An original reading of the
Rule of St Benedict
Translated by Liam Kelly
We do not speak great things; we live them
To His Holiness Benedict XVI
with ﬁlial devotion
There are timeless works, which still, at a distance of some centuries, reveal themselves to be a source of new inspiration for the life of humanity, still unexplored by preceding generations. Undoubtedly among such works is the Rule of St Benedict. Written
1500 years ago, the fruit of an original re-reading of previous eastern and western monastic traditions and the experience of a life totally dedicated to God’s service, hidden within its apparent simplicity there lie treasures of profound human and spiritual wisdom.
Benedict’s writing was addressed to monks, and it would seem the author had nothing to do with secular life, and in particular with family life. But the author of this book we are introducing here shows that to be the contrary: living in a tragic era of wars, famine, plague, invasions and civil and moral disintegration, Benedict wanted to teach the Italians of his time how to live together in peace, harmony, mutual respect and Christian charity. Therefore Benedictine monasteries were not just oases of spirituality, but also fertile models of civilisation and social life for generations to come. The rational methods of historical criticism will never be able to gauge the incalculable inﬂuence Benedictine life had on social life and family communities in past centuries.
Today all of this is easily forgotten. But it is precisely the current experience of the disintegration of family life, to which an effective solution seems not yet to have been found, which can help us rediscover in a new light Saint Benedict’s timeless teaching about living together.
The author of this book, who, among other things, has the merit of brevity but also knows how to say a lot in a few pages, enables us to see directly how topical is Benedictine wisdom not just for guiding religious communities, but also for giving new life and new hope to the family community. In fact, the institution of the family will not be saved by conferences and discussion groups, and not even by legislative reform – no matter how desirable it may be – but only by promoting a lived model of social life which is an alternative to the one which is now prevalent everywhere. “And it seems to me”, our author writes, “that in fact there exists only one model which today can effectively be proposed to families: the Benedictine model that emerges from the Rule and tradition.”
Is he right? We will leave the answer to the reader. We simply warmly recommend to all families, Christian or secular, a careful reading of these packed pages, written with a unique passion which makes them more inspiring and challenging.
Cardinal Franc Rodé
Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of
Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life
Five preliminary documents
I would like to preface my reading of the Rule by presenting part of a correspondence with some Benedictine Sisters and a young relative and some other documentation. It was in fact in the course of this correspondence and meditating on important writings that seem to have been forgotten today that the ideas for this book came about and were developed. Since these are documents referring to particular occasions and without any pre-ordained plan, there are inevitable repetitions.
First document – a letter
For many years I have been deeply interested in the writings of Friedrich Wilhelm Förster. The more I re- read them the more they reveal new insights. Most recently, reﬂecting on the pages I gave you originally, taken from Christentum und Klassenkampf (1908), I sensed I understood in a way I never had before two classical texts of Christian spirituality: the Imitation of Christ and the Rule of St Benedict. It will seem strange to you, but that’s the way it is. I also believe that Förster still has a sublime mission to carry out today: that of rediscovering for modern times the most productive value of the ancient spiritual traditions. Perhaps no one has seen this link as clearly as he did. The tradition must be neither denied nor diluted: it must be understood in its truest motives and its eternal and ever new fruitfulness must be shown. Modernity without roots would be worse than traditionalism without being up-dated. But to come to the point. What was the young, still largely non- religious, Förster’s rebuke to modern culture? That of wanting to resolve moral, social and political problems through a university education which did not involve the soul, heart, and deepest will of the human person: an abstract, therefore dead culture. For this reason, therefore, in his eyes the good people of his time were sounder than people broken by culture. So the young Förster began to meditate on the classics of Christian spirituality: from St Augustine to Thomas à Kempis. And what did he ﬁnd in the Imitation of Christ but the proposition that the university culture is nothing if humble self-knowledge is lacking. An academic degree cannot replace humility of heart, nor the passion of the soul, nor the incarnation of the spirit in the humiliation of the washing of the feet and death on the cross. So preaching is not worth as much as the daily sacriﬁce of every ﬁbre of one’s soul, heart and body. That is suggested, too, by the incomparable event of perfect happiness. And so there appears in all its magniﬁcence the Rule of St Benedict. Benedict does not directly create missionaries, nor servants of the poor or sick: however he creates concrete conditions so that human life – which generally can only be communal – can happen in a Christian manner in all its daily detail without any obstacles – “so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God”
– and even with a continual stimulus for improvement. So it is about establishing how one sleeps, eats and works, how time, silence, common and private prayer are all respected, how the house must be built so that it may “be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely.” From the abstractions of spirituality one comes down to the level of incarnating the Gospel in the ﬂesh of the everyday. Then the monks will do all good works (Chapter IV), but within the Enclosure of the monastery, that is within the safekeeping of a life constantly ordered to Christ through its ordinary actions and in the spirit which shines out from them. The monks did not limit themselves to preaching, but established monasteries.
The Abbess of *** asked me to speak to the Oblates and I was inspired to say this: the Benedictine Oblate must not limit him/herself to doing private devotions (reciting certain prayers, attending meet- ings, etc.): he/she must acknowledge that St Benedict wanted to order the daily life of a community with precise rules which would allow it to be a family of God in everything. In this spirit the Oblate must order his/her family. Today much is said about saving the family. But until one gets away from gossip and down to daily life nothing will be done. This is the real mission of Benedictine Oblates: to establish, in the wake of the Rule, precise norms so that the family home doesn’t become a hotel people pass through or a power plant: What time do we get up? How and when do you pray together? What does the building look like? Is there space for worship? How do you eat? How are set times respected? What are the work rotas so that everyone learns mutual service? What use is made of modern means of communication so that they do not take over everything nor wipe out every human and natural relationship? What should be the times of rest and silence? What books are circulating round the house? What is the function of the library? What type of music, what songs are liked and sung? What type of clothes are worn? What pictures, what sort of art decorates the house?…One could go on, taking into account the Rule and developments in monastic tradition. The Oblates who were there were amazed, as were the sisters.
Isn’t this a subject that should continue to be examined? I’ll leave you to reﬂect on it and I’ll add one ﬁnal point, still inspired by Förster’s main insight: all the best aspirations must be nourished, but not in abstract. The young girl who experiences the distress of her own too-closed and restrictive family, has the duty and right to aspire to new horizons, but must achieve them demonstrating practical know-how in how to live the spirit of them. The spirit of every higher aspiration is love and, to shine out forever, love must ﬁrst show that it knows how to shine out to the people who obstruct it: to know how to unite resoluteness with gentleness and respect. Thus – says Förster – the young girl who wants to go and do social work in the suburbs because she cannot stand the grandmother who stops her self-realisation, shows she has no aptitude for social work. She cannot stand her grandmother and yet wants to tackle situations of extreme hardship in poor areas among unknown people? Isn’t this a contradiction?
(Rome, 15 October 2008)
How different are those people who establish a city on the stumps of the ancient forests, and equip and adorn it; how different are those people born to lie quietly under the already-built porticos, in the already-ornate gardens.
I have had some time to reﬂect and I would like to share these reﬂections with you.
I would like to start by recalling the ﬁgure of the Servant of God Cardinal John Henry Newman, who almost certainly will be beatiﬁed in April next year.
In 1843, Newman, an Anglican pastor, retreated to the solitude of a country house at Littlemore, near Oxford, to reﬂect in prayer and meditation, in an almost monastic existence, on his deﬁnitive life choice. For some decades he had studied the writings of the Fathers – it was the priests exiled from France at the time of the Revolution who brought them to England, in the very carefully prepared editions of the Benedictines from the Congregation of Saint Maur – and found in their doctrine and spiritual life an incomparable magniﬁcence, in the face of which the insipid Victorian devotion and secularised doctrine common in his time in the Church of England paled. How could the fervour of the Fathers’ times be brought back into Anglicanism? This was the battle fought by Newman and his friends in the so-called ‘Oxford Movement’. But meditation on the doctrine and history of the Fathers brought him up against a question full of consequences.
What the modern thinkers objected to in the Fathers of the fourth and ﬁfth centuries was that their doctrine was expressed in terms and concepts that were new with respect to the language of Sacred Scripture. Wasn’t it therefore appropriate to abandon patristic dogmatic theology and return to the simplicity of the gospel language, avoiding getting caught up in doctrinal questions and deﬁnitions such as the Incarnation and the Trinity? This was the soul of nineteenth-century liberal doctrine, which, according to Newman, threatened to destroy Christianity. No: the theology of the Fathers was necessary to save the true meaning of the Gospel. But how should their language and that of Scripture be harmonised?
Here Newman discovered a most important theological principle: that of doctrinal development. In 1843, in the last address – the ﬁfteenth – given at Oxford before the great University’s entire student and professor body, he wonderfully illustrated the principle, according to which a few words said at Lake Galilee had to be developed to the point of establishing a body of incomparable thought, inﬁnitely superior to any human philosophy. According to this principle it is more amazing that St John as a ﬁsherman became a theologian than that St Peter became a prince. Through this principle the world of Christian thought constitutes the story of an achievement, destined to exalt the human mind beyond every boundary, to assimilate every human thought transforming them in the service of divine truth.
But, having posited this principle, it cannot be limited according to its own genius. If the history of the Church witnessed the triumph of Christian thought over the world and the development of its dogmas in the ﬁrst centuries, at the same time it also witnessed the development of the Roman Pontiﬁcate, and then the development of great mediaeval theology, and the expansion of the Church’s activity and organisation, religious Orders, sanctity, Christian art, etc., in all directions. Therefore according to this principle the accusation of excessive innovation which Protestantism made against the Church of Rome was unfounded.
At this point what was the duty of the barely 40-year-old Anglican theologian? In the solitude of Littlemore Newman devoted himself to writing the treatise Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, in which he broadly worked out the insights of the ﬁfteenth university sermon. At the end of the writing the decision had matured: in 1845, in the house at Littlemore, the Passionist Blessed Dominic Barberi of the Mother of God received the Anglican theologian into communion with the Church of Rome.
In his treatise Newman recalled that one of the accusations made against the Church by a hostile world was that of being incorrigible. In fact, he commented, the Church’s doctrine cannot change and will never change. Development does not mean change. In this sense the Church’s history is like the mystery of the Incarnation: Quod erat permansit is said of Christ in the profession of faith et quod non erat assumpsit. The same is true of the Church – continuation of the mystery of the Incarnation – it remains what it is and assumes what it is not yet. One of its characteristics is in fact the marvellous capacity to assimilate every aspect of what is true and good in everything, even the worst things1.
