My acquaintance with St. Benedict began in seminary courses in which the contemplative monk was introduced in the context of Scripture. But Benedict seemed to keep popping up in my life. He showed up in pastoral theology courses, in contemplative reading, and, oddly enough, in clinical pastoral education (CPE). But reading about Benedict’s Rule of life was a completely different experience from living that Rule. In CPE, my supervisor, the Rev. Ruth Walsh, helped me to apprehend more deeply the practical theology that forms the basis of St. Benedict’s Rule. The experience in CPE of grounding our pastoral care work and learning in the Christian practices of prayer, study, fellowship, and rest whetted my appetite for more Benedictine spirituality. Furthermore, I was one of a handful of seminarians who actually enjoyed their CPE experience. Ruth Walsh’s supervisory leadership, modeled on the Rule of St. Benedict, provided an ethical approach to an oft-maligned part of the seminary curriculum. Why should learning about oneself in the context of providing pastoral care to the aging and dying be harsh and often painful? Rather than erecting defensive barriers, I found myself becoming more and more open to both the theoretical and practical learning, and to reflection with others on the experience. I told Ruth Walsh that I would like to learn more about the Rule of St. Benedict. She suggested that I participate in an immersion experience.
The Sound of Silence
Attending the Benedictine immersion served to deepen further my sense that this vein of spirituality was an opportunity waiting to happen. If a Benedictine model could be so effective in a CPE program, how might it work on a personal level? Could it be applied in a parish? Or in my own home? Those questions were in my mind as I made arrangements to attend the Benedictine Experience at Kanuga Conference Center, an Episcopal institution near Hendersonville, in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina.
Each day at Kanuga, we awoke to silence and maintained that silence throughout matins (a sung morning prayer service) and breakfast, and into our morning study. Our “abbot,” the Rev. O. C. Edwards, former dean and president of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, broke the silence with a reading and teaching on the Rule of St. Benedict. We were encouraged to ask questions and to share our own experiences of living the Rule. But the spirit of quiet contemplation and listening that had been shaped by the silence remained throughout the day. After study we shared Eucharist in the chapel, followed by lunch (during which the abbot read selections of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), work, rest, evening prayer, supper, and finally a community meeting. At this, the day’s final gathering, we read compline (a prayer service for the end of day), and then went to bed.
The beauty of a weeklong program like the one in which I participated is that one is living and breathing the Rule of St. Benedict “24/7.” One doesn’t cease practicing it—compartmentalize it—when it’s time to go home. Rather, the balance and flow of the day become palpable and clear. Instead of trying to manage time and overcome the limits of daylight and our own energy, we are taught by Benedictine spirituality to work within the framework of expectation that time is a gift, and that available daylight and human energy are limited. Benedictine spirituality respects the created order and finds a way to “fall in line” with that order. For the Benedictine, the day is ordered and balanced. Through living this way, even for a week, I learned that much of my anxiety and stress comes from living my daily life and practicing my faith in a disordered way. On reaching that conclusion, I resolved to be open to ways in which God might use my experience of Benedictine spirituality to lead and teach others about the hope that this ancient Christian practice offers the church today. Then the time for my summer internship arrived.
St. Benedict in the Parish
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia requires its seminarians to participate in an eight-week full-time parish internship during the summer between the middler and senior years. Before I began my internship, I spent some time meeting with the Rev. Rob Merola, rector of St. Matthew’s Church in Sterling, Virginia, learning about the parish and its vision and needs. Father Merola had briefed me on the parish’s ability to welcome new people and on members’ openness to positive change. He also gave me free rein in choosing and designing my internship project. He simply encouraged me to work from my strengths and to find a way to involve some parishioners in whatever I did. The idea was to match the church’s needs (building and grounds upkeep, involvement of new members in the life of the church, a summer adult faith-formation program) with my own areas of strength and interest (teaching, discerning gifts, gardening, encouraging others). I began to discern how a Benedictine program might work in a parish setting.
I decided to go for leading a series of mini-retreats. I produced informational flyers to send to parishioners in advance. The next step was to set dates, times, and study topics, and to get a list of potential work projects from parish leadership. I designed a children’s activity/study program to run concurrently with the day’s adult study portion. And I prayed. I prayed that God would guide me in my leadership of this program, would lead people to participate, and would take us deeper into community and the practices of our faith so that together we might put down deeper roots of love for God and one another. Even with all this prayerful preparation, I knew that I faced some challenges. I suspected that planning to hold the series of mini-retreats in midweek would severely limit the number of parishioners who could attend. I also realized that summer is not a traditional time to launch a new program. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure how appealing a “monastic-oriented” faith-formation program would seem to an evangelical parish in the hectic suburbs of Washington, D.C. My suspicions were confirmed. But at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised by outcomes I hadn’t expected.
