Text written by Fr. Massimo Lapponi O.S.B. English translation by Liam Kelly
(the collection begins with the twenty-fifth conversation)
The irradiance of Saint Benedict on the school
Let us think again about the experience of the young Saint Benedict. His family was undoubtedly a good provincial family of Roman and Christian tradition. The fact that his sister, Scholastica, was consecrated to God from infancy demonstrates the air of virtue and religion breathed within the family.
But on arriving in Rome for secondary school studies, the young Benedict found completely the opposite to what he had learned in the family. In particular, young people were not taught about chastity nor responsibility for the use of property, nor the self-denial of their own free will to the common good.
These faults of the schooling of the time have been extremely exacerbated in recent times. Not only is nothing taught about chastity, but, while up to a few decades ago at least respect for it was indirectly taught, for example, through study of The Betrothed, today there are programmes designed for schools which aim to teach positively, even to the smallest ones, all sexual practices, including the most perverse – see, for example, this article: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/who-sex-ed-guidelines-promote-masturbation-abortion-homosexuality-to-childr. And the same is true as regards use of property and freedom: in and for everything our society, and indirectly our schools, too, teaches young people to squander goods without any care, to claim total autonomy and to demand arrogantly a liberty which tolerates no restraint.
Returning to Saint Benedict, we can well understand that, in his situation and at the critical time in which he found himself, he was unable to think of creating a different school open to all the young people. Benedict saw no other alternative but to flee from a school which did not teach life but death and to seek refuge in God alone. To go back to his family would not have been a viable proposition to a young person who had left it to build something new, and the idea of forming a Christian family, as well as being premature, given his age, met with the objection that, in any case, the possible new family would have been living in a corrupt world.
Notice again that, if it is true that the love between a man and a woman, the availability of created goods and the freedom to desire are the three most valued rights of human dignity and happiness, it is also true that they constitute at the same time the greatest temptations which, from time immemorial, lead to abuse, to personal and social ruin, to unhappiness. It is not at all strange, therefore, that Benedict sees, as a radical remedy for a society which was preparing its young people for the abuse of love, of ownership and freedom, and therefore preparing them for ruin, the renunciation of those same goods constituted through monastic vows.
But let us remember that in fact it is a renunciation more apparent than real.
As already noted in the second conversation, Jesus promised: “Truly, I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
The first part of the promise is no less important than the second. So it is not correct, as is usually done, to underline just the promise of eternal life without giving emphasis to the promise of one hundredfold in this life. From this promise it can be understood that, in reality, the monk rediscovers the goods he has renounced at a higher and more universal level. That is demonstrated, inter alia, also by the episode of the meeting between Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica.
Undoubtedly, Saint Benedict realized, even in some embryonic fashion, that his problem with the school and the diligent youth was not just his personal issue, but concerned the very destiny of civilization, and this intuition was to accompany Benedictine monks down the centuries. In fact, in different ways, according to the needs of different eras, monasteries have sought to undertake a mission of civilization towards civil society, too. Suffice to think of the public schools organized by the Benedictine monks at least from the time of Charlemagne.
But I think today there is a need for a substantial change as regards the civil and religious mission of Saint Benedict in society. That “school of the Lord’s service” which the Saint had thought exclusively for monks, must now manifest its profound universal nature. That is to say, it is no longer about opening schools on the traditional model, even if they have foundational religious inspiration, but of bringing into state schools that substantial revolution which was born in the dramatic experience of the young Benedict and which, by its nature, was destined, if at a distance of some centuries, to tackle and correct the fundamental flaws of the traditional school.
Already Blessed Cardinal Schuster, in an address given at Montecassino on 21 March 1942, said that to render the apostolate of Saint Benedict “stable and universal in the Church, Divine Providence arranged that the Patriarch, first at Subiaco, then in this Cassinese Acropolis, opened and established a noble Schola of sanctity, where teaching the sublime art of self-renunciation to place oneself at the service of the Lord – Dominici Schola servitii – God’s future workers might be prepared for the renewal of tomorrow’s Europe”.
And he added:
“If I’m not mistaken, I think that now more than ever”, that is, after the war, “the help of the Benedictine family will be appropriate, a family which to the sciences, to the sacred arts, to the future generations of scholars and students will open up anew the doors of the abbeys, communicating to lay people, too, the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”.
If Schuster here still lingers on the intellectual aspect of Benedictine industriousness, speaking about the sciences and the sacred arts and about scholars and students, shortly afterwards he corrects himself:
“To the Lord who is once again being sought, not of course by doctors, preachers, men of brilliance, but simply by those devoted souls whom God honours with the glorious title of his workers: operarium suum, Saint Benedict invites us in the Rule to respond: here I am!».
So, “the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”, which Schuster wanted to communicate “to lay people, too”, was not, in the most profound thought of the Blessed, mainly that of the sciences and the sacred arts, but rather that “sublime art of self-renunciation to place oneself at the service of the Lord” which forms “God’s workers” and of which the school of Saint Benedict is the real bestower.
The time has now come, therefore, when from its isolation in monasteries the Benedictine school, born as a protest to the state school, flows out again into the latter to bring about its intimate transformation, for the good and salvation of civilisation.
But we must consider this programme in more detail.
School, catechesis, charity and the reform of the educational model
To think that the state school, ready to welcome the indications of the World Health Organisation about sex education, wants to comply with Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service” is undoubtedly idealistic. But things change if we consider the perspectives of the parental school, which is already becoming widespread in Italy, and the links which it could establish with our initiative “Saint Benedict and family life” and the on-line school “The twelve-star crown”. And a similar synergy could be presented with catechesis, too, in its various forms, and with charitable and social works – a reality which, although at first sight it may not seem the case, has a substantial link with the school.
