Does St. Benedict’s Rule have anything to offer us today? Esther de Waal’s, A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict

DSC00671Esther de Waal, A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1995.

The Rule of St.Benedict is a tiny little book, no more than 100 pages; filled with rules for monastic life. The rules outline everything from the seemingly mundane, for example, the amount of food given at mealtimes, how to dress and groom yourself, setting a table, how to handle utensils, how much sleep to get, and how to maintain a hospitable environment without sacrificing boundaries, to the more divine concerns of monastic life: daily worship, silence, and prayer ritual.  It really is a manual of how a monastery should function.  And, if we thought of it as just pertaining to a monastery then we would not need to read the Rule at all, especially since many of us are living in what we believe to be the very opposite of a monastery.

Here is where Esther de Waal enters with A Life-Giving Way: Commentary on the Rule of fullsizeoutput_766St. Benedict. First, she reminds us that Benedict was not a priest and monasteries were generally for laypeople. Second,  she reads the Rule as a guideline that can be understood and applied to our efforts to live within families, and workplaces, and communities.  God is with us, and his voice can be found outside the walls of the monastery is the message. But, just as much as the message is God is with us, there is the question of knowing how to feel God’s presence or hear God’s voice. So, de Waal speaks to some of our anxieties through her very personal reading of the the Rule of St. Benedict.

“It is listening to the voice of God wherever that may be found. What a total demand this is, how fundamental, how far reaching. If I could be selective, I might do quite well. But Benedict has no time for the easy option. If he is leading me to wholeness, it is impossible unless there is a complete opening up of myself to the voice of God in the many and varied ways in which he is reaching out to me. ” (p.38 chapter 5)

When I first read the Rule I was amazed by this slim book. Benedict points not to himself, but to the Bible for how to live a life in Christ. There are so many Gospel and Bible citations that one must stop often to think about what Benedict’s goal really is. But, its constant return to Scripture is for de Waal foundational to an interior journey, “a process that will never end, yet one that does not necessarily involve the familiar pattern of movement toward some successful and predetermined goal”(p.45). The end result, and perhaps goal, if any, is to regain a wholeness of “body as well as mind and spirit” (46). More than faith, it seems to me a desire to know yourself as well as live the words we often hear in church or silently pray is fundamental. Time and time again, we are confronted with the demand to lose ourselves in order to know ourselves.

St. Paul’s, “pray without ceasing” is the cornerstone of Benedict’s Rule. Nonetheless, while St. Benedict wants his monks to pray the psalms, it is not only written prayer he considers as prayer, but everything they do, everything they touch, feel, think, is prayer. Reading St. Benedict’s Rule through Esther de Waal brings out the holistic approach to worship that Benedict was trying to achieve. Written for monastic life, the Rule read by itself lacks the community of monks who would normally be the flesh of the practice and thus give it a three dimensional support. Trying to work through it alone can be, at times, tedious. For this reason, de Waal’s Commentary is crucial in gaining an insight into why it might be helpful and even necessary in a world and age such as ours to follow the Rule, which was written 1500 years ago,

I am a practicing catholic, and I must say, the Catholic religion itself does not do a good enough job explaining St. Paul’s “pray without ceasing” for the lay person. I was surprised by how much Esther de Waal’s Commentary brought out what I had once thought to be the goal only of Buddhism’s meditation, which is essentially, life as prayer or life as meditation.  I suppose, if we think of the beginning of John’s Gospel, it is the “word made flesh”. If your life is prayer then it makes sense that everything in it is sacred, and ought to be treated as such. All places within the monastery are sacred and all visitors are to be greeted as Christ and all things are to be handled with care because when we interact and when we handle things we are praying.  For this reason, Benedict took care and much time to write a rule for everything. We are always praying. If we can remain awake to life as prayer then we have opened our heart’s ear to God — this is what I’m hearing from Esther de Waal.

“I can also see that the three preceding chapters have been trying to help form in me the attitude that is to underlie the art of praying: the fear of the Lord, the total dependence on God, the constant awareness of God’s presence, the demand of continual perseverance and patience, and, above all, the motivation of love. The whole end of life is to hear the Word and respond to it. The whole of my life is to become prayer.” (p.56 Chapter Eight)

Esther de Waal takes this complicated little book that is filled with rules and scripture citations, and turns it into an inspiring mystical text. The Rule itself is sometimes off-putting in its severe simplicity, and disciplinary tactics. But de Waal has a conversation with herself as she contemplates each chapter and basically thinks aloud as she searches for the light in each word of St. Benedict. She gives practical responses to monastic restrictions that would seem unable to be achieved in the home.  For instance, chapter 33 deals with monks owning things. It would be easy in a monastery to make the case for communal life with few possessions by monks. At home it is a different living situation. But, de Waal urges us to think of this chapter as addressing the more general vice, avarice. She writes,

