What do spiritual practices do?
Practice is how people develop the skills to become adept at anything. Music students practice their instruments. Gymnasts practice routines, yoga students practice poses, swimmers practice strokes, and tennis players practice their serves. Successful organizational leaders practice self-mastery and teamwork. Just as all these people practice to become more proficient, spiritual seekers practice in order to become better at living a spiritual life.
What is the Rule of Benedict?
Do you yearn for a good life, and do you desire to see good days? Near the end of his life in 547 AD, Benedict of Nursia wrote a a guide to living, in the company of other humans, the kind of good days that add up to a good life. The Rule of Benedict has resonated through more than 1400 years and today is followed around the world by thousands of monastics and oblates (people associated with monasteries who live and work outside the monastery). This “little rule for beginners” serves to develop a spirituality made up of practices, which Benedictines incorporate into their relationship with God and their interactions with the people with whom they live and work.
What is Benedictine Spirituality? What are Benedictine Practices?
Because I couldn’t find relevant, simple answers online to the questions, “What is Benedictine Spirituality?” and “What are Benedictine practices?” I decided to publish this summary of 23 habits Benedictines seek, through lifelong practice, to cultivate into a lifestyle.
23 Benedictine Practices
I’ve drawn this list of 22 (+ 1 = 23) Benedictine practices (arranged alphabetically) from Stepping into the Oblate way of life, published by St. Benedict’s Monastery in 2017, when Laureen Virnig OSB served as Director of Oblates.
1. Awareness of God
In Benedictine practice we acknowledge the primacy of God and look for God in the ordinary events of each day. This practice is not particular to Benedictines, however. Cultivating awareness of God is important for all who seek a meaningful spirituality. In this article, Benjamin Schäfer, who calls himself an intercessory musicianary, blog theologian, and pilgrim on the narrow road of learning to love, writes in depth about ways to foster awareness of God.
2. Being in Right Relationship
“Being in right relationship” is wholly other than “being in the right relationship.” It isn’t about finding the right person for me; it’s about being the right person to others in the way I show respect to them, in the way I accept their humanity—even their weaknesses and irritating personality traits. For Benedictines, being in right relationship means that we treat everyone we encounter with loving kindness and patience. This Benedictine practice is exceedingly difficult for most of us, for most of our lives. We stumble through being in right relationship. We practice clumsily like beginners running through piano scales. But, we keep practicing, because we hope that eventually, with faithful practice, that our way of being present to others will be as rich and meaningful as Chopin’s Nocturns are mysteriously rich with meaning when played by the virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein near the end of his life. Listen here:
3. Commitment to Growth (Conversatio)
On the blog “Catholic Beer Club,” Br. Ignacio Gonzalez, OSB writes that the Benedictine practice of Conversatio requires that we never stop asking hard questions about our personal growth. “Am I growing in my true identity as a son or daughter of God? Or, am I living a lie, allowing myself to be conformed to every whim and temptation of my fallen nature?” To complete our personal transformation, we never stop changing. We always can go deeper in prayer, grow more open to the truth, enrich our understanding of the will of God, and learn what, in this moment at this time, is good, acceptable, and right.
The Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Indiana explain the importance of community life in Benedictine practice on their website. Before writing his Rule, Benedict lived for years as a hermit. Through this experience, he came to believe that authentic spiritual growth happens only when we life with and among “flawed human beings whose faults and failings are only too obvious.” In community we struggle through the practice of being in right relationship with people who are “stubborn…dull…undisciplined…restless…careless… scatterbrained…irritating…and tiresome.” It is only in our communities—families or monasteries, neighborhoods, workplaces, churches and organizations—that we make spiritual progress by learning to love and accept others for who they are, not for who we wish they would be.
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Brother David Steindl-Rast of the Gut Aich Priory monastery in St. Gilgen, Austria, is the founder and senior advisor for A Network for Grateful Living. His books include Gratefulness, A Listening Heart, and most recently, a new autobiography, i am through you so. Interviewed by Krista Tippett for her podcast On Being, Brother David talks about gratitude as the true wellspring of joy. Reading the transcript or listening to the podcast is worthwhile. This discussion shows that it’s impossible to isolate any Benedictine practice as independent of the others. They are all intertwined.
