St. Benedict—Apostle of the Incarnation
by Dwight Longenecker
While I was a student at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, I was befriended by a little old lady named June, for whom I sometimes did a bit of gardening. June was a Catholic. When I went to England to study, she loaned me some money, and we stayed in touch. In one of her letters June suggested I might like to visit a Benedictine monastery. It was a courageous move. Suggesting a Bob Jones boy visit a monastery was a bit like dropping an invitation to a Jehovah’s Witness meeting on a good Catholic kid. But June had a hunch. She was an oblate of the Monastery of St. Anselm in Washington, D.C., and guessed I might like the monks. She was right.
A few months later I contacted the guestmaster and made my first visit to Douai Abbey in Berkshire, England. I visited during Lent, and the monks made a suitably solemn impression with their black robes, their courteous formality, and their beautiful and austere liturgy. They also made a good impression with their lack of humbug and hypocrisy. There was a kind of solemn self-mockery about them, and they extended the best kind of hospitality—a relaxed welcome that made me feel a part of the family. There seemed to be an ordinariness about the place that assumed that their unusual lifestyle was the most natural thing in the world.
My Lenten retreat was countered by my next visit, on July 10. The place was buzzing with a quiet excitement. One particularly fat monk said with glowing eyes, “You’ve come at a good time!” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but soon learned. July 10 is the eve of the feast of St. Benedict. The next day we had a glorious celebration of the Eucharist, followed by a splendid lunch that featured smoked salmon, steak, strawberries and cream, and a good deal to drink. The feast was sealed with port, cigars, and chocolate in the calefactory, or community room. Coming from a background that was uneasy with both fasting and feasting, I found the two Benedictine visits a revelation.
A few years later, as an Anglican curate, I hitchhiked to Jerusalem, staying in Benedictine monasteries en route. At each stop I was given a similarly warm welcome in keeping with Benedict’s Rule that all guests should be “welcomed as Christ.” Besides being hosted in some of the most beautiful and historic monasteries in Christendom, I was also immersed in the Rule of St. Benedict. Each day I would hear the wisdom of St. Benedict’s famous Rule as the monks read their daily prescribed excerpt from it. My first two visits to a Benedictine monastery and the subsequent pilgrimage revealed a hidden side to the Benedictine way of life, which accounts for its longevity. People like to think that monks are somehow cut off from the physical plane, raised above the concerns of mere mortals. A study of the Benedictine way, however, shows the opposite to be the case. My experiences, from the fasting and the feasting to the daily life of the monks, showed me that the spirituality of St. Benedict is supremely intertwined with the most ordinary concerns of everyday life. Benedictine monasticism is the ideal form of Christian monasticism because of its integration with the ordinary, and it is this emphasis that makes Benedict a universal apostle of the Incarnation.
The Life of Benedict
Benedict of Nursia was born about the year 480 in the Umbrian province of Italy. According to his biography, written by Pope St. Gregory the Great, Benedict was born into a “family of high station.” As a young man he went to Rome to study, but was disgusted by the decadent life of the city. Some 70 years before Benedict’s birth, Rome had fallen to the barbarians. By the middle of the fifth century, the Huns were ransacking northern Italy, and Rome had been pillaged for a second time. By the time Benedict went to Rome to study, at about the turn of the sixth century, the old empire was in tatters. Civilization had crumbled into chaos, and the social disorder was reflected in further conflict within the Church and every institution.
Benedict decided to run away from the city. He headed for Subiaco, a wild region somewhat south of Rome, where he lived in a cave for three years. The site stood above the ruins of Nero’s palace and the remnants of a Roman aqueduct. Looking over this spectacle, Benedict must have felt like Shelley’s traveler from an antique land who happens across the colossal ruins of the once great and disdainful king Ozymandias. The desert left by the barbarian invasions had spread across the proud Roman Empire, and Benedict’s generation was left to reflect on the remnants and to pick up the pieces. By fleeing civilization, he saved it, for it was the monasteries of Benedict that eventually preserved the culture of the ancient world. Someone has said, “In a world of fugitives, the one who runs away may be the only one who is heading home.” Benedict, in heading for the hills, was heading for home in the highest sense.
