This paper was presented on April 1st at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas during the 2017 Symposium on the Advancement of the New Evangelization.
“Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart…To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.”¹
Benedict begins the prologue of his sixth century monastic rule with a call to battle. Who are we fighting? What are we fighting for? The Christian religion is predicated upon the battle against the self, for the sake of the self. The person of Jesus Christ exemplifies the path of self-denial that all Christians are called to take up. His model has been continued throughout Christendom by people who witness to the way in which the battle against one’s self-will allows for one to live a fully integrated life. This seemingly paradoxical path is what Christ distinguishes from the wider path that the “World” takes. Whereas the Christian path denies the self in order to affirm God-who alone has the capacity to fully affirm the value of the individual’s life-the path of the World affirms the self and denies God, thereby denying the true dignity of the individual. The alluring deceptiveness of the latter path often tempts pilgrims on the former to stray away from the truer affirmation of their humanity. Thus the need arises to preserve the purity of this path from the ways of the World.
The Church, whose path is both consistent and eternal in nature, must always be at the ready to respond to the new and ever shifting changes in directions of secular society. What form should the Church’s response to contemporary society take? Considering the fact that many have expressed interest in returning to the Rule of Benedict as a starting point for developing this response, what does Benedict offer 21st century Christians as they work out the complexities and nuances of their relationship with secular society? In this paper, I will examine the cultural implications of Benedictine asceticism by reflecting on my experience as a teacher at a Benedictine high school.
The Christian conception of the human person integrates the aforementioned paradoxical paradigm: man’s dignity is given by God, and to affirm himself, he must first deny himself and strive toward God. This integral humanism is a gift that has been bestowed upon mankind by Christianity’s unique anthropology. As a means to promote the dignity of the person, the Church proposes a universal call to detachment from the self and from the world. This ascetical call is manifested in the liturgical rhythms and spiritual practices given to us by the Church. These aspects of the Christian tradition ultimately strive to establish a space for man to grow in awareness of the gratuitous nature of his own existence and of reality: everything is given by a divine “You.” My “I” does not exist fully and freely without being in relationship with this You. Our Lord Himself reminds us that “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). The ascetical call is lived out in a variety of forms, but is perhaps most prominently lived out in monastic communities. Since early Christendom, monks and nuns have been living out this call in its full radicality, thus serving as exemplars to the rest of their Christian brethren.
In front of the temptation to construct his own measure and to perceive himself as self-sustaining, the Church calls man to asceticism as a means to protect him from the eternal hunger that results from a diet that consists of “bread alone.” The pervasiveness of the use of technology in the modern world has led to what Pope Francis calls in his encyclical Laudato Si a “technocratic paradigm.” Because of his reliance on technology, modern man has begun to conceive of his own existence and all of reality according to a technological worldview which, according to Romano Guardini, asserts “power [as] its motive – a lordship over all,” thus propelling him to “[seize] hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”².
In his seminal work Introduction to Christianity, Cardinal Ratzinger examines the trajectory of this technological mentality which stems from the early roots of the modern era. Because of man’s limitedness, he can strive toward, but not possess, eternal Truth. Driven by the desire for absolute certainty, early modern philosophers like Descartes and Giambattista Vico began proposing a different mode of relating to reality and truth: verum quia faciendum-we can only know what we ourselves have made³. According to Ratzinger, this shift marks the beginning of the modern period, in which man seeks to build a new existence for himself upon the “dry land” of facts and empirical knowledge⁴.
Whereas modern philosophy asserts the primacy of the “makable” (that which is produced or constructed) over the “made” (that which is given), Christianity asserts the inverse: man’s capacity to work and act freely in society can only be the result of having contemplated the factum, that which is given, and having entered into relationship with the Giver. The proposal of the Christian ascetic tradition places a significant emphasis on what Josef Pieper, in his widely renowned work Leisure: the Basis of Culture, refers to broadly as leisure: “an attitude of inactivity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen.” Leisure is not opposed to work, but rather exists on a distinct plane which transcends the “world of work.” This plane is receptive in nature. When engaging in leisure, the human person steps away from the world of work, though not turning her back on it, and sits in silent contemplation in front of the givenness of reality. This receptive attitude is “the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation”⁵. In her leisure time, she begins to perceive the “work world” as a created world. Her work thus becomes an invitation to participate in the work of the Creator. The opposite of a technocratic worldview which places the faciendum above the factum, the call to engage in leisure time opens “the soul of man [to be] visited by an awareness of what holds the world together.” Without heeding the ascetical call to leisure, the human person becomes a slave to the technocratic paradigm which devalues leisure.
