Not religion for show

Jul 8, 2019

The feast of Saint Benedict is celebrated on July 11.

The ancient Dialogues of Gregory, the only source of biographical material that we have on either Benedict or his sister Scholastica, tell us stories in the metaphorical style of the time that give insight into the qualities and character of both of them rather than simple historical detail. Gregory’s work outlines the seven miracles of Benedict, and it is in them that we take the measure of the man. Every one of these stories has to do with care for another, not with mystical experiences or esoteric visions or transcendent ecstasies. Benedict, Gregory tells us, repairs a broken plate so that a maidservant will not be punished for being careless; he revives a young monastic who had been crushed under a falling wall while working; he rescues a disciple from drowning; he retrieves from the bottom of the sea the ax-handle of an itinerant laborer, a precious tool without which the man would be doomed to unemployment; he makes the sign over a cup full of poison and breaks its power; he stops Totila the Goth at the gates of the city and brings peace to the region.

Clearly, it is always the human condition that captures his concern, always human need on which Benedict concentrates his spiritual strength. It is not religion for show that interests Benedict. For Benedict the spiritual life is not a way to escape the vagaries of living; it is a way to live life, at its most brutal, at its most simple, to the core.

The stories are fanciful to modern ears, perhaps, but logical to the heart. These are the things of which humanity is made: the spiritual life and human community. As a result, Benedict does not shine in the human constellation of stars because of who he is as an individual. No, Benedict and Scholastica stand out in history not because of lives of their own but because of what their lives did for the centuries that follow them.

The Rule of Benedict does not require great individual asceticism. The Rule of Benedict requires that people live well together in a culture that used one group for the sake of another, that gave Romans privilege and non-Romans lower place. The monastic communities of Benedict and Scholastica lived a completely different kind of life. “Serve one another,” the Rule of Benedict says. “Listen,” the Rule says. “Let everyone take their place in the community according to the time they entered,” the Rule says. The principles are clear. Human community must be based on mutual service, respect, gentleness, and equality. The domination of one sector of society by another, the failure to examine all aspects of every question, the notion that violence can be solved by violence, the attempt to use one group in society for the comfort and convenience of another destroy a society at its roots.

No one knows much about Benedict and Scholastica as historical individuals, true. But what we do know is that they stood in the midst of a decaying society and refused to go into decay with it. They are icons of the present face of God.

—from A Passion for Life (Orbis Books), by Joan Chittister

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