COMMUNITY IN THE RULE OF BENEDICT
Presentation to the Oblates, Monastery Immaculate Conception, Ferdinand, November 4, 2018 by Kathryn Huber, OSB
For Benedict, everything takes place within the context of community. Whether he is talking about prayer, relationships, work or whatever it may be, the disciple is reminded that he or she is part of a community. The word “community” comes from the Latin “com-with” and “unity-union or one with.” Community=one with or in union with. Community is about living the common life.
As never before in the history of humanity, we are becoming aware of our interrelatedness…all creation is a web of interconnectedness. Benedict knew this as all mystics have known this. The question is whether we will choose to translate this emerging consciousness into transformative action.
All life is implanted with that first moment of Life. Everything living has deep memory of that first moment when God said, “BE!” Everything living has that divine spark. We come from the One. We will be one with God and all life as we are aware of the Sacred Presence in everyone and everything. The medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, states that “we are not only made by God, we are “made of God.” We carry the Divine within us and we seek the Divine. Yes, we are a web of deep interconnectedness.
Thomas Merton reminds us that we do not discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. He says, “My dear brothers and sisters we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we must recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” Many of you are familiar with Merton’s mystical moment standing on the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville where he had this profound experience of realizing that all these women and men in the hustle and bustle of downtown Louisville were his brothers and sisters. He also realized that in each of these persons and in himself there was a place of the Divine that no sin, no illusion, no darkness could touch. And I add, no abuse or addiction can touch.
Prior to Benedict’s time monastics were primarily hermits. Benedict’s contribution to monastic life was time alone and time together – solitude and community. Together we go to God. The fact is that simply living with people does not by itself create community. People live together in armies and prisons and college dormitories and hospitals, but they are not communities unless they live out of the same reservoir of values and the same center of love – we must share a common vision. We must want good for one another.
Benedict’s spirituality is a spirituality of the heart and mindful living. True conversion asks for a change of heart. True change of heart is a life-long process. It is not a one-time event. Benedict saw his monastery as “a school” (PR 45), but lest this image conjures up harsh memories he hastens to add “for the Lord’s service” – a school from which we never graduate. A foundation in which there will be “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” (RB Prol46) unless there is sometimes a reasonable need for a little strictness to preserve love in the community. Community, therefore, is to be a place of learning in this spirit of love, an acquiring of wisdom that will never end until death.
Benedict, in his wisdom, realized that people need to learn to live together. It is by living in that realm of human community that we come to claim full human development, total spiritual maturity. The real Christian and the real Benedictine Oblate learns to hear the voice of God in the voice of the other, see the face of God in the face of the other, know the will of God in the person of the other, serves the heart of God by addressing wounds, answering the call of the other. “The most valiant monastics,” the Rule of Benedict insists, “are those who live in community…Let permission to live alone be seldom given.” St. Basil, an early leader of Eastern Monasticism, asks pointedly, “Whose feet shall the hermit wash?” The implications are clear. It is human community that tests the spiritual grist of the human being.
We know that the conception of community is always conditioned by the sociological situation of each culture and age. Currently in the U.S. culture personal autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency are highly valued. Authentic intentional community can be a real countersign to such individualism in our day.
To be transformed into the image of Christ is the goal of Benedictine Oblation. It is in living the values of Benedictine life that this progressive transformation takes place and it embraces the whole of life. Spirituality of the Rule is embedded in both quiet and encounter, in contemplation and community. It is silence that is the circuit between the two. It is silence that prepares us to hear God. It is also silence that makes fruitful the encounters we are meant to serve in the spirit of God.
A reading of the Rule shows the importance that Benedict gives community and the relationship of members with one another. Benedict refers to the monastery as a “house of God” and he wants our relationships in this “house of God,” to be characterized by a mutual love, respect, and concern. The Christian home is also a “house of God,” and is be characterized by mutual love, respect, and concern.
All of us need to be rooted in physically living together and the key works are presence and participation. It is this common life which is the workplace for the journey to God. For Oblates it is the common life within their state of life which is the workplace for the journey to God. The daily rhythm enables the Oblate to interact, and thus, to assist one another concretely on the journey to God. For Benedict, anything in us which blocks our relationship with others will also make it difficult for us to experience God.
So How Do We Live Community Today?
Prayer, hospitality, mutual service, and work, as in the days of our American and Benedictine foremothers and forefathers, still determine how we live community. Monasticism has thrived through the centuries because it has remained faithful to the tradition while adapting to the culture and times in which it finds itself. Wisdom is needed to determine what appropriate adaptations can be made without weakening the essential foundation of Benedictine life. How one lives his/her vocation as an Oblate will differ for the parent of a young family, as a spouse or as a single person, or as an elder. How we live monastic life in Ferdinand, IN will be different than how it is lived in our dependent monastery in the country of Peru.
Earlier I spoke how Benedictine community life can be a real countersign in a culture with a perverted individualism. The “guise of community” can also be a cloak for destructive individualism. Exemptions from common life can be justified by all kinds of excuses and sometimes in the “mask of holiness.” When we act in that “mask of holiness,” then community, commitment, relationships are tolerable if they serve me, make me feel good about myself and make few demands.
We have heard many times “A common roof does not make community of the individuals living there.” Living in community is never easy, and especially when we have not chosen our companions. You who are married have chosen your life companion. Still it requires self-discipline and generosity of spirit. People ask, “Where is the asceticism in the Rule of Benedict?” Sister Aquinata, a scholar on the Rule, says the asceticism of Benedictine life is in the middle of Chapter 72 on Good Zeal. “No one is to pursue what s/he judges better for herself/himself, but instead what s/he judges best for someone else.” If we seek ourselves first, use others for our own ends, then we fail in community. The art is to put the needs of others before our own. Of course, within healthy boundaries.