In his work Newman hints at applying his principle to the monastic life, too, observing, for example, that at the outset only by way of exception was study practised by the ancient ascetics, while subsequently it became a tradition characteristic of western monasticism. Abbot Butler, in his work Benedictine Monasticism, tried to develop this appli- cation further. He refers, among other things, to the development of the liturgy, in particular to the Cluniac movement, which expanded and solemnized the liturgical Ofﬁces with music, incense, solemn vestments, sumptuous churches – an aspect not foreseen by St Benedict, but which has remained inseparably linked to the Benedictine tradition. The reference to music reminds us of the very major role undertaken by monks in the area of music, on behalf not just of the Church but of the whole of civilisation, from the invention of musical notation (Guido of Arezzo) to the restitution of Gregorian Chant (Solesmes): how immense was the work of monks in this area! Even this St Benedict had not foreseen, but still today Benedictine monasticism means for many people the preservation of a certain dignity in liturgical music in the chaos of wild experimentation, and that is much more than just the preservation of Gregorian Chant – something which in any way on its own is very important.
I have covered a bit of history – another ﬁeld in which studies have had great and noteworthy devel- opment within the Benedictine tradition – in order to come to the point: today should we be content with complimenting ourselves or looking nostalgically at the glories of the Fathers? Isn’t it our duty instead to remain what we must be and assume what we are not yet? Has the principle of development come to a halt? Is the hand of the Lord too short to save (cf. Isa 59,1)?
You will say to me: but what are we and what must we assimilate? Doesn’t answering this problem belong to the realm of scholars and wise people? That is not so. St Theresa of the Child Jesus is a Doctor of the Church for having progressed knowledge of the mysteries of God more than many theologians. A few days ago a good, old priest said to me: “There are three categories of people in the world: those who speak a lot and do nothing, those who say little and do a lot, and those who say nothing and do everything.” Without taking this literally, there is a lot of truth in it.
Anyway, it is not academic degrees that count, but the light that comes from on high and which God often bestows on the smallest.
But let’s see if we can suggest something which might help us, too, to take practical decisions for our communities.
In recent times I saw the Rule in a new light: St Benedict does not write great theological or spiritual treatises. Even Chapter 7 of the Rule is more about the practicalities of day-to-day life rather than mysticism. In fact he wants to create the conditions so that the day-to-day and minute-by-minute life of a community progresses in the light of the Gospel. Therefore he goes into detail about the life, establishing how the monastery must be built, how and when one prays, how and when one talks, sleeps, eats, works, meditates, how one dresses, how work should be divided so that people serve each other mutually, etc. To the best of my knowledge, in this regard only one book can be compared to the Rule, the Philothea of St Francis de Sales, which, however, is about ordering individual and not community life, lay not religious life – even though many of its teachings are most appropriate for the religious life, too. And here, too, it should be remembered that nearly always the human person lives in a society and that, if in the social environment in which he/she lives there are certain habits and customs contrary to Christian principles, the individual will have many difﬁculties living out the evangelical virtues in a practical way.
Chapter 4 of the Rule foresees that monks carry out all the good works prescribed by charity, but “in the enclosure of the monastery”. Essentially that means that whatever good is done must never take one away from the good regulation of every proper act within the sphere of the community in which one lives. There are, especially in the secular clergy, many priests who give heart and soul to the organisation of works, but their homes are chaos, their time schedules badly arranged, their personal life, virtuous though it may be, has neither order nor rules. This would not go down well with us, and if there is a monk who allows himself to be dragged along to imitate this custom under the guise of doing good works, in my judgement he is not doing well. It is above all in the ordering of one’s own daily life, shared and sustained by a community, that the Benedictine must have an impact on the life of the world. In fact the world needs above all the example of an ordered daily life of prayer and work, so as to be able to reproduce it, adapting it to its requirements, in its own existence. This is what was once done by the people who lived next to monasteries, modelling their own rhythms and ways of life on the Ofﬁces rung out by the bells and on the example of the monks.
The recent Popes, at least from Pius XII onwards, have always exhorted monks to enable the laity to participate in the riches of their life. It seems to me that along these lines in particular we must see an important direction for development. That suggests on the one hand that we always know how to better evaluate and bring to life in our communities the features which characterise the holiness of our everyday lives, nourishing ourselves on all the richness of the tradition with a creative spirit, and that on the other hand we study new strategies for making this life shine out to the outside world. At one time in the cities monasteries were greatly desired by the citizens and administrations, and lay people spontaneously sought their presence, blessing, and example. Today that is no longer the case. We are surrounded by indifference and incomprehension. It is our task, then, to reawaken those around us to the values of monastic life.
So we come to the ﬁrst point: how do we enrich our everyday community life with a new – and old – breath of the Holy Spirit? As I have said, St Benedict does not enter into ﬂights of mysticism, but tells us how to eat, how to speak, how to sleep, pray, etc. We need to re-think all these things, in the light of the Benedictine tradition and possible new opportunities. It is true that the emergency situations in which we often ﬁnd ourselves do not leave us much room, but we cannot neglect to ask ourselves: within our limits, can’t we do more or better? Let us not forget that the most creative works of the monastic genius were often realised in the most unfavourable conditions. The foundation of Solesmes came about in circumstances of unprecedented difﬁculty and human poverty and the renewal of Gregorian Chant progressed while the subversive laws in France of the early part of the twentieth century forced monks to close the monasteries and go into exile.
I remember a few years ago our liturgy at Lauds and the celebration of the Eucharist was particularly half-hearted and run-down. One day, giving a lesson on the Rule to a pair of young postulants – who later left – I came across a comment which heartily advocated putting the fervent and careful celebration of Mass and the Ofﬁce at the centre of the monastic day. So we asked ourselves: what can we do? I thought: ‘Well I could play the organ; even if I’m concelebrating, I could move over to the altar for the moment of consecration, and the evening before the three of us could prepare the songs.’ So we did, and from that small choice there was a notable improvement in our liturgy. Likewise, how many small-great things could be remedied, reﬁned, renewed, perfected with minimum effort, if there is some conviction of their importance for us and for others.
But perhaps we will get inspiration from the second point: as monks, what shall we do for others? The Supreme Pontiffs invite us to reﬂect on this – and that includes some, such as Paul VI, who had a deep love for the monastic life. In my opinion, as I have already said, today we must not simply wait for others to come and seek us out. Sadly, the secular life is so run-down that the common horizons between it and the consecrated life become ever more limited. But precisely because of this it becomes all the more urgent to understand that monks are battling against the evil one “driven by the ardent desire to free towns and villages from error” (St John Chrysostom)2 and take the consequences.
From what has been said up to now it should be clear that it is not a matter of leaving the cloister, but of opening out, so to speak, the cloister on the world.
Let me try and explain: today many people experience the unease of a secular life devoid of content and worthy aims, of trust and unfailing affection, of profound peace, of beauty which is not artiﬁcial and counterfeit, of emotions which aren’t vulgar or destined to sweep away every human dignity, of interior joy which is not transient. Besides this, concern for the education and future of children and the relative feeling of impotence in their regard afﬂicts nearly all responsible parents. Individuals’ disposition of spirit remains for the most part without an appropriate answer, because today the individual ﬁnds him/herself completely defenceless against the social environment surrounding and shaping them.
This observation helps us to better understand the central implicit message of the Rule: without an environment and social custom which sustains it in daily life, the life of the individual cannot come to fruition according to an ideal of human and Christian integrity. That means that it is not sufﬁcient to evangelise the intelligence of an individual with beautiful catechesis and it is not even sufﬁcient to evangelise the individual’s heart, will and good works with the practice of the evangelical virtues: it is necessary to create social environments regulated in everyday life by customs correctly inspired by human and Christian wisdom and shared by all. Now, what is human life’s fundamental social environment, the easiest to reach, the one most open to listening and which is very close to the heart of the Church? The family, naturally. But unfortunately it, too, is exposed to the greatest degradation, so that the life that is lived at home almost universally suffers conditioning by common trends passively accepted as inevitable destiny. Faced with such a widespread habit which, without asking permission, even before co-existence can begin, installs itself as boss of the house, individuals – be they husband, wife, children – feel and are impotent. Television always on and available for every kind of message, uncontrolled and often very precocious and irresponsible use of modern electronic means of communication and gadgets (internet, playstation, games and electronic gadgets, mobile phones, etc.), schedules disregarded, not turning up at meals, young people coming back at night when they want, books, magazines, newspapers and comics of a shoddy type which are found all round the house without a care, young people’s dress sense ready to follow any fashion without any restraint, pseudo-music which wafts around the house or sneaks into the brain through headphones, ornaments and pictures of every type and taste – rarely of beautiful classical art or religion – parents and children always absent, with the focus of their interests always outside the home. What else? Is it possible in this context not to remain a victim of the prevailing social custom, of the most cynical commercial propaganda, of rampant immorality through the most powerful modern means of mass communication? What is the point of wonderful sermons and beautiful catechesis? Returning home, even the most well-disposed individual will ﬁnd him/herself defenceless in the face of his/her family environment.
This degraded model of social life can only be combated by suggesting a different model, and it seems to me that in fact there exists only one model which today can effectively be proposed to families: the Benedictine model that emerges from the Rule and tradition, incarnated in vibrant communities of monks and nuns, in their ways and customs and the very material structure of their houses, with all the decorative and artistic aspects which adorn them. It is
from this model, and this model alone, that families can derive a community rule of life, according to which one can establish right from the start what should be the schedules for the day, when there should be times for prayer and silence, times of privacy and community life, what should be the times for and manners of commitments in the house and outside, what should be the fair and charitable distribution of domestic work, where should be the prayer space in the house, how the individual or shared rooms should be furnished, what type of books and publications should be used and kept, what songs should be used for prayer and for common recreation in the family, what should be the way and time for speaking, the clothes to wear, use of money, what should be the time and manner of meals together – when it is absol- utely clear that the television is switched off – how many and which television programmes might be watched together or individually, what would be the restrained use of the most modern means of communi- cation – keeping in mind the need, for very little ones, to be formed by contact with the real world and not the virtual world, and the need for everyone to lead their own lives and not that of soap operas. In particular, it seems to me that only through a family life lived mainly in the environment of a cared for and loved home, under an established rule with careful guidance from parents, is good use of modern means of telecommunications possible. In fact only when the concrete life of each and every person is at the centre of the care of individuals and the community will electronic gadgets remain at the margin of experience, as very useful auxiliary means, and will not encroach upon the whole ﬁeld – that is the time and places – of existence by replacing real life.