The Benedictine practice of hospitality is radical. Kyle T. Kramer explains in his 2011 article for America Magazine that hospitality, for a Benedictine, means to welcome all others as Christ, “to recognize that despite vast differences, the diverse human family is part of the same God-given belonging, and we need one another to survive and thrive.” This means facing our fears, letting prejudice and certitude die in us, and rooting ourselves in the love of God, “the alpha and omega of the entire creation, the force that pulls everyone and everything toward a center that can hold.” Benedictines hold strong convictions, but experience shows “strident, uncompromising voices” tend to foster arguments, tensions, and hostilities—not peace and love. Benedictine hospitality requires us to moderate our own views and voices, and in this day and age, as in all ages, moderation is supremely radical.
St. Benedict’s chapter on humility is one of the longest in the Rule. An essay by the Sisters of St. Mary’s Monastery in Rock Island, IL explains that the Benedictine practice of humility is the opposite of humiliation. Humility fosters stronger, healthier connections within communities by breaking down the artificial barriers between individuals. Humility helps us accept our gifts and talents joyfully while letting go of our false selves. Humility helps be more authentically, beautifully, and lovingly human. Read the full essay to learn more about how humility helps us grow in the love of God and deepens our bonds with each other.
8. Lectio divina / Listening to God’s Word in Scripture
Directly translated, Lectio Divina means “divine reading. It includes reading, reflecting, responding to and resting in the Word of God — not in a scholarly way, not to make a sermon to preach to others, but simply to nourish and deepen our own relationship with the Divine. This article on the Contemplative outreach website explains the history of lectio divina, and offers instruction in how to do it.
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The first word of the Rule of Benedict is “Listen.” The Benedictine practice of listening is the heart of Benedictine spirituality, for not only are we instructed to listen constantly to one another in community, to leaders, to guests, to the sick, to our inner selves, and most of all, to God, we must also “attend to [what we hear] with the ear of the heart.“ As Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon writes, “Listening with the ear of the heart can be a scary experience because it can call me to radical change, to a transformation of my limited human perspective. This is not simply a change in my opinion or even in my ideological stance, but a much deeper change in my attitude, a real change in my way of being and doing.” Listening is integral to the practice of conversatio, indeed to all the practices, which, as Laureen Virnig OSB teaches to Oblates in formation, are inseparable woven together to make of our spirituality a living tapestry.
10. Liturgical prayer / Liturgy of the Hours
The Benedictine practice of Liturgical prayer is one of Benedictine spirituality’s most visible, unmistakable hallmarks. As Sister Julie explains on the blog A Nun’s Life, “The Liturgy of the Hours is made up of specific prayers said at various time (“hours”) during the day and night. You can read more about the Liturgy of the Hours by clicking here, but the best way to learn about Liturgical prayer is to find a monastery and experience it.
Mindfulness is a trending word these days — yogis, psychologists, educators, physicians, and practically everyone else is talking about the importance of quieting our busy minds in order to become more aware of the present moment. Benedictines say mindfulness is as much as a Christian and biblical concept as it is a Buddhist one. The Benedictine practice of mindfulness, like all the Benedictine practices, is lifelong. Digital nun, writing for ibenedictines.org tells us, “The practice of mindfulness, which for a Christian must always be the practice of mindfulness of the presence of God, is not something we learn in a few hours or even a few years. It is a lifetime’s work, and it is not to be rushed or short-circuited in any way.” Click here to read hints on how to enjoy this lifelong practice.