The Rule is realistic about community. People do not find it easy to get along with each other. Cardinal Basil Hume quotes one of his abbots as saying, “Do remember brothers, that when you die, someone will be relieved.” Perhaps a kinder and gentler of saying it is in the words of Sister Aquinata, “We need to remember that we enter a community of sinners.” She goes on to that the monastery is an infirmary for this community of sinners. The same is true of family.
In all communities all the different hues and colors of Christ are reflected and imaged. Sister Otillia, one of our German sisters, who would remark when someone’s words or behavior was off center, “Yah, yah, ve are all deefferent.”
Henri Nouwen says community is characterized by two things: one is forgiveness, the other is celebration. Forgiveness, he says, means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not being God – for not fulfilling all my needs. I, too, must ask forgiveness for not being able to fulfill other people’s needs.
Our heart – the center of our being – is a part of God. Thus, our heart longs for satisfaction, for total communion. But human beings, whether it’s a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, friend, co-worker are so limited in giving what we crave. Since we want so much, and we get only part of what we want, we have to keep on forgiving people for not giving us all we want. So, I forgive you since you can only love me in a limited way. I forgive my mother that she was not everything I would like her to be. I forgive my father. I forgive our prioress that she is not everything I want her to be. I forgive my spouse that he/she is not everything I want him/her to be. This is of enormous importance right now because constantly people look to blame their parents, their church, their community, their spouse, their children, their government for not giving them what they need. So many people are so angry. They cannot forgive people for offering only limited expressions of an unlimited love. God’s love is unlimited, but people’s love is not.
Benedict understood human nature that is why he states that twice a day, not just once a day the prioress leads the community is praying the “Our Father.” By first loving those close to us can we become builders of peace that Benedict wants us to be. In a nearby congregation the pastor shared this story of a little five-year girl and her recitation of the Our Father. What we say and what children hear are often two different things. Her recitation of the “Our Father” begin, “Our Father who are in heaven, how will I be Thy Name…” Listen to the stories of children, they give us great theological truths. “How will I be They name” with those closest to me? With all those I encounter today? Who do I need to forgive today?
The interesting thing is that when you can forgive people for not being God then you can celebrate that they are a reflection of God. You don’t have everything of God, but what you have is worth celebrating. By celebrate I mean to lift up, affirm, confirm, to rejoice in another’s person’s gifts. So, celebration becomes important and can be very concrete expressions of love, like birthday celebrations, days of Oblation, marriage, monastic profession, or days of anniversaries of that simply say, “I am glad you are here.” It doesn’t mean lifting someone’s talents like, “You’re a good piano player.” Rather I lift up your gifts of joy, peace, love, perseverance, kindness, gentleness. We lift up the gifts of the Spirit – and they are reflections of God.
The more we can accept the fact that the monastery or family or work are not ideal places set apart from the realities of the world, but a place built upon human weakness, then the more pardon and healing can take place. Benedict refers to the monastery as the “house of God.” As each member, each Oblate experience pardon and healing, the more the monastery or the home can become “the house of God” where God’s loving word is truly heard and lived. Since Christian discipleship is a journey, people are at different stages of moving from self-centeredness, with all its wounded-ness, to God-centeredness. This calls for patience and tolerance. Once an individual has experienced God’s pardon and has moved from self to God, then he/she can do the same for others.
Probably the greatest challenge facing any community is that the people within it need to be accepting and encouraging of one another because it is there where the concrete loving-kindness, compassion and mercy of God are to be felt in the human condition. We live together to support one another, to encourage one another, and to forgive one another.
Our Benedictine community here at Ferdinand receives many blessings from the people and communities it serves. You, our Benedictine Oblates, are a great blessing to the monastery and to the communities in which you live and work. Oblate communities throughout the world see themselves as Christ’s hands and feet in the world bringing Christ’s compassion, mercy and loving-kindness to those in need. As Oblates you live the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora translated means Prayer and Work or I prefer to translate it, Prayer and Service. Our service flows from a life of prayer and our service sends us back to prayer. God has blest us and the world community through you and the way you live the Benedictine values in your state of life as an Oblate of St. Benedict.
In Summary: In all his teaching Benedict keeps coming back to one essential truth: Christ is present in each person we encounter – within our Oblate community, family, workplace or elsewhere. Everyone is to be loved, respected, honored, (RB 4) listened to (RB 3) and welcomed as Christ (RB 53) Everyone without exception, is to be treated with gentleness and compassion (RB 64: 36). In community I learn how to be fully human. Alone, I am what I am, but in community, I have the chance to become all that I can be. It is a matter of accepting ourselves and one another as we really are: forgiving each other, encouraging and supporting one another. It is this common life within the place of this family or this community or elsewhere that is the workplace for the journey to God. We are on a journey, not just an individual journey, but a communal journey, because it is, as Benedict writes, “to bring us all together to everlasting life.”
Closing Prayer – I conclude with my daily remembrance at the cemetery of our sisters.
Good Morning or Good Afternoon Sisters!
Thank you for transmitting the Benedictine charism to us.
Thank you for living faithfully the monastic way of life until death.
Help us/help me to live the Benedictine Way with intentionality, integrity and faithfulness.
Send us new Members. Send us new Oblates.