Last year about this time I went on a personal retreat (and such activity is not just for pastors). In the course of my retreat, I heard a lot from a book by Esther de Waal and I wrote about it. I am still encouraged by it, so here is a replay.
Hers is a good book I picked up after one of our friends helped us explore it not long ago in Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WATER: Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Benedict of Nursia is one of those spiritual ancestors we love. He is one of the most influential Christians you may have never heard of.
I am telling you about him today because we do a lot of things he would like. And he did a lot of things that made the “dark ages” a lot less dark. And we might be entering some dark ages ourselves.
The revolution of community
Benedict caused a revolution by considering what it meant to make a covenant and build a community around Jesus in the 600’s. Before Benedict wrote his new rule for the communities of monks he was founding, most radical Christianity was solitary and spiritual athletes were the people who entered it. Benedict was one of those athletes, but he attracted a bunch of people who were not. He realized that following Jesus is mostly for ordinary people. What’s more, a group of individuals sitting at the feet of a “sage” is not very Biblical. His breakthrough was to emphasize the love among the members of the community as elemental to authentic spiritual life; multiplications of those communities are still shining the light of faith today.
His rule says: “The monks are to bear with patience the weaknesses of others, whether of body or behavior. Let them strive with each other in obedience to each other. Let them not follow their own good, but the good of others. Let them be charitable towards their brothers with pure affection.” (72.5-8).
His communities were all men, but women applied this rule in their houses, as well (thus, his language).
DeWaal says that within a hundred years of Benedict’s death, his rule had provided a collection of communities that wrapped Europe in a cloak of faith. “Whereas in the very earliest days monks had gone out into the desert leaving behind them a comparatively sophisticated life, now that pattern was reversed. In a world in which barbarian invasion, political uncertainty, and the power of the sword seemed the most immediate realities, [sound familiar?] and in a simple agrarian world where parishes were served by priests of humble peasant birth, [sound like many of our neighborhoods?] the monasteries came to stand out as centres of light and learning” (p. 20).
Radicals in covenant are important lights in deteriorating circumstances. They not only take care of one another, they provide opportunities for people to know God, learn love, and create sustainable community. Our cells are like Benedict’s little communities wrapping our region in a cloak of faith. We focus on God in prayer and worship, we study to deepen our faith and life, we work for one another and serve those we can touch. The Benedictines were known as change agents by Cruce, libro et atro—cross, book and plough. We have our surprisingly useful version of that.
Radical Christianity was and is all done in love by normal people. When some of those normal people make a covenant to be Circle of Hope at the end of the month they will deepen our capacity to make a difference in this upended world. I think they will reflect a story Pope Gregory I told in his biography of Benedict.
“A certain hermit named Martin had chained himself to the side of his solitary cave near Monte Cassino. When he heard of it St. Benedict sent him a message: ‘If you are indeed a servant of God, do not chain yourself with chains of iron. But rather, let Christ be the chain that binds you.’”
Like Benedict, we point to Christ. It is as simple as that: in the cell where Jesus is the agenda and in our covenant to live as the Body of Christ. That is where the transformation starts and where it continues to astound me.