Priests themselves, in fact, should be interested in re-thinking evangelisation and charitable work – which is also addressed to non-believers –through a new awareness of the topicality of Saint Benedict’s teaching.
In this regard, it is important to note that the commandment “Give bread to the hungry” must not be understood in a reductive sense. Bread is truly given when it is given totally, that is to say when it is not limited to giving physical sustenance, which if it is “unatantum” resolves little and if it is constant could easily stir up idleness and abuse. The “total bread”could well be represented by what Blessed Schuster called the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”, which consists in creating the prerequisites of a healthy and happy life, and in particular a family life.
We have underlined the adjective “family” for the obvious fact – but which is too often ignored – that it is an almost universal condition for everyone to live in a family and that therefore the “healthy” and “happy” quality of life can only be realized at the community level. An individual can have the best inclinations, but if they are not shared by the life-style of his or her family, in practice he or she will always be hindered in the realization of a healthy life.
If, therefore, the “total bread” is extended to the need to improve, through formation and the appropriate means, the condition of people and their families, there is no doubt that in the works of charity both catechesis and school come fully into play.
As regards the former, it must tend towards not just handing on knowledge, but also realizing its meaning in everyday life. In fact, the very life of the priest should be a catechesis, and so shouldassume those characteristics of a “holy, healthy and happy life” which he has the noble mission to spread, promote and protect.
As regards the school, first of all it should hand on the teachings and resources necessary for creating and managing wisely the life of everyone, and therefore, as far as what has been said, family life.
It seems as if it can be said, therefore, that both the lay educational culture and the church theological culture should undergo a profound revision, which, stripping them of their abstract and theoretical character, changes their interior disposition, habits of life and proficiencies making those who own them capable of ordering wisely and in a Christian manner everyday personal and family life – and indirectly social life, too, which always has a bond of reciprocity with family life.
This is the character of Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service”: it does not despise the culture of the mind, but subordinates it to the formation of the intimate personality of each person, which is realized through self-giving in spiritual and work activity – “ora et labora” – in the framework of a well-ordered daily community life. It is in that that both the humble virtues and the most noble qualities and competencies find their concrete exercise.
We mentioned “revision” because, as we have indicated, neither the secular school nor the theological school have these characteristics, or they have them to an insufficient degree.
As regards the secular school, the illusion, already denounced by Förstera hundred years ago, that intellectual education was equivalent to “tout court” education and that therefore in the moral sphere, and especially that of sexual morality, everything is reduced to a problem of “correct information”, is the tangible sign of its inadequacy. But this illusion is now immensely strengthened by the increasingly mediocre trivialization of the “correct information” itself.
In a public local health service (ASL) notices of this kind can be found: “If you are using contraceptives, you can carry on studying”, while increasingly widespread is the conviction that abortion, too, offers an excellent means to “continue to study”.
So, it will be legitimate to ask: What studies? What school is this? Preparing for what? Simply to pass exams? Or to have some useful expertise to gain social prestige or earn a living? But live how? This school does not interest us! That a purely mental formation shares with the development of the worst vices is not a problem for today’s school! The culture it hands on has nothing to do with the formation of the character, of the will, of the convictions and moral dispositions, and therefore with the virtues needed for a healthy and happy personal life and family co-existence. In fact, family life is presented almost as a burden, especially for women, for whom, like men, waged labour outside the house and social self-affirmation are presented as the one and true realization. That to eliminate the obstacles to this outlook of “professional and social career”, contraception and abortion are legitimate, and even recommended, and it is totally normal and falls within the tendency of the current school that, much less than in Förster’s time, is there any concern about a culture which is the “culture of the soul”!
There is no doubt that Saint Benedict had much to object to in this educational model and that precisely his teaching should inspire an effective and profound transformation of the school.
In the next conversation we will look at the issue in more detail, considering also the theological school and other educational experiences.
Seminaries, colleges and the current malaise of the family
We have said that the theological formation of priests, too, needs revision. In fact, even though its object is arguments undoubtedly linked to the “life of the soul”, it cannot be denied that for the most part these arguments are tackled at the purely theoretical and intellectual level.
But, as far as priestly formation is concerned, there is a very important consideration to be made.
In the seminary years, the young person preparing for priesthood lives an almost monastic life. That is, he is part of a community of young people who share the same aspirations and follow rules of life inspired by a high moral and religious ideal under the supervision of wise and experienced spiritual guides.
This form of life could constitute a model of life and Christian schooling, in which the principles of the faith and of religious culture do not remain abstract theories, but are incarnated in the concrete actions of a daily community reality governed by precise rules. There are set times for getting up in the morning, for common prayer, for study and, even though in a limited fashion, given the mainly intellectual character of the formation in the seminary, for looking after the house.
In addition, even though the theological formation is of an intellectual character, the preparation for priesthood also includes liturgical formation, and that demands the acquisition of practical abilities, such as the expressive use of words, in reading and in preaching, music and singing. There are also expected to be experiences of pastoral and charitable work.
So, this co-existence, regulated by precise norms of Christian living which demand the concrete realisation of religious principles in everyday life, could in some way correct the intellectual orientation of theological studies. In this sense it mirrors the fundamental characteristics of the monastic life.
