Solemnity of St. Benedict
Scripture Readings: Gen 12:1-4; Eph 4:1-6; Lk 22:14-20, 24-30
For all the information and links that our new website provides, there is still one description that is missing. You can’t even find it on “search.” It doesn’t describe us a living the “angelic life.” (No surprise to those who know us well.) But this was a very traditional way of understanding monastic life, attested to throughout monastic literature and history. Apparently we have recently become embarrassed by the connotations of immateriality, detachment, unchangeableness, single-minded purity, perfectionism. The phrase does lend itself to misunderstandings.
You don’t have to write a rule for angels: they know what to do and they do it. Benedict knew he wasn’t writing for angels. He has eight chapters in his “penal code”, warnings against striking, murmuring, complaints. In fact, we know that he had to deal with a pretty rough crowd of characters.
He was supremely realistic and clear-sighted. The dynamism and optimism in his Rule is even more astounding when it is viewed in the context of his times and culture. They were dark and depressing times. Similar to our own in many ways. The Roman Empire had collapsed, and with it all the order and organization which made social living possible. Marauding tribes of Goths, Lombards, Huns, and other restless migrants would periodically plunder and pillage anything of value in Italy. It was a low point in civilized history. We have been talking about “arsis and thesis” in our chant. There is a crest of the wave, and when that subsides you have the “trough.” With the trough, the water is very shallow and now you can see the bottom of the sea: all the detritus and garbage normally hidden from view. Benedict had a clear view of the “trough” of civilization. He was under no illusions about the capacity of human nature.
In the Dialogues, St. Gregory tells us that Benedict only taught what he had lived. The Dialogues may seem idealized and hagiographical, but that is because they are constructed to communicate vital knowledge in a clear and unambiguous way. It is hagiography because it describes the working of the Holy in the life of a human being. The primary agent is the Holy, is God. I will make of you a great nation….I will make you a blessing.… The call does not take us out of human nature, but it does turn our world upside down. We call it conversion. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.
The temptations of Benedict (like the archetypal temptations of Christ) are the story of a human person experiencing the conflict between the call and desires of the Spirit and the call and desires of the flesh. The trials, temptation, suffering are integral to this process of becoming ourselves, of defining ourselves in terms of the Spirit or in terms of the world. In the Gospel, Jesus says: I have eagerly desired to share this Passover with you before I suffer. Trials and suffering allow the deepest desires of our heart to become manifest. It is in Lenten observance that Benedict says we come to look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing. In temptation, we can redefine our lives in terms of obedience, detachment, and disappropriation rather than the world’s categories of power, pleasure, and possession. Or as Ephesians says: humility, gentleness, and patience. Gregory says that Benedict dwelt with himself (habitare secum). This is the interiority and inwardness that is the ground of our really becoming ourselves. But he adds that Benedict lived with himself under the gaze of his heavenly Creator (in superni Spectatori oculi). His inwardness was open to the presence of the divine. The human being discovers itself as a capacity for God, as in communion with the Spirit who becomes the new ground for a world turned upside down. We are crypto-Arians when we disbelieve in practice that the Spirit becomes incarnate in our lives.
Monastic literature is very careful not to say that we are angels. It says we are like angels. I think there are at least several ways in which this similarity manifests itself in our lives. Angels live in the presence of God. The whole Rule is structured to lead us into the awareness of God’s presence. We believe God’s presence is everywhere… but we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office. One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Our developing sense is that the true response to God in all things is praise. It is the Lord’s power not their own that brings about the good in them. They praise the Lord working in them. Angels are evangelists, announcing the Good News of peace on earth to people of good will. This peace is the union of heaven and earth, the kingdom bestowed on us, the peace and union of body and spirit realized in the Incarnation of the Word of God. This is our task as evangelists as well. And finally, they are “ministering spirits”, bringing protection, guidance, and care for God’s servants. We are able to be guardians, ministers, and servants from the spirit’s work of making our hearts places of detachment and freedom. Who is the greater, the one at table or the one who serves? Here am I in the midst of you as one who serves. A world turned upside down. We can share that clear-sightedness of Benedict who was able to give his whole attention to the working of God, whether in the length of a habit or in the vision of the whole world seen in a ray of light.