Eventually, some other monks, hearing of Benedict’s holiness, invited him to be their abbot. His holiness must have been more attractive from a distance, however, because some of the monks, disgruntled with his high standards, tried to poison him. Shaking the dust from his feet, Benedict went back to Subiaco, where he established 12 small monasteries with about 12 monks each. Basing himself on that experiment, he left Subiaco in about 529 to establish a monastery on the hilltop of Monte Cassino in central Italy. There he lived for the rest of his life, gaining a great reputation as a holy man.
At Monte Cassino he drew from earlier monastic authors to compose a new monastic Rule, a simple set of guidelines for a community life based around a balance of prayer, work, and study. A work of spiritual genius, that Rule has stood the test of time because of Benedict’s deep understanding of human nature. The Rule’s practical insights are flexible, moderate, and wise, preparing the ground for a truly simple spirituality to flourish.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote, “It is a paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”1 Thus, living in an age of extreme action and reaction, decadence, chaos, war, and despair, Benedict saved it by establishing communities based on moderation and communication, chastity, order, peace, and prayer. That his little Rule has lasted for 1,500 years only shows how every age cries out for the unchanging ideals that this gentleman of the Spirit provides.
Gregory the Great, Benedict’s earliest biographer, portrays not only a holy man but also a wonder-worker. Whether or not the miracles in Gregory’s life of Benedict happened exactly as related is beside the point. The fact is, they are fun to read about, full of both didactic entertainment and earthy humor. It is both entertaining and instructive to learn that Benedict thought the blackbirds were demons. Perhaps they were. There is something demonic about blackbirds, and it makes a good story—like something out of Edgar Allen Poe. Among the legends about Benedict there’s one soberingly funny story about an enemy of Benedict’s who sent seven ladies to dance in the monastery garden to tempt the young monks. Later, a building fell down and killed the evil man. Of course, the saint was sorry for his enemy’s death, but it does sound like the time Elisha summoned a bear to maul the lads who mocked his baldness.
It’s fun to think the miracles happened, but the main point is not whether they happened or not, but whether they matter. Certainly, Benedict himself would have taken a sanguine attitude toward such phenomena. As Teresa of Avila was annoyed and embarrassed by her levitation, so Benedict would probably have been more concerned about the novices being late for matins than about making an iron pruning hook float for a Gothic peasant. Benedict would have been unconcerned about the difficulties of miracles because he was more concerned with the difficulties of real life. He could have rephrased the Lord’s command and said, “Take no thought for miracles, today has enough worries to concern you.”
Benedict’s concern for the detail of daily life comes through in his Rule. There we have his portrait, and the person we meet is a wise, dignified, and loving man. He is thoughtful and compassionate, but also shrewd and strict. The mystic side of his character is shown in his experience one night while praying. Suddenly, “the whole world seemed to be caught up into one sunbeam and gathered thus before his eyes.” He died in the monastic chapel after receiving Holy Communion, and then passed away like Moses, standing erect for battle with his outstretched arms supported by his monks.
The Rule of Life
If one is looking for a lofty treatise on prayer and the spiritual life, he looks to the Carmelite mystics or maybe to the fourteenth-century English writers. The Rule of St. Benedict is very short on explicit mystical interest, and has surprisingly little to say about prayer. The vast majority of the text is simply about how to organize life in a sixth-century monastery. The Rule is one of the classics of European literature, yet on its first reading, it seems quite unremarkable. Indeed, much of the Rule seems overly concerned with religious routine and the details of daily life. Twelve out of 73 chapters are devoted to detailed instructions on how and when to perform the daily office. Thus, the ordinary reader is regaled with such dull passages as, “On ordinary days the solemn Office of Lauds is to be carried out as follows: Psalm 66 is to be said without an antiphon, and rather slowly (as on Sunday) so that all may arrive in time for Psalm 50 which is to be chanted with an antiphon. After this let two more Psalms be chanted, keeping to custom: meaning, on Monday 5 and 35, on Tuesday 42 and 56,”2 and so on for many chapters more.
Fourteen chapters deal with the details of monastic discipline, such as who should be punished, how they should be treated, and when they may be restored. Another 16 chapters deal with minutiae like how the monks should sleep, how much food and drink they should have, when they should eat, what their footwear and clothing should be like, and how they should use the tools of the monastery. The Rule deals with how kitchen duty should be done, how boys should be disciplined, and who should look after those in the infirmary. This hardly sounds like one of the most exalted spiritual texts of all time, but it is in this attention to ordinary detail that Benedict is showing the heart of his little Rule to be a work of spiritual genius. By focusing on the mundane matters of everyday life, Benedict points to a deeper truth: These details are the stuff of reality, and by paying attention to the details of ordinary life, we will find our way to heaven. Someone has said that the devil is in the details; Benedict thinks the divine is in the details.
