Laurence Freeman is a monk of the Monastery of Christ the King, Cockfosters, London. In this excerpt from his Trinity Institute speech, he addresses the Rule of St. Benedict’s pervasive attractiveness and what it suggests about being holy today.
The reason the Rule is so influential is because it shows us how to make rules that are appropriate to our own day and situation, and how to change rules as need arises while remaining true to some clearly defined principles.
These are principles such as moderation, measure, good order, respect for those who are different from ourselves, compassion for the old, the young and the sick, generosity for the stranger who turns up after the guest-master has gone to bed, a balanced lifestyle, good time management, vertical and horizontal forms of authority, listening to everyone, social equality, and justice.
All this is summed up in the great triple precepts of obedience, conversion, and stability.
These are eternal principles of true religion, good religion, of civility, good society, the good life, health, and in short, holiness.
Time was when everyone agreed that the right aspiration of life was holiness, but what does holiness mean today, when holiness is often a neglected value in Christian circles? It lives on, maybe in diminished forms.
In the aspirations of some New Age spiritualities, we speak of “wholeness.” None of us would mind being called “whole persons.” Wholeness is that which has been fixed; what has been repaired, healed, made whole again.
It’s not only individuals who are broken and need repairing, healing, but it’s our culture and our world. A very striking sign of this is the hole in the ground just a few yards from where we are now. If we look into that hole at ground zero, and we look into all that made it, all the suffering it caused, and all the tragic consequences that have come from it, then we find ourselves looking into a deep and frightening darkness.
It may help us that to remember that Benedict also looked into a similar darkness. December, 546, the year before his death, was Benedict’s 9-11. Totilla captured Rome and demolished a third of the city before one of his generals persuaded him it might be better to stop there. It was the beginning of the dark ages, the decline of the Roman empire.
Benedict and the communities that he inspired responded to this darkness by forming local communities -- not monastic orders, not great institutions -- that were as self-sufficient as possible.
The monastery, not the empire, became the locus of civilization, of order, of peace. The empire failed. Men and women put their faith in the reign of God.
Today, monasteries are struggling to survive. Many of them are cutting back because of aging and diminishing numbers. It’s true there are new forms of monastic life appearing…but it’s certainly not the age of St. Benedict, when armies of monastics cleared the forests of Europe and opened up the economies and the social structure of the Western world.
And yet the Rule continues to fascinate and inspire countless men and women who have no desire to become monks or nuns. The monastic archetype is in the human psyche. There is a monk within each of us. Some of us express this in the monastic state and way of life.
The eternal principles of the Rule are very easily translated into other ways of life. This was made clear to me recently when on two continents I received two oblates of our Benedictine oblate community.
One of them was a 24-year-old Italian engineering student. The other was an 84-year-old French-Canadian retired businessman. When I asked them on different occasions what made them want to take this step, they gave surprisingly similar answers: simplicity of life, spiritual friendship, the need for a framework of values in their life, and the sense of being part of a community that is itself an expression of a living tradition.
The idea of a global village is a pernicious one, especially if it means the loss of cultural identity. But if we’ve got a new kind of community in the world, maybe it’s not so surprising that we’ve got a new kind of holiness.
Simone Weil, in 1943, said this: “Today, it is not merely enough to be a saint, but we must have a saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness itself without precedent. A new type of sanctity is indeed a fresh spring or invention. If all is kept in proportion, and if the order of each thing is preserved, it is almost equivalent to a new revelation of the universe and human destiny. It is the exposure of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto concealed under a thick layer of dust. The new holiness.”
This spiritual vision is just what we need when we look into the black hole of our present predicament. It’s the hope we need for our own dark age. The passage is pure Benedict.Proportion, and order. That’s what Benedict is so good at. Especially in times of crisis.
Modern saints know that the universe is a country, and that for the truly spiritual man or woman, it is the only country. Explicit universality surely is our way toward peace. A way toward love of country that is not nationalistic… local identity without aggressive behavior toward your neighbor, and religious belief without intolerance or prejudice.
Posted on Trinity News, May 2, 2003. This text is slightly adapted.