In a world that fixates on the temporal dimension of man and diminishes his freedom to explore the fullness of his integral nature, where can he turn to find refuge? Where can his humanity be set free? Perhaps this is the place for the Church’s monastic tradition to offer some of its gifts to the modern world. The monastery has served as a beacon of light to humanity since its dawn in early Christendom. The monastery is a sanctuary for humanity-a place which models and educates integral humanism through its ontological make up. The essence of the monastic life is predicated upon the “receptive orientation” to reality that Pieper advocates in Leisure. By taking radical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, monastics recall humanity to the fact that man can live on neither bread, sex, nor power alone. Monks and nuns embody the paradoxical path of Christianity by fostering the flourishing of their own communities through their radical detachment from the temporal realm. This renunciation is precisely what allows them to affirm the truth of the temporal realm and thus to live fully human lives. The abundance of fruit born in the monastery overflows into the surrounding culture by giving life to the local Christian community and oftentimes by serving as a witness to the secularized society within which they exist.
Benedict’s sixth century monastic movement began as a response to the turmoil of the sociocultural context in which he found himself. By retreating from said culture, his movement generated a dynamic force which both revived the life of the Roman Church as well as European culture as a whole. Benedict speaks in the prologue of his Rule about “establishing a school in the Lord’s service”⁶. What better way to approach the “Benedict Option” than by reflecting upon my work as a teacher at a Benedictine high school? St. Mary’s Abbey was established by a group of German Benedictines led by Fr. Boniface Wimmer in 1857 to respond to the needs of Newark’s growing German Catholic community. The monks opened St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in 1868 to serve the parish’s high school age boys. After dramatic cultural shifts in the surrounding neighborhood which eventually led to the Newark race riots, the school closed in 1972 and reopened again a year later, receiving a majority of African American students. How does the intrinsic “ascetical need” manifest itself today in Newark, New Jersey, which happens to be one of the top ten murder capitals in the country? If monasteries serve as exemplars of asceticism, then what does Saint Benedict’s Prep have to offer the people of Newark as a monastery school?
The basic structure of our school is predicated upon Benedict’s encouragement to the elder members of the monastic community in the third chapter of the Rule to keep an open ear to the contributions of the younger⁷. Our headmaster often half-jokingly quips that “our school is run by kids.” While we do have the standard adult structure of leadership in place, we also create opportunities for students to hold leadership positions and to play an active role in making important decisions for the community. The school is divided into eighteen groups, consisting of students from every grade, that are named after significant figures in the history of the school. Each group is lead by two upperclassmen and a faculty moderator. The group leaders are exhorted with the task of helping students who are falling behind academically, addressing behavioral issues, and fostering a sense of brotherhood in the group as a whole. It is also the group leaders’ task to keep track of which students are absent, the reason of their absence, and to report this to the headmaster on a daily basis.
Our student leadership system makes it close to impossible to conceive of your presence in the school on individualistic terms. The school’s motto “whatever hurts my brother hurts me, whatever helps my brother helps me” is posted throughout the school to remind our students that they are not autonomous beings whose choices, accomplishments, and failures only impact themselves. Recalling St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the whole school suffers when you suffer and rejoices when you rejoice because we all belong to one collective body. Many of our students react adversely to this aspect of our community when they first discover its implications. The intensely individualistic spirit with which they were formed is challenged dramatically by the communitarian spirit that is intrinsic to Christianity, and especially so to Benedictine communities. For example, one of my students’ phone was stolen after leaving it in the cafeteria. The senior leader (who holds the highest student leadership position in the school) decided that the whole school would meet in the auditorium after school and remain there until the person who stole the phone returned it. So quite literally, what hurt one of the brothers impacted the rest of the brothers. Students’ resistance to this aspect of our community begins to soften when they realize just how valuable and necessary co-suffering and co-rejoicing is for their own lives. One of my seniors, whose mother died while he was in the midst of the violently stressful college application process, was able to depend on his brothers not only for moral support, but for help with planning the funeral (which was held at our school), with raising money to pay for the burial costs, and with helping him to catch up on the work that he missed.
