Category Archives: Benedictine

The school of the Lord’s service

Today is the feast of St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism.

Though the spirituality of St. Francis is central to my life and work, I have a tender spot in my heart for Benedict and monasticism.

Benedict was a realist. Though he began his spiritual quest in a cave in Subiaco, he began to see the importance of community life, lived in moderation. He subsequently wrote a Rule – and moved to Monte Cassino, possibly after someone tried to poison him.

Benedict’s rule moves away from the ascetic seeking heaven by mortification to a life lived with others in prayer and work – not only prayer –  in a school of the Lord’s service.

Benedict’s original idea was real equality among the monks, where everyone served:

The brethren should serve one another. Consequently, none will be excused from kitchen service unless they are sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love. . . . Let all the rest serve one another in love.

However, there later arose the distinction between the choir monks and the lay brothers who did the manual work.

This happened in other religious orders, even among the Franciscans where priests assumed the superior positions.

In some ways this is being rectified.

I remember the story of a friend who was seeking a change in life and had decided to seek it at Mount Saviour Monastery. He saw a monk working the garden and asked him where he could find the prior, Fr. Martin. The working monk was Fr. Martin.

This example of serving one another is central not only for religious life but for all of us.

As St.  Benedict also wrote:

This then is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other” (Romans 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, ad earnestly competing in obedience to one another.

A good admonition for all of us..



Washing dishes

Today, in a Facebook note, Jim Forest wrote about an encounter he had with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Jim was left to wash the dishes and was a bit annoyed that he was missing a great conversation.

As Jim wrote:

 Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling. But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

When I first read about this in the 1970s, I was deeply moved, partly because I liked to wash dishes. When I was living in New York City, this was one of the ways to get warm in a cold apartment.

But I remember the joy I had at Thanksgiving when my family went to dinner with the family of Uncle Ed and Aunt Bernie. After a big meal, I would take over washing dishes in the kitchen.

Nhat Hanh’s advice to Jim is, in one way, a call to attentiveness, to “mindfulness,” to being present to the moment. It is not far removed from Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God in a Paris Carmelite kitchen in the seventeenth century.

But it is also a reminder of the value of manual labor.

Today is the feast of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism.

After a time in Subiaco, outside Rome, first as a hermit then as the leader of several groups of monk-hermits, Benedict moved to Monte Cassino, where he wrote his rule for monks. “Ora et labora” – Pray and Work – is at the center of his rule for monks, which is really quite practical.

In chapter 35, he writes specifically about kitchen duties:

 The brethren should serve one another. Consequently, none will be excused from kitchen service unless they are sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love. . . . Let all the rest serve one another in love.

Serving one another in love – with our hands and our hearts – is central, not only to Benedictine monks and nuns, but to all who seek to follow God.

And so today, when I wash dishes – in cold water with very little water pressure – I will try to be attentive to what I do and remember that I should wash each dish “as if it were the baby Jesus.”


Prayer and images on St. Benedict’s feast

Today Benedictine monks and nuns celebrate the passing of St. Benedict, the founder [with his sister, St. Scholastica] of Western Monasticism.

Last month during my pilgrimage to Italy, I too out a day to go to Subiaco, to the monastery on the side of a hill, built around the cave where St. Benedict first retired from the world and lived as a hermit for several years.

It was not easy getting to the monastery, but I managed to get a ride from a forest ranger who looked like a monk with his long beard.

The various levels of the church are adorned with beautiful frescos (but you can’t take pictures). I tried to pray in the Sacro Speco, the Holy Cave, but found it hard. A marble statue of Benedict praying was distracting.

But beautiful images of Benedict, especially him praying with his sister, aided my prayer. (The image below is from the Yankton Benedictines blog.)

Scholastica Subiaco Prayer II

Benedict & Scholastica at prayer

What are the images that help me pray? Often icons or the frescos, like those of Fra Angelico, help me to center myself and experience the presence of God in the lives of Jesus, Mary, the saints and prophets. Often the landscape here in western Honduras opens up to me the vastness of God’s love in creating the universe. These experiences open up my heart to contemplating God.

But sometimes the face of a person, especially a poor person, reminds me of God’s presence in those at the margin of power and wealth.

Benedict savored the presence of God in prayer and work and emphasized the importance of prayer and contemplation. But he did not neglect finding God in the poor and the stranger.

As he wrote in chapter 53 of his Rule:

Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: “I was a stranger and you took Me in” (Mt 25:35)….

“Let the greatest care be shown in receiving the poor and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.”

May the example of Benedict open our hearts to God’s presence in prayer and in humble service of the poor.


Three saints and three spiritualities

September 17 is a day with many saints in the Catholic calendar.

For the Franciscans today is the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1224, about this date, on Mount Alverno, Francis had a vision of Christ as a seraph and received the marks of the wounds of the crucified Christ in his body, the first recognized stigmatist in the history of the church. The wounds remind us of Francis’ great devotion to the Crucified Lord and his deep sense of a God who became incarnate as a poor man and suffered with and for us.

For Benedictines, today is the feast of St. Hildegaard of Bingen, a medieval nun who was recently declared a doctor of the church. This amazing woman wrote mystical treatises, based on visions she had since she was a child; she also composed hymns – both words and music – and wrote on herbal remedies and other topics. She is an example of the Benedictine charisms of contemplation and hospitality. Shortly before her death her convent gave sanctuary to a young man excommunicated by the church and buried him in their cemetery. For this the convent was placed under interdict which was finally lifted.

For Jesuits, today is the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, also a doctor of the church. This early Jesuit taught and wrote in response to the controversies of his time, particularly in response to the Protestant Reformation. He sought God in all things and used his intellect to explain and defend the faith. But even after named a cardinal, he did not pull back from controversy. Much to the displeasure of  Pope Sixtus V, he held that the pope may not act regarding temporal matters except when they affect the spiritual order.

In a late work, The Art of Dying Well, he did not pull back from a pointed reflection on wealth, noting:

If anyone would contend that these superfluous goods are not to be given to the poor out of the rigor of the law, one cannot truly deny that they are to be given to them out of charity, for it matters little, God knows, whether one goes to hell for lack of justice or for lack of charity.

These three streams of spirituality have been a part of my life.

I spent several years in a Franciscan seminary in Callicoon, NY (high school and two years of college) and am now an associate of the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Family (Dubuque). I studied at two Jesuit universities – finishing my undergraduate years at the University of Scranton and getting a Ph.D from Boston College. In addition, I have greatly profited from retreats with Jesuits, as well as from reading the work of the late Jesuit priest and friend Dean Brackley, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times. At one point in my life, in grad school in the early 1970s, my faith was renewed by retreats at Mount Saviour Monastery, near Elmira, NY, where the monks live a very simple form of Benedictine life.

These three traditions have helped me deepen my faith and for this I have to thank God.