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Listening an instrument of peace

By Paul Paproski, OSB


MUENSTER, Sask. — Benedictine spirituality has much to offer the world through its teaching of “listening,” Abbot Lawrence Stasyszen, OSB, explained to a gathering May 5 at St. Peter’s Abbey. The first word of the Rule of St. Benedict, the guide for Benedictines, is “listen.” It begins the sentence, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart,” said Stasyszen of St. Gregory’s Abbey of Shawnee, Okla.

The Rule begins with an invitation to seek the peace of God’s kingdom by listening to what is written, not just in a physical sense, but with the ear of one’s heart, which is one’s complete being. The Rule was written in the sixth century in Italy with the intention of transforming the reader into a deeper relationship with God.

“I believe in the power of absorbing and listening. This is what Benedictine spirituality has to offer our institutions, our society and world,” Stasyszen remarked. The wisdom of listening comes to mind when Stasyszen hears of local and international conflicts. He remembers when the term “Balkanization” was used to describe the break-up of Yugoslavia into smaller countries in the 1990s. The same term described the disintegration of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires following the First World War. Many countries and empires collapsed, he said, because of ethnic tensions and intolerance. These problems have fuelled conflicts today in Africa and the Middle East.

The term Balkanization could apply to the social, economic and political divisions currently threatening unity within Europe and the United States, he commented. The European Union is in danger of collapsing and political infighting in the United States has become so entrenched that Congress has failed to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Balkanization has even affected the U.S. media, which are divided along political lines. The electronic devices of the social media have encouraged further alienation by discouraging personal communication.

The world of St. Benedict in the sixth century faced economic and social upheaval following the collapse of the Roman Empire. St. Benedict knew that, within the turmoil, he was part of something much greater than himself, and sought to embrace his Christian faith in a much deeper way. St. Benedict entered a life of solitude and prayer and later became a leader in monasticism. He eventually composed a Rule for community life which takes into consideration the “other.”

The Rule of St. Benedict embraces people of all ages, backgrounds and classes. It makes provisions for the sick and the weak and encourages strangers to be welcomed as one would welcome Christ. The Rule was written in an era when people were defined by their social class and there were both pilgrims and bandits roaming the countryside. St. Benedict wanted his followers to greet everyone as a person made in the image of God and to see Christ in the other.

One of the great barriers to building up a sense of community and solidarity among nations is what Pope Francis has referred to as the “unholy axis” of relativism, secularism and materialism, Stasyszen commented.

Relativism holds that each person can define the ultimate reality of the universe because there is no objective reality. Secularism focuses on the time in which we live, ignoring the wisdom of preceding generations and disregarding the generations that will follow. Materialism holds to the belief that the ultimate solutions to the problems of this age are to be found in material progress or power.

“This axis of true evil has become more predominant, and it should not surprise us that true dialogue, true conversation, true life-giving consensus, has become more difficult to achieve among nations, ethnic groups and families. If there is no common objective, then what is the point of dialogue?” Stasyszen asked.

The Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes listening both to God and to others, acknowledging that everyone has opinions to share. Human fulfilment is found in authentic listening and by coming to know and recognize the other. The other is a member of my family, my community and the stranger as well. God can be seen in the other. This notion of being present to the other through authentic listening is the most profound truth that the Benedictine tradition can offer the world today, Stasyszen said. Opening the ears of our hearts to intentional listening is to open it to the other, and even more so to the world around us.

There are many thousands of people fleeing war, famine and gang violence. They are so desperate for help that they have left their homes without adequate water and food, Stasyszen said. Many refugees die each year before reaching safety. Nations in Europe and Asia seem overwhelmed by recent waves of immigration. Some countries have responded generously while others are confining migrants in encampments or have begun building walls to keep people out. The United States enjoys lower retail prices because of the work of foreigners, he said, but the country does not welcome them as refugees.

Paproski is a Benedictine monk of St. Peter’s Abbey and pastor of St. Peter’s Parish, Muenster.

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