This coming Friday is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, whose name may be familiar to you from Benedictine monks and nuns, or perhaps from the current pope. Perhaps Benedict’s greatest accomplishment was the writing of his Rule for life together as religious. The Rule of St. Benedict has 73 chapters, but despite this seemingly large number, can be legibly printed as a pocket-sized paperback. Benedict’s Rule is very important in how it gives guidelines for a large number of people all living together, from the smallest details of their life – like how to handle and show respect for their tools – to their primary focus on ora et labora, work and prayer. The Rule is about balance, about learning what is real and good and lasting and giving those things preference over the things that are fleeting and false and wrong.
Benedict laid out in his Rule the times of prayer, to occur about every three hours throughout the day and night. When the bell would ring for prayer, each member of the community would immediately stop whatever he or she was doing, and hasten to the chapel for prayer. It did not matter if you were in the middle of rolling out bread dough or milking a cow or hearing someone’s confession; when the bell rings for prayers, you go. These days, most orders do not pray all of these offices (or hours), but generally gather four times each day for prayer. The Book of Common Prayer lays out Morning Prayer, Noontime Prayer, Evening Prayer (also called Vespers or if sung, Evensong), and Compline, and observing these offices can give a certain rhythm and flow to the day, even if you don’t pray all of them in their entirety. And there is definitely something good about letting prayer flow through our days and give them structure. My organizational behavior professor a couple years ago began our semester by observing that there is only one resource that even the best manager in the entire world cannot get more of somehow: time. A manager can seek venture capital to raise cash, can hire more people, can buy more equipment, but nobody can ever get more time than we already have. And thus, I have come to think that there is one sacrifice that must please God more than any other that we make: our time, our attention. We can’t ever get more time, so when we choose to spend our precious time with God, attending to God, praying to God, thanking God, offering ourselves to God – I think this pleases God tremendously.
This morning, I got up to feed the beasties, had a telephone call with my beloved, and then was sleepy so I lay back down to rest some more. My kitty Midnight, who very rarely sleeps on my bed at night, watched from her window seat as I got back under the covers, and then leapt up on the bed and curled her warm little body right against the small of my back. She fell almost instantly asleep, and I could feel her purring against my back almost more than I could hear it. And I thought, this kitty had a comfortable seat in the window, enjoying the sunlight. She didn’t have to move, but she wanted to. She gave to me the gift of her time and attention, and this gave me great delight. And I thought, how much more must it give God delight when we attend to God, we who fill our time with work and hobbies and eating and sleeping and so many other things?
Benedict also practiced and instructed his followers in radical hospitality. Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, begins Chapter 53, and Benedict lays out guidelines for how to do this. In his rule, Benedict reminds us that no matter where or how we live, even if we live as eremites, we are not alone. Guests will still come to us, and we are called to treat them with love and generosity, as Jesus calls us to. And Benedict doesn’t say anything about making sure that a guest is a Christian or even a believer; he doesn’t instruct his followers to be sure that their guests hold to orthodox beliefs or to make sure that each guest is heterosexual, chaste within marriage, or celibate if unmarried. Benedict doesn’t say that a**holes should be treated any differently than pleasant, polite guests. Every single guest to the monastery is to be received like Christ.
This is powerful stuff. I’ll admit, it can be really hard for me to receive everyone who importunes on my time… like Christ. And this means that there are times when it can be really hard for me to perceive Christ in the people around me. I’ll bet that I’m not the only one who struggles with this, but it is part of our calling to love our neighbor. Of course, receiving every guest like Christ can be less difficult when we practice a virtue to which Benedict dedicates the longest chapter of his Rule: humility. True humility, according to Benedict, begins with remembering God’s power and majesty and glory compared with our own brokenness, remembering that God is always watching over us, and practicing self-denial to become accustomed to giving our obedience to God. The next step is to place oneself under obedience to the Abbot of the monastery, which may not be applicable to most 21st century Americans, but it does have parallels, and they are worth reflecting on. (Side note: when applying to business school a few years ago to work on my MBA, I actually wrote one essay on the Benedictine vows of stability and obedience, and how I live them out in my professional life. I was sure this would get me rejected, but it didn’t!) The steps on Benedict’s ladder of humility continue until one reaches true humility of heart, which Benedict tells us gives that perfect love of God which casts out fear. So even though his ladder of humility begins by fearing God – since fear is a very primal, very natural, very animal sensation – it ends with perfect love that casts out fear. This love is very natural, but we must work to find it, because it does not come easily.
The Work of God, the hours of prayer throughout the day, is designed so that the community will pray all 150 psalms every week. Just as the psalms are the prayerbook at the heart of the bible, so they are the prayerbook at the heart of the monastery. Ever emotion we are capable of feeling is documented in the psalms – joy, fear, sorrow, anger, frustration, rage, happiness, gratitude, praise, adoration – and those who live in a Benedictine community encounter and experience all of these emotions every week through speaking, singing, chanting – praying the psalms. The very first word of Psalm 1 is Happy. And Benedictines are usually happy people, having climbed the ladder of humility and found that perfect love that casts out fear. Thus, the final word of Psalm 150 is Hallelujah! Every other emotion falls between those two words, but the psalms – the prayerbook of the bible, the prayerbook of Benedictines – begin with Happy and end with Hallelujah!
The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the word Listen. I try to place listening between Happy and Hallelujah. It is easy enough to fail to listen when we are happy. After all, we don’t want to face bad news, because somehow the fall is so much worse when we fall from joy than when we fall from a so-so mood. It is equally easy to fail to listen when we are experiencing one of those less pleasant emotions; we get so wound up in trying to solve the problems at hand that we just don’t pause to hear God’s voice with the ear of our heart. But Listen carefully my child, … and incline the ear of your heart, reminds us that from Happy to Hallelujah, there is work for us to do, and God is there to help us through, if we remember to pay attention.
So my prayer for you this Friday, my friend, is that you will incline the ear of your heart to hear God’s whispers to you there. I pray that you will be able to walk the road from Happy to Hallelujah this week without having to touch too deeply on the harder parts in between. I pray that you will find yourself received like Christ, and perhaps that you will find the grace within yourself to receive someone else like Christ, perhaps someone you might not even like very much. I pray that you will find time to sacrifice to God this week, and that you will find as much delight in this sacrifice as God does. And may you come to find the perfect love that casts out all fear in your own striving toward true humility.
As the collect for the Feast of St. Benedict says,
Almighty and everlasting God,
your precepts are the wisdom of a loving Father:
Give us grace, following the teaching and example of your servant Benedict,
to walk with loving and willing hearts in the school of the Lord’s service;
let your ears be open to our prayers;
and prosper with your blessing the work of our hands;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.