“Benedict is forcing me to see that it is not so much possessions in themselves that concern him, as the danger that they are, or can become, the vehicles for relations between people. They can lead me to trust and to love, or they can lead me on to more and more acquisitiveness, and thus to greed, envy, resentment, competitiveness, bitterness. Rather than let any of this start to spread in my life, I should cut it out.” (p.100)

DSC02519 2Again, what does this have to do with living in the real world where we are busy with jobs, children, friends, and the unceasing news that streams in from our electronic apparatuses, and that is accessible at any moment? How can one keep up with all the demands the Bible makes on human beings to love one another when mostly we are being prodded to become enraged from all sides? One click on a news website and we can quickly close the hearts that we wanted so dearly to open.  In our numbness we browse everything at once — everything laid out for our consumption in a glossy format of photos and video footage of everything from the ice melting in the Arctic to the best way to grill a hamburger. It comes at us in a speed we cannot comprehend and with few exceptions it is presented as if it all had the same value. It is stunningly out of sync with life itself, which in an odd way is all about worrying about the Arctic and wondering about the next meal; yet we are mesmerized by the show so much that it often feels as if it is not life at all that we are viewing, and that we are not here living with these concerns, but rather that we are merely watching as if we were perpetually sitting in our living rooms watching the television or sleeping and in a constant state of REM.

How then, do we pause to listen to God’s voice when life, with all its contradictory concerns no longer seems real? How do we awake?

Interestingly, Benedict himself was living during the fall of the Roman Empire. He  sought a way to live a life different from the norm by walking away from the typical corrupt grind in Rome. He lived and prayed in a cave for several years and eventually dedicated himself to founding and establishing monasteries. Through his experiences, and because there was a need for well written rules he wrote what is now known as the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule begins with a beautiful and compelling prologue, exhorting us to “Listen!” followed by seventy-three chapters. Some of these chapters are no longer than a paragraph and some are a few pages. They are guidelines, written always with the demand found in one of the first five books of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy, “to love God with all our hearts,” and always with the knowledge that we are loved.


“Listen!” I could take that as a summary of the whole of Benedict’s teaching. I could spend the rest of my life pondering on the implications of that one word. It plunges me at once into a personal relationship. It takes me away from the danger of talking about God and not communing with him. Here is a person seeking another person in dialogue. Right at the very beginning then, it is good to ask myself how I hear God. I must remember that it is an encounter, not a form of activity. The Pharisees, after all, studied the Scriptures and yet had not heard God’s voice. God’s voice is everywhere in the prologue. The whole idea of vocation, whatever form that vocation may take, implies the response to a call. If I am to live up to my vocation I must go on listening for this voice. (p. 3 prologue).

What Esther de Waal does is to get right in there at every page, making herself vulnerable as she reads the text and tries to bring it into her world.  With every rule that appears as if it were only meant for a secluded monk who is rather lucky to have walked away from it all, de Waal succeeds in reminding us to take heed if we desire to awaken to life, rather than watch it play-out phantasmagorically on the screen. If we want to build our lives centered on listening to God’s word, then she offers us Benedict’s Rule as the best time-tested guide there is.

Chapter after chapter Esther de Waal generously responds to Benedict’s Rule, anticipating our questions and quandaries.

“How do I know what is God’s will? Where do I begin to find it, search it out? Benedict continues to develop this point: it lies in the imitation of Christ’s own obedience. When I turn to look at Christ, I see that in his life the motive force is love, which is, of course, the point that Benedict is making.” (p.48-49)

We need structure. We need guidance. We need, as de Waal reminds us, each other.  We are not alone and nor are we meant to go it alone.

“I am brought back to one of the most vital of all the threads that run through the Rule: the tension of the individual and the community, the separate and together, solitary and shared. I am inserted into a set of concentric circles — marriage, family, work, parish, wider interests — and I have a responsibility to play my part in all of these. Much of this may involve dull and mundane demands when I would prefer things to be more exciting or rewarding. But to walk in step with others inserts me into a common humanity and earths me into the reality of ordinary life from which Benedict never wants us to escape.” (p.53 chapter 7)

The result of de Waal’s lectio divina of each chapter is the realization that you do not have to live in a monastery to create a sacred space in your world, and you do not have to live in a monastery to live your life as prayer. Her work settles the reader and  inspires us to begin in a place we never thought we would, that is, right where we are.

In the end, a life of prayer becoming a life as prayer does not mean you forget about the world; rather it means you can approach the world and give wholeheartedly without losing yourself in the tumult.

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