Saint Benedict – July 11 – Solitude and Community
Benedict of Nursia is called the founder of Western Monasticism. He was born at Nursia around 480 AD to a noble family. According to tradition, his had a twin sister, Scholastica, who became the founder of a similar form of monasticism for women. As the son of a noble family, he was educated well and lived a comfortable life. The world and all its opportunities were open to him. Presumably he sampled some of its treats as a young man.
Around 500 AD, he decided to leave Rome for a quieter life in the country. He took his childhood nurse along as a servant and moved to a smaller town about 40 miles away. According to St. Gregory, who wrote the first biography of Benedict, his intention was to live a life more in tune with the Gospel than that of a typical young noble in Rome. He didn’t plan to become a hermit or to organize groups of men to live in religious communities or to develop a “Rule” for monastic orders. He simply wanted to have time for prayer and work and a life with a friends who shared the goal of living a Gospel centered life.
From a distance of hundreds of years, we see choices like the one he made as signs of holiness. Up close in our own lives, we often see them as somehow irresponsible or “crazy” – a judgement generally shared by the families of those, including Benedict, who made those choices in the past.
It’s easy to forget/overlook the fact that Benedict never set out to start a religious community. The rules he eventually developed and wrote down were ones that developed out of his experiences in living with other men and by himself. They were developed for lay people. Only later did his followers become priests.
So what were these rules about? They were about how to live a holy life in the world, as a person sharing life with other people. They were written not just for those who left family and jobs to live a life of prayer, but for anyone seeking holiness. They assumed that people would work. That a life of prayer without work is not healthy. And both work and prayer need to be undertaken with the support of other people in a community. We need friends and family to keep us going and to challenge us to continue when it would be easy to cut corners or take the easy way out of a tough situation. And – surprise – there must be time for fun and play in life!
For Benedict, balance was important. Work, prayer, play — all within the framework of a community/family.
There is a saying from Buddhist tradition, “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Benedict’s example and the rule he developed are very much in alignment with this wisdom. Prayer includes deep awareness of the presence of God in all things. So as we work, we pray if we are “present” in what we are doing and aware of God’s presence in it. When we come together in community to pray, as monks do at regular times in the day and night, or as families do over meals or at bedtime, we pray most deeply when we are again “present” in the moment of prayer. When we have time by ourselves for personal, quiet prayer, and we find ourselves in the presence of God, we are to stay rooted in that experience too. The trick is to stay aware and present to the reality of what we are doing. “Chop wood, carry water.” And when we play, we are to play wholeheartedly as well – like happy children. Not worrying about how we look or who will win or what else we should be doing that would be “holier.”
Benedict’s life was not easy. The lessons he learned came through many twists and turns. He spent time living alone and time living in communities. He started some communities. Lived within others. Was rejected by some. One community even tried to poison him! But through it all he kept his eyes and ears open to God’s presence and call. And the witness of his life drew other people, men and women, who passed on what he learned down through the generations to us. How to find holiness in the balance of a life of work, prayer and play as individuals and as members of families and communities.