Solemnity of St. Benedict
[Scripture Readings: Prov 2:1-9; Eph 41-6; Lk 22:24-27]
You, who are on the road,
Must have a code
That you can live by.
I have quoted this lyric before from a song popular in 1970 during my student days in Iowa City. The ideal it held up strongly appealed to me then, but I was stymied by a question it raised: “What code?”
Today we celebrate the man who gave us “a code that we can live by.” We celebrate St. Benedict of Nursia, who wrote a code he called “a Rule for Monasteries.” A “code that you can live by” must teach three things: how to behave, what to believe, and what to care about. The last, what to care about, is most important.
It is most important because the code is for those “who are on the road.” And we must, more than anything else, care about where the road is going; about what is at its end. The code, then, must keep us within the boundaries of the road when it bumps and curves, or mark it so we can return to it when we get lost. And we must be driven by love. To persevere on a journey, one must have his heart set on the end.
So, the code, our Rule of Life, must form the heart. It must form what we love, how much we love it, and how we show that love. To do that, the Rule must form the will. Mature love is a matter of decision and commitment. The will serves love. It guides love and gives it strength. It does this because, as St. Paul tells us today, love creates unity.
The word “monk” means “one.” This means that the monk is united within himself because he loves and lives toward One Thing. How to behave and what to believe are united around the One Thing that he most cares about: that which sustains him along the road and waits for him at its end. That is the Kingdom of God.
Along the way there are side roads and many fascinating attractions that can divert one from the end. These convert the unity of our love into a multiplicity of loves. For this St. Benedict gives us a way of life.
The first element in this way of life is called “Humility.” Dom Bernard Bonowitz describes humility as the art of being human when the human is clear about what matters most. That clarity of what to care about reduces multiplicity to unity and when we are thus unified we are truly human, as the Creator meant us to be. Humility is first because our fallen natures are inclined toward multiplicity and needs instruction in order to come to unity. That is the point of our first reading today from Proverbs. Wisdom is sought and imparted; Instructions are obeyed.
The second element of Benedict's way of life is “Order.” We live in a stable community whose activities are ordered toward unity with God. The principle structure of the order is the Opus Dei; the work of God that we chant daily. With scripture forming the context of each day we unlearn old ways of behaving and learn a monastic way of behaving. Hearing the scriptures daily, we discard our old beliefs in pleasure, power, and possessions and instead let the gospels affect us. Benedict extends this order by giving us an abbot who presents occasions for “preferring nothing whatever to Christ.”
The third element in this way of life is “Renunciation.” Having a single goal, we relegate all that merely fascinates to a lower priority. Benedict tells us the most important renunciation is self-will. Renouncing that requires that we be clear that God's will matters more than self, and that we accept and submit to monastic order. Indeed, the goal of the observance of monastic order is self-forgetfulness. To this end, today's gospel tells us the greater one is the one who serves others.
Attaining the Kingdom of God is the ultimate goal that the Rule gives us. It is the end of the road. As St. Paul told the Romans, “The Kingdom of God is goodness, peace, joy, and mutual up building,” (14:17-20)
Solemnity of St. Benedict
[Scripture Readings: Prov 2:1-9; Eph 4:1-6; Lk 22:24-27]
To live an effective life, one must, as a popular song from 1970 put it, have a “code that you can live by.” That code must teach three things: how to behave, what to believe, and what to care about.
Today we celebrate the man who gave us “a code that you can live by.” We celebrate St. Benedict of Nursia, who wrote a code he called “a Rule for Monasteries.” It teaches us not only how to behave and what to believe, but, most importantly, what to care about.
It is most important because the code is for those “who are on the road.” And we must, more than anything else, care about where the road is going; about what is at its end. The code, then, must keep us within the boundaries of a clear intention when the road bumps and curves. Boundaries also mark it so we can return to it when we get lost.
And we must be driven by love. To persevere on a journey, one must have his heart set on the end.
I recall my own experience of being attracted to Benedict's way of life.
