The poet Emily Dickinson, now recognized alongside Walt Whitman as one of the cofounders of a uniquely American poetic voice, lived in almost complete social isolation. If a poet wants to write remarkable, enduring poems, is it, therefore, best for her to live an isolationist life?
Paul the Hermit lived his long adult life alone in the Egyptian desert. Legend says he was so saintly that a raven supplied his bread and two lions assisted in the digging of his grave. Does a solitary life, therefore, make a person holier (whole-ier?)
While there have been a few poets who produced excellent poems in isolation, mostly withdrawn from and unaffected by their contemporaries, and while there have been some monastics and saints who lived as hermits, these are exceptions. Most poets, and most nuns and monks believe that in order to grow and develop — to learn how to write good poems, or to acquire the skills to live a meaningful, purposeful, love-centered life — it is not only valuable but also necessary to be a member of a vibrant, strong community made up of people committed to the same purpose.
It isn’t difficult to assemble a group of people around a common interest. It is, however, challenging to make the community vibrant and strong by keeping a diverse group of individuals happily and solidly together for the long haul. I’ve participated in numerous poetry groups over the past decades. Some of them were healthy, vibrant and enduring, but most of them were plagued by the fallout from an egotistical competition that ranked people by achievement and viewed some participants as “better” than others.
If we want to build communities that work, it makes sense to look those who have succeeded. For nearly 1600 years, people who have followed The Rule manage to create loving, healthy intentional communities all over the world. Although Benedict’s Rule isn’t the only path to wisdom, it is one that has worked. And so here are:
4 characteristics of vibrant, strong communities from The Rule of Benedict
which I’ve gleaned from multiple readings of The Rule with numerous commentaries.
1. Strong communities value individuals, but do not favor individualism.
“Strong communities exist for the sake of the individual and not vice versa,” Esther de Waal, writes in Seeking God: The Way of Saint Benedict (116). It is important to recognize that existing for the sake of the individual is not the same thing as “individualism. ” Individualism is “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.” Individualism promotes the idea that being independent and self-reliant is more important to society than shared effort and responsibility.
Love, not individualism, is the bedrock of Benedictine spirituality. Love for God and love for others is manifested by supporting each other through a communal life in which work, ownership, resources and responsibilities are shared, and everyone is equally valued.
How is it possible to favor an orderly communal way of life and yet value individuals? In Benedict’s Rule, Esther de Waal explains, building community is not about creating a systematic order of mediocre uniformity–that’s what bureaucracy does! Instead, Benedict understands that public order is one thing while private, personal growth in spiritual virtue is another thing. Both are important; both require time and attention. In his Rule, Benedict presents:
“Detailed and careful regulations about the minutiae of corporate life … He shows how the well-organized community life makes possible the growth of the individual, knowing that a well-ordered life-style is more likely to encourage holiness than a badly-organized one. But he never confuses public order and private holiness. He insists that things should be done in such a way as to cause minimum irritation or inconvenience to others because he recognizes the demand of privacy, the rights of the individual, and at a more profound theological level that ‘the only person who has rights over the inner life of another person is God’ ” (from Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, Esther de Waal).
This way of thinking annihilates the antagonistic, either/or of dualism. Benedict does not value as superior either communal living or individual needs, but instead points us to the immediate, inclusive and omnipresent and of community. Every individual’s willingness to comply (as they are able) with established communal life is necessary and every individual’s health, welfare, and opportunity to thrive and grow are important.
2. Strong communities call forth and accept every individual’s gifts and make allowances, even exceptions, for every individual’s personality, eccentricities, needs and weaknesses.
Strong communities are made of individuals and respect individuality, especially individual gifts. Benedict opens chapter 40 with this biblical quote, “Everyone has his own gift from God, one this and another that (1 Cor 7:7)” (RB40:1). Characteristics of Benedict’s treatment of the individual include equality, benevolence, a preference for mercy over justice, and the prioritization of love over zeal. (De Waal, 117).
“Endlessly the Rule makes room for each individual to grow in holiness at his or her own speed, in his or her own way” (116). Benedictine Spirituality, Joan Chittister writes, “aims for the highest standards of personal behavior and, at the same time, understands and supports those for whom growth is a struggle and the social standards of life seem always to be a work in progress” (Huff Post 4/18/2011).
Benedictine spirituality reveres the individual and makes allowances for differences in personalities and talents, needs and weaknesses. This creates strong communities in which individuals thrive.
