In place of having only a vague sense of what this or that word means, it is very helpful to know where a particular word came from and how it is best understood. “Spirituality” is one such word, directly related to the name we give to the third person of the blessed Trinity. While lengthy scholarly studies have been written about Christian spirituality in general, the term refers primarily to a life lived under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as sisters and brothers of Christ, daughters and sons of the Father. But this Gospel-inspired, Trinitarian way of life has branched into various forms over the centuries.
Service in Love
One of the more popular types today is the Benedictine, about which at least 20 books have been written in recent decades. What all of these books have in common is that they are rooted in the Rule for Monasteries that St. Benedict of Nursia composed in Italy in the middle of the sixth century. A traditional Benedictine motto is Ora et labora, “Pray and work,” which implies that this way of Christian living puts a premium on a community of persons coming together regularly for prayer and also working hard not just to earn their living but also, even mainly, to serve others, whether by teaching, giving spiritual direction, or producing things — whether books, foodstuffs or devotional objects, even works of art — that are of real service to others.
However, in this brief introduction, it will be best to concentrate not on the various kinds of work that persons do within the stream of Benedictine spirituality, but rather on the way they relate to one another. This is treated most succinctly in one particular chapter of St. Benedict’s Rule, a chapter that many consider the most inspiring description of how that saint taught we can best live as disciples of Jesus. The chapter deals with what St. Benedict calls “the good zeal that separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life.” Throughout its mere 150 words, he writes about Benedictine life not in the sense of an individualistic relationship between oneself and God but rather about the way we deal with one another so that Christ may one day “bring us all together to everlasting life.” This means that Benedictine spirituality is marked by that most central of all Christian virtues: love, a word that appears four times in this short chapter.
Lest anyone conclude that St. Benedict is simply talking about loving feelings, he spells out the nitty-gritty nature of this love, and this holds true whether one finds oneself in a monastery, a family home or a workplace. For one thing, unlike many later religious orders or congregations that are highly centralized, with the members possibly being assigned to one place for a time and then to another part of the country or world a few years later, Benedictine spirituality is marked by what the Rule calls stabilitas, stability. Benedictine monks and nuns join a particular community, with the intention of making that their home for the rest of their life. While laypersons may frequently move from place to place during their lifetime, even then Benedictine spirituality will call them to loving relationships with those with whom they live or work, wherever that may be.
St. Benedict’s clearheaded understanding of human nature led him to pull no punches in discussing what building such relationships involves. For all of the joy and peace that can at times arise unexpectedly from living in any community, he knew that differences in personality, background and interests can prove challenging. Things will not always go just the way we would prefer. It is for this reason that St. Benedict urges us to “support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior.”
When he immediately adds that we are to “compete in obedience to one another,” this is not a matter of someone’s giving orders or directives that another person must follow. Rather, obedience here goes back to the root meaning of that word, coming from a Latin verb meaning “to hear.” The obedience that is most characteristic of Benedictine spirituality involves what the saint elsewhere calls listening “with the ear of the heart,” that is, being sensitive to the needs of another person, making oneself ready and willing to respond even if the other person has given no verbal request for help. It’s a matter of being available to others, putting up with their occasional bad moods or other personal deficiencies, even as we must humbly acknowledge similar limitations in ourselves.
In that chapter on good zeal, St. Benedict also mentions what might sometimes seem truly heroic but will ideally become almost second nature: pursuing not what you judge better for yourself but instead what seems better for someone else, above all for someone with whom you live or work. This might be especially called for if that other person is sick or elderly, for it is especially in such persons that one can live out what Jesus asks of each of his followers in the parable of the sheep and goats: visiting and caring for persons in need and finding that in so doing one is serving Christ himself.
To conclude, the monastic historian David Knowles once wrote the following memorable sentence that sums up this core aspect of Benedictine spirituality: “As a member of a family, the Benedictine comes to realize that charity is often better than zeal and sacrifice; that it is ill quarrelling in a small boat on a long voyage; that he must accept from his brothers what they have and not demand from them what they lack; and that many things are healed by time.”
Abbot James A. Wiseman, O.S.B. serves as fifth abbot of St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, D.C.