Both as a boy and as a man in his forties I, like most of us, read Thomas Merton and felt energized by the vision of this sort of complete self-giving. As an adult I found myself remembering my boyhood attraction and asking the question, “When has something made me say, 'I want my life to be dedicated to that'.” That “something” was monastic life. It was having a code-to-live-by that had for its end a union with the ultimate, with Love Itself.
So, the code, our Rule of Life, must form the heart. It must form what we love, how much we love it, and how we show that love. To do that, the Rule must form the will. It must be centered on a principle or belief that serves as the behavioral foundation for one's life.
A principle is a beginning point for the mind. A foundation is the beginning point for the will. “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ” is Benedict's principle. From this a monastic begins all reasoning about life. Only the truth can be deduced from that principle; error cannot, but must have another starting point.
That same principle of preference for Christ is the foundation for the will to build its moral life. What is good fits upon this foundation; what is evil cannot. It must have another foundation.
With this first principle, the mind and the will get a start in discovering the secret of life. And the secret of life, what is true and what is good in life, is the vision that fired us up and made us want to dedicate our lives to it. That vision is something we share at New Melleray.
A determined will serves love. It guides love and gives it strength. It does this because, as St. Paul tells us today, love creates unity.
The word “monk” means “one.” This means that the monk is united within himself because he loves & lives toward One Thing. What to believe and how to behave, the Principle & Foundation, are united around the One Thing that he most cares about: that which sustains him along the road and waits for him at its end. That is the Kingdom of God.
Benedict's way gives three elements: Humility is first because our fallen natures are inclined toward multiple loves and needs instruction in order to come to unity. That is the point of our first reading today from Proverbs. Wisdom is sought and imparted; in humility, instructions are obeyed.
The second element of Benedict's way of life is “Order.” Daily life is ordered toward preferring Christ. The principle structure of the order is the Opus Dei; the work of God that we chant daily. The abbot presents us with occasions for reaching down deep in the heart to prefer nothing whatever to Christ.
The final element in this way of life is “renunciation.” Having a single goal, we relegate all that merely fascinates to a lower priority. “No one,” Benedict writes, “is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else.”
Attaining the Kingdom of God is the ultimate goal that the Rule gives us. It is the end of the road. As St. Paul told the Romans, “The Kingdom of God is goodness, peace, joy, and mutual up building.” (14:17-20)
Solemnity of St. Benedict
[Scripture Readings: Prov 2:1-9; Eph 4:1-6; Lk 22:24-17]
In a gospel of a few weeks ago, Jesus taught us the importance of the road we choose. He contrasted the “broad way” and the “narrow way.” The difference between the two was not the width. The difference was the end. The broad way consisted in a life of episodes, events with no common thread and going nowhere in particular. The narrow way has an end and the boundaries on left and right help us get there. They only help if the end, union with God, is what we care about most.
That gospel, like the solemnity of St. Benedict, always reminds me of this lyric from a song popular in 1970 during my student days in Iowa City.
I recall that every year on this feast. The ideal it held up strongly appealed to me then, but I was stymied by a question it raised: “What code?” I vaguely knew that the code must teach three things that I was then just guessing at: how to behave, what to believe, and what to care about. St. Benedict has given us, who are on the road, that code and he called it “A Rule for Monasteries.”
The Rule, grounded in scripture, gives us a context: the monastery. The context in which we choose to live our lives puts concrete limitations on concrete options. It sets boundaries on how we behave. There are things we do and do not do as monks because of our desire to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” This doesn't mean that we never experience conflicts between that desire and lesser desires. It just ensures that there will be conflicts.
This chosen context includes the adoption of a perspective, a way of looking at life. These are the beliefs that Benedict gives us in the Prologue. The larger the perspective, the deeper is the place in the heart. Mindfulness of our end is the largest perspective one can adopt. That is why it is the first step of humility. The heart is where one values. “Context and perspective give value to self and to all else.”