But the two forms of life are distinguished by two essential aspects: as we have indicated, the first consists in the markedly intellectual character of the seminary studies and in the fact that these latter can easily absorb all the attention of the learners and the teachers; the second lies in the fact that the life of the seminary lasts for only a few years, while the one who embraces monastic life remains for the whole of life in the monastery, that is, in a form of common life regulated by noble religious and moral principles. Now experience teaches that priests, once they have left the seminary, have difficulty in sustaining the rhythm of a well-ordered life, for the safeguard of a holy, healthy and happy life.
The example of the seminary, of its great advantages and its limitations and that similar, but substantially different life of the monastery, can constitute valuable reference points in a comparison with the secular school and for its possible reform.
Continuing our reflections, I would like to refer to a personal experience.
Some years ago there lived in the parish where I was parish priest a family comprising father, mother and four children, still very young – the youngest was not yet at school. As then you would understand, the family depended mainly on the father, a good man, expert in all practical work, who doted on his four children.
But one day tragedy struck. Due to a trivial job at home – replacing a light bulb – the good man, receiving an electric shock, died on the spot.
The family was messed up, not just on a financial level, but also due to the mother’s inability to face up to the situation. Just to give one eloquent example, I remember one morning I went to work about 10.00 a.m. and I found they were all still asleep.
The two eldest children, and especially the second, had already begun to have adolescent problems, and the social worker was beginning to show an interest.
Thanks to favourable circumstances, the parish succeeded in placing the two eldest children in a college in Cascia, dependent on the monastery of the Augustinian Sisters of Saint Rita.
After some years, someone who was in contact with the last of the four children told me that girl never ceased to thank God for the time she spent in the college in Cascia and for the good education she had received there.
The episode makes us understand how difficult it is to create a good family “economy” without the necessary preparation, not only and not substantially technical, but above moral. Obviously different ideas and abilities are necessary, but the substantial foundation necessary for the family economy is moral and, if possible, religious. So it was a real grace that the two children found a college like the one in Cascia.
We must bear in mind, however, that now these institutions seem to be disappearing and, in any case, only a small minority make use of them, people who for the most part find themselves in adverse family conditions.
But shouldn’t we say that almost all families today find themselves in adverse conditions? In his interventions our friend Guido Mastrobuono explains how it is the very tendencies of legislation which nurture family difficulties. But, this aspect aside, there is also a widespread mindset and culture which undermines the roots of the family economy.
The myth of the professional career as supreme and universal objective, the disdain for motherhood, seen as an obstacle to that career, youthfulness, well-represented by the adverts for a bank account which “favours” (?!) young people: “Young people can allow themselves everything!”, false sex education, which would like to be extended to even the youngest, the uncontrolled invasion of everything into life– and again: even the youngest – by means of an increasingly sophisticated electronics: these and other elements tragically render the general conditions of the modern family disadvantageous.
Can today’s school, even less a “school of souls” compared to the traditional one, offer a remedy to this situation? Obviously not!
If Förster, in his time, was able to say that a culture totally focused on resolving problems by a purely intellectual education and the development of increasingly outwardly efficient technologies serves only moral degeneration, we can well say today that this danger has increased exponentially. In fact, the knowledge handed on by the school is increasingly addressed less to interior formation and the technologies placed at the service of uncontrolled human desires have reached levels which one hundred years ago were unimaginable. Therefore, the eminent educationalist’s call to the school to abandon its intellectual and technical character to place itself effectively at the service of a “civilisation of the soul” seems more and more topical.
We must ask ourselves: if young people do not receive appropriate formation for a healthy family “economy” from the school, where will they get it from? There is the catechism, of course, but that, too, as already indicated and as we will see subsequently, for the most part is too unsuitable for its task – and, in any case, it cannot replace school, but only integrate it. So what else?
The only solution, therefore, is that the school – at least the parental school, within the limitations allowed – after a profound examination of conscience, has the courage to undertake a substantial change. As has already been seen from what has been observed up to now, such a change can only be inspired by the “alternative school” of Saint Benedict.
But we must now consider the various realities looking after the education of children and young people and ask ourselves what place the teaching of Saint Benedict and the monasteries have, or could have, in relation to them.
Comparison of the various education bodies
“Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” writes Saint Benedict in the Prologue of the Rule, quoting Psalm 33. And he replies continuing the quotation:
“If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim”.
So far, nothing special: the Prologue follows the outline of baptismal catechesis and so exhorts the disciple to distance him or herself from sin and to do good.
But, venturing deeper into the text of the Rule, we see that the Saint does not limit himself to generic exhortations, but rather enters into detail about the organization of a “domus” and gives everything a place so that the general programme of fleeing evil and doing good can be achieved without risks in a shared daily life.
If the seminary or college of Saint Rita impressed in the future priest and our small parishioner an indelible mark for the good management of their future lives, that is due precisely to the fact that neither of the institutions limited themselves to providing knowledge, nor to just giving good religious and moral direction, but, like Saint Benedict, embodied this direction in a well-organised daily life.
The seminary and college years, even if they are limited, are decisive moments in human formation. But the relative destinies of those who have frequented one or the other institute are different. While the young person who comes out of a college will probably form a family and, if their formation has been good, will put into practice in their family life what they have learned in college, the priest does not form a family, nor, on the other hand, is he destined to live in a monastery. In addition, his formation has had an excessively intellectual edge. Hence priests, even more so in today’s society, lead a life greatly at risk, with serious repercussions for their educative mission. This is a point to which we must return.
If we consider the presence of colleges today is very limited, we must then ask ourselves if and how the school can assume a similar function to them, while not having their structure and organization.
But for now let us leave aside this question try to trace as complete an overview as possible of the situation we have sought to outline.
The family is at the centre of our interest – and we have underlined the enormous difficulties which it has to face at the present time.
