On summer evenings, without intending it, one can hear all sorts of interesting conversations. Friends and I heard a young couple, passing by, discussing styles of weddings. Responding to the description of a wedding he’d attended, the man’s companion remarked: “Interesting. I’ve never been to a church wedding.” She spoke without antipathy, or any emotion, merely speculative, as though a church wedding were a curio, a quaint item picked up in an antique shop, something you’d heard of but never expected to meet.
It left us reflecting on the growing separation between Christianity and secularity. Where is the Christian faith in the world? Where does it belong now? Are Christians right and atheists wrong, or the other way around? It’s hard not to wonder. There is, however, another way to live the questions.
St Benedict of Nursia gave a way that’s lasted 1,500 years and formed European civilization. Indeed, since the monks who followed his Rule civilized so many European countries, Pope Paul VI declared him patron saint of all Europe.
Come, true light.
Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery.
Come, treasure without name.
Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding.
St Benedict’s Rule isn’t, as we might think from the title, a series of regulations or a reference manual. It’s a straight-edge, something to lean on, a measure to help us through the contrarieties of living. Early Christians referred to their movement as “the way,” following Christ the Way. Benedict’s Rule is a way to be in the world. It’s excellent reading for anybody, not only monks and not only Christians. But ultimately it’s to be lived. It distills into three Latin words, ora et labora (pray and work).
Life can be daunting, and leave us perplexed and anxious. Sometimes it paralyzes us altogether. In response, Christians can be tempted to two extremes. We might think we’re right about everything, and our work is to correct and save “them.” This is highly tempting, especially when so many contemporary notions seem foolish, wrong-headed, or destined to lead people astray. Or we might be tempted to hide away our faith in fear and shame, since so many seem to live successful lives without it, and wrong-headed Christians can also wreak havoc.
St Benedict’s Rule allows us to avoid the two extremes, and find a way of peace.
Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen.
Come, resurrection of the dead.
Work is our way of being in the world, and prayer is the cry of the heart. The Rule helps us organize our lives concretely so there’s time for the heart without losing time for the work we’re supposed to do. Prayer and work become part of the same dance. We tend to separate contemplation from action, as though they were exclusive dimensions of people’s personalities (some of us inclined to contemplation and some to action). Benedict recognizes we can’t be in the world without also being in the heart. This way gives peace, not a mindless stupor but an active peace that brings life to us and to the world we’re part of. The Rule witnesses a tradition that didn’t see the church as “in” the world, but as the heart of the world.
Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly you create, refashion and change all things by your will alone.
Come, invisible whom none may touch and handle.
Come, for you continue always unmoved, yet at every instant you are wholly in movement; you draw near to us who lie in hell, yet you remain higher than the heavens.
Come, for your name fills our hearts with longing and is ever on our lips; yet who you are and what your nature is, we cannot say or know.
There isn’t really a battle between Christians and secular people, among Christians, or between religions. There’s a dialogue between God in his eternal glory and humanity in our present pain and longing. This dialogue is what we listen in on when we meet Christ. It’s God’s investment in his people, humanity, to bring us to the fullness of life, all of us and each of us.
The answer isn’t in reading the Rule, or memorizing the words ora et labora, good though these are to do. It’s in living the Way that we find the answer, the peace all human hearts really long for.
Come, Alone to the alone.
Come, for you are yourself the desire that is within me.
Come, my breath and my life.
Come, the consolation of my humble soul.
Come, my joy, my glory, my endless delight.
The longing in us is also our faith. The questions in us are also the answer. The note that is in our hearts is waiting to be sung.
St Benedict, ca.480-ca.547, feast day July 11.
Poetry: “Hymn of Divine Love,” St Symeon the New Theologian, abbot of the Eastern Church, 949-1022.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org