But how can this ideal be made workable? To me the most effective way could be the complete re- examination, re-thinking and re-foundation of the institution of Benedictine Oblates. The Oblate should no longer be the person who participates in monthly meetings and is committed to speciﬁc devotions: the whole of his/her family should become Oblate and adopt a rule of life inspired by the teaching of St Benedict and the monastic tradition, along the lines we have suggested above. To that should be added direct contact with a monastery, as a centre of worship, school of sacred chant, model of everyday community life consecrated in work and prayer, through means of communication with experiences of holiness, culture and art of past generations, workshop of craft and artistic creativity, an ediﬁce in whose structure and art is incarnated in a more perfect way than can happen in a family home the raising up, exhausting but real, of every expression and every moment of individual and communal life in the light of God.
Besides the institution of the Oblates, other contacts can be established to spread the Benedictine model: meetings with young students, engaged couples, prayer and study groups. In particular in our monastery I’d love to organise with young people a weekly or fortnightly evening after supper in order to spend time together in the parish library, as a time of relaxation, friendship, communal use of poetry and music, artistic-manual labour, of lifting up to the sacred. That can offer young people a model of evening meetings for their future family life, an alternative to widespread dissipation.
Another very important ﬁeld of action can be offered to us by a correct use of the very powerful modern means of telecommunications. Why not create an internet site in which one or more monasteries promote a new family humanism, suggesting for this special days for families, young people and engaged couples? In addition, the site could contain a vast array of illustrated material, with abundant references to the manifold Benedictine tradition. And since the true and proper monastic life is the inspirational focal point and reference point for the discussion about the family, the site could easily illustrate the values and ideals of the Benedictine life, an invitation to experiences of monastic life, an explanation of the norms for the acceptance of postulants, and ﬁnally indicate an annual vocations week and how to register for it.
So that is what I wanted to write to you. It has taken some time because I was distracted by other commitments. Will these reﬂections he helpful in personal clariﬁcation and in the life of our communities? I sincerely hope so and entrust everything to the hands of Mary and to your charity.
Yours in Christ
Farfa, 13 November 2008,
Feast of all the Monastic Saints
“Christianity has given” to personal service and manual labour “the most sacred character, not because the spiritual life counts less, but because deep down it was aware of the real health of our spiritual nature and knew therefore that the spiritual element is put to the test and is set free in us in the best way not by aversion to matter, but by methodical subjection of it… Anyone who from this point of view observes the different types of work and their action on the inner person, will have to admit that scientiﬁc study, essential though it is, nevertheless is much more a danger than a help for true culture, for the true spiritualization of the human person. Because here the spiritual energy becomes distracted by the personal life and concerned about things which have little importance for self-education. The spirit is not guided towards the watchful control of the body and action, does not ﬁght against the inimical inﬂuences on life and people: in fact it does not at all concern itself with those things and remains engrossed in the spiritual sphere… True culture is only acquired when the spirit expounds its creative energy in the personal life, not when it hovers over and works above life; true culture does not come from the absence of the spirit, but only from the omnipresent dominion of the spirit over matter, and from the vital penetration of every one of our words and actions with the energies of the soul. But such submission of matter to superior purposes is something which requires laborious exercise and constant practice; and it is precisely so-called domestic work which offers the best opportunity for it. In its most intimate essence it is the infusion of the soul into matter, it is Lordship of the spirit over life… Isn’t this watchfulness of the spirit also the essence of the feminine touch, this delicate connection of every gesture and word, even every gesture or facial expression with the most intimate nature of the soul? And isn’t such ‘presence of the soul’ precisely exercised by means of manual labour, which continually stops the spirit from isolating itself, and forces it to be present right up to the ﬁngertips? Whoever realises this will admit that manual labour, precisely because it is aimed at overcoming the visible resistance of matter, is an excellent school of the tenacity of will, of patience, of conscientiousness and faithfulness… Every bit of manual labour done in this way, that is with profound spiritual interest, is already no longer simply manual labour, but a spiritual labour, and it strengthens spirituality and character in the person. Conscientious manual labour is an immediate triumph over the material powers of laziness and worldliness, it is a triumph of energy and spiritual liberty, and therefore contributes immediately to the supremacy of the spirit, in all other areas, too. Very often men reveal themselves to be much less resistant than women to pain, be it small or great; and this too because men’s spirit and will are less directed towards the immediate control and mastery of their own lives, or better still they are completely distracted from it. Culture, therefore, is the application of the spirit to personal matter, culture means ‘incarnation of the spirit’… Personality is only aroused by love, developed by service, strengthened by the victory over self… ‘The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve’. These words, which Jesus Christ spoke when he washed the apostles’ feet, have a deep meaning for the whole issue we are concerned about: the Most High comes to humanity in the likeness of a servant, to show to humanity that only in the likeness of a servant can one reach the Most High.”
From Christentum und Klassenkampf (1908)
by Friedrich Wilhelm Förster
Of course I agree with you, and of course Förster would, too. In some of his writings, wishing to emphasise a particularly important aspect of the question, he can give the impression of forgetting the other, equally important aspect. But of course it is not so. It is a matter of adjusting the two needs. To understand this point well you must bear in mind the cultural world to which he was addressing his criticisms. In his day the prevailing culture believed it was able to resolve all the world’s problems through learning, technology and the spread of “culture”. There was an impression that the moral formation of the human person was just a by-product of scholastic learning. In the study of Sacred Scripture, too, historico-literary criticism prevailed, something which often dried up souls rather than opening them to the divine message. Förster therefore was not ﬁghting the development of thought, but abstract intellectualism, which did not involve the complete life of the soul, and the naïve reliance which technical progress aimed at facilitating people’s material life saw as equivalent to the solution of human and social problems. Against these tendencies of his age, he recalled the urgency of a culture addressed to the depths of the soul. “True civilisation”, he wrote in 1904, “is the subordination of every individual need to the spiritual powers of life, it is the sovereignty of the human person over his/her nature; without a culture of this kind civilisation is not living; and consequently it is a matter of life and death for our society, that it might have the strength to subordinate anew its technical civilisation to what is called the culture of the soul – or if instead all its knowledge and power might be irremediably destined to serve simply material reﬁnement, and subsequently moral decay.”
Thus as far as study of Sacred Scripture and religion is concerned, he warns about an intel- lectualism which does not involve the soul. “If there is something”, he writes, “which can be considered as the most important condition for understanding religion, it is at any rate entirely this awakening of the complete soul. Self-knowledge is the true means for this re-awakening of our psychic energies. Of course the intellect contributes, too, but that does not concern itself with abstract conclusions, but rather with the more concrete observations of the real life in and around us, the discord of our will, the most profound motives of every one of our actions and omissions, the causes of every one of our illusions.” And he quotes the following text of Robert Saitschick:
“Way above feeling and intellect, prevails the interior vision – here too is the source of the most profound creative actions, the source of the light which shines more clearly, more intensely, and incomparably more certainly than any light of the intellect. The apostles of Christianity did not draw their invincible strength from the intellect’s deﬁnitions; faith’s indestructibility did not come to them through the cold and uniform light of concepts; levelling intellectualism did not give them the allure of inner inspiration, decisiveness of purpose, cer- tainty in life and death… Only when all the forces of the soul have matured in us by contemplation, by puriﬁed will and by true love, are we able to recognise Christian truth in its essence; then for the ﬁrst time it becomes our inalienable and ﬁrm posses- sion, and then our intellect, too, ﬁnds in it its happiest and surest expression.”
I won’t go on at length with other quotations. It seems to me that what I have referred to is sufﬁcient to show that in fact Förster didn’t despise study and the intellectual life, but wanted it to draw its truest inspiration from the profound life of the soul. In this sense the daily struggle to overcome ourselves in the fulﬁlment of one’s own duties, principally – but of course not only – in the area of domestic work, if sustained by all the energy and light of the soul which seeks its own puriﬁcation and the exercise of love, becomes the true source of knowledge of life and inner enlightenment about the most profound truths. On this basis then study will make its own conquests. Even if in some places Förster says little about this second aspect, it is not difﬁcult to complete his thoughts.
Let us now compare this to our own times. I think the situation has not improved at all. In fact, it has probably worsened. It seems to me that today the world still wants to solve problems by making life easier, more pleasant, more exciting by means of technology and the spread of teaching. But what teaching? Study based on the life of the soul? I don’t think so. Too often even biblical exegesis becomes arid with its technical terms, when it doesn’t claim to distort the meaning of the Scriptures to make it conform to the current way of thinking. If we then ask what studies should be followed, from the little I know it seems to me that the political sciences, economics and commerce and information technology dominate. I don’t really think these are the appropriate subjects to guide the human person to profound self-knowledge. I remember once having read in a local health authority a poster with the following advertising slogan: “IF YOU USE CONTRACEPTIVES, YOU CAN CONTINUE TO STUDY”. What a nice way to bring study closer to the life of the soul! Rightly, St Benedict thought that if this is to be the study environment in our universities, it is better to seek refuge in the mountains and rediscover oneself under the gaze of God.
Now I’d like to return to the Rule of St Benedict, where one reads: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have speciﬁed periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading.” Therefore St Benedict also thinks about study. Of course it is not scholastic learning, but that search for God which you are talking about, too. Now in the monastic life everything in daily life is ordered and makes reference to the victory over self – obedience – and the exercise of fraternal charity – mutual service in everyday work. This practical exercise, basically founded precisely on domestic work, is transﬁgured by the light of God and his word, which animates, like inner music, a monk’s life; there are times for study of divine matters, reading at mealtimes; and still more there is the recitation of the Divine Ofﬁce which marks out the whole day and from within gives life to every activity. This recitation of the Ofﬁce, along with the secular development of the Benedictine life, intertwines with the solemnity of the liturgical functions, the buildings, the clothes, the illuminated books, and above all the singing – culture, thought, art, melody which come to animate with a breath of poetry and inspire with a glimpse of heaven all the activities of a monk. Thus from simple everyday domestic work and the divine spirit which invigorates it spring great ideas, great plans for the salvation of the world, to be carried out without ever avoiding the daily sacriﬁce of fraternal life in community: nothing to do with abstract culture, so far from the life of the soul!
And what is more, there, too, one ﬁnds the spirit of the cross, which gives supreme value to a monk’s daily self-denial, “so that never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” But there is not just the word of the cross, but also the word of blessedness: “But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overﬂowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”
Yesterday we celebrated the feast of St Cecilia and so naturally I feel like talking about music. Song in the monastery penetrates the soul and enlightens hearts, transforming the sublime meaning of God’s word – the Book of Consolation of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 40:1ff.), sung in the old Latin readings from the Christmas Ofﬁce, reveals all its hidden meaning: it is a song of penitence, which is transformed into an echo of heaven and its beatitude. This morning I was listening to Fr Livio’s commentary on the Gospel of the Day on Radio Maria: “Come, you blessed of my Father…”, and Fr Livio was saying: these words are music more beautiful than that of Beethoven, of Mozart, or Vivaldi; it is the music of heaven, of eternal beatitude. I thought: don’t we already hear this song, if, in the ways I’ve called to mind, the word of God intertwines with the whole of our lives? And here what came into my mind was the day of your baptism. It was in the church of S Maria in Traspontina in Rome. As a young priest, I baptised you and in the brief homily recalled the origin of your name “Benedetta” – I had learned about it from one of the writings of Cardinal Schuster – “This name comes from the Gospel, and precisely from the account of the Final Judgement, when Jesus says: ‘Come, you blessed of my Father…’ So we hope that this baby, through the trials of life, in the exercise of charity, may reach endless happiness.” But we already have a foretaste of blessedness here and now – as we have found expressed in the Rule – if truly in the struggle of obedience we allow the spirit of Christ’s sacriﬁce to live in us.