A quiet and regular reading of the Rule of St. Benedict reveals a depth of understanding about the Incarnation. The Benedictine monk or nun makes three vows when he is solemnly professed. He promises stability, obedience, and conversion of life (conversatio morum). These three vows reflect the mundane quality of St. Benedict’s Rule. All three repeatedly echo the truth that the Christian God is to be found here and now—not there and then.
Through the vow of stability, the monk promises to stay put in one place for life, and to find God in that place and with those same people. The monk’s physical commitment to a particular monastery is linked with his spiritual stability. He cannot have one without the other. Benedict contrasts the rootedness of the community-based monks with those monastic mavericks he calls “gyrovagues.” The gyrovagues, “are never stable their whole lives, but wanderers through diverse regions, receiving hospitality in the monastic cells of others for three or four days at a time. Always roving and never settling, they follow their own wills, enslaved by the attractions of gluttony.”3 Benedict has no time for church shoppers.
If the vow of stability is an affirmation that God works through real places, then the vow of obedience is linked with the belief that God works through real people. The abbot is a representative of Christ, and the monk vows to obey his abbot as though God is speaking through him. “The first step in humility,” says Benedict, “is prompt obedience . . . immediately when something has been commanded by a superior, it is for them [the monks] as a divine command and they cannot allow any delay in its execution . . . for the obedience that is shown to superiors is shown to God; for he said himself, ‘He who listens to you listens to me.’ ”4
Furthermore, God speaks through the other brothers in the monastery as well. As the monks are to submit in love to the abbot, so they are to submit mutually to one another. Benedict writes, “The goodness of obedience should be shown not only . . . to the Abbot, but the brethren should also obey each other in the knowledge that by this path of obedience they will draw nearer to God.”5 In other words, Benedict teaches that God can speak to us through all the people we are given to live with and love—even the difficult ones.
The third vow of the Benedictine is conversion of life. This is more than the simple Christian ideal of being converted or “getting saved.” It certainly includes repentance and conversion in the traditional sense, but it is more than that. Not only is one to be converted, but he is to be dedicated to continual conversion during the whole of his life. His must become a life of constant conversion. For conversion of life to be real, he must maintain a metanoia mentality, that is, have a mindset that is always expecting transformation. Indeed, the Benedictine seeks not only to have his whole life transformed by the grace of God, but he also desires all of life to be conformed to the image of Christ. This is mysticism in action. The Benedictine is not content until the whole world “is charged with the glory of God.” This is incarnation taken to the radical extreme, and through it each Christian soul becomes an agent for the continual dynamic action of the Holy Spirit in the physical world.
Incarnation by Analogy
In a fascinating book on Benedictine monasticism, a hesitant Protestant named Kathleen Norris describes why she, as a poet, is attracted to the monastery. She quotes a Cistercian monk who takes a book of poems on retreat “because of poetry’s ability to draw together the sacred and secular.” She goes on to “refer to the incarnation as the ultimate metaphor, daring to yoke the human and the divine.”6 Poetic language points to incarnation.
In his mundane instructions on looking after the material objects of the monastery, Benedict hints at the glory that shines through ordinary things, seeing the monastic life as a kind of metaphor for the whole Christian experience. This is not to make the Christian life less real but more real. In the details of life, Benedict sees the gospel shining through. The cellarer, or overseer of the monastic grounds and facilities, is to “regard the chattels of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.”7 People, especially visitors, are Christ-carriers. “All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ, for he is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”8 Likewise, in serving the sick, Benedict reminds the monks that they are serving Christ.9
For Benedict, it is in the day-to-day life of community that God is to be found. If Christ is hidden in God, then he is also hidden in the mundane life of every man. The cornerstone of Benedict’s way of life is that we find sanctity hidden in ordinary life—right here and right now. The same truth is hidden in Jesus’ parables of the lost coin, the lost treasure in the field, the prodigal son, and the pearl of great price. In each case, the treasure is a little thing hidden in the dust of a house, in a newly ploughed field, in a pigpen, and in a merchant’s stall. The hidden treasure is the truth that salvation is hidden in this present moment, and spiritual discipline is a method to focus our attention on the grimly joyful news that salvation is buried in the mud beneath our feet.