12. Moderation in All Things
The Benedictine practice of Moderation in All Things is another that is trending today, under the word “balance.” In the blog Echoes from the Bell Tower, Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB writes, “Benedict insists in his Rule that we must balance our lives with prayer and work, with reading and recreation, with rest and activity.” Benedictines attempt to incorporate all of these important aspects into every day. Fr. Adrian also writes, “This kind of wisdom is why St. Benedict’s Rule continues, after more than 1,500 years now, to stir the hearts of men and women who want to live their lives entirely for Christ.” In other words, Benedict’s Rule stirs the hearts of those who want to live each day fully. Paradoxically, the key to a full life, is to understand that “all things are to be done with moderation.” (Rule of St. Benedict 48:9)
13. Obedient Listening to God, Self, Others
Obedience is a concept 21st-century souls don’t generally like to consider. We prefer concepts like freedom and independence. In a podcast at DiscerningHearts.com from the Missionary Benedictines of Christ the King Priory, Fr. Mauritius Wilde O.S.B explains that obedience means to listen. Obedience is an act of letting go of the egoistic will. While submission is an act of youth, true obedience can only come as a response of maturity. We become obedient only after we know our own will. Only after we have come to understand our desires are we capable of relinquishing them in service of others. Therefore in Benedictine spirituality, “mutual obedience” is a habit to be shown by all to one another. As a Benedictine practice, obedience is intimately linked to being in right relationship, conversatio, humility, and listening. Benedictine obedience is ultimately directed not to other humans or to ourselves, but through the agency of others and the deepest yearnings of our own hearts, in love, to God.
In his blog Benedictine Monks, Fr. Brendan Rolling, OSB of St Benedict’s Abbey of Atchison, Kansas quotes Abbot Martin Veth: “To will what God wills and because He wills it, this is the essence of patience. Patience does not relieve us of our natural feelings of aversion, irritation, and indignation, but it controls and rises above these feelings… Our Lord felt the natural impulse to avoid suffering, but He set aside and refused to listen to this feeling: ‘Father not my will but Thine be done’.…Where does this patience show itself? It shows itself in the way (emphasis mine) you put up with the many things of your daily life, sickness, death, war, persecution, mishaps and misfortunes of every kind.” In other words, without awareness of God and without gratitude, indeed, without the interweaving of all these practices into our lives, patience cannot exist.
Sister Joan Chittister is an extraordinarily prolific writer and among the most famous living Benedictines. In an article for HuffPost Sister Joan tells us that a Benedictine lifestyle is an “an oasis of human peace in a striving, searing, simmering world.” This lifestyle disallows war and violence on any level, including the root causes of violence—ambition, greed, waste of resources, class distinctions, and the “hubris that leads to the oppression of others, that justifies force as the sign of our superiority.” This lifestyle makes ample room for what it values—“community, prayer, stewardship, equality, stability, conversion, peace — all [which] make for communities of love.” Without humility, Sr. Joan explains, there can be no peace. “It is humility that makes us happy with what we have, willing to have less, kind to all, simple in our bearing, and serene within ourselves.” It only takes 2-3 minutes to read her article. If there is anything that everyone of us in the whole world needs more of right now, it’s peace.
Prayer is essential to a Benedictine lifestyle. Many Oblates rely on Give Us This Day, a monthly prayer book with simplified daily prayer for morning and evening, to help us participate in the Divine Office when we are away from the monastery. For most Oblates. that’s most of the time. You can order a free copy of Give Us This Day, published by Liturgical Press, by clicking here.
17. Reverence for All Creation
In his book Humility Rules: Saint Benedict’s Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem, Augustine Wetta, a Benedictine monk, teaches, “The sum of all virtues is reverence.” In this 2-minute video, Father Mark Goring (Companions of the Cross) says “This profound and humble …[Benedictine practice of] reverence for all things is one of the great foundations of Benedictine spirituality.” He explains that this reverence flows from prayer. “Their prayer discipline is based on the rhythms of the universe.” Benedictine reverence for all creation applies to nature and all creatures, to the objects we use and make, and to all people—pilgrims, the broken and downtrodden, to every single human, including ourselves.
