Among my favorite memories are the trips my mother and I used to take to Weston, Vermont. We went numerous times over the span of at least a dozen years in order to visit the Weston Priory, the home of some Benedictine monks. There were many reasons why we loved to go on our ‘famous road trips’ to Vermont, but the main reason was that we loved to pray with the brothers who invite people to come pray the Liturgy of the Hours with them at various times of the day; the grounds are lovely and the monks are known for the beauty of the music they write, setting the chants to original melodies. We would arise at 4:30 AM, quickly get dressed, jump in the car, and drive in the pre-dawn darkness in order to get to the Franklin Room where the monks would gather at 5:30 AM to begin the day with prayer. We would sit on cushions on the floor in the semi-darkness, candles illuminating the room softly, praying with the brothers as the sun rose over the Green Mountains, observable through the large bay window at one end of the room. It was very peaceful and serene.
The Benedictines are known for their wonderful sense of hospitality. Somewhere just inside the door, or on the very lintel of the doorway, of every Benedictine guest house or monastery is a sign that says, "When a guest enters, Christ enters." Hospitality is a central characteristic of the Benedictine order. If one is a guest for many days or is simply visiting for a few hours, one is treated with the utmost of kindness, cheerfulness, and graciousness. Therefore when we would go to the Weston Priory simply to visit for an afternoon or to pray one of the Hours, we were always greeted with warmth. Sometimes it was just a smile or a gesture, other times it would be a brother coming over to say a word or two, but we always had a sense that we belonged in their home.
The Benedictines were founded by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543) whose feast is celebrated on July 11. Ironically, the last thing he wanted to do when he began pursuing growth in the spiritual life was to found a community. He began his journey of growth in sanctity and prayer as a solitary, dwelling in a cave. It seems almost funny to think that this man, for whom hospitality became one of the most important characteristics of his order's Rule, did not want anything to do with living in community at first. He withdrew from the world when he was about 19 years old, dwelling in a cave on Mt. Subiaco so that he could pray alone, such as the desert fathers and mothers had done before him in the Middle East. He became known for wisdom and holiness and eventually he was approached by some like-minded men to be their leader (abbot) in a community. He refused many times, desiring solitude. Finally the men convinced Benedict to go with them. But they found his Rule more disciplined than they liked so they tried to poison him as a way to get rid of him. It seems that the Holy Spirit helped him to know something was amiss when they gave him his jug of wine. He blessed the jug and it fell to the floor, shattering, thus saving him from drinking the poison in it.
Benedict returned to the mountain cave at Subiaco, only to have difficulty with another monk who lived nearby. He left Subiaco and eventually settled at Monte Cassino where he founded a community which effectively began the western monastic movement. It is said that in the surrounding area St. Benedict also founded twelve communities each with twelve men, but the monastery at Monte Cassino became his home and was where he wrote his Rule for Monks. The Rule was designed to give a sense of stability and order to the lives of the monks. He placed much value on balance and had not much toleration for overly rigorous fasts or ascetic practices. The daily life of a monk consisted of an equal amount of time in prayer, (communally and privately), for work, and for rest. Every day’s work was punctuated by times of prayer, but the routine was to enable the monk to find God in each of his brothers and in the work he was doing as well as in the choir stall. Work was considered as much a way of praying as was time on one's knees.
The Rule is very practical and filled with the wisdom of St. Benedict who had learned much in his own path to sanctity. It is about moderation, simplicity, obedience, and humility, as well as prayer, work, study, and community life. All the monks refer to each other as 'brother,' though there are priests among them, and the abbot is the leader to whom they owe their obedience. The abbot is to guide them with wisdom, being a model of the Rule. An abbot generally leads for life after he is elected by the monks.
St. Benedict guided his monks in how to pray, advocating the use of Scripture prayed in small passages at a time, so that the monks could truly digest God's word. The goal of such prayer was always God, not special gifts or phenomenon. The life of a monk was (and still is) meant to be a means to prayer for the outside world, not an escape from it. Though they do take a vow of stability, which means they will stay in their community for life, they are very much attuned to the world outside the walls of the enclosure. Their prayer is not simply for their own private road to Heaven, but it is a way of praying for the needs of the world beyond their walls. One could say that their hospitality is not just for one entering their homes, but it is hospitality of heart which they strive for.
While the rule is truly a work of wisdom, even St. Benedict had to struggle with it. It is said that he and his twin sister, Scholastica, (a saint in her own right), had one visit every year. She had become the abbess of a community of women living the Benedictine Rule and had also founded many other monasteries for women. On one occasion while he was visiting her monastery, they had long discussions that went on into the evening. As night began to fall, he told her he had to leave because he could not spend the night outside his monastery. She begged him to stay, but he refused to bend the rules for his own sister. So she prayed to God to intervene and a storm blew up that was so severe, he was unable to leave and had to stay the night. Benedict left the next morning, but three days later she died. It had been their last visit.
Often 'the rules' can be difficult to keep. But there are times when we have to let common sense prevail. Benedict was a great saint, but he did not cease to be human. Therefore we can learn a lot from him. We learn that the path to holiness is arduous: we have to work at it, and we will have our ups and downs on the journey. We learn that balance and moderation are very important. We learn that all of life is spiritual: it is not something we compartmentalize. Though the monks had an order to their day, the idea was to allow work to become as prayer and prayer as part of one's work. That is, there should be a seamless flow to all we do so that prayer is a part of everything. This means that we allow ourselves to see Christ in each person with whom we come in contact. The love and generosity with which we welcome the other flows from our prayer and is an act of prayer. It becomes a way of seeing Christ all around us, including within ourselves. All becomes sacred and this realization leads us to gratitude.
St. Benedict's way is one of many different spiritual paths to God; many people are attracted to it, even lay people. The Rule of St. Benedict is a best seller in the realm of spiritual books and can be found quite easily. At the heart of it is that no matter what we do, all must be directed toward God, not just to be of service to Him, but in order to know Him and His love for us. For Benedict it was important to become like the One he loved so as to help build the Kingdom through prayer and service. It was not an escape from the world, but rather an immersion in the world through prayer and reflection. To dedicate one’s life to prayer and glorifying God is, in fact, the spiritual journey of a disciple of Christ. Therefore we can let St. Benedict teach us how to be more aware of Christ’s presence through prayer and the discipline of learning to recognize Him in one another, welcoming Him with great hospitality.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Benedict that we may learn to see each person as the presence of Christ! May we ask for the gifts of generosity and hospitality so that we may be welcoming to all! May we imitate the Benedictine way by learning to grow in prayer and service! May we seek to have balance and moderation in all we do! And may we open our heart as a home in which Christ may be most welcomed, just as he welcomes us into His heart! Let us continue to meet in our home, the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
"Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ..."
"...let all kindness be shown them." -Rule of Saint Benedict
©Michele L. Catanese
For more on St. Benedict you can go to http://www.osb.org/gen/benedict.html and for more on St. Scholastica you can go to http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=240
The photo is of Weston Priory and appears on their webpage, www.westonpriory.org
The image of St. Benedict is by Fra Angelico and is in the public domain. The second painting is of St. Scholastica at prayer with St. Benedict and is part of an altarpiece by Lorenzo Monaco and is found in the National Gallery of London.
Heart Speaks to Heart