St. Benedict was a 6th century monk from Nursia near Rome, who first lived as a hermit before establishing various monasteries and writing a Rule to guide monastic living. One of the earliest biographies of his life was written by Pope St. Gregory the Great, and it includes many stories of incredible miracles performed by the monk. Gregory made the Rule of St. Benedict widely known and Benedict is today considered the father of Western monasticism. His Rule is still used today in many monasteries and converts as well as being followed by many lay people. We can learn a great deal from the way he lived his life, and also his Rule. Here are seven lessons we can learn from St. Benedict.
Prayer is Important
One incredible miracle performed by St. Benedict was moving a huge stone with his prayer. Some monks were busy building new cells at their abbey and came across a huge stone that blocked the path of their building. Even working all together, they were unable to move the stone. They called St. Benedict and he said a prayer for them that the stone would move. When he did this, they were able to easily move the stone. This is not only a sign of the miraculous, but also that there is power in prayer.
In the Rule, which was written for laymen, not for clerics, prayer is referred to as “the work of God.” Prayer, then, is work and work is prayer in the economy of monastic life. Instead of wondering how to squeeze prayer into the busy schedule of our work days, we can adopt a new vision in which all that we do is the work of prayer. We can give to God the whole cycle of the day, from rising and drinking our morning coffee to carpools and meetings and classes and household responsibilities until we go to bed at night.
For prayer, Benedict turned to the psalms, the very songs and poems from the Jewish liturgy and Jesus Himself prayed. To join our voices with Jesus in praise of God during the day was so important that he called it the “Work of God.”
Listen With the Ears of Our Heart
When St. Benedict urges one to listen, he is not simply speaking about listening as we traditionally perceive it. He is not speaking about listening in the way that we might listen to a song or a joke, instead, he invites us in this phrase from the Book of Proverbs and Psalm 43 to “incline the ear of our heart.” We must have a receptive understanding, a trustful attitude towards the truth. The Church continues to teach us how to open the ears of our hearts.
St. Benedict calls the Church “the great teacher of the art of listening,” because the Church instructs the students, the Catholic faithful, on the often-difficult work of opening our ears and hearts. In particular, Pope Benedict writes about lectio divina, or divine reading, one of the Church’s preferring methods of praying sacred Scripture. According to St. Benedict, this method requires “the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer which brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and In praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart.” St. Benedict also says, “If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.”
God’s Word is Important
St. Benedict realized the strongest and truest foundation for the power of words was the Word of God itself: “For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life?” He had experienced the power of God’s Word as expressed in Scripture: “For just as the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall My Word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do My Will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
Live in Moderation
St. Benedict counsels moderation in all things – moderation and common sense – so as not to frighten away the “faint-hearted,” no be so easy as to not give the strong something to strive for. Even in monasteries, moderation sometimes has to be insisted upon to avoid what might otherwise allow an imbalanced life, or worse, pride, because competition can impeded our sincerity and one can call to comparing oneself to others in a spirit of envy or jealousy. Benedict insists in his Rule that we must balance our lives with prayer and work, with reading and recreation, with rest and activity.
St. Benedict stresses the important of living a humble life. In his rule, St. Benedict notes that “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11) and that those who want to reach the highest summit of humility must shun pride and exaltation and just as well that our actions will be like a ladder to heaven which Jacob saw in his dream in Genesis 28 where the angels ascended and descended. We see that the humility of the heart is the foundation of love for Christian life. Jesus showed us the Way and His sacred heart held the way of humility.
St. Benedict sought to live a life apart from the distractions of the world, but even in his solitude, others sought him out for guidance. Benedict’s time of quiet reflection, complete with its interruptions, bore fruit in his rule, which remains a guideline for all who struggle in the tension between living for God and working in the world.