Proverbs 2:1-9 Luke 14:27-33
A story from ancient days is told about a disciple who came to his elder seeking counsel. The disciple asked, “Holy one is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?” And the elder answered, “as little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.” The young disciple was surprised and alarmed, and he said, “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?” “To make sure,” the elder said, “that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.” The Rule of St. Benedict is full of exercises and prescriptions for the monk, ranging from how to eat and what to wear, to deportment in chapel and reconciliation between brothers in discord. But in Benedict’s mind the spiritual life is not a collection of spiritual calisthenics. Rather, the spiritual life is a way of being attentive in the world that is open to God and open to others. We remember today the author of this ancient monastic Rule, Benedict of Nursia. Benedict is regarded by many as the father of western monasticism. He was born in year 480 in Nursia in central Italy, educated in Rome, withdrawn to the desert to learn more of Christ, and discovered by eager disciples sometime between years 525 and 530. Since then his followers – men and women – have numbered in the tens of thousands.
I’ll add here, parenthetically… in case any of you are wondering whether we brothers here in this monastery are Benedictines…? The answer is, “No.” We are not Benedictines. We trace our own founding back to the 1860s in Oxford, England, and we live under our own, contemporary Rule of Life. We do share friendship with many Benedictines, and have a deep respect for the time-tested Benedictine Rule.i)
The word “rule,” as in the Rule of Saint Benedict, is not a particularly popular word. Given our druthers, I suspect that many of us would like fewer rules in life. Rules have a way of telling you that you can’t do the kinds of things you might want to do and are prone to do. The word “rule” comes from the Latin, regula. A regula is a rule in the sense of a guide, or pattern, or ruler. A ruler gives you a standard of measurement on which everyone can agree. An inch or a centimeter is an objective guideline. Wherever even two or three are gathered together, trying to get along, go together, stay on speaking terms, have agreed-upon purposes or outcomes, you’re inevitably going to have rules. These may be called “practices” or “policies,” or “vows,” or “norms” or standards, or simply “habits,” but they’re spirited by the same need for our relationships to be dependable and trustworthy. In terms of a monastic rule, such as the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Rule describes how the monks should live together in a Christian school of love, respect, accountability, and peace. And does it always happen? Does the Rule always describe how the monks live? No. Speaking as a monk who lives under our own Rule of Life, I can say, “No.” Some days there are miserable failures and breakdowns, certainly speaking for myself. And in these moments, the Rule is not descriptive, but rather, prescriptive. It sets the mark for how we want to go about living and being in the presence of Christ and one another.
The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule speaks of “mending vices and preserving love,” which is both noble and necessary in living life together. The theme of love weaves its way through the Rule. The point of it all, the ultimate point of life, is love – to learn the love of God, and to practice that love with the whole of one’s life. Only love lasts. There’s also the theme of “practiced wisdom.” This Rule is for a “24-7” living experience, nothing pie-in-the-sky. A word that figures prominently into the monastic vocabulary is praxis, from which comes the English word, “practice.” Praxis is what your belief looks like. If this is what you say you believe and value, how do you live this out in the course of the day, i.e., what’s your praxis? (You probably know that old aphorism, to “practice what you preach.”) The end of Benedictine spirituality is to develop a transparent personality. Benedict says, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.”
I’ll draw one other insight from St. Benedict in light of the final rather stunning phrase in today’s gospel lesson: “… so therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he [or she] has cannot be my disciple.”ii
Now Benedict is no Saint Francis. Saint Francis lived almost 700 years after Benedict.iii To “renounce all” to Saint Francis was, literally, to strip himself of every material thing. Not so for Benedict. Benedict, in the fifth century, readily acknowledges material things. To “renounce all” for Benedict was to strip himself of the notion of personal property – private ownership of material things – because everything belongs to God In his Rule, Benedict makes no division between natural and supernatural, between sacred and secular. It all belongs to God. Every thing, every vessel – whether it comes from the altar, the bakery, the storeroom, the kitchen, the garden – it all is sacred because it all belongs to God.iv
Benedict was almost ruthless in his adamancy against the notion of private property, of private ownership.v We must not indulge ourselves with the delusion of private property, private ownership, because we are not owners of anything. We are “stewards.” To Benedict there is no ownership, there is only trusteeship: the responsible holding in trust of something only temporarily loaned to us for its good usage. And he reminds us that we remain accountable to Christ, the one and only master of all goods, and property, and possessions and talents. Perhaps, not surprisingly, one of the many titles which Benedict assigned to the abbot is “steward of the household,” with the hope that each monk would equally adopt this same attitude towards the material possessions that come into his life.vi
For Benedict, to “renounce all” is to be detached from material things. When we claim “ownership,” it is very difficult to tell whether we are clinging to things or the things clinging to us. And yet, with equal conviction, Benedict commends us to enjoy the things entrusted to us. To not value or enjoy the things which we hold in trust would be to deny the holiness of things and to lose sight of God’s amazing generosity.
Here’s several suggestions, drawing on Saint Benedict’s insights, which may be helpful in your own prayer and practice as a trustee of life:
- You might spend some time writing a litany of thanksgiving for the gifts of life entrusted to you: the blessings of your life, the miracle of your own history, the gift of important friendships and other relationships. Write a prayer of thanksgiving for those relationships that have been entrusted to you.
- You might want to take a tour through your home (or, for us brothers, through our cells) and intentionally acknowledge your stewardship of the material things to which you’ve been entrusted. That you belong to God, and these things belong to God, and that when God is ready to redistribute these things, at some predetermined time or at your death, you stand ready, not reluctant, but ready, by God’s grace, to give it up. This would be a “prayer of oblation,” offering it all back to God. To give it up.
- Benedict was quite keen on his monks giving away something old when something new was received – clothing, for example. It might be quite liberating for your prayer and practice – it might be spiritually cathartic – for you to give away some of what may be clogging your closet which (he would say) is probably also clogging your heart. It might even be a particular grace for you to give away some thing or some things which you particularly treasure to someone whom you treasure.
One last word about a rule of life. If you don’t live under a Rule, you might find it of interest to look at the Rule of Saint Benedict or, for that matter, the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist… and then write your own rule. And if so, be very modest for starters. Less is more. For starters you could use a phrase from, for example, the baptismal covenant, where we commit “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”vii So there’s some foundational principles for your rule. What’s the practice? What, specifically, would that look like? Or the foundational principles of your rule could simply be to take on Jesus’ words, “to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” There’s your principles. What’s the practice? What specifically would this kind of love look like in the course of the day? And then you could see how you’re measuring up, quite literally, to this rule of yours. Adjust the rule, adjust your life as God gives you inspiration, strength, and courage.
Some years ago I read a book based on Benedictine spirituality entitled, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics. The book title captures the wisdom and insight of St. Benedict , which continues today to speak ordinary people (including monks) in the most ordinary ways. Blessed Benedict, whom we remember today.
i The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (Cowley Publications).
ii Luke 14:33.
iii Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).
iv The Rule of Saint Benedict (31-10; 32.4-5; 46.1-4), e.g., “The cellarer will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.”
v The Rule of Saint Benedict (55.16, 17).
vi The Rule of Saint Benedict (64.21-2).
vii “The Baptismal Covenant” in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305.
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