St Benedict had a wonderful understanding of how people tick. He knew that to get the best out of them you had to recognise their individual strengths and weaknesses.
He also realised that the surest way to God was in the company of other like-minded individuals under the direction of a Rule and a spiritual guide or abbot. The values found in the Rule of Benedict are Gospel values interpreted for community living.
Has St Benedict got any key concepts which underpin the spirituality of his Rule? Demetrius Dumm OSB writes:
“A careful reading of the Rule makes it clear that Benedict wished his monastic followers to make the entire day a time of more or less intense awareness of God’s presence.” (Cherish Christ Above All, p. 136)
Through the daily round of singing the psalms, lectio and work, monastic life seeks to develop this intense awareness of, and relationship with, God as an ever present reality, an eternal backdrop to the everyday. This awareness is spoken of in Scripture as ‘fear of the Lord’ and is the foundation on which humility, Benedict’s key monastic virtue, is built.
The second striking feature of Benedictine spirituality is the centrality of Christ. The monks must “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11). When we serve others we meet Christ in them and serve him in them. And the Christ whom we prefer is to be served in our neighbour, especially in the poor, the sick, the guest, the pilgrim and in the members of the monastic community. Thus, for example, in Benedict’s monastery, “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else.” (RB 36:1).
There are many aspects of monastic spirituality found in the Rule such as obedience/listening, perseverance, silence, mindfulness, stewardship, balance & moderation, work, lectio/study, consultation, hospitality, service, stability and patience. In the following paragraphs I will look briefly at two of the key Benedictine values, community life and humility.
For Benedict the primary and foundational relationship in our lives is the one we have with God.
‘The first step of humility, then, is that a person keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it.’ (RB 7:10)
Fear of the Lord is the foundation of humility. This ‘fear’ is a reverential awe before the greatness and holiness of the Almighty and recognition of our total dependence upon Him. Knowing our own dependence on God, we treat others with the reverence and respect due to those made in his image and likeness.
How would you recognise a humble person? One helpful way to think about humility is in terms of our being ready to serve, to put others first. In the Letter to the Philippians St Paul talks about Christ’s humility in terms of sacrificial love and total self-emptying. Humility is service, love in action, a love which does not seek to put itself first nor impose itself on others. As Michael Casey ocso puts it:
“In so much of what concerns humility we will find that the way ahead is indicated by forgetfulness of self and concern for others. Humility’s opposite is always preoccupation with self.’ (Truthful Living, pp. 130/131)
A humble person is also aware of his own strengths and weakness and is transparent in his relationships with others.
St Benedict has an optimistic view of human nature when it is docile to the action of the Holy Spirit. The end of the journey on the ladder of humility, he tells us, is personal integration when the monk “out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue” will live effortlessly a life of love, ‘cleansed of vices and sins’.