This affects perception: our capacity to distinguish the importance of what is enduringly good from the merely satisfying. St. Benedict tells us our perception must be guided by the virtue of humility. Experiences of self-indulgence and adversity will attempt to pull us off the road. Benedict gives us the very demanding steps of humility that will result in a changed attitude to insecurity, loss, and diminishment for the sake of Christ. Humility is our submission to what matters most. Humility is first because our fallen natures are inclined toward many things that satisfy and needs instruction in order to come to unity in One Thing that endures. That is the point of our first reading today from Proverbs. Wisdom is sought and imparted; Instructions are obeyed.
We live in a stable community whose activities are ordered toward the end of unity with God. The principle structure of the order is the Opus Dei, the work of God that we chant daily. With Scripture forming the context of each day we unlearn old ways of behaving and learn a monastic way of behaving. Hearing the scriptures daily, we discard our old beliefs and instead let the gospels affect what we care about. Benedict extends this order by giving us an abbot who presents occasions for “preferring nothing whatever to Christ.”
And Benedict calls us to renunciation. Benedict tells us the most important renunciation is self-will. Renouncing that requires that we be clear that God's will matters more than self, and that we accept and submit to monastic order. Indeed, the goal of the observance of monastic order is self-forgetfulness. To this end, today's gospel tells us the greater one is the one who serves others.
Attaining the Kingdom of God is the ultimate goal that the Rule gives us. It is the end of the road. As St. Paul told the Romans, “The Kingdom of God is goodness, peace, joy, and mutual up building” (14:17-20).
Solemnity of St. Benedict
[Scripture Readings: Prov 1:1-9; Eph 4:1-6; Lk 22:14-20, 24-30]
St. Benedict had several names for the monastery. He calls it a “School of the Lord’s service” for one. In this school we learn , for example, how to put into practice the teaching of today’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I am among you as one who serves.” Another name is, “The House of God.” Benedict writes, “No one should be troubled in the house of God.” Another one is the “workshop” where the monk toils over the instruments of good works. There are seventy-two of them to keep us occupied.
No matter what name he uses for the monastery there is one thing for certain, Benedict wanted the monastery to be a place of peace. Monasteries are traditionally constructed in out-of-the-way places, away from the business of the city. Harmony based on right relationships with others, self and God are the basis of monastic peace. The passage from Ephesians we just heard, about “supporting each other in love” is one of our ideals of how community life is to be lived. The pace of the monastery is calm and measured. The rhythm of day and night are determined by the liturgical hours of prayer.
Some of the ills of our modern society should not find their way into the monastery. Such things as stress and pressure and rushing about and business. Ambition and power struggles and control over others have no place here.
From this description one would think the monks glide along on a cloud of peace with no cause for anxiety or concern. Yet this is not true. Within the Rule there is another theme that is not antithetical to peace but one we do not usually couple with stillness and recollection. St. Benedict strikes this minor chord right at the beginning of his Rule. In the Prologue the word, “run” comes up four times. In one case we are running away so darkness does not overcome us, in the three other cases we are running toward something: the tent of the Lord, good works and finally eternal life. A sense of urgency is conveyed. We are not just to be sitting around enjoying contemplative leisure. Of course the strongest word in the Prologue is, “battle“. The monks are, “armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord,” .
You might conclude from this that monks are in a state of war and maybe we are. This is not far fetched. Look around, our society is in a state of war, too. We use the concept all the time. We read about the war against crime, the war against drugs, the war against terrorism, which is evermore real after the attack on London. We speak about the war against poverty, the war against injustice and abuse. We battle abortion and euthanasia. If our society does not battle against all these things they will overcome us and we all become enslaved. But the evils just enumerated, crime, drugs, terrorism, poverty, injustice and abuse are really symptoms of a deeper battle. And I think this is the battle the monks are directed to engage in by the rule of life set down by St. Benedict. He tells us that his rule is meant only for those who are willing to give up their own will and embrace obedience. It is the battle of the self. We are taught to eschew such things as selfishness, self-promotion, self-indulgence, self-centeredness, and looking after our own self-interest. Benedict writes explicidly, “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else,” ().
This way of living goes against the grain. Thus the battle. The model Benedict sets before us is the one we see in today’s Gospel: mutual service. This is the real field of battle. Our innate instincts are to get our own way at all cost. Survival of the fittest. The antidote to this illness is putting the other person’s interest before your own.
