Every few weeks or so I find myself chanting Vespers with an eclectic group (mostly mainline Protestants, but also a Catholic or two) of Christians. After we chant the evening office, we practice lectio divina, have a discussion of the Scriptures and a spiritual formation text, and then return to the oratory to chant Compline before dispersing into the night.
May the Lord Almighty grant us a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.
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I found my way to the Benedictine Community of the Holy Savior through my spiritual mentor, the mentor who I was assigned by my church because I asked for one (because that is how I roll) because, this summer, I found myself totally stuck spiritually. I was not progressing in holiness. I was not moving from one degree of glory to the next. Rather, I was spinning my wheels as I exhaustidly tried to live out my habitus. I assumed that having a mentor would mean that I would sit and receive wisdom while he dispensed it. Rather, my mentor has taken the opportunity of our months together to listen to me, to introduce me to others, and to demonstrate spiritual habits. In doing so, I have found myself unstuck and once more advancing down the road to holiness.
Aside from having a conversation partner who is in a low-church evangelical context but whose disposition orients him to high-church liturgical and spiritual forms, the primary benefit from my mentoring relationship has been the introduction of Benedictine spirituality into my life. To be really honest, I am not sure how I missed out on Benedictine spirituality. I mean, I teach the Middle Ages at a Christian school. Benedict’s Rule is one of the texts I excerpt for my students to study. Monasticism is something I have long been interested in. Despite all of this, however, when I have worked on my spiritual formation, I have largely drawn from the Christian tradition of Virtue Ethics. Virtue ethics is rooted in ancient Greek philosophy, of course, but was given flower in the Thomistic synthesis of the high Middle Ages. Specifically, though, Virtue ethics was mediated for me by contemporary Catholic and Reformed theologians, specifically Peter Kreeft in Back to Virtue, Jamie Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, and Rebecca DeYoung in Glittering Vices. Kreeft and DeYoung have been helpful for unpacking the way that virtue and vice operate theologically, while Smith’s central insight is that our desires are primarily shaped by our habits. Taking Kreeft and DeYoung’s description of our spiritual condition at face value, I focused on adopting habits that might shape my desires. While this approach was spectacularly successful for a couple of years, this past summer I stalled. What I was missing was the middle term between the overarching description of virtue and vice and specific habits. I was missing a spiritual framework for my habits. Benedictine Spirituality provides that framework.
I recently bought The Rule of St. Benedict for Beginners as a way to jump-start my adoption of Benedictine Spirituality. It has proved immensely helpful largely because it seeks to translate monastic life into practical application for the vast majority of us who live in the world. In the half of the book I have read so far, the author walks through the three Benedictine vows as a way to think about the Benedictine approach to spirituality.
The first vow is the vow of stabilitas, which primarily means that one commits oneself to a particular group of people or to a particular place. One commits oneself to the good and thriving of a specific community. The second vow is the vow of conversatio morum, which means something like incremental (daily) spiritual improvement. The idea is that one will strive to live everyday better than one did the day prior. The third vow is the vow of obedience, which is not as truncated as it sounds. Obedience is primarily about listening attentively to another and accepting the obligations and calls that others have on one by virtue of shared humanity or any other kind of relationship. It is not merely, or even primarily, about submission to authority. It is therefore within this context, the context of commitment to place, neighbor, and God that the practice of habits will have their greatest ability to shape desire because external habits (which for me are things like reading, praying, and doing certain things) will be rightly ordered toward love of place, neighbor, and God. The habits will be inhabited by a spirit of loving submission and by the constant impulse to die to self.
What makes Benedictine Spirituality work so well is Benedict’s insistence that there is only one Rule, the one for beginners. We all, all of us, remain beginners in holiness our entire lives. Each day there is only one repeated action: fall down; get up. As St. Benedict reminds us: ” Be careful to be gentle, lest in removing the rust, you break the whole instrument. ”
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As a husband and father whose vocational call is teaching, I am obviously called to a life in the world. Matrimony is a Sacrament because it is one of the paths to holiness (the other is celibacy). In my context in which I have pressing obligations to my students, children, and wife, Benedictine Spirituality offers a highly practical and tested approach to pursuing holiness. As the framework in which to pursue virtue through the practice of habits, it works as well for the monastic as for the married person.
Gracious and Holy Father, give us the wisdom to discover You, the intelligence to understand You, the diligence to seek after You, the patience to wait for You, eyes to behold You, a heart to meditate upon You, and a life to proclaim You, through the power of the Spirit of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.