All Things in Moderation
There are moments when Saint Benedict and Benjamin Franklin sound like they went to the same school of folk wisdom. Franklin for his part touted the virtues of “a penny saved is a penny earned”; and “early to bed and early to rise makes a person healthy, wealthy and wise.” Benedict is a kindred spirit with his dictum that “all things are to be done with moderation” (c. 48). And though Benedict and Benjamin may have had different goals in mind, each espoused self-retraint as a key ingredient for a considered life.
For Benedict moderation is a pervasive value. From the pont of view of consumption, it entails simplicity and even a bit of frugality. From the point of view of life-style, it involves a balance of work and prayer and leisure. And in the context of a philosophy of life, it touts the primacy of human life over anything that might enslave it.
I’ve always been fond of the Shaker hymn whose opening line reads “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.” If today Saint Benedict were to compile a hymnal for monks, this one certainly would make the list, because it captures the essence of what life is all about. Lots of things scream for our attention, but nothing is so important as the gift of life itself. Nothing supercedes the love of God and neighbor as a priority, or so Saint Benedict would have his monks believe.
We should never assume that Benedict’s stance on moderation was an inevitable outcome in the evolution of Christian spirituality. There were ascetics both before and after him who demonstrated heroic virtue and unhuman self-denial. Not a few practiced a competitive regimen that bordered on eccentricity. That’s where Benedict drew his line in the sand, because for him nuttiness had nothing to do with holiness. A balanced and healthy life was his primary concern, because he believed that the real spiritual contest went on in one’s mind. It was there that the forces gathered to do battle for the soul.
Benedict can sound positively middle-class when he prescribes enough sleep, enough food, enough prayer, decent clothing, and so on. No doubt there are some in the spiritual tradition who find him dangerously radical when he writes of the dangers of too much time in church. How could that possibly be? How could anyone spend too much time in church? How could anyone go too far in sacrificing creature comforts for the sake of God? Well, Benedict can count up the ways for you, if you’re willng to sit down and listen.
All this has to do with the value we place on our own behavior. If a monk thinks he’s better just because he fasts more, or sleeps less, or works harder, then Benedict has news for him. None of these things makes you a better monk, and in fact they can lead in the opposite direction. For Benedict the essence of monastic life is neither extreme self-deprivation nor spiritual competition. These only lead to pride — the pride that lulls you into thinking you are not like the rest of people — thank God!
Let me be upfront and say that fierce asceticism has never been one of my strong points. Frankly, it has zero attraction to me, and I suspect that the same is true for most of us. Instead, our temptations mirror the times. Any of a host of 21st-century allures can compromise our sense of moderation, and each can disrupt our lives entirely. We can find our meaning in money and positions of authority, in possessions of all sorts, in our ability to influence or manipulate other people, in our prowess at video games or the cell phone. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the huge range of addictions that are out there.
What all of these have in common is their capacity to distort or even destroy our lives. All of them place supreme value on themselves, and commitment to them comes at a very heavy price. Sooner or later we discover that they are all bankrupt and bereft of real meaning. Meanwhile, we have become enslaved to them.
When Benedict urges moderation, he does so to remind us that each activity in our lives has a noble purpose. But the the ultimate purpose is not to be found in eating and sleeping and working. The ultimate purpose is to see God, face to face, in our lives. That may be hard to do in the 21st century, or so we might believe. But if we know where to look, we begin to see God all over the place.
Ours is not an age of moderation. But if we can strive for some touch of balance, we’ve begun to live the considered ilfe. It just may be worth the trouble to live simply, because true freedom in God will be ours.
The Abbey Wordworking Shop
When the first monks came to Saint John’s in 1856, they had two resources available in spades: rocks and trees. The rocks, of course, were a bit of a mixed blessing, because where they were — in the fields — was not where they needed to be. But through the decades the farmland has yielded a hard-won crop of rocks large and small; and today we can see those stones in the walls and buildings at Saint John’s.
The trees presented a different opportunity, and the first monks were conscious of the long-term nurture that our forests could give to our life. In the early years the woods provided fuel to survive the winters. Even today they provide food in the form of maple syrup, as well as nuts and seeds to the squirrels. But the most lasting dividend has been a never-ending supply of wood for building.
For 150+ years the carpenter shop has been a fixture of life at Saint John’s. Through the decades the woodworkers have supplied furniture for the Abbey church, and for the common rooms of the monastery; as well as desks and beds and wardrobes for the monastery and school buildings. They’ve also crafted some extraordinary masterpieces of design, including the cabinets that house the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.
This summer seven individuals work in the shop, and their numbers include three monks and two student-workers. Also in that cohort is Michael Roske, the sixth generation of his family to live as our neighbors. His son, the seventh generation, attends Saint John’s.
Between the acorn and the finished table is a long process involving many hands. First of all, trees are harvested from the woods and then shipped to the Amish saw mill in Long Prairie, MN. From there the rough boards return and are stacked for two or three years of curing in the open air. Then they’re carted off to the indoor lumber storage, where they await selection to become chairs or floors or tables.
Through the years the shop has turned out some lovely one-of-a-kind pieces, as well as the flooring for the Abbey guesthouse. Currently the staff is making beds and wardrobes for the newly-renovated formation floor in the monastery, and they are gearing up for an order of three hundred desks and bookshelves for a University residence.
If there’s one Benedictine value that permeates the Abbey woodworking shop, it’s durability. They don’t do veneer, and so everything is built with solid boards and built to last — and last. And big pieces, like the tables in the refectory, are heavy. Very heavy. But they endure, and we’re confident much of ths work will continue to serve the community long after we’ve begun the next stage of life’s journey.