Finding eternal reality here and now is the burning heart of incarnation. The saint is able to see that each moment is electric with eternity. Benedict’s attention to daily detail makes the point in a pure way. For him, the physical opportunities of every moment are a sacrament of spiritual realities. To make this point, he very naturally weaves spiritual meaning into mundane matters; so in his instructions on how the monks should sleep, he teaches a lesson about a sleepy spirit as opposed to contemplative watchfulness. He also makes the gospel come alive in daily life. Alluding to the gospel about the watchful virgins, Benedict says, “A candle should burn continuously in the room until morning. They should sleep clothed, girt with girdles or cords. . . . And so let the monks always be ready, and when the signal is given, they should get up without delay and make haste to arrive first for the Work of God.”10 In a homey detail he echoes the gospel again: Just as the virgins encouraged one another on the way to meet the Bridegroom, so “when they get up for the Work of God, they may quietly encourage one another, since the sleepy are given to making excuses.”11 In Benedict’s time, the office of matins took place in the wee hours of the morning. Because the monks arose in the middle of the night to watch and pray, the night office was an identification with the watchful virgins of the gospel and an embodiment of the watchful spirit.
The kitchen is another place where the mundane becomes infused with the divine. For Benedict, what happens in the kitchen is just as important as what happens in the church. Some of Benedict’s most moving and meaningful chapters discuss how the brothers should serve one another in the most ordinary tasks. Kitchen duty is not a dull chore, but an opportunity for divine service, and is therefore demanded of everyone.12
Benedict imbues ordinary tasks with spiritual meaning. His ritual for kitchen service echoes the foot-washing of the Last Supper, and the communal meal in the refectory becomes an extension of the Communion meal in the church. The versicles and responses in the kitchen also echo the antiphonal praises from the choir. Thus, each small action becomes an act of faith, and in each moment of time, eternity is unlocked.
The Wedding of East & West
This way of living the gospel is an inheritance from Benedict’s formation by Eastern Christianity. The monastic movement had started two centuries before, when St. Anthony, Pachomius, and others had fled the cities for the desert. The torch was picked up by the monks of Palestine and the zealous spirits of Asia Minor. Benedict was heavily influenced by Basil, Cassian, and the anonymous author of the Rule of the Master. These Eastern influences helped to form a spirituality that was incarnational and poetic rather than intellectual and prosaic.
From the East comes a deeper understanding of the necessity for the spiritual to speak through the physical. The incarnational approach is powerfully evident in the veneration of images and sensual liturgy of the East. As a monk of Mt. Athos has said, “The Orthodox has icons, and candles, and murals so that he can learn from them. Everything symbolizes some aspect of his faith. Our whole life here is praying the mysteries of the church, the work a little reading perhaps. We grow spiritually from these things, there’s a oneness through them all, a unity which helps one feel the peace and love of God.”14
Linked with an incarnational and poetic approach to theology is the insistence that the monastic life must be experienced, that intellectual knowledge can take one only so far and no farther. This is one of the gifts that the Eastern churches offer the West even today. As a former surgeon who is now a Coptic monk at Baramus has said, “It is like surgery. You can learn so much from books, but books do not teach you how to make a good incision in the skin. That you must learn from experience. It is the same with being a monk.”15
Basing the Christian life in experience and the physical, however, is not to make the mistake of teaching salvation by works. Benedict lived and wrote in the sixth century, when the ghosts of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism were still flitting about. He is careful to avoid the idea that the monk can win his own salvation. In the Prologue to the Rule, Benedict roots the whole monastic enterprise in God’s grace. He begins by setting up the ground rules: “First of all, whenever you begin any good work, you must ask of God with the most urgent prayer that it may be brought to completion by him.”16 This principle is fleshed out with his later instruction that each office begin with the ancient prayer, “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.”17 The monk must follow the famous dictum of St. Augustine, “Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.”