Could all these reﬂections suggest to us the possibility of re-thinking – as I hinted to you in the preceding reﬂections – family life in a new way, despite the difﬁculties that you rightly highlight? I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that, faced with a serious need truly based on facts, there must not be a lack of creativity in substantial reconsiderations, too. How many families have had to adopt to often dramatic life changes in the need to tackle the emergency of a son on drugs or in prison, or a daughter abandoned by her husband? Today perhaps one could place the need for change proportionately alongside the number of incidents in family life, with the aim of preventing, in as far as is possible, the situation that unhappy, maladjusted or spoilt children set out along paths that have no exit.
These suggestions could be reﬂected on carefully, but also courageously and critically – critical not just about the present reﬂections, but also about common trends in society.
Again I have gone on too long and fear I might have bored you. But I’ll draw to a close now, sending you warm greetings and blessings.
Yours affectionately, Don Massimo
Farfa 23 November 2008
Sorry if I am disturbing you. Re-reading my last answer to your letter – did you receive it? – It seemed to me to be too perhaps one-sided and did not sufﬁciently esteem and appreciate your correct observations about the value of study. I probably expressed myself poorly. Another of my sources is St Thomas Aquinas, who certainly did not disregard study and intellectual research. To attempt some clariﬁcation I’ll now limit myself to observing that the most consistent part, at least in terms of volume, of the Summa Theologiae is the second part, that is, the part dedicated to morality. I believe this makes us understand how much of St Thomas’ reﬂection was addressed to knowledge of the human soul. I would add two further observations: the ﬁrst is that Förster admired St Thomas greatly – another time I’ll quote for you one of his very signiﬁcant texts – and that he himself was university professor of education (therefore one cannot say that he didn’t love and appreciate study); the second observation is that in previous centuries the fundamental subjects for study in universities were the moral and meta- physical sciences. A short while ago I was looking at a massive book from the early 1700s which reported the university lectures from a major European centre, the name of which I cannot remember. I was really struck by the extensiveness of the arguments about the moral life of the human person which the book was drawing from an ancient tradition, based above all – but not only – on Aristotle’s Ethics. Once this was considered superior culture. Perhaps it’s necessary to re-think these things to rediscover the correct relationship between culture and life and to be able to tackle in their truest reality the problems of individual, family and social life today. Apologies once again and I hope I haven’t bored you.
With dearest best wishes, Don Massimo
Farfa 27 November 2008
“To produce a lively and vigilant conscience, to animate and enlighten assiduously ‘from within’ our material ‘I’… Such is also the meaning of the story of Martha and Mary. Seemingly, Christianity disparages work, because it imposes aims superior to it, and snatches from the human person the pure idolatry of it. ‘Mary has chosen the better part.’ Does this phrase perhaps diminish work? No: just when the human person is raised from sublime purposes to the supreme awareness of his/her spiritual destination, then work appears in a new light which transforms it: it appears to him/her as a means for exercising the victory of spirit over life, as a school of self-control; and all the enormous energy stirred up in the depths of the soul for the attainment of that superior end now return for the beneﬁt of work.
“Thus Christianity, which places Mary above Martha, also stirs up inexhaustible energies for the most laborious, menial and unselﬁsh work. Promising the crown of life to the victor, it has in fact crowned that work which calls for a greater victory over self.
“Mary, who aspires to that crown, and who in comparison with it holds in contempt every earthly thing, is also the better worker… her work energy has greater and more plentiful sources, is guided by a superior love…
“The ancient motto ora et labora has a very profound meaning, also because it means to say, that for the energy, steadfastness and certainty of intent in every work, the fact that the soul is kept close to its supreme destination, that it is separated from the world of appearances and the transitory and ﬁlled with intense desire for a perfection which is not of this world is of decisive importance: and thus puriﬁed and re-afﬁrmed it then directs every creative action, and transforms earthly work into heavenly work, in a work aimed at honouring and extending the spiritual world…
“However, ora et labora does not just refer to manual labour, but above all also to the most difﬁcult part of every type of personal service, that is, the way of dealing with people. If here there is not greatness of thought or ideals, this immediate and close relationship with the real person with all his/her whims and weaknesses, and his/her selﬁsh concerns, will contribute much more to embittering and paralysing the inner life rather than animating and developing it. Martha’s love is blinded by the spirit of restless activity; it lacks the penetrating outlook of a calm and collected soul, which applies its exercise of contemplation and meditation to relationships with the person, too, and takes time to reﬂect and deepen. Without this type of contemplation there can be nothing but stagnation, dissolution and struggle in the sphere of practical action.
“Martha does not know the human person well. Besides, Martha’s inferiority with respect to Mary is also revealed by the fact that due to a lack of a superior light she must succumb to the cares and difﬁculties of daily service, and has no answer to the disappointments which her relationships with men bring, no conciliatory interpretation, no idea how all this can be used and transformed for the beneﬁt of the inner ‘I’. And thus is explained, too, the anguished cry that today arises from the life of Martha, that is from the sphere of service carried out stupidly and soullessly; and it also explains this ﬂeeing from such service to apply oneself to that circle of impersonal and purely spiritual work. But as we have seen, the true path is that service is placed in relationship with the spiritual life of the human person, that it may serve and be served by this, strengthened and raised up…
“Therefore the ideal school of domestic economy is not that of Martha, but rather that of Mary, in which, through fundamental care for the soul and the example of the great heroes and heroines of love and self-denial, pupils may thus be effectively initiated into the superior life of the soul, and thus be clearly acquainted with the bond which unites by such a life their service, that in the world of matter they truly feel to be priestesses of the spirit and of love.”
From Christentum und Klassenkampf (1908)
by Friedrich Wilhelm Förster
Suggestions for family life inspired by the
Rule of St Benedict 4
As we have tried to show elsewhere, St Benedict and the monastic tradition wanted to order the daily life of a community in the light of human and Christian wisdom, so that the individual who wants to live in a Christian manner may not be thwarted, but on the contrary might be supported in his/her choice of life by the community of which he/she is a part. This ordering has two elements: the practical arrangement of actions and the inner disposition which must animate them. The ﬁrst element comprises the ways and times to be followed in the various areas of work?
(that is, work, rest, meals, going out, dress, etc.). The second comprises the associated spiritual dispositions, that is humility, obedience, charity, prayer, listening to God, etcetera, and the concrete conditions which encourage them. From these two elements and from their interweaving comes a complete and detailed picture of community life, the fruit of reappraisal about the preceding monastic tradition put into practice by St Benedict after years of experience and then subsequently developed by his followers down the centuries.
We will now try to gather from this tradition the various aspects, external and internal, which should order the life proper to a family which, with Benedictine human and Christian wisdom, wants to escape today’s prevailing disorder5.
First of all we will try to list two types of dispositions – external and internal – inspired by the Rule of St Benedict and its developments and adapted to the spirit of a family.
1. External dispositions concern work (domestic, professional, creative), rest, meals, dress, going out, surroundings, furnishings, tools.
2. Internal dispositions will depend in large part on those aspects of family life ordered more directly to nourishing the heart and mind: prayer, common and in private, charity within and beyond the family, mutual service, fraternal dialogue, the times and manners of conversation and silence, reading, study, music, sacred and secular song, relaxation and the more traditional arts, the modern means of entertainment, artistic expression and communication, the organisation of the house (a place of worship, the library, the setting for work together, the artistic decoration, devotional objects and images).
Now we will examine in detail the points listed above.
1.1 Domestic work
The brothers should serve one another. Con- sequently, 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.
The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 35
As in all the points we will examine subsequently, here it already seems that for St Benedict manual labour is de facto a spiritual commitment, because humble domestic service – in this case in the kitchen
– means the exercise of fraternal charity, a triumph over selﬁshness and one’s own laziness, the imitation of the obedient and suffering Christ. Applied to family life, this teaching of St Benedict is not just a practical norm for easing a mother’s domestic work, sharing out the burden on all family members: more than this, it is a most powerful educative means by which children – but of course adults, too – learn not through words but facts what the practice of fraternal love means and acquire, through the daily exercise of it, the virtues of charity, diligence, patience, care and precision. Without this integration, catechetical lessons serve little purpose. There should be no need to emphasise what a positive inﬂuence this practice should have – and others we will talk about soon – on mutual affection and understanding – across the generations – and family stability.
1.2 Professional work
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 skilfulness 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.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 57
On this point, too, the teaching of St Benedict can be invaluable for family life. In fact the Rule recalls the fundamental principle that what counts most is not professional ability or an academic degree or status in society, but humble awareness of one’s own poverty before God and readiness to sacriﬁce oneself and one’s own interests or pleasures for fraternal service. In this light, housework can be more a source of blessings for those who carry it out and for the whole family than the most brilliant professional work, even if this brings – at least apparently – greater ﬁnancial beneﬁt. In fact these beneﬁts could be seriously compromised by the lack of humility and charity, by the subsequent lack of mutual affection within the family, by the mistaken scale of values placed before young people in the course of their education. St Benedict does not let himself be captivated by the prospects of greater economic beneﬁt or social prestige: what counts for him is the good of souls and the fraternal harmony that derives from it. A wise abbot once said: ‘We don’t need professors, we need monks.’ Likewise, it could be said: we don’t need professional people, but mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, who in social life, too, must not be simply ‘professional’. It should be added, then, that in all aspects any profession merits being humbly subordinated to the true good of souls.