Then there is the school, which should be called to form young people to family life, before the call to professional life, not only and not mainly through theoretical and technical instruction, but also and above all through the formation of the character, of the convictions and virtues – all that, however, which at the moment it does not offer and is not able to do.
The work of the colleges, even high-quality institutions, is increasingly limited.
For its part catechetical formation seems to be struggling with the not-always-happy attempts at renewal, without however demonstrating a real overcoming of schemes that are too intellectual.
At the head of that there is a seminary formation which has valuable elements, but which on the one hand is also excessively intellectual, and on the other with great difficulty succeeds in prolonging its influence over clergy after their time in seminary.
The priest in a parish, in fact, finds difficulty in organizing a life healthily and healthily ordered, not having neither family, nor a community on which to rely, in a world, like ours, full of increasingly insidious and intrusive dangers.
Finally, we have the monasteries, which should spread their light as models of total and permanent realization of life entered into healthily and healthily organized, but which must still acquire the awareness of the mission, in some sense new, to which they are called today on behalf both of the family, and the school, and the diocesan clergy.
In this panorama, therefore, the presence of the monasteries seems central and decisive, monasteries as concrete and permanent realization of the “alternative school” and of the family as “house of God”, which could represent – if they were open to a new awareness and profound renewal – a decisive factor to tackle the present-day crisis.
But to better understand this point we must open a wider discourse on the Rule of Saint Benedict and on the Benedictine tradition.
The disciple’s main commitment in the house of God
We have referred to the fact that Saint Benedict, after having given a general exhortation in the Prologue about a holy life: “If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim”, in subsequent chapters of the Rule defines the concrete conditions for achieving that life in community life.
We will now try to better understand the Rule in this its fundamental aspect.
Some verses from Chapter XXXI, if they are well-examined, reveal to us its whole spirit. The original Latin text is as follows:
“Horis competentibus dentur quae danda sunt et petantur quae petenda sunt, ut nemo perturbetur neque contristetur in domo Dei”.
And a translation:
“Necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper times, so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God”.
A few words, which can pass by unnoticed, but which highlight what distinguishes the Rule from all teaching, even the most sublime, which nevertheless remains on the level of theoretical doctrine.
Actually, the words which we have quoted are addressed to the cellarer, that is to the bursar of the monastery, and so there is a tendency to interpret them as restricted to the supplies necessary for practical life. But there is nothing to stop the meaning being extended to the whole ordering of the monastery, because effectively they express much more than just the role of the cellarer. Already the fact that here Saint Benedict is concerned about the peace of souls in the house of God allows us extend the meaning of his words. In fact, certainly the peace of souls does not depend exclusively on the good management of just material needs.
But let us proceed in order. There are two other places in the Rule where the monastery is called the “house of God”.
In Chapter LIII – “The reception of guests” –it says:
“[In the guest quarters] adequate bedding should be available there. The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely”.
Here, too, there is a “material” recommendation followed by a principle which extends to every aspect of the life of the monastery.
Finally in Chapter LXIV – “The election of an abbot” –it says:
«[Thwarting the attempts of those wishing to elect an unworthy abbot, well-intentioned people must] set a worthy steward in charge of God’s house”.
In the eyes of Saint Benedict, therefore, the monastery is really the house of God, and, to be such, it must have a holy and wise superior and must be governed wisely by those who are responsible for it. If here we are still talking in general terms, the first text we have quoted provides the key for entering into its concrete realization: everything must have its way, place and time, so that in the house of God no one may be disquieted or distressed.
What does it mean, then, to build the “house of God”?
Saint Benedict invites his disciples not to some worldly purpose, realized through a profession aimed at managing earthly goods, but to a purpose of converting one’s own heart by purifying it from every sin and directing it towards the love of God and obedience to his will. Therefore, the disciple of Saint Benedict does not apply himself principally to acting on things of the world, but to working on himself.
It could be said that he realizes the ancient principle according to which the great hero is not the person who conquers an empire, but rather the one who knows how to overcome himself.
But the characteristic element of the Saint’s teaching is that, in his realistic vision, a life addressed to the perfection of his own heart, his own will and his own conduct can only be truly achieved in community. The individual cannot devote himself to this task if they find themselves living in the company of people who pursue fundamentally external objectives, like profit, professional success or career enhancement, and who, therefore, put self-care among extras.
Let us take the exhortation we read in the Prologue: “Keep your tongue free from vicious talk”. In the Rule this principle is made concrete through some norms of behaviour which define the atmosphere of community life:
“Guard your lips from harmful or deceptive speech. Prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter” (Chapter IV).
“We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind” (Chapter VI).
“The eleventh step of humility is that a monk speaks gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising his voice, as it is written: ‘A wise man is known by his few words’” (Chapter VII).
From that generic “keep your tongue free from vicious talk” we have moved on to very precise indications about daily conduct.
But let us go on.
What are the characteristics of a life directed to the principle aim of self-improvement before God? The Benedictine motto sums them up well: “Ora et labora”, that is, an exhortation to live always in the presence of God with prayer and carrying out his will through works. These elements in the Rule become the cornerstones of the daily organization of the community, and the relationship of each person to the task to be achieved in community characterizes its existence, therefore there are no times and spaces which allow the formation of individualism and isolation detached from community life. The more personal spiritual, cultural or work formation itself, which has always been increasingly affirmed, in the monasteries, too, above all since the Renaissance, can only refer to the dimensions of the common commitment to build and preserve the “house of God”.
