People who join religious congregations, and particularly monasteries, have often been described as ‘leaving the world’. It is a pregnant phrase, full of implications not simply about what monastic life might be, but also about how we see ‘the world’. It evokes an image of the world as a network of relationships to people, commerce, public events and individual responsibility in which we are called to participate, but which we can also opt out of or drop through.
When I first visited mental health institutions—asylums as they were commonly called then—I was naively surprised to find people interacting with others, moving freely, meeting over coffee, and part of a complex world. I had imagined the world of the mentally healthy as like a net through which one could fall into another world of disconnected individuals. In fact, it was part of a wider world rich in variety, not an extraction from it.
We can understand Benedict only if we see life in a monastery as life in the real world. He does not offer us a recipe for leaving our world but a way of seeing and living in it.
We do not know much about his life, except that he was well educated, became a monk and founded monasteries at a turbulent time in a Roman Empire then disturbed by invading tribes and in a Catholic Church also roiled in disputes. Nor were the monasteries tranquil places of contemplation for holy people. One story tells of a fellow monk trying to poison Benedict, and another of the local priest attempting to do the same. When Benedict became a monk, he entered into a world also full of conflict and disorder. He went to find God there, not to escape from God’s world.
That is why Benedict remains important today in a world of similar conflict and public and personal insecurity. He wanted to establish a community in which flawed and damaged people could live together peaceably and sustainably while focusing their everyday lives on the love of God. The monastery was different because the men who lived there were drawn by the desire to meet God in prayer and to organise their lives around their faith. But it faced the same challenges as other communities.
We know Benedict not through what he did but through his monastic Rule. Before him, there were many rules and styles of monastic life, some of them a real withdrawal in which monks lived a life of solitude, silence and fasting. Such a life was for the few.
Benedict’s Rule, however, is for people who are weak and vulnerable. It is welcoming. It is for people attracted to something more; for beginners who have a lot to learn, not for heroes or for the wise. It allows room for doing things badly, for making mistakes. It sees decisions as something to be made carefully and freely, not in panic or out of the desire to be decisive. That vision was written into the structures of regular prayer and work. They did not demand spectacular holiness. They had the capacity, however, to allow everyday holiness to creep up on monks. Benedict would have agreed with the saying that the best can be the enemy of the good.
In the Monastery, the key figure is the Abbot, who above all is a wise guide and a reference point in shaping order in the monastery and the relationships between the monks. The heart of the Rule is to be found in trust. That paternal construction of community has little appeal in a society that is secular and lacking in a shared faith. But the spirit of the Rule—with its emphasis on trust and trustworthiness, on moderation, on confidence, on building a society that cares for all its members, and on social friendship—does respond deeply to the anxieties, the sense of abandonment and the uncertainties of our day.
Main image: Luca Signorelli, Life of St Benedict: Benedict tells two monks what they have eaten, 1499–1502, fresco.
Andrew Hamilton SJ30 June 2022
Melbourne Catholic20 June 2022