St. Benedict and the Rainstorm
Early February evening.
Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica,
talk for hours about dealing with wayward
monks, childhood memories, regrets, and how they
sometimes steal away to the forest to dance.
The beeswax candle extinguished, she
went to fetch another, dinner plates
pushed aside with drips of grease left from
roast chicken, celebrating this yearly
time together, the extra jug of wine nearly emptied.
He gets up to leave but she protests.
Benedict’s own Rule, requires him
to be back at his monastery overnight.
Perhaps she knew she would die only three days later.
Or maybe the rose-hued glimmer of evening astonished her.
Or this was one of those moments she just wished
would linger on, her brother’s beard shining
silver in the growing moonlight, wanting to
remember the great brown kindness of his eyes,
feeling the rough warmth of his hands in hers.
Her tears rise up, falling in great splashes,
her weeping calls forth a fierce rainstorm.
Cosmic forces come down on the side of love,
demanding that self-set rules be broken.
I imagine the two of them listening to
the relentless rain beating down around them,
Benedict yielding to the moment, suddenly
seeing the necessity of riverbanks, but also the
widening expanse into the sea.
Perhaps that night they each dreamt that the river
swelled so high it lifted them to the blue bowl of sky,
until the horizon hallowed them.
Until he could see far beyond the stone walls
he had so carefully built.
—Christine Valters Paintner
Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
July 11th is the feast day of St. Benedict. Benedict’s impact has carried on through fifteen centuries because of the wisdom and gentleness of his Rule of life, still shaping the life of communities around the world.
And yet, I have always adored this story about him and Scholastica, which appears in his biography written by St. Gregory. His Rule is good and wise and worthy of its endurance, and the story says that we must hold this Rule lightly. It is a guide, not a tyrant, a trellis gently directing the soul’s growth, not something so restrictive that life and love cannot flourish. I like to imagine the love shared between these two siblings for the soulfulness of the monk paths they both chose, their support of one another.
Whatever ways we shape our lives through commitment to practice, we are also called to hold it with enough spaciousness to let love have the final say. I think the sharp rise of fundamentalism in the modern world is a desperate attempt to rest in the security of rules. It is so much easier to point to an external authority than to follow the risky path of love. It is not one or the other, the contemplative life demands we hold both in tension.
I have been having an unexpected summer in many ways. My rheumatoid arthritis, which has been well-controlled with medication for years started to flare in my hands, gently at first, and then I awoke on my birthday unable to move my right hand because of the pain. I was incredibly grateful to get in to see the doctor that morning and to address the pain and inflammation right away. I also had a food intolerance test and discovered I am reactive to many things including dairy, wheat, eggs, nuts, and shellfish. Instead of feeling victimized by this turn of events, however, I have actually felt quite galvanized. My summer was already committed to self-care, but now it has taken on even deeper dimensions as I tend to the ways I nourish myself, I have rejoined my swimming pool to yield to the grace of water on my joints and deepened my commitment to my morning yoga practice as a place of being present to what my body needs in this moment. I listen for how to keep this work sustainable in a loving dance with my body’s limitations.
One of my favorite definitions of the artist is the one who creates out of the materials given. This is really how we make art from our lives – responding to the truth of what is, rather than how we wish things to be. We can spend our time wishing things were different, or we can respond with great love to the circumstances as they arise.
My main work task this summer was to complete the manuscript for Coming Home to Your Body, a book on contemplative embodiment due to my editor later this summer. I am so grateful to Ave Maria Press for their flexibility in allowing me to turn in a different manuscript on the theme of pilgrimage, which was already close to completion, and extending the other until next year, so allowing me some more freedom to tend to healing. It feels very honoring of the subject matter as well.
Often our expectations of how life should unfold get in the way of meeting things as they actually are. I know this is true for me time and again, so I am savoring this opportunity to meet my life right now with more gentleness and ease. When we meet the unexpected with love, rather than opposition, we open the way for a more soulful path through life. In yielding my resistance I already find great healing. In softening my internal rules about what should happen, I discover such an invitation to grace.
The space opened up for me has also led to some fabulous conversations with many of my Abbey co-conspirators about online retreats for this coming year. I feel incredibly blessed to have such talented monks and artists with whom to collaborate on bringing you meaningful programs. More on that in August! We have some wonderful things in story for you.
To celebrate Benedict’s feast day, you might reflect on the practices which nourish and sustain you and honor those as the great riverbanks of your life. And you might ponder your own widening out to the open sea. How might you dance in that delightful tension?
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
St. Benedict Dancing Monk Icon by Marcy Hall