining is such easy work — the work of amateurs. But the real physician of souls diagnoses and medicates effectively, the result of study that requires listening and genuine care for the other. Our own Hippocratic oath is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and our medical practice is dedicated to the binding up of wounds and the common journey of progress with and for our people.

Far from abandoning the way, priests in our day have the opportunity to change our culture, not necessarily by screaming from the mountaintop, but by quietly envisioning a new, meaningful, holy, peaceful life of prayer and work for all. Laying aside personal desires, the priest, in prayer and hope, can envision, undertake and lead a life that makes a difference, that shows a new way, that has endless potential for new grace in our world, sorely needing an infusion of the values of communal life and love.

FATHER GODFREY MULLEN, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey and rector of St. Benedict Cathedral in Evansville, Indiana.