For the individual, and indirectly for others, too, devotion to a specific study or work can certainly be important, but this laudable commitment, too, becomes incidental when the order of community life demands that it be left in order to devote oneself to preparing or carrying out liturgical prayer, or educating the young, or caring for the sick, or even devoting oneself to humble services in the vegetable garden, in cleaning, or in the kitchen.
Study and work, in fact, do not count in themselves, but to better enter into knowledge and service of God and one’s neighbor, and so it would be contradictory to pursue them to the detriment of observance of the precepts of charity which commit us in the duties of daily life.
“Necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper times, so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God” means, therefore, that prayer and work must be ordered tasks undertaken in an harmonious and united manner by all the members of the community, in a way that they do not remain just pious intentions left to individual improvisation, but become clearly visible realisations in their concreteness, structured in manner, time and place. Only this harmonious collaboration in the preservation of a holy life makes the “house of God”, where no one is “disquieted or distressed”, present and tangible.
The same temptations to sin here clash with the organization of times and spaces. The individual can be distressed by an evil thought, but cannot pause to nurture it: just as he must leave his own study or personal commitment to follow the daily order of prayer and work, so the same law of readiness separates him from the evil thought on which he would be tempted to dwell.
The excerpts we have underlined up to now already demonstrate the advantages of the monastic life compared to the diocesan parish life, where the priest, once he has left the seminary, does not have the support of the “appropriate time” fixed for things to do, to give and to ask, and can, therefore, more easily dwell on individual activities, or even on thoughts that are not good, which will lead him to overlook the duties of observance and charity. Then the conditions which ensure one is neither “disquieted nor distressed” could be missing.
It is also very important to underline the fact that Saint Benedict, more than anyone else, above all reminds man – and today women, too – not to seek true fulfilment essentially outside the house, as he was led to do, but to commit his or her energies first of all to edifying the “house of God” in his or her own family. This is the sense of the holy Saint’s reminder to exercise the virtues within the enclosure of the monastery – chapter IV. The young Benedict, who renounced professional school to devote himself to edifying the “house of God”, represents a new and more noble mature ideal, which, paradoxically, draws man more intimately closer to collaboration with woman.
But there are still many other observations to be made on the Rule of Saint Benedict and on its value, not just for the monastic life.
The influence of each school on family life
From what we have said up to now, the substantial difference between the traditional and modern school and Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service”, as well as the different influence each has, or could have, on family life, should seem clearer.
But it is appropriate to clarify this point more specifically.
The traditional school is aimed at intellectual knowledge in itself and at its possible use mainly in the professional life outside the home. On the other hand, the school of Saint Benedict is aimed at the edification of the daily life of a group of people who live together and who strive to perfect not so much their own intellect, but their own heart and their own conduct, and who, therefore, submit even the most noble intellectual activity to the interior perfection and charity which must animate community daily life.
Since the traditional school pursues a largely intellectual formation and is focused chiefly on preparing students for professional work, it follows that many formative aspects which are important for everyday family life are totally ignored by it and that a sort of “hierarchy of values” is created, according to which some competencies are generally respected, because it is presumed they open the path more easily to a well-paid and socially-appreciated professional career, while others are less esteemed, either because they don’t seem to easily indicate work careers, or because they are aimed at professional achievements not socially well-considered.
The negative repercussions of this school on family life are many and very serious.
A strong negative factor is the cult itself of the school and of study, which not from today rules unchallenged in society. If one were to ask a variety of different people what is the first, absolute and almost sacred duty of young people, almost everyone would answer: “To study”!
So in the collective imagination, and in that of parents in particular, the undisputed and incontrovertible idea that what should be the primary, almost religious commitment of young people from six to eighteen years old is application to study according to the parameters of the traditional and modern school, dominates. Obviously, not included in this appropriate commitment is what doesn’t count for the school, like those fundamental elements for a good daily life to which we have referred, while the scholastic “hierarchy of values” of the proficiency to be acquired imposes itself at a general level.
We note again that the said “hierarchy of values” has changed radically in recent decades. While traditionally classical studies were considered to be fundamental for the intellectual formation of the ruling classes and for preparation for the most respected professions, now economic and engineering proficiency have climbed the ladder.
While classical studies aimed above all at formation for a vigorous intellectual life, accompanied by strong moral, spiritual and esthetic content, economic-engineering formation aims directly at professional opportunities which are presumed to be present in the current society. If the former had, in any case, the defect of ignoring the education of the heart and the will – given that its content was too intellectual, abstract and detached from daily life – the latter simply emphasizes this disadvantage even more, addressing all its diligence to the sole dominion of the external world through appropriate professional and technical expertise.
But it was and is a common flaw in the traditional and the modern school both to favour massively intellectual formation ahead of moral formation – and already in his time Förster observed how the said system stimulated, for example, the spread of the “scholastic lie”, with serious detriment to the character of the students – and to alienate the souls of the young from the practice of and respect for “domestic work” and other expertise necessary for the good progress of family life.
Collaborating substantially with this last flaw are parents themselves, and above all mothers, who make it a sacred duty to spare their children from any domestic duties so that they might, without the hassle of jobs of an “inferior” nature, devote the majority of their time and their energies to the “superior” and sacrosanct scholastic intellectual tasks.
To what incalculable extent these characteristics of the traditional and modern school are in contrast with the interests of family life seems obvious. First of all, they distance from the soul of young people – male and female – respect itself for family life, sowing the idea that both personal affirmation and economic well-being depend solely on professional activity outside the home. In addition, they ensure that intellectual study, detached from daily family life, takes up all the time and energy of young people in the crucial years of their preparation for life, resulting in the creation of unbalanced individuals, in whom an enormously developed mental erudition co-exists with uncouth behavior, deeply anti-social and easily prey to licentious passions – and so more than ever contrary to marriage and family life: what, in fact, Saint Benedict already observed in the students of his time.