1.3 Creative work (art and craft)
He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 31
To illustrate this point – as others we will see elsewhere – we must bear in mind the centuries-old Benedictine tradition. If St Benedict never speaks of art, down the centuries his monks’ monasteries have always been characterised by art-craft production linked to the daily life of prayer and work. Liturgical books were decorated with splendid miniatures, vestments were made with wonderful embroidery, the vessels for the altar provided an opportunity for goldsmith work, the wooden choir stalls were artistically embellished, to say nothing of the works of architecture, painting, sculpture concerning churches, chapels, cloisters, ambulatories and areas of common life. To these speciﬁcally artistic expressions one can add lesser craft-type activities, such as sewing, darning, making chocolates, etc. In all these the ordinary and extraordinary care for worship and order within the house, which is often expressed in domestic work, receives a spiritual and aesthetic inspiration which originates from the monks’ human and religious consciousness and adds a new element to the already highlighted advantages of manual labour. Förster observed that carefully dusting a porcelain statute one learned to treat one’s neighbour with gentleness and respect. If to this is added the commitment, often very arduous, to instil into the material and objects in use a sensitive expression of one’s own creativity and love for a human and religious aesthetic ideal, then work becomes at the same time both highly educative, as the domination of the soul over the body and the perceptible world, and source of intimate joy for oneself and others. From what has been said one can understand the harm caused by the almost total disappearance of art and craft work from the daily life of families and its replacement by purely cerebral abstract work of scholastic study, by professional activity outside the house and by games and entertainment based on electronic devices and television spectaculars passively soaked up for hours. Among young people today one notices a material and mental untidiness which is easily corrected by diligent commitment to manual and handiwork activity. I would like to add that without a doubt the current decline in beautiful art is due to a large extent to the lack of that family art-craft basis we have spoken about, and which no academy can replace.
At this point it is superﬂuous to emphasise how much the real family could learn, in this area, from the Benedictine tradition.
All the monks will sit together immediately after rising from supper. Someone should read from the Conferences or the Lives of the Fathers or at any rate something else that will beneﬁt the hearers, but not the Hepateuch or the Book of Kings, because it will not be good for those of weak understanding to hear these writings at that hour… On arising [in the morning] for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapters 42 and 22
The Rule and Benedictine tradition anticipate times for common recreation after lunch and supper, to relax from the efforts of the day. For St Benedict the time of relaxation after supper becomes a time for spiritual reading, followed by the concluding prayer of the day – Compline – and by rest at night, which of course is regulated by precise times. A set time is given for getting up in the morning, too, and this happens very early, especially in the summer.
To apply these habits to family life one could remember three points: the evening is a time of relaxation to be dedicated, before rest at night time, to reading and activities which reinvigorate the spirit; at a set time – not too late – everyone should retire to rest; from when they are small, children must get used to getting up early without indulging in laziness.
We notice how these norms today are completely disregarded: the evening is easily given over to noisy and exhausting activities and entertainment, often away from the home and late into the night; common times for rest at night do not exist; when they can children and adults are both capable of sleeping until lunchtime and beyond. In this it is absolutely necessary to go against the grain: spiritual and physical needs demand it. In the nineteenth century Alphonse Gratry wrote a marvellous reﬂection entitled Evening and Rest, which has lost none of its currency. Here are some excerpts:
“The employment of our evenings, the right use of our evenings, is surely a serious and practical question… It is here, if at all, that we must be ready to break with our present habits… What of our evening conversations, our social gatherings, our games, our visits, our theatre-goings?… ‘Surely’, it will be said, ‘it is rest’. I say that it is not rest. What brings dissipation does not bring rest. The body, the mind, the heart, worn out and, as it were squandered, sink, after one of these ill-spent evenings, into a heavy, unrefreshing slumber, which brings us but little beneﬁt, for the life-forces which had been too widely dissipated have now neither time nor strength to renew themselves in their sources… Most undoubtedly we must have rest, and in these days of ours true rest is even more lacking than hard work… It is no less because we do not rest than because we do not work that we are so barren… Repose is, I take it, life drawing itself together and re-steeping itself in its well-springs… Life ought to be made up of toil and rest as the succession of time on this earth is made up of day and night… Rest, moral and intellectual, is a time of intercourse with God and with our fellows and of joy in such intercourse… Nothing conduces to true repose so powerfully as music, so only it be genuinely music. Musical rhythm gives regularity to our vital activity. It does for the mind and heart, perhaps even for the bodily powers, what sleep does for the body. Sleep restores to its fullness and calm that rhythm which governs the beating of the heart, the circulation of the blood, the heaving of the breast. True music is closely allied to prayer, as it is to poetry. Its inﬂuence recalls us to ourselves, straight away restores in the soul its ﬂow of feelings, lights, and impulses.6 Like prayer and like poetry it guides our thoughts towards Heaven, the home of rest… Your evening’s rest should be an intercourse of mind and soul, an effort in common towards truth in some form or another, for instance, by the study, not too laborious, of course, of some branch of science. It should be an effort towards the beautiful by means of the arts, an effort towards the love of God and man by prayer. Sow, in this way, seeds of light and of holy emotions for the sleep which is coming. God himself will have care to foster them in the soul of his sleeping child.”
It is important to note that modern biology conﬁrms completely what Gratry wrote about the body’s rest: all the strong stimuli that the organism receives during the day provoke continual responses from the cellular system, with mistakes and imbalances that nightly sleep has the task of correcting and harmonising. Lack of adequate nightly sleep causes premature ageing. This behaviour extends also to the infra-human sphere and, in the eras preceding the development of animal life, allowed, by the alternation of day and night, the development of the vegetable world.
From what has been said one could postulate rules which establish, for the evening hours pre- ceding nightly sleep, a substantial decrease in the use (which must not be neither exclusive nor daily and indiscriminate, but planned and moderate) of the television and videos or DVDs – with programmes to be watched possibly together – and above all the search for a communion of spirit among family members through dialogue, sharing of thoughts and art – especially music and poetry – and prayer together.
If anyone does not come to table before the verse so that all may say the verse and pray and sit down at table together, and if this failure happens through the individual’s own negligence or fault, he should be reproved up to the second time. … For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. Our Lord says: Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with overindulgence. … Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapters 43, 39 and 38
The teaching that a family should take from the Rule of St Benedict on this point could be summed up in the following four points:
1. The meal must be preceded by prayer together.
2. As far as is possible everyone should respect the set times and be present from the opening prayer.
3. In eating and drinking sobriety and Christian mortiﬁcation must be respected.
4. Silence and reading during the meal is not appro- priate for a family, which is not a religious community, but that does not take away from the f act that the meal must be a time of human and spiritual communion between those present
– as was the custom in all traditional cultures
– especially today, when work and study commitments keep members of the family apart for practically the whole day. That is why use of the television must be excluded at mealtimes and stimulating conversation between everyone should be encouraged. That will be so much easier if, as it is said above, the work in the kitchen, the work of service, washing-up and re- arranging things does not fall on the shoulders of one person, but is charitably shared among everyone.
One should not forget that very important element for enlivening the joy of the meal together: the quality of the cooking and improvement in the culinary art. This, too, is something which has not been lacking in monastic life and it also comes under the previous discussion about the educative value of handiwork.
In this regard it is appropriate here to make some reference to the problem of diet, notably changed in recent times both in terms of quality and quantity. The abandonment or reduction in domestic work, the general lack of love for the home and working with one’s hands, the alienation from nature and the mass urbanisation, the spread of consumer models offered by highly industrialised foreign societies and advertised through incessant and invasive publicity, the subsequent oblivion of traditional Mediterranean foodstuffs and other similar factors, have all inﬂuenced this change, a change which provokes signiﬁcant concern about the physical and mental health of the new generations and the unhealthy relationship which is established with creation. This has given rise to globalised, uniform cooking, lacking in any natural relationship with the primary production of food. Often young people and adults, men and women, impatient at having to spend their time in the art of cooking, opt for so-called fast food, with the consequence of regularly taking in artiﬁcial food harmful to the body. In addition there is excess in quantity and chaos in times for eating, due to widespread lack of moral self-discipline, something considered outdated and inadmissible in modern civilisation.
Contrasted to these serious distortions, which must not at all be undervalued, are ﬁrst of all the three “principle ingredients” formulated by experts
in healthy diets: authenticity, seasonality and territoriality, that is care to have food not adulterated far from its origins, to have food in season and produced in the area where one lives. In addition, as has already been highlighted, it is necessary to review, especially for this matter, domestic and work with one’s hands, love for the home, the value of time spent therein, self-denial and rhythms necessary for a commitment which requires patience and precision. We repeat again that the involvement of all the members of the family will make a mother’s work more effortless and will be educative for everyone. Finally, it is necessary to rediscover, for our society, too, the importance of austerity, sobriety, mortiﬁcation, times of fasting: all things which conﬁrm the topicality of the Rule of St Benedict.
We believe that for each monk a cowl and tunic will sufﬁce… also a scapular… Brothers going on a journey… their cowls and tunics, too, ought to be somewhat better than those they ordinarily wear.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 55
Already at the time of St Benedict the monks had a habit which distinguished them from lay people, but St Benedict is concerned above all with the poverty of the religious, who must have nothing that is non-essential. However, we note that the Rule is also concerned about propriety, above all when travelling. Subsequent Benedictine tradition, represented in this aspect especially by the Cluniac movement of the tenth/eleventh century, developed the solemnity of choral dress for the liturgy. Thus the scapular, which originally was a very simple monastic habit, became an artistically designed habit, adapted for the most solemn liturgical celebrations.
We note ﬁrst of all, therefore, that St Benedict does not leave to chance this particular aspect of daily life, but lays down precise norms. Indeed this is a teaching to follow. Adapting, then, the Benedictine tradition to the circumstances proper to family life, one can emphasise on the one hand the need for sobriety and renunciation of excessive luxury – and today also extravagance and indecency, thus resisting the very strong pressures of fashion and commercial propaganda – and on the other care for an appearance which is truly expressive of the intimate character of the person and the family. In this perspective the fashion magazines of the end of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth are not just a valuable lesson in dress sense, but also a true school of spirituality.
5. Going out
Brothers sent on a journey will ask the abbot and community to pray for them. All absent brothers should always be remembered at the closing prayer of the Work of God.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 67
Monastic life presumes a close communion with one’s own community, life and all its needs. For St Benedict there is no room in such a community for the individualism and asocial and selﬁsh indifference which unfortunately are so widespread today. Even without following the rigours of the Benedictine norms which regulate monks’ absences in view of their spiritual good, to be attained through obedience and diligent charity towards the brothers, a family could imitate the Benedictine spirit by reminding its members to favour life in the family over outside activities. As we have hinted, domestic life, if well ordered, demands care for everyone’s daily needs and the maintenance and improvement, aesthetic, too, of the surroundings which for the most part is lacking in external activities – professional, scholastic or entertainment – and which is highly instructive for the formation of character, social and artistic sense. For this one could imagine not rigid norms which encourage general respect for schedules, coming back in the evening not too late and above all concern on everyone’s part for the fraternal conduct of life in common. The aim is not to cultivate family selﬁshness, but on the contrary to educate family members in a charity which is not theoretical, but practical, getting involved in the exhausting tasks demanded by mutual service, the foundation of every true social activity. Personal experience has taught me that in a monastery and in the countryside social awareness develops more than in the family and in the cities. To provide an eloquent example. When I was in Rome in a family the city was so full of noise that any sound left me indifferent and I continued to think my own thoughts. Coming into a monastery in the countryside at the start I continued to act in the same way: if I heard a bang or an unusual noise I paid no attention. But I was called to one side and told off because I was taking no interest in what was happening. Thus gradually I learned to be always more attentive to the environment in which I live and to the needs of the house, of people, of the life in common.
