Esther de Waal
The Rule of St Benedict addresses itself to us, each of us, just as we are. St Benedict understands human nature, its strengths and weaknesses, limitations and potential. He respects the mystery that each person is, and the result of this is that the thrust of the Rule is never towards dictating, rather it is towards the inner disposition of the heart.
There is one thing Benedict teaches us before all other possible insights about the spiritual life and that is this: God is with us. It is as simple as that. God does not need to be earned. God cannot be merited. God is not persuaded by human behavior to attend to us. God is not intent on ignoring us. “The divine presence is everywhere,” St Benedict tells us.
God is the very breath of our souls, the creative energy that gives us life and carries us through all our days. God, our hope, is the magnet that draws us and the spirit that carries us from dark to light through life. Our beginning and our end is God, our present hope and life eternal.
We come to rest in that assurance, St Benedict says, by realizing that whatever happens to us in life – when things go wrong, when our plans go awry, when our future seems dashed and the present seems impossible – God’s will for us is our welfare and not our woe.
Along the way, God sends guides to light our path – spiritual mentors and models to lead us, taskmasters to train us, disciplines to curb us – so that, for those “who endure and not grow weary,” growth from the trivial to the significant may be complete. Then, aware of our own limitations, honest in our sense of self, subdued in our demands of the world and simple in our needs, we lose the demons of exaggerated expectations. We are ready now to take life as it comes to us, unafraid and secure in the presence of God to lead us through it….
Over the archway of medieval monasteries were commonly carved the words Pax Intrantibus, “Peace to those who enter here.” These words were both a hope and a promise.
Benedict’s vision of the peaceable kingdom was a real one. In a society struggling with social chaos, awash in the evils of classism, prey to foreign encroachment on all sides, and at the mercy of wave after wave of warring forces, highway piracy, and the wide-spread social disorganization and moral deterioration that came with the fall of the superpower Rome, Benedict sketched out a blueprint for world peace.
He laid a foundation for a new way of life, the ripples of which stretched far beyond the first monastery gates to every culture and continent, from one generation to another, from that era to this one, from his time and now to ours. To us.
Peace is our legacy, our mandate, our mission, as alive today as ever, more in need today – in a nuclear world, a world of starving peoples – than ever.
Benedictine peace, however, is not simply the absence of war. It is a lifestyle that makes war unacceptable and violence unnecessary. It is not a lifestyle dominated by control and a plethora of rules. It is a lifestyle that foregoes violence on every level, for any reason.
Most of all, this lifestyle is a simple one. It is basic in its elements, not difficult to achieve, simple to sustain. It nurtures neither ambition nor greed.
It is straightforward in its values, without being either esoteric or convoluted. These values are clear ones: community, prayer, stewardship, equality, stability, conversion, peace – all make for communities of love….
Benedictine spirituality is a counterculture that calls for a rhythm of life that honors and enables, stretches and challenges, every dimension of human development.
It creates community out of a collection of strangers – a slice of life that crosses age levels, economic backgrounds, and ethnicities – to where differences can be honored, and differences can be broached, and peace can come to both the person and to an entire population at the same time.
Benedictine spirituality is a life that honors the earth and cultivates the planet for the sake of the all the people of the earth. It is a holy life. It passes on to the next generation a society and a globe that is in better condition than it was – because people with a Benedictine heart have taken their responsibility to protect it for the future.
It allows no waste but provides for the needs of all. It allows no class distinctions but thrives on the exceptions that the human condition demands.
It aims for the highest standards of personal behavior and, at the same time, understands and supports those for whom growth is a struggle and the social standards of life seem always to be a work in progress.
Finally, Benedictine spirituality requires of us all the humility that allows us no room to make gods of ourselves, to impose ourselves on the rest of the universe, to develop the hubris that leads to the oppression of others, that justifies force as the sign of our superiority, that enthrones the arrogance in us over the holiness and wholeness of others, that smothers the awareness in a person of their small and proper place in the universe.
It is humility that makes us happy with what we have, willing to have less, kind to all, simple in our bearing, and serene within ourselves.