Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
Next Saturday I am delighted to be leading a retreat on one of my favorite monks and mystics, St. Benedict.
This reflection is excerpted from my book Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics:
But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. (RB Prologue 49)
I have great fondness for Benedict. As a Benedictine Oblate, I have made a commitment as a lay person to live out a way of life reflected in the Rule of Benedict which has been one of the most enduring and widespread monastic rules of life because of its wisdom and balance.
I first fell in love with him and the path of Benedictine spirituality through Hildegard of Bingen. Her many gifts as artist and visionary captivated me and I wanted to know more about the spiritual path which was so foundational to her vision. In graduate school I was gifted with the opportunity to teach an introductory course on Benedictine spirituality and loved the opportunity to dive more deeply into this wisdom in a community of learners.
Later I read two books by Mary Earle for those living with chronic illness which helped me fall even more in love with the Rule’s commitment to balance, moderation, and finding a healing rhythm to life: Beginning Again: Benedictine Wisdom for Living with Illness and Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness. I had struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for much of my twenties. I still have the disease, but it is mostly controlled with medication, and the Benedictine path helped me to claim the contemplative way which I saw was not only more true to my nature, but also more nourishing of a life lived with physical limitations. When I first moved to Seattle in 2003, I found a Benedictine monastery an hour away, St. Placid Priory, where I became an oblate and am still affiliated there even though I now live thousands of miles away.
The only information we have about Benedict’s life comes from the second book of Dialogues of Gregory the Great which gives you a rough overview of significant moments and miracles attributed to St. Benedict. Keep in mind, as with all hagiographies, the purpose was not to present a historically accurate and factual portrayal, but one to inspire faith and assure the holiness of this man.
Like many monks, Benedict began as a hermit, living in a cave in Subiaco, Italy for three years until others began to seek him out for wisdom and asked him to found a community. In 2009 I had the great privilege to make a pilgrimage to Rome for the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates, an amazing gathering of fellow oblates from around the world. As a part of the Congress we visited Subiaco which is now a monastery built into the side of a hill. You can enter the cave where Benedict is said to have lived. There is a special spirit to the place.
As a part of this experience we also visited Monte Cassino, which is the central monastery he founded high upon a hill. It is now a large and flourishing place with many pilgrims and tourists seeking spiritual connection come. I still treasure my Benedict medal from here which I wear daily around my neck.
Apart from the Dialogues where we learn a bit about legends of Benedict’s life, we also have the Rule of Benedict as the other primary source of information about him. “Listen with the ear of your heart” is the first line of the Rule, an invitation to read the words that follow not just with the mind as one learns intellectually, but with the heart as one learns things of the soul.
There is much emphasis on silence and listening closely, on only speaking when we have something to say, rather than trying to fill the quiet. Benedict knew we can hear things in the silence that otherwise gets drowned out with the daily hum, even back in the 6th century long before our endless connectivity online this was an issue.
The Rule has endured because of its balance and wisdom. Clearly it was written out of many years of lived experience with others. Benedict cautions against grumbling in a community, the kind of chatter which can create all kinds of friction and dissatisfaction among members and is ultimately poisonous to its flourishing. He calls us to be mindful of our attitudes to life and how we express them.
Benedict’s Rule outlines a very practice-oriented life centering on daily lectio divina with the scriptures and other wisdom texts, time for silence, solitude, and quiet meditation, as well as following the rhythm of the Hours and entering into the rise and fall of each day. When the monastery bells would ring, monks were expected to drop what they were doing and come straight to prayer, as a way of ordering their priorities. The Hours were usually sung prayers, a chanting of the Psalms, the ancient voice of the Jewish tradition, and so offering an unbroken chain of prayer.
Ultimately Benedict calls us to a life of deepened wisdom which comes through this kind of reverent attention to all life brings. The ability to welcome in all of life and stay present to it is what carves out wisdom in the deepest parts of our being and helps us to come to know the depth of mystery at the heart of things.
Please join me next Saturday for an online retreat exploring Benedict’s teaching on love.
Tomorrow we welcome Ana Hernández for Sound as Prayer: Songs and Mantras for the Way. Please join us!
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Dancing Monk Icon by Marcy Hall (Prints available on Etsy)