In the late 1990’s, Desmond Tutu invited members of the Order of the Holy Cross in America to come to South Africa. I’m told he made the request because his country, in the wake of apartheid, needed models of life in community. Tutu believed the presence of a Benedictine monastery could help.
The brothers found a place near Grahamstown, a beautiful part of a beautiful country. They went, not knowing what they would do except to say their prayers, trusting vocation would emerge. Vocation did emerge, in the founding of a school for some of the poorest children in the region. The brothers committed to providing as fine an education as the most expensive schools In South Africa. The brothers came. They prayed together. They did indeed bring community.
After the events of last week, the hunger for community is deep. Funerals in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and Dallas are outward and visible signs of our broken world. What will it take for us to live together, as we retreat into partisan enclaves, imagining walls, breaking alliances? Difficult questions for sure, but they are hardly new.
The questions were top of mind in the 6th century. The Roman empire was falling apart. Fear and deprivation gripped the people. A monk named Benedict retreated to a cave to live out his religious life in peace. He was identified as a spirit-person, and perhaps reluctantly (I picture a raging introvert…that’s partly why I like the guy) was drawn to form communities, shaping pathways for the challenging task of life together, articulated in what is known as his Rule.
Today, July 11, is the feast of St. Benedict. We know a bit about his biography, but just a bit. We celebrate him mostly because of the Rule he established. It offered a way for people to live together, a model of community. People still read the Rule, study it, apply it, inwardly digest it, perhaps more in the last generation than in preceding periods. If you haven’t read it, let me suggest it for summer reading.
The questions which prompted Benedict to write about community are questions asked today. How can we live in community, in a world that doesn’t seem safe, in a world where political and religious institutions seem to fall apart? It’s been my great privilege not only to experience some of the life of a monastery, thin places where distance between heaven and earth diminishes. In parishes, I’ve known groups that meet weekly to study Benedict’s Rule. Out of such study, convening around common text like the spokes of a wagon wheel, new community emerges.
On the one hand, the Rule is mundane. First reading might say there’s no contemporary application. But the Spirit has something else in mind. The call to live in community shines through, though there’s no illusion that it’s easy. So it has to do with intentionality. The prologue opens with this line: Listen with the ear of your heart. That call to listening signals spiritual purposefulness. In our parlance, we might call it mindfulness. It calls us to be learners. It calls us to be guided by the heart, to follow what we love, or more to the point, to follow who we love.
It calls us to look to Christ. One of St. Benedict’s lines that grabs me: Let Christ be the chain that binds you. Esther De Waal, in her book on Benedict’s rule entitled Seeking God says it this way:
St. Benedict points to Christ. Christ is the beginning, the way and the end. The Rule continually points beyond itself to Christ himself, and in this it has allowed, and will continue to allow, men and women in every age to find in what it says depths and levels relevant to their needs and their understanding at any stage on their journey, provided that they are truly seeking God.
And if ever we needed the Lord before, we sure do need him now. Thank you, Benedict.
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