Been in a heated argument recently?
Differing views about how government should intervene in the concerns of this country have resulted in pronounced divisions among people. Discussions escalate into arguments in families, among friends, and in the workplace as opposing views are shared. Our own frustration with events can be stirred up by reading the newspaper or listening to the news. Observing today’s climate, a friend recently posed two questions.
How might Benedict’s Rule help us handle the current political climate, giving us a way to cut through the chaos?
How would Benedict advise us to behave in these times?
On target and timely questions! One of the beauties of the Rule is the absence of detailed local requirements that would make its use obsolete for future generations. You and I can turn to Benedict’s Rule in the 21st century, and there find wisdom and direction for our own tumultuous times. And so, I decided to read the Rule with my friend’s two questions in mind. Here is what I discovered.
Two broad categories of instruction from Benedict addressing my friend’s questions emerged for me: Relationship/Communication and Spiritual Grounding.
While the Rule does not provide what we are to say as we dialogue with others, the Rule addresses who we are to be in those dialogues. Right up front in the Prologue, Benedict gives us both a way of acting and a goal.
“Keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim” (Ps 34: 14-15). Prologue 17
“We are to be a people of peace who speak peace and who act to bring about peace. We make peace a priority by eliminating violent words, untruthfulness and malicious actions.” (From my article in the “Virginia Episcopalian” on the Rule and politics.)
In the very first word of the Rule, Benedict gives us a way to foster peace – Listen! (Prologue 1) To listen more than talk is an important instruction in the Rule. Benedict devotes a whole chapter on curbing speech – Chapter 6, Restraint of Speech. A friend of mine once put Benedict’s aim regarding speech this way: Be short on speech and long on listening. When we really listen to another person, he or she feels respected and heard. To me, honest listening defuses angry emotions. He also advises the monastics not to obstinately defend their views (RB 3.4).
In the Prologue Benedict describes the monastery as a school for God’s service (Prologue 45). What if we envisioned that all of us, even those persons with whom we disagree, are in this school of life for God’s service? We might recognize that we are all learners, and that we have much to learn from each other, even when we disagree. In this school we can practice listening and learn patience. We can also seek to discover what we have in common with the other person or group. For Benedict, harmonious relationships are a key component in this school for God’s service. Harmony does not always mean agreement, but a willingness to tolerate differing viewpoints while remaining connected to one another. You and I can learn to remain connected with those whom we disagree. This is a component of the vow of stability.
Chapter 4 – The Tools for Good Works is a treasure trove of wisdom for forming good relationships and positive communication. Here are several verses that I find address my friend’s questions.
“You must honor everyone” (1 Pet 2:17). RB 4.8
Honoring another person translates to treating that person with respect. Honoring others shapes the way that we interact with them. In his book Seventy-Four Tools for Good Living Cistercian Michael Casey writes, “When I give honor, I am fully present to the other person, not drifting away mentally, but really listening…Honoring others is an indication of a certain nobility and generosity of spirit.” (page 26) We can move beyond the disagreement to see a child of God, who is loved by God. With this in our mind and heart, who knows how much relationship and communication might change for the better?
“Never do to another what you do not want done to yourself” (Tob 4:16; Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). RB 4.9
Here Benedict gives a form of the Golden Rule, words that most of us learned as children, but that we sometimes forget. Benedict gives ways to bring this instruction to life: not to act in anger or nurse a grudge (4.22, 23); “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27 in RB 4.31); guard against harmful speech (RB 4.51, and later in the Rule, show respect and be patient with others (72.4-5).
In Chapter 4 Benedict also reminds us of how we are to care for one another, an important instruction found throughout the Rule. Not only are we to speak peace, we are to act to make peace for others by meeting their needs. Benedict writes,
You must relieve the lot of the poor, “clothe the naked, visit the sick” (Matt 25: 36), and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing. RB 4.14-19
Throughout the Rule Benedict gives directions for caring for others: for the sick (RB 34), for guests who present themselves at the monastery (RB 53), for the elderly and the young (RB 37), and for the poor (RB 55). Speaking peace can mean taking strong stands on what the gospel calls us to do to serve and care for others. To me, service and advocacy are ways to cut through today’s chaos by taking constructive action to help others in need.
Benedict asks us not to love quarreling (RB 4.68) and not to grumble or speak ill of others (RB 4.39-40). Benedict speaks frequently against grumbling. Grumbling about another person or situation only serves as a block to relationship and communication. While there are times we need to vent, let’s be better about changing the channel of our thoughts from grumbling to constructive words and action.
Finally, here is the overarching direction that our actions must take:
Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. RB 4.20-21
Christ’s love and our love for him will empower us to act with integrity. You and I have been given freedom in Christ, power through the Holy Spirit and courage to act on what we believe.
A danger of living in tumultuous times is that we can lose faith and trust in God’s presence in the world. This loss of faith is the work of the Evil One who wants us separated from God so that we falter, unsure of the divine presence that can help us do our part in nurturing and healing relationships. Benedict urges us to be aware of the promptings of the Evil One and to “dash them against Christ.” (Prologue 28) He reminds us, “Place your hope in God alone” (RB 4.41) and to make Christ the ground of our being in how we speak and how we act.
“Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise person who built a house upon rock; the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall: it was founded on rock” (Matt 7:24-25). Prologue 33-34
Grounding our lives on Christ the rock will help us stay hopeful and open to the promptings of the Spirit in what we say and what we do. Benedict reminds us that we are not alone in our efforts.
We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to God’s instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Holy One to supply by the help of grace. Prologue 40 – 41
“ Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ,” Benedict says. That preference will give us the strength and wisdom to be a presence of God’s grace in today’s world.