And it is precisely the alternative school which Saint Benedict wants to oppose to such an inadequate school and which today offers a new perspective for realization, not just for a limited group of people consecrated to God, but for the whole of civil society which sees itself threatened by an evermore widespread family and social disintegration.
In fact, we have seen how the school of Saint Benedict, while not at all scorning intellectual study, subordinates it to the formation of people integrated into a society with a family character, which helps them to develop those virtues and that expertise which, while they perfect their moral character, at the same time contribute to the conservation of a peaceful co-existence and to the development of the common material and spiritual well-being, so that “no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God”.
In conformity with this programme, Saint Benedict has a scale of values diametrically opposed to that of the traditional and modern school. It is expressed in an exemplary fashion in these words from Chapter XXXV of the Rule, about service in the kitchen:
“The brothers should serve one another. Consequently, no one will be excused from kitchen service unless he is sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love”.
So, kitchen service, like all domestic work, is not an “inferior” job to be despised and left to servants. On the contrary, far from being a “necessary nuisance” of inferior rank compared to study, is more valuable than study, since it enables the achievement of greater merit and is the lived exercise of charity. Through domestic work, in fact, the brothers serve one another and contribute to making the environment of community life responsive to the needs of everyone, clean, ordered, pleasant, limbs are trained to conform to the spirit and so precious skills are acquired. So they are almost the first necessary step towards the realizations of workmanship and art.
Furthermore, if the aim of the monastic life is to share “in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom” (Rule, Prologue), the burdens of domestic work serve it much more than study, and so must be more respected.
And yet nevertheless study, too, has its great dignity, both because it is also a work, at times tiring, by which one can validly serve the good of people, and, even more, because it is necessary to grow in knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and in human and Christian wisdom. So it must accompany the monk’s life of prayer and work, without alienating him from the duties of community life, but, on the contrary, enabling him to enrich it even more.
Prayer, in fact, which is at the centre of the monastic life, is nourished through the recitation and chanting of the Psalms, through the public reading of Sacred Scripture, through the exhortation of pastors, through the eucharistic worship of the Church: all things which demand great intellectual and artistic development, in the field of thought, eloquence, poetry, music, chant, sacred architecture, painting, sculpture, design, illumination… Culture, therefore, but culture incarnated in the daily life of the community, which it animates by a sublime inspiration of divine poetry.
But we will see better how this “alternative school” can be a model in the current educational crisis and shed its light in a new way on the life of families and of society.
The three bedrocks of the Rule
Saint Benedict places the whole edifice of the “house of God” on three bedrocks. In fact, he intends to establish:
1. the “appropriate times” for different activities
2. the dispositions of the soul of humility and religious service according to which everything must be done
3. the need to do everything in the best way possible, and so the appreciation of the talents of everyone, as long as they do not stir up sentiments contrary to humility and to the spirit of service.
1. To the first point are devoted the majority of the chapters in the Rule. In them are set the times for prayer and work, the disposition of places, roles and services necessary for community life, the choice of books for the liturgy or for edification, clothing, the use of objects, etc. We note that Saint Benedict has been proclaimed patron saint of architects: he, in fact, “designed” not just places, but also the times and ways of community life.
2. Obviously, this “architecture” would lose all its value if it remained a purely external form. As its bedrock, therefore, the Rule sets the spiritual dispositions which gives them its true meaning and which demand to be constantly nourished by prayer and by the habitual listening to the Word of God. So liturgical prayer has an absolutely primary place in the daily Benedictine programme. Alongside it there is, obviously, private prayer and the so-called “lectio divina” – that is, the study of Sacred Scripture. But in the eyes of Saint Benedict – who participates in the spirit of the Fathers of the ancient Church – the prayer par excellence is liturgical prayer. The psalms, in fact, which, as divinely-inspired biblical prayers, constitute the model of every prayer, made to be chanted or recited in choir, to praise God and to raise the souls of the faithful. As worship acceptable to God and effective edification of the human soul, nothing can replace this kind of prayer, which marks the most significant times of the monastic day, contributing in a substantial way to constituting and setting apart, compared to other human realities, the house and family of God.
As already has been said, Saint Benedict was not satisfied with external realisations – even less in the liturgy, as he is careful to underline in Chapter XIX – but wants everything to serve to accomplish those dispositions of the soul which alone render the life of monks acceptable to God and to men. Therefore he devotes the longest chapter in the Rule, Chapter VII, to recommending and explaining the virtue which he appreciates the most: humility. And in the penultimate chapter of the Rule, Chapter LXXII, he effectively summarises the spirit which must animate every aspect of the monastic life, without which it would just be a body without a soul: the brothers “should try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one other. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life”.
3. If, in the liturgy, just as in the common reading done at meals and at other times, the celebration of the works of God and the edification of humanity must be done publicly, that means that it must be done in an appropriate fashion that is, with order and propriety. So Saint Benedict on the one hand requires specific norms to be followed, and on the other values the talents of those most suitable for reading and for singing. He adds, however, that in this as in other cases, the talents of each person must serve the good of the brothers and be for the glory of God, but in no way must they stir up pride or presumption on the part of those who possess them. The few indications he gives on this point are valuable and we can say they have been the bedrock of an entire culture down the centuries. In Chapter XXXVIII, on the reader in the refectory, he writes:
“Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers. The reader should not be the one who just happens to pick up the book, but someone who will read for a whole week, beginning on Sunday”.
