I’m always on the lookout for people who reference the Rule of Saint Benedict for its timeless wisdom, but this one article in the online publication Zenit caught me by surprise. Judith Valente is a commentator for Chicago Public Radio, and as such she’s likely no stranger to current political discourse. Through the years she’s become a good friend to the Benedictine sisters at Mount Saint Scholastica in Atchison, KS, and from them she has imbibed of the teaching of Saint Benedict. From the Rule and its application by the sisters, she’s also learned of the importance of community-building and consensus; and quite naturally she’s mused on how these might be of benefit in other settings. These, she concludes, are precisely the ingredients that are missing in the most recent political tangle in Washington.
I’m always a little wary of people who expect the Rule to be the magic bullet that will solve any and all organizational problems. This time, however, I was all ears and willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. ”Listen,” she reminds us, is the first word of Benedict’s Rule. Then she goes on to list some polar opposites that distinguish your typical monastery from your typical Washington playpen.
As a command, “Listen” must sound pretty appealing to your average politician, or to any authoritarian, for that matter. After all, not a few have dedicated their careers to getting people to listen to them. But here’s where Benedict must be a huge disappointment, because he doesn’t start off by writing “Listen to ME!” Rather, he asks his monks to listen to the teaching of the master. And that teaching is not the product of one person. Rather, it’s the accumulated wisdom of a long chain of holy men and women who have sought God in the monastery. Theirs is a wisdom that leads to God, not to bluster or brinksmanship. Their way of life does not depend on devotion to a guru or to any political savior, because ultimately only Jesus is the savior. And it’s the abbot who both leads and serves the monks in that quest for the divine.
Valente outlines some of this in her recent book Atchison Blue, and because I’ve not yet read it, I hesitate to offer any critique that might be unwarranted. But ignorance hasn’t stopped me from making dogmatic statements before, so I will go ahead and take the plunge. And my quibble has to do with Valente’s implication that 1,400 years of endurance argues for the Rule’s basic validity. If that is part of her thesis, then I would take issue with one small point that in no way disqualifies her basic proposition.
It’s true that Benedictine life has thrived for fourteen centuries, more or less. But that is not to say that every Benedictine house has survived unscathed for that long. In fact, like all human organizations, monasteries have their own cycles of life. In 1,400 years, hundreds of monastic communities have come and gone, only to yield to new communities that sprout up and carry on the tradition.
The values that guide Benedictines are simple enough, and as often as not we try and give them our best shot. We at least attempt to put the good of the community above self-interest. Though we don’t always succeed, we also aspire to cultivate a humility that will keep egomania in check. And above all, we do listen, because it’s built into our very way of life.
I don’t want to give the impression that we sit around all day listening to lectures on piety, because monks can get pretty good at tuning out that sort of thing. That same skill allows most people to switch channels when they grow weary of listening to some self-important politico drone on and on. No, what we listen to, day in and day out, are the sounds of community. It’s a lifetime of listening to one another that creates the awareness of others that can lead to respect and even to love.
And what are those everyday sounds? For one, they are the footsteps of one another. Through the years I’ve come to identify the footfalls of many of my brothers, and many times I don’t even need to glance up to see who’s coming. They are the sounds of song and psalms that come from the monks on either side of me in church. They are the sounds of dishes and cutlery as we eat together in the refectory. It is the sound of small talk in the halls or during recreation.
These are the sounds of being present to one another, and these are the things to which we listen all day long. They may sound tedious, and they may appear to be inconsequential. And no one argues that they achieve miracles of mutual understanding and consensus. But they are the necessary preliminaries to those sorts of things. It’s in those simple sounds that we discover the presence of God in one another.
I’d like to say that this is the only step necessary to achieve consensus in the monastery, but in fact it’s only the start. But there’s no escaping this preliminary state, or else you end up going straight to the pointless appeal to which we are all tempted to resort: “Listen to me!” Monks and nuns in the Benedictine tradition at least part of the time try and listen to each other.
So the next time you get disgusted with the politicians, don’t encourage them to keep up the good fight and fight to the death. Instead, write and tell your Republican representative to go to dinner with a Democrat. Tell a Democrat to sit and chat about trivia with a Republican, and do it for a half an hour or so. And better still, tell them to sit quietly over coffee, and pause for long stretches of silence and listen to the sounds around them. It may not achieve miracles, and it usually doesn’t in the monastery either. But it goes a long way toward dispelling the crazy notion that you’re the only one that matters.
+I learned of Judith Valente and her book, Atchison Blue, through an article entitled Author Suggests Monastic Rule as Solution to Shutdown. It appeared in the online publication Zenit, and it can be found at http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/38388.
+On October 15th I attended a day-long meeting at the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta in Rome. The meeting gathered many of those who are involved in vocational discernment of those considering religious vows as Knights of Justice in the Order of Malta. As luck would have it, I arrived unfashionably early for the meeting, and I was invited to join the Grand Master and several guests for breakfast. Over breakfast he mentioned that he would make a brief appearance of no more than ten minutes at our meeting. However, this was a very interesting meeting, and after two hours he glanced at his watch in shock and rushed out. Needless to say, it was worth the trip.
+On October 19th I presided at the wedding of Matt and Kristina Melson, at the Church of Christ the King in Minneapolis. Matt is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, while Kristina is an alumna of Marquette. It was a delightful event.
+On October 20th my plan was to drive back to Saint John’s, attend the community Mass, and then take pictures of the fall colors for today’s post. I turned on the radio to get the weather, and the forecast was “not warm”. That is a tough one to translate from Minnesota dialect. ”Not warm” does not mean “not nice”, because 40 degrees in April is “not warm” but still very nice. What it meant on October 20th was “snow”. So the pictures in today’s post combine fall colors with the first snow of the season. Now I can move on to spring.