Today’s Gospel is a beautiful synthesis of our life. In the Eucharist we are invited to share in the act whereby Jesus pours out his life and hands over his spirit to the Father. The sacrament makes present the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. We prove the sincerity of our sharing in this mystery by putting into practice the second part of the Gospel just proclaimed: “For who is the greater: the one at table or the one who serves? The one at table, surely? Yet here am I among you as one who serves!”. Benedict states simply, “The brothers are to serve one another,” .
Solemnity of St. Benedict
[Scripture Readings: Prov. 2: 1-9; Eph. 4: 1-6; Lk. 22: 14-20, 24-30 ]
A friend of mine would sometimes comment on something that someone else had said with more than a touch of sarcasm, “You have a firm grasp of the obvious.” While it is probably true that most of us at one time or another have pointed out something that didn’t need to be pointed out, there are times when looking more carefully at the obvious is helpful. This morning I am thinking about the fact that we live from a tradition. For those of us on this side of the grille that tradition is the Benedictine tradition that has come down to us through the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the 6th century. However, the Rule is simply a particular expression of the gospel which has come down to all of us from Jesus Christ and the apostles. Since we have also been formed by a culture that is suspicious of traditions, and in some cases simply rejects them, we may not have as firm a grasp on the obvious as we might think.
That a tradition is concerned with time is obvious enough and it is equally obvious that a tradition is concerned with the past. However, a tradition is concerned not only with the past. If a tradition is to be life giving, there is more involved than continuing former practices. Our fidelity to the past must be integrated with authenticity in the present, and beyond that with hope for the future. Practices that were meaningful expressions of a tradition’s values at one point in time may no longer express those values in a meaningful way. Conversely, there can be a tendency to discard valid expressions of a tradition simply because they are not popular. Being faithful to our traditions will always call us to discernment and discernment is the work of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has a limited understanding of our current situation and none of us can foresee the future. Our personal attractions and preferences may be valid and call for respect; however, a tradition must be life giving for all who share in it. I cannot simply assume that traditional expressions that I value are also valid for all my brothers and sisters, and hence are what the Holy Spirit is calling for on a universal scale. If particular practices in our traditions support our spiritual growth, we are not being obstinate in asking others to respect our needs. However, we are required in turn to respect the needs of others. Beyond this we offer our individual contributions to the Holy Spirit and in humility accept the Holy Spirit’s guidance in enlivening our traditions.
All that may seem obvious, but at times I lose sight of the obvious. I need reminders like today’s feast to challenge me to reflect on what it means to live in a tradition. This morning we are gathered together to celebrate the tradition of the Lord’s Supper which unites all of us in the one body of Christ. With gratitude for the generations who have gone before us and hope for our future let us continue our celebration.
Solemnity of St. Benedict
[Scripture Readings: Prov 2:1-9; Eph 4:1-6; Lk 22:14-20, 24-30]
An elderly monk said, “In olden days there were men who saw the face of God.”
“Why don’t they anymore?” a young novice asked.
He replied, “Because, nowadays no one stoops so low.”
When Fr. Brendan asked me to give this homily for the solemnity of our holy father, St. Benedict, I was both honored and intimidated. What was I — a relative newcomer—going to say to a community of monks who have been living by the RB for forty years? In addition, I recall what a wise monk at Conception Abbey once told me: “There are three things that are useless: more rain on the ocean, more sand on the desert, and preaching to monks.”
Although many veteran monks agreed with the appraisal about preaching to monks, our first reading today from a wisdom book rightly points to the advantages of listening to monks. The reading from Proverbs encourages us to “receive my words and treasure my commands…turn your ear to wisdom and incline your heart to understanding…”
St. Benedict begins his Rule with much the same words, and Dom Brendan recently echoed him and the biblical sages when he said that “the best way to learn how to be a monk is to live with monks.” I found that to be true: I changed myself to suit the monastery, rather than try to change the monastery to suit myself.
So I’d like to speak to our newer members and share with them my experiences in leaving behind my former way of life and seeking God by St. Benedict’s rule of life.