6. The surroundings
The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and the various crafts are practiced. Then there will be no need for the monks to roam outside, because this is not at all good for their souls.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 66
The abundance, quality, and lay-out of the surroundings depends on the choices made by whoever establishes a family, or also by the inheritance of the family of origin. Often the choices are strongly conditioned by economic scarcity or difﬁcult or even sometimes tragic situations in our cities. At any rate, as far as is possible, the founders of domestic co-existence should bear in mind the fact that it is above all in the surroundings of the home that the truest life of the family members does or should develop. Truest in the sense that very often a profession or studies make us concentrate on an aspect of reality abstractly isolated from the integrity of life. So the medical analyst will be concerned about blood, the cashier about receipts, the banker about cheques, the academic about a particular science, etcetera. It is obvious that these are, so to speak, fragments of life which should relate to the whole. But this whole should be found above all in domestic life. The surroundings of the house therefore must encourage the diligent presence of family members with their pragmatism and pleasantness.
Possibly every family member, or every contingent nucleus – spouses, little boys, girls – should have their room and in the room ﬁnd attractive surroundings as an habitual residence and principle place for their own activity.
Here it is appropriate to point out the keenly felt problem today about energy conservation. In this regard there is a lot that can be achieved through choices made at the time of building or initial adaptation of the building. Without going into particular operational details, for which a technical expert should be consulted, let us bear in mind the opportunity to use solar and wind energy and the thermal properties of wood and other natural or synthetic materials. Sometimes speciﬁc choices also involve a change in one’s own life habits and often demand more austere conduct, for example in the use of water, foodstuffs or different sources of energy, fostered by a deepening moral and religious understanding.
In the second half of the 1960s, purely for ideological reasons linked to the then prevailing obsession with collectivism, there spread like wildﬁre the centralisation of sources of energy. Huge sums of money were spent, completely unwarranted, in order to achieve, in the massive urban built-up areas, heating and other central services, eliminating independent burners in individual apartments. Every family had to pay its quota and the timing and temperature of the heating supply depended on the decisions made by a central administration. The result was that the apartments closest to the source of energy were bursting with heat while those furthest away were often not sufﬁciently heated. In addition, the only way to reduce the excessive heat was by turning off the radiators in the individual rooms – but naturally the fuel continued to burn, with enormous waste. I still have haunting memories of the suffocating and unnatural heat of big city apartments.
Traditional Catholic doctrine has opposed this collectivist way of thinking by the principle of subsidiarity, according to which every lesser body must freely carry out its tasks without being suffocated by larger organisations, which have the sole duty of intervening to help the lesser body when it is unable to fulﬁl all its tasks. This doctrine arises from trust in human freedom, when it is guided by justice and charity, and by making the most of the irreplaceable capacity of the inner dynamism of every person: it is only from the sanctiﬁed spiritual life of each person, and only from that, that a re-birth of society can come about.
In this perspective one can understand how important is the relative autonomy, and if possible a certain isolation, too, of individual dwellings and their services, not only for saving energy, but also for encouraging the development of that individual initiative from which can only come the commitment of moral fraternity, for which today there is such a pressing need, and which is instead suffocated by collectivism.
Whoever fails to keep the things belonging to the monastery clean or treats them carelessly should be reproved. If he does not amend, let him be subjected to the discipline of the rule.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 32
To be practically adapted to the purpose for which it is destined and at the same time be pleasing and attractive, every room must be equipped with appropriate furnishings and ﬁttings. The aesthetic aspect of furnishings is very important, determined also by the decorative elements. That involves not just a choice in buying furniture, but also care on the part of everybody in the family for order and cleaning. The work commitment dedicated to it – which, as has been said, must be justly and charitably shared among everyone – has great educative value, both because it contributes to creating a sense of responsibility for the communal house and for one’s own room, but also because it gets one used to physical effort, sacriﬁce, precision, a sense of justice and charity as well as an aesthetic sense. This last aspect – to which great importance must be given – can be very much increased if someone is dedicated to creating with their own hands furniture and artistic ornaments for the house. The fragmentation of professional work, the abstract nature of mental work, the mechanisation of modern industrial activity, can be greatly compensated by creative and artistic manual activity exercised in order to embellish one’s own house.
In order that this vice of private ownership may be completely uprooted, the abbot is to provide all things necessary: that is, cowl, tunic, sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief and writing tablets. In this way every excuse of lacking some necessity will be taken away. … Anything more must be taken away as superﬂuous.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 55
As regards the quality and quantity of the tools, for work and relaxation, a family will not regulate itself precisely in conformity with the vow of poverty proper to the consecrated life, but a certain similarity with the dispositions of the Rule could be useful from different points of view. First of all, a Christian family must, at any rate, avoid luxuriousness, waste, and superﬂuousness. The current widespread tendency to ﬁll children’s rooms with an enormous amount of various toys and trinkets is really harmful for the character formation of little children. It fosters in them comfort, excitability, greed, and selﬁshness. But St Benedict can suggest to us most of all that choices are made with a clear purpose in mind: of course we must ensure that a child – and not just the child, naturally – ﬁnds in his/her room a dwelling suitable for a healthy life of human contact, of play, work, study, and rest. For all these things a balance, achieved with the greatest simplicity and wisdom, must be struck, too, with the use of electronic gadgets, today unfortunately indiscriminately accepted as part of children’s belongings without any criteria of screening. In contrast to this harmful habit one must suggest the following consideration: the child ﬁnds him/herself at an age of initial development, in which all his/her neuro-cerebral apparatus is in the stage of formation. In this situation he/she has absolute need of contact with the real world, characterised by the experience of difference, importance, effort, cold, warmth, a living relationship with inanimate and animate nature, and with people. All of this can in no way be replaced by a virtual world, which does not have the characteristics proper to reality. Therefore precocious and sustained involvement on the part of little children in the use of electronic gadgets – be they screens of various kinds, mobiles, headphones or other things – is quite harmful. Only when the human person is well integrated and rooted in natural and human relations, constitutive of a healthy personality, will he/she be able to enrich their own experience and that of others by modern means of communication. In fact, to be able to communicate there is ﬁrst of all a need to acquire a ﬁrm footing in the reality to communicate. Even at an intellectual level, to substitute activities proper to the mind – e.g. mathematical calculations – with electronic replacements – e.g.calculators – cannot but taint the development of intelligence. However, the abuse of the artiﬁcial world of electronics does not harm just children, but adults, too, even if less seriously. Electronics must always have a subsidiary, marginal and never essential or central role in human experience.
Having stated these principles, we can now draw up the following norms, negative and positive:
1. Up to a certain age – to be established with expert advice – the use of electronic instruments must be reduced to a minimum, or eliminated completely.
2. For this a personal television in a room is to be banned, along with video-games, mobiles, headphones, etcetera.
3. After a certain age there can be reasonable use of some electronic gadgets: personally, I would exclude video-games completely. Watching television must always be moderate, not lengthy, or habitual, or solitary, but planned for useful circumstances and shared by the family.
4. Use of a computer and its various functions, too, should be gradually introduced, with watchful control over time and the way in which a computer is used.
But it is important to integrate these largely negative norms with some positive norms:
5. There is a need for serious re-evaluation of natural traditional instruments, of work and play, which enable a healthy development of muscular, cognitive and creative capacities.
6. Once a child has acquired a correct relationship with reality and has got to like the natural instruments, experiencing the pleasure of exer- cising one’s own physical activity, operational intelligence,possiblyaestheticcreativity,too,then the new instruments can constitute an excellent integration with natural activity, perfecting, streamlining and quickly communicating it to others.
7. The rediscovery of the beautiful things that our forefathers accomplished with their own hands and with natural tools, or at any rate more elementary tools which they had at their disposal, must re-establish a continuity with their work which has been artiﬁcially interrupted by infatuation with electronics.
The current tools in the home, and above all in children’s rooms, must not therefore transform environments into “windows open to the world”
– in fact that is not the world, but a monstrous misrepresentation – instead they must be places where one’s own life is lived, a life made up of true human relationships – not those of soap operas, which is an absurd abuse, morally harmful for all ages – a life of playful activity, useful and creative work, of study, meditative silence, prayer, and rest of both soul and body.
9. The arrangement of the house
The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely… so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapters 53 and 31
Moving on to look at the internal arrangements – although the distinction is not that precise – we will begin with the points listed last of all and which, in some way, fall within both areas, external and internal. The discussion will therefore be in close continuity with what has been developed in the preceding points.
9.1 A place for worship
The oratory ought to be what it is called, and nothing else is to be done or stored there.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 52
There are a variety of different situations about this point. The best – but deﬁnitely the rarest – is that of mostly very old houses in which there is a family chapel. Then there are houses which are large enough to allow a room to be dedicated exclusively for worship and prayer – this, too, is very rare. In the majority of houses one has to be satisﬁed with transforming, if need be, a room used for other things
– a sitting-room or living-room – into a room for prayer in common, in which nevertheless it would be good that there is always present on one wall or in a corner a holy picture or other signs of devotion (kneeler, candlestick, etc.). The presence in a house of a place intended for worship is a strong reminder, if not indispensable condition, so that a family acquires the custom of praying in common. When I taught religion in primary schools I used to emphasise that there are two essential things for prayer: somewhere to pray and time to pray. Without these requisites prayer cannot have a real place in our lives and will usually become, in the best cases, a pious desire. Naturally, according to the words of the Gospel, each person’s room will be a privileged place for private prayer – and what we have said before about the indispensable requisites so that one’s personal room doesn’t become “an open window on the world” devoid of silence and intimacy is essential, too, in considering the gospel invitation to pray in one’s own room. But a suitable and appealing environment is also necessary for prayer in common. Here, too, one calls to mind everyone’s care for cleaning and aesthetics – an element, as already suggested, which is not at all secondary, even less so in an obviously religious matter.
