The rule of Benedict



I found my confirmation saint eighteen years and one month ago, on a hazy hot day full of cicada song, at a Polish shrine about forty minutes west of St. Louis, Missouri.

I was twelve and on vacation with my parents. We had traipsed through caves full of stalagmites and stalactites. My father had jumped up and down atop the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and caused it to shake, much to the laughing horror of our fellow tourists. And now we were at the Black Madonna Shrine and Grottoes outside of Eureka, not because of any pilgrimage motive, but because my mother is Polish and likes to look at Polish things.

We landed in the gift shop. We purchased an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa as a present for my grandparents, who subsequently displayed it in their bedroom. And I, for my part, pawed through the saints’ medals. I wanted one because I’d never had one.

None of the medals drew me. They were indistinguishable from one another and they struck me as sticky-sweet. Sacred Heart this. Immaculate Heart that. And St. Francis, with happy squirrels and birds. The order that runs the place is Franciscan.

Then I stumbled over a St. Benedict medal. The name was unusual, Latin and crisp. The medal was stamped with weird, seemingly occult abbreviations (“C S S M L – N D S M D”) and words like “PAX.” I made Mom and Dad buy it. 

After that, I didn’t think all that much about Benedict for a while. But then I had to choose a patron saint for confirmation. I still preferred the Latin crispness of Benedict’s name. Now I had to come up with a reason to justify it.

When I researched him, he seemed important: all those medieval monasteries and monks. He also offered a succinct, sensible guide to life: “Ora et labora.” Pray and work. I liked it. This was as good a reason as anybody else had, probably better. I recall that my confirmation class was packed with bored Johns and Josephs and Marys who just wanted their CCD careers to be done already.

My pastor loved my choice. He was the product of a seminary run by the Benedictine monks of St. Procopius Abbey in the western suburbs. In fact, Father was so excited he urged me to consider going to college at Benedictine University, which was overseen by the same community.

As it was, I ended up at Loyola Chicago with the Jesuits. To the extent that I developed any sort of systematic spirituality, it had far more to do with Ignatius and his “consolation and desolation” than it did with Benedict and his “ora et labora.” From confirmation onward, I only acknowledged Benedict in an occasional “pray for us.”

Lately, that is starting to change.


Benedict grew up in Nursia, Italy. His was a post-apocalyptic world. The Roman Empire had just collapsed in the West. Mainland Europe was devolving into a land of illiterate bandits and feudal lords. Suffering was a way of life.

The nobility suffered less. Benedict was a noble. He had money. When he was twenty, his status bought him a life of study in Rome. Benedict was privileged and safe.

But privilege and safety, as exemplified by the company he kept, was unattractive to him. His classmates could have been the stereotypical rich college kids of a later era. They were enthralled with sex, booze and entertainment. They were giddily oblivious to the exploitation and mayhem surrounding them. They turned Benedict’s stomach. This, he must have thought, is how the world ends.

He gave into a temptation that I know well. He fled Rome. He found himself a cave in the ruined town of Subiaco and lived in it.

It was a quiet life. It didn’t stay that way. He befriended a monk named Romanus, who brought him food. Disciples gathered. They were drawn to the intense, thoughtful young man. A group of monks invited him to be their abbot.

It didn’t work out well that first time. According to the accounts I’ve read, Benedict was either so holy the monks were jealous, or so strict the monks were put off. Perhaps the first is a euphemism for the second. They tried to poison him. Benedict quit and went back to his cave.

But people kept finding him. When they found him, they stayed. They were as disgusted by society as he was. They too wanted more, wanted an alternative. Soon Benedict was an abbot again.

This time he was different and his monks were different, so it worked. And now was when Benedict came up with his stroke of genius: his rule, or guide to monastic life.

Until then, the archetypal monk had been a lone-wolf extremist, a “Desert Father” who reminded one of John the Baptist. He lived on water and an occasional piece of bread. He battled demons and dwelt alone on a pillar, preaching at gawkers in the blazing sun. Benedict suggested something more sustainable. Monks should have enough to eat, for one thing. He was also pointedly in favor of community rather than isolation.

But more than that, his rule offered a great insight. An ideal life, he taught, was composed of a variety of certain necessary and wholesome activities. You engaged in these activities according to a structured, intentional rhythm. Now you pray. Now you work. Now you study. Now you have community time. And so on.

Other leaders had planted monastic communities: Brigid, Basil, Augustine. But Benedict and his sister Scholastica, who collaborated with him and had her own following of nuns, were the right people in the right place at the right time. Their monasteries, and their rule, took off. By the time Benedict died in 547 CE at the age of sixty-seven, he had founded twelve houses, including what is still the most famous abbey in Europe, Monte Cassino. The Benedictine movement rapidly gained strength after his death.

The Dark Ages had just begun. They got very dark indeed. And there was nothing strictly “heathen” about them. Some of the worst offenders would be rampaging, pillaging “Christians” with swords. But as the lights went out, some places kept their lamps lit: places where refugees could get a blanket and a meal, places where people preserved books and scholarship, places where chanted liturgies hinted at a merciful God who still watched over the world and would make things orderly once again.

These places were monasteries. The people who lived in them and ran them were sustained by the rule, and the rhythm, of Benedict.


As I consider my future, and that of the people around me, I find a new descriptive term. We are moving into Benedictine times.

Our accustomed American consensus, like that of the teetering and tumbling Roman Empire, is finished. As Barbara Ehrenreich reflects in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream:

Middle-class Americans, like myself…have been raised with the old-time Protestant expectation that hard work will be rewarded with material comfort and security. This has never been true of the working class, most of which toils away at wages incommensurate with the effort required. And now, the sociologists agree, it is increasingly untrue of the educated middle class that stocks our corporate bureaucracies. As sociologist Robert Jackall concluded, “Success and failure seem to have little to do with one’s accomplishments.”

Our private national universe depended on infinite economic growth, which was the same as the infinite ascent of stock prices. This in turn depended on infinite consumer spending financed by infinite consumer debt, itself financed by an infinite phalanx of cubicle jobs. If you poked farther, you found all of it required infinite natural resources, produced by a planet that agreeably declined to heat up when we polluted it. And everything, finally, was yielded to us by quiet indigenous peoples who got out of the way when we took what we wanted. That glorious bubble, always an illusion for the poor, is fast popping for the rest of us.

It will be harder to make a living, and distractions will be increasingly inaccessible. What will be left is to make a life, or die. And we will find, as I am finding, that a worthwhile life is a rhythm of basic things: a personal and communal spiritual life; the work it takes to maintain the scarce resources entrusted to us; the studying and teaching of wisdom; the love that only a community can provide; and the need to open our communities in hospitality to the burdened and the stranger, lest we grow stale and choke ourselves.

The form of these things will change. Their substance will not. We must rediscover old sources and old masters.

So I cling to my patron saint more than ever. And I am convinced that if not just people and things and places have patrons, but ages and eras too, then one of the patrons of the coming days will be Benedict.


One thought on “The rule of Benedict

  1. Pingback: 2014: Year in review | Justin Sengstock

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