An Emerging Vision
The retreat participants and I met on Tuesdays and Thursdays in July from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Our time was structured as a compact version of the Benedictine day. We began with worship, followed by a brief teaching of the Rule, then work, table fellowship (a brown-bag lunch), and study. Each time we met, we had a small but earnest group of five or six participants. Their ages ranged from 7 to 70. We attempted to work in silence but often found silence difficult to maintain when children or a newcomer would join our group. I introduced the Benedictine theology of work, prayer, humility, conversion of life, stability, and obedience to the group, as well as the practice of lectio divina. (Lectio divina is a four-stage process of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating on a single passage of Holy Scripture.) Each time we met we would reflect on what we had learned so far and consider ways that our learning might carry over into our parish and home life. After the first couple of retreats we had parish volunteers join us for portions of our day. The couple who came in to fold the bulletins, the recent widow who volunteered in the church office, and the mothers of young children preparing for the vacation Bible school—all joined us for the worship and teaching. As we went off to do our gardening, they would begin their own work. Sometimes they would join us for lunch and fellowship. As the volunteers became involved, a vision emerged of how this practice of spirituality might function in a parish setting. I saw how basic the Benedictine spirituality could be to parish life, providing a theological structure for the congregation’s many practices and programs.
Gains for Participants
The other payoff that surprised me was the participants’ experience of deep theological learning. Anne confessed that she had only recently returned to the church after decades away from it. For her, she said, the Benedictine practices had the components of real life—“the flow of the day and most especially the work and the fellowship parts.” Anne learned that God could be present to her in her daily life as well as in corporate worship.
Judy, a practicing evangelical Christian for most of her life, was glad to have found a new way of thinking about time and the flow and balance of the day. Her desire for quiet, contemplative time was fulfilled, and she was challenged in the way she thought about her relationships with other people.
“This Benedictine spirituality was one of the most important and different approaches to the spiritual life that I have experienced,” Judy said. “There was a real sense of God’s peace, and I felt more a part of the greater whole in terms of my daily direction with the Lord.” Judy also found some of her closely held theological positions transformed. She explained that learning about the balance of the Benedic-tine vows of stability, conversion of life, and obedience helped her to see change in a more positive light. “At the same time it felt both comfortable and inspiring,” Judy observed.
Althea, a deeply committed Christian who has a great love for Holy Scripture and prayer, acknowledged moving to a whole new level of faith. She had learned that her deeply held convictions about how she used Scripture in her life needed to be held lightly. Althea said that through our Benedictine “experiment,” God had worked on her to broaden her understandings about God and about other people. “Benedict took me closer to the living side of the Word. For me what we did was real life. It had all the basic components of the day—it was all of a piece.”
Since then, Althea has told me that Benedictine spirituality has taken an important place in her life. It is providing a new way for her to be with her family and to wonder at God at work in the world. She has been teaching her husband, children, and grandchildren what she has learned—introducing, she declared, a new level of peace into their lives. Althea added, “Benedictine spirituality is a form of discipline that really has its life in both doing and being. It’s as simple or as complex as you make it.” In other words, it can work for anyone at any point on the faith journey.
Learning How to Be a Christian
From our relatively brief experiment I have become convinced that Benedictine spirituality can open up wonderful ways of “doing theology” in a parish setting. Robert K. Martin of the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, writing about Christian formation, said, “As people participate in the forms of Christian life, they are engaged pedagogically; that is, they learn how to be a Christian by participating communally in Christian practices.”1 The Rule of St. Benedict offers both a format and a theology for praxis (action and reflection) in the Christian life that is eminently “doable” in a parish setting.
However, Martin says also that it is the “primary responsibility of church leadership [to] cultivate”2 the various dimensions of ecclesial life. And therein lies the Benedictine rub. The abbot plays a key role in the life of Benedictine spirituality. While one may feel a sense of discomfort at hearing that the leadership is “superior,” the fact of the matter is that the leadership must be in place. The abbot is a distinct and necessary figure. And with that role vacant, the people at St. Matthew’s who participated in the mini-retreats are struggling with how to continue.
For me, this experience resulted in many promises, challenges, and possibilities. The promises come in the integrity of the practices with daily life and learning for both the participants and the leader. The challenges are embodied in the way the Benedictine Rule goes against the flow of our modern society and lifestyle. Following the Rule requires a high level of continuing commitment on the part of both leader and participants. But the possibilities are the most compelling—strong and deeply held theological connections forged between the participants; transformation in the way they relate to God and each other, both communally and personally; and how simply the Rule of St. Benedict can become the Rule of parish life. Nothing needs to be added. Simply put, Benedictine spirituality, because it is grounded in worship and reflects the flow of daily life, can become the theological framework and connecting force for all the otherwise disjointed activities of congregational life.
1. Robert K. Martin, “Education and the Liturgical Life of the Church,” Religious Education, Vol. 98, No.1 (Winter 2003): 46.
2. Ibid., 47.