We must imitate Christ’s life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ. : Thomas a Kempis, “The Imitation of Christ” 1471
In a post-Christian America, where adherence to scriptural teaching invites retorts of intolerance and bigotry, from a culture that’s becoming more depraved and distant from God as each day passes, when is it time to stop sand-bagging the flooding waters, and retreat to preserve the purity of faith subscribed to by so many Christians?
Tale of a Saint
For one sixth century son of a Roman noble, that time came soon after traveling to Rome to continue his education – only to find the once-great city in the midst of decline and imminent fall, with the final death-blow being inflicted by invading barbarians.
Upon arriving, Benedict encountered a decadent culture, that within which, he felt it impossible to attain the promises found in the Gospels, so he abandoned all the trappings of privilege and status, and retreated from the city to a mountaintop cave, where he could continue to live a spiritual live – eventually establishing monastic communities at Subiaco, Terracina, and Monte Cassino, for whom he wrote the “Rule of St. Benedict” – thus beginning the Benedictine tradition.
The Rule has become one of the most influential works in all of Western Christendom, and has served as a simple common sense guide to monastic living for over 1500 years, transcending time and offering a vision that not only speaks to monasticism, but to life as a Christian, as well.
A Way of Life
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating that Christians retreat from the world they live in and become monks. The life of a Benedictine monk is a vocation that few are called to, but that is not to say the discipline they live, cannot be practiced and applied in our Christian lives – and adapted to where we live outside the walls of the monastery.
With prayer at its heart, the monastic way of life offers simplicity, solitude, stability, and intimacy with God – bringing a deeper awareness of his presence in our life, and prompting us to respond to others as though they were Christ.
Laura Dunham, a Presbyterian minister, describes the Benedictine tradition this way:
“But as I learned long ago, this ancient spiritual path is about more than pleasant places for individual spiritual refreshment. Instead, this deeply formed, living tradition is a way of life that leads to spiritual renewal. Open to any serious seeker of God, the Benedictine way has much to offer the wider church.”
She goes on to say that, “Across the country, people are looking to this timeless tradition for the spiritual resources and mature spiritual companionship missing from our own faith communions. For decades, spiritual formation has been neglected in the church, and as a result, many Christians hunger for spiritual nourishment.”
To get a better perspective, I traveled to a monastery affiliated with the St. Meinrad Archabbey, that is tucked away in the hills of southwest Indiana, for an up close and personal glimpse into the Benedictine lifestyle.
What I found was a sincerity of faith, commitment, and service among the monks and Oblates I interacted with.
Just as monks are called to their vocation, Oblates are lay-people who are also called to a vocation, that being the vocation of Benedictine Oblation, where they affiliate with a monastery – becoming a part of that community, within which, they are bonded in prayer, love and commitment.
Their commitment extends to their daily lives at home, and in their interactions with others, by living the Benedictine way.
“Whatever the outward historical form [oblation] has taken -and it has taken many outward forms- its first and essential reality is a commitment to the monastic tradition of prayer and its generous silence.” – Derek G. Smith, “Oblates in the Western Monasticism”
A Vesper to Remember
While there, I attended the afternoon vespers, which was a thoughtful, contemplative journey that centered one’s awareness of Christ and away from the distractions that often draw our attention away from him.
The afternoon vesper, which is a part of what is known as, the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, began with the majestic sound of the pipe organ as the procession of monks entered the nave of the church and proceeded to the chancel.
As the service proceeded, it became a contemplative thread of hymns, antiphons, psalms, prayers and scripture – sung with Gregorian melodies by the monks, in what seemed to be one melodic voice that resonated throughout the sanctuary. It was a divine juxtaposition of God’s majesty with his intimacy.
Thomas Merton, writer, theologian and Trappist monk, once wrote:
“In a world of noise confusion and conflict, it is necessary that there be places of silence, inner discipline and peace. In such places can love blossom.”
Now, more than ever, Christians who desire to preserve the purity of their faith, need to find those places Merton wrote about.