I came to the monastery to give thanks. Gratitude is a response of love to one who loved us first…and without provocation! Benedict alludes to this early in his prologue in v. 6 where he writes, “With (God’s) good gifts which are in us, we must obey Him at all times…”
This prologue to the Rule forms a kind of creed setting out Benedict’s beliefs about monastic life. He follows the creed with seven chapters of ethics. Ethics are a bridge from a person’s creed to his way of living everyday life. Ethics order our lives and our relationships so that we’re able to experience the truths of the creed. Friedrich Nietzsche once said that to destroy Christianity you shouldn’t go for the creed; they know it too well and can easily defend it. Go for the ethics, he said. Undermine those and the creed just won’t matter anymore. We’ve certainly seen that in the history of monasticism—in fact we Cistercians got our start by reuniting creed and ethics!
The ethics I came here with were my own (I thought), formed more-than-I-realized by TV and newspapers. They usually tried to make Christian ethics seem like crimes against humanity. But, sit-coms and news-magazines have no creed behind them and no community.
Still, renouncing my old ethics and taking on St. Benedicts ethics as they are lived here at the community of New Melleray was the hardest part of my formation. If it is not hard for you, too, Br. Novices, then you’re not paying attention!
My brothers, in renouncing the old ethics and taking on the creed and ethics of St. Benedict I was accepting a gift. Yet I was afraid of the gift. Fear of the gift is fear of kenosis, of the self-emptying that occurs in the process of hollowing out the heart for receiving of the gift. In St. Benedict’s Rule this fear is addressed with humility. Christ did not fear this self-emptying; he underwent it, as St. Paul tells us in Philippians, to become human. He called us to imitate him by becoming humble of heart. Humility, then, is the art of being human. This is different from trying to play God, a favorite pastime of our fallen natures.
St. Benedict tells us that renunciation must change to preferring. The first step of humility—fear of the Lord—is acknowledging that there is something greater than me that matters more than me; it is here that preferring begins. The kernel of St. Benedict’s rule of life—his creed—is in preferring nothing whatever to Christ. This is also the very kernel of the humility that is the successful art of being human. Benedict starts us on the road to a perfect love that casts out fear by urging us to fear a greater danger; …that will give us the courage to face the lesser ones.
But when it comes to fear of the gift the 6th and 7th steps of his Rule separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. These are the steps that most writers on humility emphatically claim that humility is NOT! In the 6th the monk is content with the poorest and worst of everything and in the 7th he is to consider himself lower and of less account than anyone else. Most of us would not readily believe this! But what if you have an experience that implies that a superior or a brother thinks so lowly of you; what if you are not preferred? What if someone else is preferred? We find that offensive and offense is the opposite of faith.
When I was a novice, Dom Brendan told me about a time shortly after his class was ordained, when a list of their assignments was posted. One classmate was sent to study at a major Catholic university, another was sent to lend his expertise to help a new community. Brendan was put in charge of the shoeshine box! St. Benedict says when you are seemingly not preferred you nevertheless prefer Christ. Few things will hollow out a deeper place in the heart. We need only ponder today’s gospel or look at a crucifix to remember that Barabbas was preferred to Jesus and Jesus preferred the Father. We were saved by what shouldn’t happen.
The elderly monk we heard from at the beginning said that to see the face of God we must stoop low; we must accept the gift. We do that when we accept something we know we don’t deserve and are given something which is literally impossible to pay for.
Br. Novices, look around you at the seniors; these are men who persevered…they accepted the gift. People under gift are rare. They are even rarer who stay that way and never forget.
Looking back it seems odd that I would fear such self-emptying; self-emptying means getting rid of a burden! At the end of his Steps, Benedict says that in changing from renunciation to preferring we act “no longer out of fear…, but out of love for Christ.” He promises that “all this the Lord will, by the Holy Spirit, graciously manifest” in us… In other words, the steps will make us receivers. We will know they have made us receivers the moment we experience the presence of God.