18. Service to Others
The Benedictine practice of service to others is intimately entwined with the reverence for all creation, and another of the great foundations of Benedictine spirituality. In a blog hosted by Holy Wisdom Monastery of Madison, Wisconsin, Lynne Smith, OSB writes that in America, middle and upper class people tend to imagine they are living self-sufficiently, believing they are able to “pretty much take care of [their] needs.” This self-deception is possible only when “[w]e take for granted all the people who work behind the scenes to provide the food for the store, to staff and maintain the filling station and all those people involved in the health care system. We are no more self-sufficient than the poor whose dependence on the service of others can’t be hidden.” The Rule of Benedict teaches that “Monastics should serve one another” (35:1). Lynne Smith elaborates, “All this service is sacred and to be done with reverence… service is seen as a form of prayer, a way of seeking God.” This practice is also linked inextricably to gratitude, as we give thanks for the ways we can serve and for those who serve us.
Silence in Benedictine practice is knit together with listening and with prayer. The website of Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas tells us, “Modern monks like to point out that first word in the Rule is to ‘Listen,’ which can’t be done while talking! God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should use them in that order. This emphasis on silence is so that we can learn to listen to God more acutely…This kind of sensitivity and awareness makes it easier to pray at all times.” This article explains that silence is healthy for community life and fosters the learning of reverence for all creation. Benedictines are called to strive for silence and have a love for silence.
20. Stability of Heart
Monsignor Charles Pope seems to be saying in the blog post, “A Reflection On the Benedictine Vow of Stability” for Community in Mission of the Archdiocese of Washington (DC), that stability of heart is the Benedictine practice our chronically unstable contemporary society most desperately needs. In her blog, Presbyterian minister Lynne Baab offers ways for those of us who do not live in a monastery to embrace stability.
- Commit to daily, weekly or monthly prayer disciplines.
- Be faithful in demonstration of family and community commitments, for example, by calling parents every week at the same time, checking in regularly on neighbors, affirming and listening to coworkers.
- Listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through scripture and through the insights of others.
- Listen to your body, to “the negative and irritating things” like “our fatigues and headaches and muscle aches, revealing to us the lack of balance and health in our lives.”
- Be willing to wait. This grows our ability to rest in stability.
Benedictine monastics make a three-fold commitment to stability, conversion (conversatio), and obedience. The Friends of St. Benedict website says “The Rule offers people a plan for living a balanced, simple, and prayerful life.” Simple, yes. Quick and easy, no. As Joan Chittister puts it, Benedictine practices build a spirituality that will enable us to go on “beyond disappointment, beyond boredom, beyond criticism, beyond loss.” Benediction spirituality is “for the long haul.”
21. Stewardship of Resources
Stewardship of resources, as a Benedictine practice, flows out of the commitment to stability, explain the monks and oblates of Saint Meinrad Archabbley, in this post on “Environmental Stewardship” on the blog Echoes from the Bell Tower. “We are all accountable as steward of creation,” they tell us. The concept that we are not above nature but are part of it, stems from the practice of humility, of knowing who we are, how we are, and to whom we belong.
Yes, work, too, is a basic tenet of Benedictine Spirituality, Chris Sullivan nexplains in her blog post “Work and Prayer in the Style of St. Benedict” for Loyala Press. She reminds that in the Rule of Benedict, “in the economy of monastic life,” prayer “is work and work is prayer.” While [t]ime set aside for prayer can be a great blessing, …we can turn all of our daily tasks into prayer when we bring to them the awareness of ourselves in relationship with our ever-present God.”
Which brings us back to awareness of God, to the beginning again.
22+1 = 23 / Begin again
Benedictines read a portion of the Rule of Benedict every day. Every four months, we begin again at the beginning–so we read the Rule three times every year. Having the mind of a beginner, being receptive to starting anew, starting fresh, starting over–this, too, is a Benedictine practice.
Although well into the middle years of an average life span, I am a rank beginner, a mere toddler in Benedictine practice. Only a year ago, after a year of formation, I became an Oblate of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, MInnesota. In no way am I qualified to be a teacher of the Benedictine way of life. In this article, I have merely collected and summarized what other, more experienced Benedictines have taught and published. I hope this list (compiled in September, 2018) is helpful, perhaps even inspiring.
Are you a thoughtful reader (and maybe even a writer) who seeks a peaceful, just, spiritual approach to life?
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