Prayer & Work Together: The Rule of St. Benedict

St._Benedict_St. Benedict (540-604) lived in central Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries. He was born in the town of Nursia and as a young man he went to Rome for his education. The young Benedict was appalled by the secularism and hedonism that he saw. He then went into the mountains and spent some time as a hermit in a cave. His way of life and the healing miracles he performed attracted followers. Benedict was asked to be an abbot of a local monastery, but his strict rule soon led to the monks attempting to kill him. They first tried to poison his drink but when he picked up the cup the cup shattered. The monks then tried to poison his food but a raven flew in the window and snatched the bread and carried it off. The wise Benedict then left that monastery. This is most likely the reason why Benedict is some depicted with a raven.

He went on to found a string of twelve monasteries including Subiaco and most famously at Monte Cassino. It was at Monte Cassino that he wrote his famous Rule. Like earlier rules for monastic life, it depended on earlier sources such as the desert fathers but also benefited from his own wisdom and experience.

With genuine humility he called it ” a minimum Rule for beginners” and a “school for the service of the Lord” and he hoped that it would lead faithful disciples to the “loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” of other monastic authorities. The wise and humble monk wrote nothing else. His contemporaries took no note of him, at least not enough for him to be mentioned in any document of the time. What we know of his life and work comes from Book II of the sixth century Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, which Gregory says came from the testimony of contemporaries and near contemporaries of the recently dead abbot saint.

When it comes to St. Francis, one is drawn by the stories told of him which are known to Franciscan and non-Franciscan alike. They are great stories about how he embraced the leper, stripped himself of his garments, rebuilt the ruined church, gathered disciples, journeyed to the Holy Land and received the stigmata. But stories is not how Benedict is known. Gregory tells how we are drawn to the abbot:

“With all the renown he gained by his numerous miracles, the holy man was no less outstanding for the wisdom of his teaching. He wrote a Rule for monks that is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language. Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.”

Benedict was thoroughly immersed in the two hundred years of monastic tradition that preceded him and reflects it in his Rule. St. Benedict would not have seen himself as an innovator. His way was simply the monastic way. His work was to codify that way for his own community and other communities which might find his way helpful. Innovator or not, his version of the monastic tradition “was so imbued with his own wise personality that it won an acceptance which would eventually eclipse all other monastic rules.” Above all, his way was marked by moderation in all things. It was the simplicity of a life lived in common, reticence in speech, humble obedience to a spiritual master, the willingness to allow personal ambition and career to be set aside for the good of the community, work and prayer and a discipline known as lectio divina.

His Rule is famous for its codifying vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum (continual conversion). It was noteworthy for its far-sighted concern for what it would take to keep individual monks and entire monastic communities on an even keel. It was also intentionally flexible and could be adapted to different conditions. Yet it was not a manual for slackers. It was clear that even younger members were to join in in the search for perfection. But it was stern for theological reasons. Benedict writes, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods of manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” His grouping of physical and mental labor together would open the way to the monks’ great contribution to learning that would be sustained almost from the first.

At its core foundation was a commitment to prayer. And the practice of prayer was to mold a life of prayerfulness: “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent…This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” But a life of prayer, however, was not to be divorced from a life of service. There were injunctions to care for the visitor, the stranger and the sick. These laid seeds for future charitable work. From such humble beginnings would grow vast monastic enterprises attending to both the body and the soul.

The concluding words of the Rule speak to its judicious and Christ-centered character: “Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little Rule written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them.”

Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian tribes. It was the spiritual sons and daughters of Benedict  who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland” and through the law of Christ “brought stability and development to public and private institutions.”

Benedict is still important for us in the modern day. Cardinal Basil Hume says, “The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that a sense of community has to be created and constantly worked at.” He also says that we are to be a “society of people with a shared interest in each other’s welfare.” This relates to what Benedict says about good zeal: “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” And this applies to everyone. There were to be no elite or exclusiveness in the monastery. The abbot was not to show favoritism. Benedict wrote that the abbot “is to show equal love to everyone.” An abbot is to work for the good of the whole community. This also ties into the Benedictine virtue of hospitality: the monastery is to be open to all and all guests are to be welcomed as Christ himself. We are to have respect and reverence for one another. Brother Tvedten writes, “Being Benedictine means trying a little harder to show the courtesy of love for one another, to see Christ in the people with whom we live, work, and pray and to look for him even in the people with whom we disagree. The Rule has endured because it was written for people who want to dwell together in unity in the midst of their diversity. It was written for people who want to be family, community.”