9.2 The library
Besides the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox catholic Fathers… What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator? Then, besides the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, there is also the rule of our holy father Basil. For observant and obedient monks, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues… During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through. These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapters 9, 73 and 48
Given the times, one can’t say that St Benedict’s library was small! And obviously it was ordered. Naturally, however, a family today cannot conform literally to the prescriptions of St Benedict for his monks. But there is still much that can be learned from the Rule. First of all, the very existence of a library. Not all modern houses have one, or something that can be so called. A library in fact involves care and preservation of books. Instead, how often does it happen that books get lost, spoiled, loaned out and not returned? This is a great shame. In fact a few years after publication some books can no longer can be found and, as experience has taught us, especially in our day, more recent does not necessarily mean better. Indeed, often the books of greater value are unjustly forgotten and are then rediscovered, perhaps after centuries – isn’t that what happened for example in the Renaissance? As well as this it seems that the manifold techniques for writing, printing and illustrating, which gave books a wonderful aesthetic aspect, with time have fallen into disuse and been substituted by more economic, but also aesthetically inferior systems – all this without taking into account the gradual decline of manual skill and therefore the whole art of iconography. In this situation one cannot recommend enough the preservation of books from other eras, sometimes even from just a few decades ago. Of course the same care is required for the best books today, books which tomorrow will no longer be available. The Benedictine tradition here can really teach us. But besides conservation the choice of publications is very important. Unfortunately it is often the case that books, journals, magazines, newspapers and comics of every kind can be found around the house without any responsible control. The moral tradition of civilised, not just Christian countries has always rightly denounced the incalculable damage caused by harmful media. It seems our times have forgotten, among other things, this teaching of humanity’s wisdom, too. From experience I know how many young people have been negatively marked for life having found in their houses a book or newspaper with immoral passages or pictures, or having read, without adequate preparation, subversive writings or subversive propaganda. Even when one doesn’t descend to the lowest moral and political levels, a house in which are present just magazines, sports papers or the most recent scintillating books of trendy literature and in which there are no classics of poetry and thought, cannot be but highly morally harmful for the children and young people who live there and spiritually soul-destroying for adults. On the contrary, the child who grows up surrounded by a well-ordered library of valuable books, further enriched with beautiful illustrations, simply by this is already at an advantage when it comes to life and school.
9.3 The space for work in common
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have speciﬁed periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 48
The work referred to here is that craft and artistic work dealt with under n. 1.3 above. In many Benedictine monasteries, especially those of nuns, there is an area intended for this type of activity, which is often done in common. I like to compare this tradition to a family custom especially present in Denmark. In this country every well-off family has the custom of coming together at certain times of the day, especially on Sundays, to devote themselves to some creative activity, which might be drawing, embroidery, music or something else. In this way there is a time for relaxation and family union which also serves to cultivate a taste for beautiful things and each person’s manual and mental abilities. It would be excellent if this custom would spread everywhere, thus taking time and energy away from the absolute empire of television, games, and electronic gadgets. Of course, in order to do that a suitable environment is needed, and it could be the same sitting-room, living-room used, at the appropriate time, for other purposes, too. As regards the activities to be done in these times of working together, some things have already been said. One possibility is considered in the next point.
9.4 Artistic adornment
When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 48
Spread throughout the Benedictine tradition every- where we ﬁnd love for one’s own house and a care to embellish it in a way which on the one hand express the faith of the monks and on the other serves as a call to raise up souls, at every moment of the day, to thoughts of God. Beauty in fact always speaks to us of God, especially when it celebrates the humanity of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. But a rightly well-known exhortation from St Paul broadens our horizon immensely: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). Exegetes interpret these words as speaking about not just the proper contents of faith, but about everything good and beautiful, in as much as everything comes from God. Therefore everything that can adorn the family home, and not just religious icons, should be present in every room in the home to make souls happy and raise up the thoughts of those who live there. If, to this end, it is necessary to cultivate taste and make an appropriate choice in buying decorative items, it would be highly desirable if the members of the family themselves decided to make with their own hands whatever ornaments are necessary. As has already been said, that would be very educative in developing the physical and mental abilities of children, young people and adults and would be a real source of joy and mutual integration.
9.5 Devotional objects and images
The ﬁrst step of humility, then, is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 7
In a monastery there is a predominance of religious ornaments, while instead in the family home artistic decoration and images inspired by worldly life or family memories prevail. But in the family home, too, icons and religious objects should not be lacking, certainly not in the place set aside for worship, but not only there. A now sadly disregarded Catholic tradition is that of placing an image of Our Lady or the Holy Family above the bed of a married couple. The redemptive and exalting signiﬁcance of this sign cannot escape reﬂection. But other sacred images and objects put in different places in the house could have similar signiﬁcance. There was a time when an image of a Guardian Angel used to be put in a child’s room. It has to be noted here that in recent years sacred – and secular – iconography has declined enormously, due both to the general decline in manual skill and a widespread perversion in taste. So it is necessary to make a careful choice in the acquisition of sacred, as well as secular artistic objects, and above all acquire, through the study of past examples, the necessary taste and manual ability to express in appropriate aesthetic forms one’s own religious and human emotions. This is not all incidental: young and older people learn to know and experience the intimate meaning of religion – and life – and its mysteries more through the Biblia pauperum of iconography than through the catechism. For this, too, given the decline we have spoken about, the sense of the religious has disappeared even in infancy. Finally, let us remember that photography cannot replace creative handiwork, just as a soap opera cannot replace reading a book.
10.1 Prayer in common
Therefore, we should praise our Creator for his just judgements at these times… and let us arise at night to give him praise.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 16
The Divine Ofﬁce marks the entire monastic day. Thus prayer becomes the practice of life, incarnated in the Ofﬁce recited or sung at different times of the day. The Psalms, hymns, invocations, which in the course of Christian history have enriched the Church’s liturgy, often made more precious by their high poetic value, were not composed to remain closed in a book, nor to be performed in the theatre or at a concert, but to become entwined with everyday life: “Be ﬁlled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:18b-20). Of course, the family cannot dedicate the same amount of time to prayer together as monks. However, it can try to imitate them at speciﬁc times of the day: in the morning, before meals, and above all in the evening before sleep. This prayer together is not to be done in a prosaic and sloppy manner, but must be enriched by an appropriate choice of texts and – as we shall see later – songs.
10.2 Private prayer
Moreover, if at other times someone chooses to pray privately, he may simply go in and pray, not in a loud voice, but with tears and heartfelt devotion.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 52
All the members of the family, from the smallest to the oldest, should have great love for solitude with God. That can be encouraged by the presence of sacred images in the place of worship and in individuals’ rooms, by an atmosphere of silence, by habits of reﬂection, study and meditation. The damage caused, in that sense, by a house full, rather than of sacred icons, but of posters and worldly, unseemly and vulgar photographic images and continually disturbed by pseudo-disco music, by the television always on and the noise of electronic gadgets, is obvious. To encourage individual prayer it is absolutely essential that individuals’ rooms be protected from all this worldly invasion and be a place of silence, study, meditation and a place brightened by art and enriched by books of poetry, thought and prayer: the home of the soul, where each person can rediscover themselves after the dissipation and worries of the day.
11.1 Charity within the family and mutual service
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, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 72
There shouldn’t really be any need to recommend mutual affection within the family environment, since it is laid down by nature itself. But this is not the case, because there cannot be true love without the cruciﬁxion of one’s own selﬁshness. Therefore it is necessary that right from the start little children must be educated, by the recommendation and example of parents and teachers, to overcome laziness, weakness, indolence, and gluttony and acquire the virtues of temperance, strength and justice. As already mentioned, it will be the habits of getting up early in the morning, sharing domestic work, sobriety in eating and drinking which create the indispensable prerequisites for charity experienced between family members. To that, of course, is added the practice of prayer together.
11.2 Charity beyond the family
You must relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing… Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapters 4 and 53
Sometimes one hears talk of “monastic selﬁshness”, as if the cloister enclosed monks within the restricted environment of the interests of their own community. In many cases that has happened, but this was not St Benedict’s aim, and nor was it the practice of monasteries when they seriously applied the teaching of the Rule. On the contrary, the Enclosure binds the monk to service of the fraternal life and submits him to obedience: that puriﬁes him from selﬁshness and love of self and thus prepares him for the practice of all the good works. However, the exercise of these good works must be accomplished without the monk escaping the obligations of charity and justice towards the community of which he is part and from which he receives continual support for body and soul. On the other hand, the good that can be accomplished outside within the framework of community life, co-ordinated by the Abbot, is worth more than what could be achieved individually. That does not mean a monk cannot come up with his initiatives, but he must submit them to the judgement of the superior, who has the duty of evaluating the talents of his monks and co-ordinating them with the needs of the fraternal life in mind7.
But just as sometimes there is monastic selﬁsh- ness, unfortunately there is also family selﬁshness, when often people who are married focus exclusively on the concerns of their own family and, by word and example, teach children to do the same. To overcome this temptation, there must be an increase in the value of the virtues acquired through mutual service – about which a lot has been said and the importance of which cannot be exaggerated – and through the exercise of sobriety and sacriﬁce, for the needs of charity towards those outside the family and for all the problems in the society which surrounds us. Often it is precisely the widespread lack of virtues which human and Christian Benedictine wisdom calls us to practice which lie at the heart of so many individual and social evils. It will therefore be precisely these virtues, cultivated in a monastic or family community inspired by the Rule of St Benedict, which will bring relief to the sufferings of the world. Therefore parents are recommended deﬁnitely not to leave half done the moral formation of little ones, to put these little ones – with due discretion, of course – in contact with the wounds of society and teach them to exercise the spirit of service they have acquired in the family for the beneﬁt of the suffering and the disadvantaged.
12. Fraternal dialogue. The times and means of conversation and silence
The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger… The decision is rather the abbot’s to make… Nevertheless, just as it is proper for disciples to obey their master, so it is becoming for the master on his part to settle everything with foresight and fairness… Monks should diligently cultivate silence at all times, but especially at night.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapters 3 and 42
Today in families one laments the lack of time for dialogue between husband and wife and between parents and children. Often this lack is due to the too many useless commitments outside the home, to the disaffection for the surroundings and domestic work, to the too many hours taken up by the television or electronic gadgets. We have already said that mealtimes are sacred and that time must be devoted to fraternal communion, with respect for schedules and the exclusion of the television during meals. Likewise, reference has been made to the evening as a privileged time of rest and retreat from external concerns and noisy and worldly entertainment, a time of communion of souls in dialogue, through the sharing of thoughts and feelings, in prayer together. Opposed to this is the sadly almost universally widespread vice of poor use of the television, as an inescapable inevitability which must necessarily take up the best hours of the evening. Everyone can understand how irrational that is, but no one has the strength to oppose it. The family which instead wants to act according to saner principles should consider the evening use of television, videos or DVD, as an exception, to be chosen when the beneﬁt really outweighs the loss
– that is, rarely – and not as the rule. As a rule the family must be free to devote itself to dialogue and to those playful or artistic activities which encourage dialogue. The joy of a creative use of intelligence in stimulating dialogue or in playful manual activity or in music, instrumental or vocal, or in the shared use of poetry is very different from the boring and taciturn passivity imposed by the television.