First point: order.
Immediately afterwards he adds:
“After Mass and Communion, let the incoming reader ask all to pray for him so that God may shield him from the spirit of vanity”.
Second point: the maintenance of humility.
But at the end of the Chapter the Saint adds:
“Brothers will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to benefit their hearers”.
Third point: the appreciation of talents for a worthy service of God and the brothers.
These last two points are repeated also in connection with art and craft, in Chapter LVII:
“If there are artisans in the monastery, they are to practice their craft with all humility, but only with the abbot’s permission. If one of them becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft, and feels that he is conferring something on the monastery, he is to be removed from practicing his craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting his humility, he is so ordered by the abbot”.
It is at the end of this Chapter that – after having cautioned against the dishonesty and greed of profit – the Saint adds those biblical words which have become a sort of second Benedictine motto: “Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus – so that in all things God may be glorified” (cf. 1 Pet 4:11).
The entire incalculable industriousness of the Benedictine monks in the field of work, of culture, of music, of chant, of sacred architecture and decoration and the different arts, has its roots in these few but fundamental indications of Saint Benedict.
To them must be added the truly charitable works, such as hospices for pilgrims and the poor, the various forms of help to the needy, etc. Some of these activities have been more characteristic of the Middle Ages than of more recent centuries, and it has to be said that frankly in recent times the Benedictine Order, like other cloistered orders, has experienced major crises precisely because it reproached itself for having thought solely about the sanctification of its members but not the good of society. Even though the accusation is fundamentally unjust, it is nevertheless stimulating, since it calls for a reconsideration of the function of the monasteries and re-discovery of what their role might be in today’s society.
This is a fundamental point which merits further examination.
The mission of Saint Benedict for today’s world and the renewal of the monastic life
The most recent Popes, at least from Pius XII, on various occasions have exhorted monks to enable other faithful too, to share in their spiritual wealth, and we have seen how Blessed Schuster foresaw a time, now close, when to lay people, too, would be communicated “the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”. Between the lines of his exhortation it begins to seem that this “spiritual bread” was none other than the Rule itself, capable of forming “not already doctors, preachers, men of brilliance, but simply those devoted souls whom God honours with the glorious title of his workers”.
We have already said, in a previous conversation, that the commandment: “to feed the hungry” must not be understood in the reductive sense, and that the bread is truly given when it is given completely. And we added that the complete bread consists essentially in creating the prerequisites of a healthy and happy life – and in particular a family life. If, in fact, human life is almost always family life, it would be reductive to limit it to giving individuals material support, if then the indispensable conditions so that they might acquire the formation and elements necessary for a healthy family life are not created.
If, therefore, as now would appear to be totally obvious, in the Rule of Saint Benedict and in the Benedictine tradition there is a richness of teaching and incomparable valuable help, which is not to be found elsewhere, about creating and managing appropriately the daily lives of people who live under the same roof, it follows therefore that among the works of charity significant emphasis should be put on “communicating to lay people, too, the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”, that is, to make available to everyone the teachings of the Rule and what is required to realise them in the life of families.
Of course, in a Rule written a millennium-and-a-half ago there are elements that are no longer topical, such as, in particular, the excessive mortification of the individual and of personal life – an aspect which, after all, especially from the Renaissance onwards, was gradually corrected in monastic life – but, if we look at it with a fair discernment, its truest and most profound meaning proves to be most valuable in illuminating and guiding family life today.
To whom, therefore, does it fall to communicate to families this irreplaceable richness?
Mention has been made of the school and the opportunity for its profound reform, which makes it as similar as possible to Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service”, precisely because, if the primary mission of the school is to prepare young people for life, it seems obvious that its first role should be that of preparing them for a healthy and happy family life.
That might seem idealistic, but perhaps it is less so in a time so full of unexpected change. In any case, we must always consider the possible wide spread of the parental school and the possibility that, at least to a certain extent, it might make the Benedictine programme its own.
But, at this point, it is appropriate to draw a more precise comparison between the traditional and modern school on the one hand and the school of Saint Benedict on the other.
We traced the spirit which animates the Benedictine Rule back to three principle aspects: 1. the ordering of the daily activities in the monastery 2. the spirit of humility and charity which must animate them 3. appreciation of the talents and gifts of individuals, always, however, subordinated to the maintenance of the just dispositions of the soul of humility and of service.
I think that it can be said that the first two points do not fall within the goals of the traditional and of the modern school. If the first were able to contribute indirectly, but in a very imperfect manner, to the spiritual growth of young people through the study of the classics, the second seems to have been rejected, now focusing totally solely on the skills useful for running the external world for professional goals.
Instead, it is on the third point that one can establish a comparison between the two forms of school. Each, in fact, are interested in promoting personal capacities through study and the acquisition of skills. The difference is that for Saint Benedict these skills, too, helpful though they are, must however be subordinated to the goal of developing the Christian virtues, and chiefly humility and charity, to the benefit of the common life and for the spiritual perfection of each person, while the traditional and modern school seek intellectual development and work skills per se.
If this is true, however, it must be observed that nearly all the most significant pedagogical renewal movements of the 20th century, from Montessori to Freinet, from scouting to the Barbiana School and to the Movement for Cooperative Education, have sought to overcome both the intellectualism of the traditional school and the pragmatism of the modern school, and aimed at a school which was closer to the real needs of young people, in the crucial years when they are building their destiny. This search for a more profound and effective incisiveness in the intimate life of children and young people recently seems increasingly to be falling dangerously towards an unhealthy thirst for affective and sexual pseudo-education, while, on the other hand, the pragmatic orientation addressed to the world of work prevails massively.
