Joan Chittister, The Rule of St. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century
New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010.
I first read a book on monastic spirituality almost by accident. I resonated with the sincerity in their search for God and the thirst for authenticity I saw in their words. Yet I was repelled by a way of life, an intensity of practice that seemed impossible in my own world. Sure, I could drop everything and go live in a monastery, but I had a gut feeling my then-fiancé would not appreciate that very much. I also wasn’t sure how I was going to afford my student-loan payments while living under a vow of poverty.
When I finally turned to other people, scholars and mentors, for help with this tension I received advice not unlike much of what Joan Chittister offers in this book. Not everyone is called to the monastic life (not by a long shot), but there is something that attracts all of us, so the task is to figure out the core of what their words are about, and to work towards that end in our own time and circumstance. Joan Chittister’s, Rule of St. Benedict offers us the wisdom of Benedict distilled for us in this day and age, from someone who has spent a lifetime reading and applying this rule.
St. Benedict’s Rule has been around for centuries. It was, however, written from the standpoint of Christian faith for a particular community, a very unusual community. For some reason this book has maintained vitality still today. A simple amazon.com search for Benedict’s Rule shows an abundance of translations along with a number of interpretations for everything from business leaders to everyday living. Chittister’s translation and commentary stands out among these interpretations not only for her attention to history and context—which often alleviates some difficulties in understanding Benedict—but also her fundamental wisdom that comes from years of experience with this text.
Chittister takes the Rule in small chunks and proceeds to explain the heart of what Benedict wrote. Along the way we are treated to wisdom from the contemplative traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and even Buddhism. Its important to understand that this is what Chittister is doing—explaining the heart—because there is sometimes a disjunction between what Benedict says and how Chittister explains it. Several times Chittister will say something almost opposite, or even neglectful, of the exact words of Benedict. But this should not be understood as an unfaithful reading. Far from it, when Chittister diverges from Benedict it is still in keeping with the core ideals that are behind Benedict’s particular application.
What is astonishing about her work is how she manages to pull insight out of some of the most obscure parts of Benedict’s Rule. A huge portion of the Rule is devoted to activities and duties of exclusive concern to 5th century Italian monastic communities. The way, for instance, Chittister manages to explain something as idiosyncratic as Benedict’s comments on kitchen staff without, at the same time, making the reader completely lost, is a testimony to the value of her understanding of Benedict’s Rule and wisdom for life today.
The thing that stood out to me was the way in which the rules for life in a monastic community from antiquity still showed fresh vitality for public life today. Chittister often makes it a point to demonstrate how Benedict’s words critique and potentially heal many of the problems common to ordinary life today.
Another thing that struck me was the way Chittister points out that the Rule is so always full of exceptions. On the face of it the Rule is…rule-ish. But Chittister goes to great lengths to highlight the many ways in which Benedict is concerned with the heart or purpose of his words than with rigid mimicry. In fact it feels like Chittister is constantly pleading in her commentary for the reader to interpret the Rule beyond the stereotypes of monasticism that words like “rule” evoke: austere, severe, unsympathetic, inhuman. After reading Chittister’s commentary and explanations it is impossible to make those assumptions. She gets us to the genius of Benedict’s Rule, which is simply the necessary, if dynamically different, measures by which true and full human life can be lived.
If we want to have a spiritual life, we will have to concentrate on doing so. Spirituality does not come by breathing. (4)
The problem is that there is a lot of life that dulls the senses. Too much money can make us poor. Too much food can make us slow. Too much partying can make us dull. Only the spiritual life enervates the senses completely. (19)
The function of an abbot or prioress, of leaders and spouses everywhere, is not so much to know the truth as to be able to espy it and recognize it in the other when they hear it. (53)
What Benedict wants is simply that we keep trying. Failures and all. Pain and all. Fear and all. The God of mercy knows what we are and revels in weakness that tries. (66)
Real obedience depends on wanting to listen to the voice of God in the human community, not wanting to be forced to do what we refuse to grow from. (72-3)
We are each an ember of the mind of God and we are each sent to illumine the other through the dark places of life to sanctuaries of truth and peace where God can be God for us because we have relieved ourselves of the ordeal of being god ourselves. (95)
The more we know ourselves the gentler we will be with others (98)
Even the desire to pray is the grace to pray. The movement to pray is the movement of God in our souls. (104)
Simplicity is also the basis of human community. Common ownership and personal dependence are the foundations of mutual respect. If I know that I literally cannot exist without you, without your work, without your support, without efforts in our behalf, without your help, as is true in any community life, then I cannot bury myself away where you and your life are unimportant to me. (166)
People who give too much attention to the body give too little attention to anything else. They make themselves the idol before which they worship and run the risk of forgetting to raise their minds to higher things because they are more intent on the rich sauces and fine meats and thick desserts that fill their days than to the gaping emptiness in their minds and hearts and souls. (180)
Exceptions. Exceptions. Exceptions. The Rule of Benedict is full of rules that are never kept, always shifting, forever being stretched. Only two Benedictine principles are implied to be without exception: kindness and self-control. (186)
The first principle of Benedictinism, too, is to do what we must be done with special care and special zeal so that doing it can change our consciousness and carve our souls into the kind of beauty that comes from simple things. It is so easy to go through life looking feverishly for special ways to find God when God is most of all to be found in doing common things with uncommon conscientiousness. (193-94)
We must always grasp for what we cannot reach, knowing that the grasping itself is enough. (241)
The spiritual life is not a set of exercises appended to our ordinary routine. It is a complete reordering of our values and our priorities and our lives. (247)
Life costs. The values and kitsch and superficiality of it take their toll on all of us. No one walks through life unscathed. It calls to us for our hearts and our minds and our very souls. It calls to us to take life consciously, to put each trip, each turn of the motor, each trek to work in God’s hands. Then, whatever happens there, we must remember to start over and start over and start over until, someday, we control life more than it controls us. (288)