Benedict's Wisdom for the Ages: Four Slants on Spirituality
In my current job I have the privilege of teaching a combination history, theology, and literature course to 7th-9th graders at a small classical school. In this class these students are intensively engaging texts that I didn’t encounter until my college and seminary years, if even then. And none of it is exactly light reading for 13-year-olds. We’re talking dense works like Eusebius’ Church History and Athanasius’ treatise On the Incarnation, both fourth century works by verbose theologians.
Our most recent venture as a class has been into the depths of the Rule of Benedict. You might wonder what exactly the Rule of Benedict would have to say to these students, so far removed from the contexts in and for which it was written. What could a 1500-year-old set of instructions for monks have to do with everyday life in our current day and age? But this is a surprisingly formative and delightful little work, especially when accompanied by insightful commentary, as this version by Joan Chittister is. The Rule is wisdom literature, after all, and reading it has been immensely fulfilling and personally challenging for us, as I believe it could be for you and for our churches if we were to attend to it.
Take, for instance, Benedict’s observations about the different kinds of monks he has encountered (see Chittister, p. 25-32). “There are clearly four kinds of monastics,” Benedict says, and he goes on to name them (p. 25). Cenobites belong to a monastery and live under a rule and the guidance of an abbot or prioress. Anchorites, or hermits, live a contemplative life of spiritual warfare alone in the desert. Sarabaites usually live in small groups of two or three and pursue the religious life as they see best. And finally, gyrovagues are always on the move, relying upon the hospitality of others as they travel from region to region.
What might we learn from Benedict’s commentary on the different kinds of monks, then? Upon first glance, this section of the Rule seems as though it might be a rather dry topic for conversation, but with further investigation it yields unexpectedly rich insights for spiritual formation and community in all contexts. Benedict does more than simply list the different kinds of monks. He describes their unique spiritual proclivities and then gives his perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of each group. And all of these ways of engaging the spiritual life are still present with us today, even if they look a bit different in the ways we embody them. Over the next few posts, we'll gain some helpful insight on healthy (and unhealthy) spirituality by examining these four different ways of life that Benedict describes.
In the meantime, though, I would be delighted if you would share your own initial reflections in the comments section below. How do you see each of these spiritual styles being lived out in your current context? What are the benefits and limitations of them all? Which one, if any in particular, would you consider most effective and significant for the health of the church, and why?
I look forward to exploring the insights of the Rule of Benedict further with you!
Header image credit: Randy OHC. St. Benedict detail in fresco - plain version. Taken June 18, 2009 at St. Benedict's Abbey, Atchison, Kansas. Retrieved December 3, 2015 from flickr.com. Some rights reserved. Saturation and contrast adjusted by Karissa Herchenroeder for use on this blog.