Solemnity of St. Benedict
[Scripture Readings: Prov 2:1-9; Eph 4:1-6, Lk 22:14-20, 24-30]
One morning, in the Spring of 2004, I had the opportunity to visit a place not far outside of Rome where St. Benedict, fifteen hundred years ago, stopped on his way to Subiaco. It seems that, for a time, Benedict served as superior for a community of monks who lived on the slopes of the ravine where our tour bus let us off. Standing there in the brilliant sunshine of a Spring morning in Italy, we listened as our guide narrated to us the sad story of what was probably the darkest moment of Benedict’s monastic career.
Having agreed to serve as superior to the monks who had settled in that place, Benedict shortly found himself facing intense resistance to his authority even hostility; hostility culminating in a hatred so violent, that the monks tried to kill him.
This is a gruesome and troubling story, but what is perhaps most amazing is that, not long afterward, we find Benedict at Subiaco, where he is once again serving as superior to a community of monks. Think about that.
In monastic life, it is not unusual to hear of a monk who is asked to take a certain joband refuses. He tells the abbot he is sorry buthe refuses to be Procurator because three years ago, he was in charge of renovating the guest house and bought lamps to put in the rooms, but the Prior didn’t like the lamps and went and got permission from the abbot to have all of them removed, which was so unfair and so humiliating, that the monk just cannot see ever putting himself in a position where he might suffer something like that again. Or, a monk says, he cannot be Novice Master, because, last summer, when he was manager of the bakery, he challenged a novice who was showing up late for work, and when the novice complained to the abbot, the abbot took the side of the novice; an experience so shocking and hurtful to the head baker, that he cannot see how he could possibly function as master of novices. Is it not remarkable that Benedict, the victim of an attempted assassination by his own monks, is found a few years later, once again serving as abbot over a community of monks? How does a man find it in himself to risk serving again as abbot after a group of monks made a very nearly successful attempt on his life?
It is said of Benedict that, he once saw the world; the entire cosmos contracted to a single ray of brightness; a beam of light far more brilliant than the sun. In another work, Gregory writes that: “All creation is nothing to the soul that sees the Creator. Once the creature beholds even a little of the light of the Creator, the mind is enlarged and expands in God until it stands above the world.” Benedict’s vision of the cosmos contracted in a beam of light occurs many years after the assassination attempt, but, it does suggest in Benedict a disposition; an extraordinary capacity to see things with an enlarged vision; a vision something like God’s vision of the world where all things contrary are reconciled and everything is one.
We have, each of us, experienced, in the course of our life, moments of joy, of peace, of profound gratitude and wonder at the sheer splendor; the simple goodness of human life as a gift. We have all experienced moments when it was unspeakably good; unspeakably gracious, thrilling, and delightful to be human and alive. Maybe you were a child playing on the beach, the sun was shining; you felt loved, secure, inexplicably gifted by that perfect moment, and you knew it so deeply that you were afraid of nothing and hoped only good things from the future. The moment passed; possibly a very long time ago. So much has happened since then, and you might be tempted to dismiss that earlier experience as somehow a delusion or of minor significancebut what if, you were given Benedict’s vision and suddenly in a beam of light, everything became one, past and present, youth and old age, joy and sorrow, gratification and regret. What if everything that ever occurred in the past was one momentthe moment you are in now. This is the vision given to Benedict; the vision that expands in God and sees life from God’s perspective. In God’s eyes, brothers and sisters,its’ all now; your childhood and your old age, your joys and your sorrows; they are all present to God in one moment, and by God’s grace can all be reconciled and made present to you in a brightness brighter than the sunin an instant. What if the most blessed summer day you ever spent as a child was now?
We might never suffer an assassination attempt, but you and I live in a world of conflicting apparently irreconcilable opposites? What if for one moment you enjoyed Benedict’s blessed vision of reality; all of creation contracted in a single intense beam of light. Might the world’s conflicts; the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, between Republicans and Democrats in politics, between Liberals and Conservatives in the church; might all these divisions which complicate our lives and enervate our capacity to love; might these be reconciled; made whole and luminous in an instant by this vision of all made one?
On this feast day of our Father St. Benedict, let us pray that this house of prayer; New Melleray Abbey be for us and for all who visit here a sacrament of this unity; this vision of peace.