In the middle of the Prologue, Benedict explains what the perfect Christian looks like. His list reads like a second Sermon on the Mount. It is Benedict’s Beatitudes. The blessed person is: “He who walks without fault and does what is right; he who tells the truth in his heart; he who works no deceit with his tongue; he who does no wrong to his neighbor; he who does not slander his neighbor. He who casts the wicked devil, even as he beguiles him, out of the sight of his heart, along with the temptation itself.”18 But these good works aren’t enough. Benedict crowns the list with an inner gift without which the other virtues are empty. The perfect disciple “does not become conceited about keeping the law well, but realizes that the good in himself cannot be his own work but is done by the Lord, and who praises the Lord working within him.”19
Benedict’s reliance on grace is the theological seal on his incarnational approach. In every case, Benedict calls his monks to work hard and strive for spiritual mastery while all the time reminding them that it is God who is working in them. Meditation on this everyday grace takes one directly to the heart of incarnation because there, in the mystery of man’s cooperation with God’s grace, the mystery of the Incarnation dwells in our own lives. When infused with grace, my actions, my worship, my words, and my thoughts become the actions, words, and thoughts of God. My “life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), and “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Living this mysterious and marvelous incarnation lies at the heart of the Benedictine life of contemplation. John Paul II points out how the mystery of grace “moves us towards God himself, indeed towards the goal of ‘divinization’ . . . the Fathers have laid great stress on this soteriological dimension of the mystery of the Incarnation: it is only because the Son of God truly became man, that man, in him and through him, can become a child of God.”20 The emphasis on “divinization” is also a gift from the East. Benedict’s profoundly incarnational spirituality, therefore, bridges East and West, allowing Western Christians to better understand the Eastern mindset, and allowing the East to appreciate the dominant spirituality of the West.
St. Benedict Today
In our postmodern, individualistic, experience-based society, the Benedictine way offers a valuable and positive spirituality. Because it is incarnational and experience-based, the Benedictine way will appeal to many who are disenchanted with a Christianity that seems overly intellectual or puritanical. At the same time, the deep historic, biblical, and patristic roots of the Benedictine way, along with its instinctive conservatism, can help bring shipwrecked postmoderns to a spiritual shore.
Being formed in the spiritual traditions of the East, and producing his work five hundred years before the Great Schism, Benedict’s spirituality provides a bridge from West to East, but Benedict is also a unifying force between Catholicism and the Reformed traditions. Benedict’s Rule is deeply imbued with Scripture. Every page surges with quotations from all parts of the Word of God. Because of his love of Scripture and his reliance on grace, and because he writes one thousand years before the sixteenth-century split in Western Christendom, Benedict also extends a hand to all those from a Reformed tradition who are seeking deeper roots in the undivided Church. As such, Benedict preaches a “mere Christianity” that is soundly scriptural and profoundly spiritual. His is a way that is both deeply Orthodox and thoroughly Catholic. At the same time, it calls for evangelical simplicity and radical discipleship.
As a sign of the times, an increasing number of books and articles are being published about the Benedictine way. The attraction of the monastery to twenty-first-century Westerners is the same as it was to the fourth-century citizens of the Roman Empire. Drunk with the excesses of materialism, power, and pleasure, they were drawn to the pioneers of spirituality who had turned their backs on the way of the world in favor of a way that was more whole, a way in which the spiritual and the physical were in harmony once more. As the sixth-century monks laid the foundation for the flowering of Christian culture in the Middle Ages, it may be that the sons and daughters of St. Benedict may even now be laying the foundation for a new flowering of Christian culture. In the early Middle Ages it must have seemed like all was dark and lost. That is simply because the seed was still in germination.
1. G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1943), p. 17.
2. Abbot Parry (trans.), The Rule of St. Benedict (Leominster: Gracewing, 1997), p. 35.
3. Ibid., p. 7–8.
4. Ibid., p. 21.
5. Ibid., p. 115.
6. Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (Oxford: Lion Books, 1999), p. 174.
7. Parry, p. 57.
8. Ibid., p. 83.
9. Ibid., p. 64.
10. Ibid., p. 45.
12. Ibid., p. 62.
13. Ibid., pp. 62–63.
14. Richard North, Fools for God (London: Collins, 1987), p. 120.
15. Ibid., p. 79.
16. Parry, p. 1.
17. Ibid., p. 40.
18. Ibid., p. 3.
20. John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte (London: CTS, 2001), p. 22.
Dwight Longenecker is the editor of Path to Rome and co-author of Challenging Catholics: a Catholic Evangelical Dialogue. He is also the author of Listen, My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers and St. Benedict and St. Therese, The Little Rule and the Little Way.
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