Week of July 7-13
Roberta Bailey, OSB, Benedictine Sisters of Florida
The “softer” parts of the Rule were undoubtedly influenced by Benedict’s companionship with his twin sister Scholastica.
This coming Thursday (July 11) we Benedictines will be celebrating the summer feast of St. Benedict. In honor of this occasion, I invite you to spend some time with me pondering the “Benedict Effect” in our lives and the life of our society.
For over 1,500 years, St. Benedict’s simple principles of living together under God's love have guided men and women in monasteries and beyond. His wisdom has guided Benedictine Oblates in their work places and in their homes. Persons who have never heard of St. Benedict, upon becoming acquainted with his code of life, discover his down-to-earth guidelines are the means to the balanced, peaceful life they have been seeking.
Benedict was a man of great wisdom, compassion and common sense. We know that after some time living with his original Rule, he added advice based on his lived experience with a great variety of characters. Imagine having to warn his men not to sleep with knives, to wear clean underwear on a trip, for the learned to help those who could not read. His prudence shines through when, in so many words, he says, “this is what works for us now – if the schedule of psalmody, the horarium (daily schedule) and other communal living details don’t fit your need, change it.”
It is the spirit of the Rule that has survived because Benedict, even in his youth, had a deep understanding of human psychology. A study of his early years lets us know he spent much time with his grandparents who lived a few miles from his home. Along the trek to their summer home, he and his twin sister Scholastica passed the huts and caves of hermits. Before he was sent to Rome to pursue academics, he spent hours chit-chatting with these solitary men… and maybe women, too.
He absorbed wisdom and practical advice from older generations. This is evident in the Rule—he tempered discipline with compassion, and he saw the spiritual quest as a joyful pursuit of God within the structures of ordinary life. It is this joyous delight in everyday spirituality that makes the Rule come alive for so many.
The “softer” parts of the Rule were undoubtedly influenced by Benedict’s companionship with his twin sister, Scholastica. You may know the famous story of the stormy night when Scholastica begged him to stay overnight during their annual visit. He did not cave in to a woman’s tears. That’s when he learned that God does! The power of his sister’s prayer brought a downpour that lengthened their midnight “spiritual conversation” until dawn. Three days later, upon her death, he saw the soul of his sister Scholastica take flight heavenward in the form of dove.
Can you hear Scholastica prompting her sibling to charity when, in the Rule, Benedict advises the purchaser to be gentle with those who make unreasonable requests. He counsels the prioress to treat a errant member like a sick child. He says of a wayward member’s temporary exclusion from group mealtime that the superior is to make sure that they do eat. He further counsels that an older, wiser member be commissioned to support them in their efforts at atonement. Might this have been a throwback to the times when, as youngsters, Scholastica consoled him when he got in trouble at home?
If we only heed the first word of the Rule, “LISTEN,” what an impact it could make on our own happiness and concord between peoples. To truly listen requires perception, knowledge of human nature, biting the tongue before speaking and an open-hands approach in conversation. To listen requires an attentive spirit … not a scramble to respond with advice, a witty remark or a one-upmanship story. When we truly listen to another, we can identify their feelings, let them resonate within and know that very often all the person wants is a signal that we care. People may not remember what was said but they do remember how it made them feel.
Benedict’s down-to-earth advice works in community (the monastic’s intentional family) or any living group be it family, dorm living or with apartment mates, because of its inner dynamic. St. Benedict was not writing for an advanced program or classes of honor students. The Rule is not intended to be a great and lofty treatise on prayer or spirituality. It is filled with practical guidance for ordinary people to live together in harmony. Benedict expected his followers to work hard, study hard and pray hard. Benedictine life, in or out of a monastery, is a graceful (and grace-filled) blend of prayer, work and living together – a simple, effective prayer life, open communication, mutual respect – not for mature saints but for those who choose to walk a path of life-long falling down and getting up in a community where each member is valued and loved unconditionally.
Notice how Benedict cultivates relationships …. At first, the newcomer is expected to obey instantly and without question. Later, the relationship matures so that the instant obedience is tempered with proper questioning and a sense that the members should be obedient to each other. The relationship flowers into one of confidence and mutual love and respect to and between all members.
The Rule offers us a very high ideal, but it is a beautiful one, and one for which we should never feel compelled to apologize. When we breach the ideal, the monastic is expected to humbly ask forgiveness both from God and from his/her confreres.
From that first word in his Rule, LISTEN, to his advice to begin every good work with prayer, to keeping a lamp burning at night, to don’t loiter outside chapel if you are late, it is evident that Benedict saw God at work within the ordinary events of everyday life – in the joys and sorrows of our everyday lives.
So, LISTEN: to your heart, to your comrades’ hungers and longings, to God deep in your heart. Just LISTEN – with your ears, but also with eyes and heart and feelings. Just LISTEN and all other aspects of your life will fall into place.
Sister Roberta Bailey is prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida. Her experience ranges from Montessori infant care to college instructor and accreditation consultant. In her “spare” time she holds positions on boards for Saint Leo University, Pasco County domestic violence prevention programs, public school advisory committees, and the local Chamber of Commerce. Sister Roberta’s warm and inviting reflections are peppered with questions for each of us. Spend some time with her thoughts and questions and see where they lead you on your journey.