In closing, there is a prayer that speaks well: “Almighty God, by whose grace St. Benedict. kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the church; inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may walk before you as children of light, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Great Evangelical Reformer: William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

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Not much was expected out of the young sickly boy from Yorkshire. After the death of his father, he was farmed out to a pious Methodist aunt in Wimbledon outside London. But his mother was not impressed by the evangelical influence, so he she took him back to Hull in Yorkshire for safe keeping. No one would have predicted that the William Wilberforce would someday return to the suburbs of London, not as a neglected child, but as the champion of human rights in Parliament.

As he grew older, the young man Wilberforce would pursue a life of debauchery, gambling, clubbing and social folly. In 1776, when the Americans were declaring their independence, the young man entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, not to pursue an education but more of a right of passage. In those days, a place like Cambridge rewarded sons of wealth with beneficial connections. The deaths of his grandfather and uncle had left him independently wealthy and did not give him any inclination towards serious study. Instead, he immersed himself in the social circles and pursued a hedonistic lifestyle enjoying cards, gambling and late night drinking. Being witty, generous and an excellent conversationalist, he was a popular figure. He had numerous friends, including the more studious future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Despite his lack of serious study, he managed to pass his exams and graduated with a B.A. in 1781 and later in M.A. in 1788. Wilberforce would later regret not taking his studies more seriously.

Another influence at Cambridge was Professor Isaac Milner, who saw great hidden talent that was laying dormant in the unmotivated young man. He invited his gifted student to join him on holiday in Europe in 1784. The two would kill time between tourist stops by reading the Greek New Testament. Under Milner’s direction, the young Wilberforce blossomed spiritually. Upon returning to London, he sought the advice of John Newton of Amazing Grace fame. Newton’s vibrant combination of abolitionist reform along with strong Christian principles had a profound impact upon Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce had considered a political career while at Cambridge and in 1780, while still a student, was elected the MP for Kingston upon Hull. Later in 1784, he was elected the MP for Yorkshire, at the age of 24. Following his conversion, Wilberforce considered leaving public life. But Newton and Pitt both counseled him to stay in public life and Wilberforce resolved to do so “with increased diligence and conscientiousness.” He dedicated his life to the “suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners in England.” The political fight was not an easy one. There was significant opposition from conservative business interests in both houses of Parliament. But Wilberforce was convinced of the justice of the cause. In a speech in the House of Commons in 1791, he said:

“Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied. This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labor, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country.”

Having failed in convincing Parliament to pass legislation by presenting evidence of the evils of slavery, Wilberforce, Pitt and their allies changed tactics and started a broad grass roots campaign to arouse public opinion to force Parliament to act. The campaign drew the support of leaders such as John Wesley. In fact, the last letter Wesley wrote in 1791 was to Wilberforce urging not give up the fight against the slave trade.

Such support from the Christian community was both effectual and vital. In 1792, Wilberforce called for petitions supporting his bill in the Commons to abolish the slave trade and the petitions gathered more than 300,000 signatures including 229,000 from Methodists alone. In 1807, the trafficking of slaves was abolished. But Wilberforce did not stop there; he and his fellow abolitionists wanted slavery outlawed completely in the British empire. Wilberforce gathered about 800 petitions with approximately 1 million signatures requesting that the British government to ban the slave trade run by Europeans. Due to the broad coalition of support, slavery ended in the colonial possessions by the Slavery Abolition Act just  a month before Wilberforce’s death in 1833. Nearly 800,000 African slaves were freed, the vast majority in the Caribbean.