My students are further challenged by the proposals of prayer and silence. One half of the basis of Benedictine community life (ora et labora) is that of prayer. This continuous dialogue with the Divine, which sustains the vivacity and fruitfulness of the monastic community, penetrates the life of the school in various forms. This includes days of reflection and Mass on Holy Days, praying lauds together as a school on a daily basis, and our weekly lectio divina session during our group period.
My students generally judge the value of their time by the extent to which it is spent productively, and their work by the success or impact of the result. This functionalistic orientation to time and work that prizes utility over meaning and self-realization tends toward the “technocratic” mentality that the Pope has noted is characteristic of contemporary secular culture. I refer to this mentality more simply as “robot mode.” I call my students out on entering into robot mode when I see them fixating on their GPA, their SAT score, or which colleges have accepted or rejected them…I’ll also do this when I see their faces glued to the screen of a laptop or mobile device, or when they feel the urge to send a Snapchat of themselves doing something as mundane as throwing out garbage. Robot mode results from placing productivity (or faciendum) above the factum, that which is given. When I’m in robot mode, I view the student who comes into my room asking for help not as a human being with whom I am being asked to enter into a relationship, but as a mere task that I need to check off of my to-do list. When a student in robot mode fails a test, he views his value as a person as having been diminished by his inability to “do”-to perform or produce-enough.
This is precisely why prayer and silence are such destructive forces against the way in which we typically perceive our work and time. Prayer and silence are a waste of time. They don’t “do” anything…productive, that is. Prayer is not useful…for robots. But what is it that makes a human distinct from a robot, and what has prayer to do with this? I often find that while silently reading Scripture with my students, they start to get antsy. They’ll fidget, cough, do anything to break that silence. “What’s up with you,” I’ll jest, “is 5 minutes in silence going to kill you?!” “I don’t like what I start to think about when it’s quiet,” some students will respond. When you spend time in silence, you begin to recognize that need for more, that need for meaning, a meaning which you can’t construct for yourself or purchase. It’s easier to distract yourself from that need-that infinite yearning which Augustine says will only find rest in God-when checking your Snapchat and acting like a robot.
Prayer fulfills an educative function in that it provokes us to delve deeper into our humanity and to enter into dialogue with the Giver of all that exists. The further I delve into that dialogical contemplation, the more I discover the purpose of my work and of my own existence. Who am I? Why do I go to school? What’s the point of this Calculus test? What does this mean, if anything, for me and my desire for happiness? Without ora, labora remains an inhumane imposition. The educative dimension of prayer is continued through offering more “useless” gestures like religion class. Many dread coming to my religion class because it “won’t help me get a better score on my SAT.” Others dread it because I make them “think”-meaning I make them look beneath the surface of reality. One student in particular stands out, who has a 4.0 GPA and a five-year plan set for himself. But the minute I ask him why he strives to do well in school and why he wants to go to a good college-what’s the meaning behind it all-his self-constructed certainty shatters. “I don’t like coming to your class because you force me to face the fact that I don’t have all of the answers.” “Good!” I respond. “It’s better to face that fact and to start looking for a real answer than to lie to yourself.” Religion class may be a waste of time, but at least it helps you to discover the truth of who you are as a human. Not only this, but in talking about these existential questions, contemplating them in silence, and bringing them to God in prayer, we create a space to enter into true unity with each other and with God. You may brag about how many followers you have on Instagram, but with how many people do you share the most intimate questions and desires that plague your existence? Without creating that space where your deepest human needs are freely expressed, it’s impossible to enter into truly intimate human relationships-thus the humanizing power of prayer and silence.