3. Living in strong communities makes people happy.
When our communities are intentionally built on principles of wisdom, they work to make us mature–wholly developed, wholly human–and this leads to happiness. The word I prefer for this happy state of being, which we all want to experience regularly and profoundly, is joyful. Happiness depends on our circumstances, while joy is the natural, effervescent response to the knowledge that we are wholly loved in any and all circumstances.
In traditional religious words, living in community is what sanctifies us and makes us holy. According to spiritual principles of wisdom in every tradition, the acting agent of sanctification is love–God’s love working on us and flowing through us to others. The community, according to Benedict, must therefore serve as a school of love. Here, the individual learns healthy, authentic self love, love of others, and love of God. Benedict knows that love
“is not easy and that it only comes with practice … To see the face of Christ in those whom we meet day in and day out is never easy. It often asks from us patience, imagination, good humor” (De Waal, 119).
At a Yeshiva course covering the Ketuvim (Wisdom Books) of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible), which I attended in Dallas in 1998, Dr. Walter Riggans taught that wisdom, in the Jewish tradition, is not a kind of knowing. Rather, it is a kind of living. Wisdom is action; it consists of what we practice, or do.
Every Christian knows, or ought to, that Jesus was a Jew. Christian spirituality began in Jewishness. Now 2000 years later, for many who practice Christianity, a conscious connection to the roots of this faith has been lost or ignored. Benedict, however, writing in the 6th century was much closer to the foundational practices of the faith. Benedictine spirituality is deeply rooted in the same book of prayers Jesus the Jew prayed, which Jews still use today — the Psalms.
Benedict also establishes wisdom as the practical, day-to-day work of living with the paradoxes inherent in love. We must open the door to the stranger and yet protect the peace and quiet of the monastery; meet the Christ in every other human, give up our own demands of them, and also be the Christ to them, while maintaining healthy boundaries. Wisdom in all spiritual traditions is concerned with developing habits of kindness, gratitude and reverence, in seeing the sacredness of all life and all experience, in reverencing not only others but also our own bodies and souls. This, Benedict knew, requires balance and moderation.
All traditions have their wisdom literature, the texts that serve as guides for a good life. Benedict’s Rule is one of those guides. The word rule here (in Regula Benedicta) means railing or trellis, a structure to assist one’s walking or growing. For nearly 16 centuries, The Rule of Benedict has been aiding pilgrims to live a gospel centered life in community after the example of Jesus, and over time, communities have adapted the Rule to their time and place in history and culture.
4. Strong communities embrace stability and are open to necessary change.
This is a life devoted to the “Benedictine values of community, consensus, peace, balance, hospitality, humility, simplicity and care of the planet in our daily lives,” Judith Valente writes in an article for Global Sisters Report. She also tells that Dutch oblate Charles Van Leeuwen describes this way of living as “a spirituality of the heart rather than the head.”
In this same article, my friend and fellow oblate Judy explains that while Benedict’s Rule has been preserved for centuries and shown in action by the example of monastics’ lives, today there are more Benedictine oblates than monastics. Approximately 25,000 oblates–people associated with Benedictine monasteries who live in the secular world–outnumber approximately 21,000 nuns and monks. This, of course, leads to questions about what forms Benedictine spirituality will take in the future, and what oblates will do to strengthen their communities. If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read Judy’s article describing the various ways Benedictine oblates around the world are living out Benedictine values in their communities.
And if you want to know more about Benedictine values, the recent book, How to Live: What the Rule of Benedict teaches us about Happiness, Meaning, and Community by Judith Valente serves as a helpful, practical introduction to the many ways people who don’t live in monasteries can live a Benedictine life.
Connecting this back to communities of poets, I have recently founded a poets’ collective called Lyricality Minnesota. We meet together to write, write and promote poetry in a way that reverences and supports each individual in the acquisition of skills and knowledge to write better poems, no matter what his/her/their level of experience or knowledge may currently be.
This limestone sculpture is a beautiful, stirring image of “Community” at a moment of transition, and one I pause frequently to contemplate. Carved by Joseph O’Connell (1927-1995), it stands in the Gathering Place at Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota. This depiction of the first sisters supporting their monastery’s foundress, Mother Benedicta Riepp, at her death, serves as a reminder that the sisters in this community promise to support each other in life and through the changes demanded by life. On one of my first tours of the monastery, my guide said a sister rarely dies without another sister or sisters present to love and comfort her as she makes her final journey, to gently rest in the loving arms of God.
My prayer today is that you may journey through the days of your life supported by the loving arms of a vibrant, strong community.