St. Benedict of Nursia: Meeting God in the stillness

  


The central theme of our times seems to be thinking, talking, writing, traveling and praying… fast, rapidly and quickly, and not giving much thought to what we are doing. Everything we do is on deadline; messages are all marked “urgent” when they really are not earth shattering, and we proceed at breakneck speed with just about everything we are doing.

And all of this frenetic activity produces impatience, frustration, anger and emptiness. We think we are really connected to others with all of our lightning speed toys but in fact, we grow very distant from one another and from God. Rather than being peaceful, we pretend to be important and end up being arrogant, not paying attention to the very person in front of us. We have lost the art of being attentive to others in the name of technology!

Today’s saint, Benedict of Nursia, knew all about our modern-day ailments and realized that they could have power over us and separate us from one another and God. He made sure that such power would not rule his life. In the fifth century, the young Benedict was sent to Rome to finish his education with a nurse/housekeeper. The young man Benedict had many friends and he realized that they had everything — education, wealth, youth — and they spent all of it in the pursuit of pleasure not truth. Benedict watched in horror as vice completely undid the lives and ethics of his friends.

Afraid for his soul, Benedict fled Rome, gave up his inheritance, and lived in a small village. When God called him beyond this quiet life to even deeper solitude, he went to the mountains of Subiaco. There he lived as a hermit under the direction of another hermit, Romanus. After years of prayer, word of his holiness brought nearby monks to ask for his leadership. He warned them he would be too strict for them, but they insisted — then tried to poison him when his warning proved true.

So Benedict was on his own again — but not for long. The next set of followers were more sincere and he set up twelve monasteries in Subiaco where monks lived in separate communities of twelve. He left these monasteries abruptly when the envious attacks of another hermit made it impossible to continue the spiritual leadership he had taken.

But it was in Monte Cassino that Benedict founded the monastery that became the roots of the Church’s monastic system. Instead of founding small separate communities he gathered his disciples into one whole community. His own sister, Saint Scholastica , settled nearby to live a religious life.

After almost 1500 years of monastic tradition his direction seems obvious to us. But Benedict was an innovator. No one had ever set up communities like his before or directed them with a rule. What is part of history to us now was a bold risky step into the future.

Benedict’s beliefs and instructions on religious life were collected in what is now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict — still directing religious life after 15 centuries.

In this tiny but powerful Rule, Benedict put what he had learned about the power of speaking and oratorical rhythms at the service of the Gospel. He did not drop out of school because he didn’t understand the subject! Scholars have told us that his Rule reflects an understanding of and skill with the rhetorical rules of the time. Despite his experience at school, he understood rhetoric was as much a tool as a hammer was. A hammer could be used to build a house or hit someone over the head. Rhetoric could be used to promote vice … or promote God. Benedict did not shun rhetoric because it had been used to seduce people to vice; he reformed it, transformed it and made it understandable to his contemporaries and to us.

Benedict realized the strongest and truest foundation for the power of words was the Word of God itself: “For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life?” He had experienced the power of God’s word as expressed in Scripture: “For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

For prayer, Benedict turned to the psalms, the very songs and poems from the Jewish liturgy that Jesus himself had prayed. To join our voices with Jesus in praise of God during the day was so important that Benedict called it the “Work of God.” And nothing was to be put before the work of God. Benedict believed with Jesus that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’ ” (Matthew 4:4).

“We believe that God is everywhere,” but “without doubt, we believe this is so especially when assisting in the Divine Office,” wrote Benedict. The Church still believes Benedict’s and considers the Divine Office the prayer of the Church.

Benedict instructed his followers to practice sacred reading — the study of the very Scriptures they would be praying in the Work of God. In this lectio divina, he and his monks memorized the Scripture, studied it, and contemplated it until it became part of their being. This sacred reading, however, was a study in love, not intellect. Not just an exercise of the mind, it was an exercise of contemplation so that “our voices and hearts harmonize.” Each word of God would soak into their minds, their hearts, their very souls, so that the prayers would spring up from the depths of their being, not just from their memory. “We realize that we will be heard for our pure and sorrowful hearts, not for the numbers of our spoken words.” A heart was pure when it was empty of all but God’s Word and our desire to remain in God’s Word.

