Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ's help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God's protection you will reach them. Amen.
Rule of St. Benedict 73: 8-9
The ancients tell a story of the spiritual life that may best explain this book:
A young monastic came upon an elder one day sitting among a group of praying, working, meditating people.
"I have the capacity to walk on water," the young disciple said. "So, let's you and I go onto that small lake over there and sit down and carry on a spiritual discussion."
But the Teacher answered, "If what you are trying to do is to get away from all of these people, why do you not come with me and fly into the air and drift along in the quiet, open sky and talk there?"
And the young seeker replied, "I can't do that because the power you mention is not one that I possess."
And the Teacher explained, "Just so. Your power of remaining still on top of the water is one that is possessed by fish. And my capacity of floating through the air can be done by any fly. These abilities have nothing to do with real truth and, in fact, may simply become the basis of arrogance and competition, not spirituality. If we're going to talk about spiritual things, we should really be talking here."
Just about every person I have ever met who was serious about spiritual things thinks the point of the story is true: daily life is the stuff of which high sanctity can be made. But just about nobody I have ever met, however, really thinks it is easily possible. Spirituality, we have all learned somehow, is something I have to leave where I am in order to find it. I get it in small doses, in special places and under rarefied conditions. I hope I get enough at one time in life to carry me through all the other times. The idea that sanctity is as much a part of the married life or the single life as it is of the religious life or the clerical life is an idea dearly loved but seldom deeply believed.
In our own times, too, just as at the time of the story, fads crowd into the spiritual life. We are told that novenas are the answer one year and retreats another and meditation centers a third. True believers tell us that the cult of their choice is the only answer to the struggles of life. The occultists promise salvation in the stars or from ancient oriental lore. The therapeutic community offers marathon encounters or anger-release workshops to cleanse the soul. Over and over again, cures and cults and psychological exercises are regularly tried and regularly discarded while people look for something that will make them feel good, steady their perspective, and bring meaning and direction to their lives. But, as the ancient story demonstrates, if we are not spiritual where we are and as we are, we are not spiritual at all. We are simply consumers of the latest in spiritual gadgetry that numbs our confusions but never fills our spirits or frees our hearts.
After years of monastic life I have discovered that unlike spiritual fads, which come and go with the teachers or cultures that spawned them, the Rule of Benedict looks at the world through interior eyes and lasts. Here, regardless of who we are or what we are, life and purpose meet.
The Rule of Benedict has been a guide to the spiritual life for common people since the sixth century. Anything that has lasted that long and had that kind of impact in a throwaway society is certainly worthy of consideration. This book looks at these questions. "How do we account for a way of life that has lasted for over fifteen hundred years, and what, if anything, does it have to say to the spiritual life in our world today?"
Benedictine spirituality offers exactly what our times are lacking. Benedictine spirituality seeks to fill up the emptiness and heal the brokenness in which most of us live in ways that are sensible, humane, whole, and accessible to an overworked, overstimulated, overscheduled human race.
The Rule of Benedict called the class-centered Roman world to community and calls us to the same on a globe that is fragmented. The Rule called for hospitality in times of barbarian invasions and calls us to care in a world of neighborhood strangers. It called for equality in a society full of classes and castes and calls us to equality in a world that proclaims everyone equal but judges everyone differently. Benedict, who challenged the patriarchal society of Rome to humility, challenges our own world, too, whose heroes are Rambo and James Bond, military powers and sports stars, the macho and the violent.
Benedictine spirituality calls for depth in a world given over almost entirely to the superficial and the tinny. It offers a set of attitudes to a world that has been seduced by gimmicks and quick fixes. Benedictine spirituality offers insight and wisdom where pieties have lost meaning and asceticisms have lost favor.
Most of all, Benedictine spirituality is good news for hard times. It teaches people to see the world as good, their needs as legitimate, and human support as necessary. Benedictine spirituality doesn't call for either great works or great denial. It simply calls for connectedness. It shows us how to connect with God, with others, and with our inmost selves.
All in all, the Rule of Benedict is designed for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. It was not written for priests or mystics or hermits or ascetics; it was written by a layman for laymen.
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