Wilberforce suffered from declining health for most of his life and resorted to taking small amounts of opium to maintain his strength and political responsibilities. Despite these health problems, his gracious Christian testimony, affectionate nature, superior mental abilities and gift of mimicry made him popular even with his opponents. When this great evangelical reformer died in July 1833, all of London wept.

Wiilberforce had requested that he be buried with his sister and daughter in Stoke Newington, just north of London. But members of Parliaments urged that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. The family agreed and on August 3, 1833, the great statesman-saint was buried in the north transept, close to his lifelong friend William Pitt. His funeral was well attended by all of London. As people paid their respects and as Wilberforce was laid to rest, both houses of Parliament suspended their business as a mark of respect.

Wilberforce was also involved with other causes. Many philanthropic ventures attracted his attention. He was partially responsible for the foundation of the bishopric of Calcutta and for the founding and supporting of the Bible Society, Church Missionary Society and the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. He was a conspicuous member of the evangelical Clapham Sect. He generously supported various social, educational and missionary endeavors. He was also the founder of the Christian journal, the Christian Observer. 

William Wilberforce has been rightly viewed as a Christian hero, a statesman-saint who put his faith into action. There have been various memorials honoring him. In 1840, a seated statue of him by Samuel Joseph was erected with an epitaph praising his Christian character and his long work to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself. In 2006, the University of Hull established the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in a building adjoining Wilberforce’s birthplace. Various churches within the Anglican Communion commemorate him in their liturgical calendars. In 1856, the first university owned by African Americans was founded in Ohio and is named in honor of the man who helped set so many African slaves free. It is historically a black college. And of course, in 2007, the film Amazing Grace was released for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This great evangelical statesman continues to inspire to this day.

A Wonderful Pope: Gregory the Great (540-604)

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He was one of the greatest popes who ever lived. Born into an old senatorial family in Rome and educated for government service and held the highest civil office in Rome, prefect of the city at age 30. A year later he decided to devote himself to God. When he inherited his father’s wealth, he converted his father’s home into a monastery under the patronage of St. Andrew in 575 and became a monk. He would go on to build six other monasteries in Sicily. He lived in such strict abstinence and austerity that he undermined his health. He would be chosen as one of the seven cardinal deacons of Rome. It was not too long before the pope appointed him the ambassador to the imperial court at Constantinople where he served from 578 to 585. When he returned to Rome he was made abbot of a monastery he had founded earlier; he also served as ambassador to Pope Pelagius who he would succeed in 590. He was unanimously elected by the senate, clergy and the people to become the next bishop of Rome. This marked the first time monasticism ascended to the papal throne.

Gregory was a great organizer and administrator who faced a host of problems. Rome was suffering from famine exacerbated by plague. He restructured the administration of the papal estates and used the money from their income to counteract the effects of poverty and pestilence. The Lombards invaded Italy in 568 and were ravaging the countryside; Gregory negotiated a peace in 592. He did much to make the Western church strong. There was no emperor in the West and Gregory became the strong man there.

He also did much to promote missions. He sent missionaries to convert the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul (France) and the Anglo-Saxons in England. It has been said that he had seen some English boys for sale in a slave market in Rome and was impressed by their beauty. He inquired as to where they came from. When he was informed they were Anglos, Gregory replied they were not Anglos but angels. He sent St. Augustine, a monk at St. Andrew’s monastery, as leader of the missions team to England in 596. The conversion of England was one of the greatest achievements of his pontificate.

The Pastoral Care, written in 591, which explained the office and duties of bishop, became a key text for the medieval church. He also wrote many noted homilies and commentaries. These made him one of the Doctors of the Church.

Gregory’s role as the patron saint of singers arises from his work with the liturgy. Gregorian chant is named after him. He concerned himself with creating a Latin liturgy and founded a school for singers in Rome. Gregory also composed a number of prayers.

Gregory suffered from poor health for most of his life and in his last years was inflicted with gout and gastritis. He died in 604 when Rome was once again in the grips of famine and plague. Gregory’s description of himself as the “servant of the servants of God” illustrated his great humility. The use of this motto by all popes since then reflects his key position in the history of the church and the papacy. Even John Calvin referred to him as the “last good pope.” Coming from a Protestant reformer, that is high praise.