In Benedictine prayer, our hearts are the vessel empty of thoughts and intellectual striving. All that remains is the trust in God’s providence to fill us. Emptying ourselves this way brings God’s abundant goodness bubbling up in our hearts, first with an inspiration or two, and finally overflowing our heart with contemplative love.

Benedict died in 547 while standing in prayer before God.

This morning I celebrated mass at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, giving thanks to God for the great Benedictine influence on my own life- growing up in the shadow of Mt. Savior Monastery in the southern part of the Diocese of Rochester; making many retreats in Europe at the great Benedictine Monasteries of Maria Laach in Germany, Engelburg in Switzerland; the Abbey of Solesmes in France; and of course at Subiaco and Monte Cassino in Italy.

During my study years in the Holy Land, I was a frequent pilgrim and visitor to the Benedictine community at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee and at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem. I became a great admirer of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville and their significant contribution to liturgical and biblical scholarship. I have learned from the Benedictine tradition the meaning of “Ora et Labora” – about the great importance of balance, normalcy, integration and humanity in all of our efforts to evangelize, teach and pray.

Over the past years, particularly in Canada, I have discovered and grown to love the two great Benedictine communities that serve as the pillars of our country: Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC, and St-Benoit du Lac in Magog, Quebec.

So today, let us give thanks to God for Benedict and Scholastica, the brother-sister duo who transformed the Church and taught us about real communication with God and with others. Let us pray with gratitude for the Monks of Westminster Abbey who are now forever linked to our television network through “This Side of Eden;” for the monks of St-Benoit du Lac who have been very kind to us, and for the monks of Collegeville who believe in our work.

Today we should also remember Pope Benedict, who, like Benedict of Nursia, has the unity of the Church and the unity of Europe at the core of his Petrine ministry.

The Litany of St. Benedict

Lord, have mercy on us, Christ, have mercy on us.
God the Father of Heaven, Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, Have mercy on us.
God, the Holy Spirit, Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God, Have mercy on us.
Holy Mary, Pray for us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us.
Holy Virgin of virgins, Pray for us.
Holy Father, Saint Benedict, Pray for us.
Father most reverend, Pray for us.
Father most renowned, Pray for us.
Father most compassionate, Pray for us.
Man of great fortitude, Pray for us.
Man of venerable life, Pray for us.
Man of the most holy conversation, Pray for us.
True servant of God, Pray for us.
Light of devotion, Pray for us.
Light of prayer, Pray for us.
Light of contemplation, Pray for us.
Star of the world, Pray for us.
Best master of an austere life, Pray for us.
Leader of the holy warfare, Pray for us.
Leader and chief of monks, Pray for us.
Master of those who die to the world, Pray for us.
Protector of those who cry to thee, Pray for us.
Wonderful worker of miracles, Pray for us.
Revealer of the secrets of the human heart, Pray for us.
Master of spiritual discipline, Pray for us.
Companion of the patriarchs, Pray for us.
Equal of the prophets, Pray for us.
Follower of the Apostles, Pray for us.
Teacher of Martyrs, Pray for us.
Father of many pontiffs, Pray for us.
Gem of abbots, Pray for us.
Glory of Confessors, Pray for us.
Imitator of anchorites, Pray for us.
Associate of virgins, Pray for us.
Colleague of all the Saints, Pray for us.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, Graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, Have mercy on us.

V. Intercede for us, O holy father Saint Benedict, R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray:

O God, who made the Abbot Saint Benedict an outstanding master in the school of divine service, grant, we pray, that, putting nothing before love of you, we may hasten with a loving heart in the way of your commands.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.