So it would not be totally arbitrary to present a reform of the school according to the spirit of Saint Benedict as a sort of recovery, in a new form, of the main pedagogical trends of the 20th century.
But now we must turn our attention to what should be the main protagonists in the urgent work of communicating the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict to families – and also to priests and to the consecrated: the monasteries.
To develop this point means presenting a true renewal in the monastic and cloistered life, which should be realised in ways somewhat original, even if founded on essential elements of the Benedictine tradition. This renewal would also constitute a solution to the crisis which for some time has afflicted the claustral life, which has to tackle charitable and pastoral needs, so heartfelt in modern civilization and which in the eyes of many people seem not to fall within the aims of the monastic communities. In fact, it would open the path to incomparable social activity, which the monasteries could exercise more and better than any other institution or initiative, not only without losing any of their identity, but, on the contrary, re-discovering all its value, deep meaning and productiveness for the life of the Church and of the world.
But it is an argument which requires an extended in-depth examination.
The mission of Saint Benedict for today’s world and the renewal of the monastic life
From what has been said up to now, it seems clear that the renewal to which reference has been made consists in the commitment, by the monasteries, to make available for the greatest number of people and families possible the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”. It is obvious that to do this the monasteries must not only in fact renounce their in some way separated life, but, on the contrary, must commit themselves to making it increasingly in conformity with the teachings of Saint Benedict. In fact, how could they hand on this teaching if they had not first put it into practice?
In what way, therefore, could the monasteries hand on the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict” to the families, to priests, to the consecrated and to all people interested in the true well-being of the family and of society? We can suggest three channels for handing it on, two of which are, in reality, fundamental elements of the monastic tradition, which should be re-thought and renewed:
2. the school
3. modern means of communication
That hospitality is a characteristic of Benedictine monasteries should be obvious. Saint Benedict devotes a specific chapter to it, Chapter LIII, and states that “monasteries are never without [guests]”. Even if historically this aspect of the Rule has not always been observed or sufficiently appreciated, today is it more widespread. So it is a matter of conferring on this service, among other things and above other things, the function of the means to hand on to guests, and above all to families, to priests and to the consecrated, the teachings and the means to achieving a healthy and happy family life, according to the spirit of the Rule.
Here the very indications given by Saint Benedict in the chapter on hospitality can be valuable. For example, it is good that, as the Saint says, the abbot entrusts in particular one or more monks with the task of taking care of guests directly, while other members of the community, if they are not called to give particular instructions, should stand aside. And that is not in contrast with the mission of being useful to guests in the monastery. One example will suffice.
Once, staying at the monastery of Farfa, home to a Benedictine community and a community of Bridgettine Sisters, who looked after the guest house, there was a group of young people on a vocational discernment retreat. A meeting took place in the guest house, with discussions and testimonies. After the meeting, one of the young girls present said that what struck her the most was a Bridgettine Sister who, having decided not to take part in the meeting, lingered with an old lady in poor health to help her and keep her company. The episode shows how more important example is than teachings and discussions. And that is true for every aspect of religious and family life. So, for example, it will undoubtedly be useful to explain to guests the importance of a beautiful liturgical prayer, to be said in families, too, but even more effective that they see concretely a liturgy celebrated with decorum and devotion by the monastic community.
Having established this principle, monasteries should organize times when people or families can stay, housed in such a way as to undertake a continuous programme of instruction and support for the application of the teachings of the Rule in family life.
Into this same strategy is integrated the discussion about the school – it, too, for centuries always present in the Benedictine tradition. In fact, it is about promoting a substantial reform of the school, of its goals and its methods, as had already been explained. That can be done directly, if the monastery has its own school, or indirectly, above all through productive relationships which the monasteries could and should have with the parental school.
Now we are not talking the state school, which, obviously, presents enormously complex problems.
As regards means of communication, they certainly constitute a somewhat innovative wide-ranging way of influencing families, without breaking the rules of the separation of the world and the cloister. Historically, this aspect, too, is not without precedent. Suffice to recall the significant editorial work of the Benedictines in the Congregation of Saint Maur in France, who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, published critical editions of the Church Fathers which spread throughout the whole of Europe and still today constitute a valuable source for patristic students.
But, obviously, modern means [of communication] offer much greater opportunities compared to the traditional press, and of these opportunities, just as unfortunately the sowers of vice profit widely, so also should profit those who – and above all the monasteries – intend, instead, to preserve families, so threatened and so little protected, from vice.
Our online school “The twelve-star crown” could offer a model of how it is possible to use the modern means of communication to enrich families in a wide-ranging manner with the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”. But it is an opportunity which should be immensely appreciated, above all if well-coordinated with the activity undertaken through hospitality and the school.
A Benedictine community which embraces this programme in the three aspects proposed could devote to them an important part of their own daily industriousness, without in any way breaking the needs of separation from the world and of the cloister. That would enable appreciation in a new way of the different talents of the members of the community and would give to them new enthusiasm in the undertaking of even the most humble of duties, while at the same time it would avoid the ever-present danger that in communities there are people who are dissatisfied, turned in on themselves or afflicted by “identity crises”.
In concluding this discourse, which has gone on for many conversations, we would like to underline its united perspective, involving in a vast programme of renewal, the family, the school, the clergy, the consecrated and the monasteries, with the aim of instilling an increase of healthy life in today’s society through the everlasting light of the Rule of Saint Benedict.