Ultimately, students who enter into our community are met with the proposal that their dignity and identity are determined not by what they have, what they have accomplished, or what they look like, but by the fact that they exist-the fact that their life has been given, and that their life is made in the image and likeness of the One who gave them life. They are reminded of this whenever we close a meeting or class period with the Benedictine tradition of bowing to each other and exchanging the salutations: “Christ among us,” “He is ever shall be.” Students are taught that this practice is a form of reverence to the presence of Christ in each other⁸. The further they enter into the love that sustains the dynamic of our community, they will discover the presence of Christ, the man who affirms and communicates to them the fullness of their humanity, which accounts for their talents and strengths just as much as their weaknesses and shortcomings. Their identity is not something to be constructed like a machine, their dignity is not something that they must merit for themselves, or that is predetermined by their race or social status. Rather, their identity and dignity are gifts to be received and discovered through belonging to a Body whose Origin transcends itself.
It is in this regard that our school fulfills Benedict’s words in the prologue of the Rule-that Benedictine monasteries exist for the sake of establishing a dominici schola servitii, a school for the Lord’s service. The etymology of this phrase is particularly revealing in light of what has been said about the basic structure of our school. Scholae, which is derived from the Greek σχολή, indicates “rest” or “leisure.” Through the proposal of a life centered in true leisure, the contemplation of the Divine, conjoined to labor, we are educated to understand our true identity as human beings and our ultimate vocation in service of the divine Will.
St. Benedict’s Prep is only one of the many institutions which are bringing the light of Christian Truth in its ascetical dimension to Newark. The Benedictine life shines this light in a unique way in so far as it preserves the integral view of the person drawing particular attention to his need to receive the factum through a common life devoted to the contemplation of things Divine. This ascetical proposal is increasingly necessary in a world bogged down by a technocratic culture that asserts sola faciendum as its credo.
Benedictines are faced with a risky dilemma in that they are charged with the exhortation to “meet guests with all charitable service”⁹. Our school used to be patronized by Irish, German, and Italian Catholic young men, that is, before the 1970s Newark race riots, after which we started to receive mostly Black and Hispanic students, very few of whom were Catholics or even Protestant Christians. Today, our student body consists of merely 30% Catholics, few of whom are formally evangelized or catechized. And whether or not they are practicing Catholics, their consciences have been formed by a technocratic secular culture which educates them to be partial human beings by negating their need to receive transcendent love.
While it may be more comfortable and convenient for the monks to close their doors to non-Catholic students, or to close their doors to the World altogether, it is contrary to their vocation as Benedictines to be inhospitable to the surrounding culture, even when that culture can be violent, both ideologically and in actuality, to the inner peace that is sustained by their Christocentric life. This is precisely how an isolationist mentality proves itself contrary to a life centered on divine charity. God’s love is characterized by its infinitude-it pours out and overflows, it cannot be contained by limitations or restraints. Love that does not overflow and that is not communicated to others is certainly not the same love in which the Trinity subsists-whose very nature is characterized by the eternal communication that occurs within the dialogical dynamic among the Persons of the Trinity. Not only would it be against the Benedictine call to hospitality, but it would be contrary to Christian charity to withhold the humanizing force of the Truth of God’s love from a culture torn apart by dehumanizing secular ideology.
Though many fear that these man-made ideologies will infiltrate the walls of our Christian communities, they lose sight of the fact that the power of our communities comes not from the strength of man-made walls, but from the bridges of divine Truth and Love, which by their very nature overcome all lies and danger. Only in receiving our neighbours and welcoming them to partake in the gift that we have received undeservedly is our Christian community fulfilled. It is only by entering into dialogue with the surrounding culture and communicating God’s love that a culture can be transformed. Though not all of our students leave the walls of Saint Benedict’s Prep as Catechism-toting Catholics, they do leave with a deeper awareness of who they are as human beings and of their divine vocation to give and receive love from Christ and our neighbours. The city of Newark continues to be plagued by violence and poverty, and it is through encountering members of Christian communities like that of our abbey and school that the culture of the city is changed, one heart at a time.
- Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1980), Prologue: 1, 3.
- Pope Francis, Laudato Si, Vatican Press, 2015, § 108.
- Ratzinger, Joseph, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J.R. Forster, New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1970, 33.
- Ibid. 35.
- Pieper, Josef, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru, New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1964, 27.
- Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue: 45.
- Ibid. 3:6.
- Ibid. 53:7.
- Ibid. 53:15.