We note again that the habits of mutual service, humble self-surrender, sobriety and self-sacriﬁce which we have emphasised many times, constitute an indispensable and invaluable premise for fruitful and respectful dialogue between family members. The opposite must be said for habits of laziness, selﬁshness, hoarding, and arrogant obstinacy.
Finally, we note the importance of silence in the Benedictine Rule, and above silence after the ﬁnal prayer of Compline. After relaxation, sharing and evening prayer, everything must be concluded in the silence of nocturnal recollection, when the world’s lights are put out and inﬁnite mystical little ﬂames light up the dark face of the sky: the soul’s sky, too, needs its stars, which consecrate the thoughts, feelings, and prayers with which the heart goes to sleep so that they may bear their mysterious fruit in the unconscious life of sleep.
Listen readily to holy reading
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 4
One could repeat here what was said under no. 9.2. We would just add that reading cannot effectively be substituted by the various forms of visual communication offered by modern electronic means. Reﬂection is one thing and imagination another. The prevalence of the latter is a very negative characteristic of the human person today and can be harmful for the balanced growth of the child. The physical reality of the book is also important, along with the opportunity to keep it and go back to browse through it on other occasions, even after some years. Knowing that that old friend the book is always available to repeat its wise words, which perhaps we have still not sufﬁciently understood or meditated on, or that with the passage of time and the enrichment of experiences reveal ever new meanings, provides some reassurance. If the children’s room is not invaded by noisy electronic gadgets with their chaotic and incessant torrent of images, the young people will soon acquire a taste for good reading, enriching mind and heart.
The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life. But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator? … Are you hastening towards your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 73
St Benedict, having ﬂed from Rome “scienter nescius et sapienter indoctus” (“knowingly ignorant and wisely unlearned”) because he was scandalised by the immoral life of students there, sought in monastic life a different school from that of academic institutions: the “school of the Lord’s service”. To grow in humility, charity and self-sacriﬁce is for him more important than growing in scholastic education. But the practice of the human and Christian virtues is also for him the foundation of true wisdom. In fact he does not disapprove of study, when it is directed to knowledge of God’s ways. In Chapter 48 of the Rule he wrote: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should have speciﬁed periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading”. And of the Abbot he says that he must be “learned in divine law” (Chapter 64) and that “everything he teaches and commands should, like the leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of his disciples” (Chapter 2). True wisdom, therefore, must ﬂow from the commitment to a virtuous life and in turn must enlighten the path of virtue. But we have seen that for St Benedict virtue is exercised largely in the practice of the most humble services demanded by the communal life and fraternal charity. Moreover this communal life is not ordered to an earthly end, but rather to a spiritual one. In fact, many of the services demanded by community life concern the correct organisation and regular and fervent practice of liturgical prayer, good organisation of public and private reading, study of the Word of God and the patristic and monastic writings, and concern for a well-planned life of personal prayer. Even the most earthly observances are transformed by the Rule through the spirit of imitation of the obedient and suffering Christ, who did not come to be served but to serve, and through the joyous oblation of self in love of God and fraternal charity. So what is learned through the recitation of the Ofﬁce, meditation on Sacred Scripture and in prayer, is then put into practice in everyday life.
Subsequent monastic tradition had to develop enormously the masterly guidelines set out by St Benedict as the foundation of a culture not abstract and scholastic, but profoundly combined with the practicalrequirementsofapersonalandcommunitarian virtuous Christian life. It is obvious there is no place in a well-ordered Benedictine monastery for the dissolute or the scholar or scientist swollen with pride, contemptuous of the humble works demanded by community life and fraternal charity. In St Benedict’s perspective – which is naturally that of the Gospel – the humble illiterate monk who sacriﬁces himself day and night for love of God and his brothers is wiser than the person with many academic degrees who is unhelpful and proud. But it is also true that the same community religious life requires the development of a diverse cultural activity. To be Christian monks it is necessary to read, meditate, declaim continually the Word of God and the writings of the Fathers, to recite the Psalms and inspired songs and hymns and the prayers of the Church for many hours during the day. From this stems the need to learn, teach, think, write, copy out, illuminate, compose, and then to sing and develop and enrich the melodic heritage and create a more appropriate musical script, and to build oratories, churches, chapels, libraries, spaces for the various services of monastic life and to adorn them with architectural, pictorial and sculptural art, to carve the wooden choir stalls, to make sacred vestments, to create liturgical and paraliturgical rites – out of which mediaeval theatre was born – etcetera. As I wrote elsewhere, “culture, thought, art, melody which come to animate with a breath of poetry and inspire with a glimpse of heaven all the activities of a monk. Thus from simple everyday domestic work and the divine spirit which invigorates it spring great ideas, great plans for the salvation of the world, to be carried out without ever avoiding the daily sacriﬁce of fraternal life in community: nothing to do with abstract culture, so far from the life of the soul” proper to so much academic learning.
From this school was born the greatest Christian wisdom. Here I like to quote some wonderful phrases from Jacques Maritain about St Thomas Áquinas, who left the monastery at Montecassino to enter the new Order of the Dominicans and ended his not long life as a guest of the monastery at Fossanova: “He had to leave the house of the Blessed Father Benedict from whom, as a little oblate in a black habit, he had learned the twelve degrees of humility and of whom, as a Doctor, dazzled with ecstasy after the completion of his work, he asked hospitality in order to die. … St Dominic had asked St Benedict for him in Heaven, because the Word of God had asked St Dominic for him, to entrust him with a mission to the Christian mind.”
The more modern Dominican Order was better able than the ancient Benedictine Order to adapt itself to the life of study of the great mediaeval universities, but the episode is symbolic: in order to be sane and not fall into abstractions even the highest and most developed intellectual life must draw its sap from humble service – “humble” comes from “humus” = earth – from lived prayer, and from the practice of charity, and must not be content with lurking around university lecture theatres, but must return to the family and monastic homes to illuminate with the light of wisdom the life of work, prayer, anguish and hope of the simple faithful and all people.
It seems to me that the discussion up to now is very useful for a correct assessment of the function and value of study in the life of a family. First of all we note that there is a culture of the soul which is more important than academic life. Indeed, it should be the foundation and ﬁnal purpose of every intellectual activity. That means that whatever is understood by the seemingly so poor expression “domestic work” in fact constitutes the richest foundation of every true culture. There is therefore nothing in fact unseemly and improper for a woman with an academic degree to devote herself full time to looking after the house and family8. In the same way, there is nothing discriminatory in recognising that not everyone is given to intellectual academic life, given that the energies of the intellect, the heart and will express themselves equally well, and often much better, through manual work, humble fraternal service, and self-oblation in charity. History teaches us the most sublime art often stems from this humble family activity, rather than from universities and academies. Then whoever is given to academic intellectual activity, from the preceding considerations should learn to draw inspiration for his/her studies from the daily practice of virtue and address to it the whole of his/her intellectual life. More than one hundred years ago, Förster wrote: “So that man may never lose sight of the solid centre of life, that is the work around his own character, manifold knowledge must be stripped of its distracting and confusing inﬂuence, which is obtained by putting it in constant relationship with that centre! The rest is not educating the people, but corrupting it!” These considerations point out to us what a superior culture means and what should be the correct scale of values in the sciences: information technology, economics and commerce or the political sciences can certainly not aspire to the rank of guiding human culture! Let us remember that the most voluminous and complex part of the Summa theologiae is the second part, that is the part dealing with morality: the Angelic Doctor thus shows us that the science which for a long time has been the most important is the study of the human soul and all the others must be related to it.
15. Music and sacred and secular song
Brothers will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to beneﬁt their hearers.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 38
St Benedict, following the custom of the most ancient form of monasticism, gives a central role, in the life of the monastery, to the choral recitation of the Divine Ofﬁce. As is natural, in accordance, too, with St Paul’s exhortation quoted above (cf. no. 10.1), the Psalms and canticles were often sung. Moreover, the psalm by its very nature is poetry and song: therefore true prayer must be poetry and song. Subsequent Benedictine tradition has developed this aspect enormously, so much so that mediaeval monasticism was held in very high regard by society because of the development and preservation of the ancient musical heritage. It was Benedictine monks in fact who invented musical script, which then became, with few modiﬁcations, what we know today – what enabled the Church’s liturgical melodies to be ﬁxed in writing in a precise manner. That’s why mediaeval sacred chant – which largely takes up and develops that late Roman chant – is the oldest, vast musical repertoire that we know about with sufﬁcient accuracy. It is known that the very names of the notes come from the initial syllables of the ﬁrst six verses of the liturgical hymn for the feast of St John the Baptist – a sign of the ecclesiastical and monastic origin of western musical art. Later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the scientiﬁc study of codices, it was monks from the French Benedictine monastery of Solesmes who restored Gregorian Chant to its primitive purity from the changes it had undergone down the centuries.
In this case, too, we note that music is nourished in monasteries not as academic or concert study, but as something which is part of everyday life: you have to pray together, and therefore you have to sing, too, and sing well, and create music appropriate for an evermore elaborate and solemn liturgy, and you must hand that down, and therefore preserve, and therefore write in an evermore appropriate manner. In recent years, too, it has been noticed that, in the chaos of wild experimentation in liturgical music, generally Benedictine monasteries have known how to maintain a certain dignity, with the preservation of Gregorian Chant and a prudent openness to the best expressions of more modern music.
Already in the late eighteenth century, the German Benedictine Martin Gerbert, Abbot of the Monastery of St Blaise in the Black Forest, was bemoaning the decline in sacred music, into which little by little in recent centuries had been introduced modern secular ﬁgured music, so much so that the sacred music was no longer distinguishable from it. To his eyes the change was so rapid and serious as to endanger the very purity of worship, “since Plato thought that not even the state could remain healthy if music was lost”.
This last observation reminds us of the important role of music in the life of the family. It is a matter to which very little attention is paid, without reﬂecting on the determining effect musical charm has on the profound unconscious of human life. The music which in recent years our young people abundantly feed on has degenerated more and more, along with the competition in ever more powerful and sophisticated sound systems and means of communication. The Benedictine tradition could offer many ideas to correct this dangerous situation.
We begin with the observation that music, by its natural disposition, must not be something belonging to a museum or concert hall, but should accompany our everyday lives, as happens, as far as liturgical music is concerned, in monasteries. In this the family could imitate the monks, animating the times for communal prayer with beautiful songs, chosen and arranged. But a lot more could be done: the entire range of human emotions could be nourished and educated through music and song. For the ancients, music was in fact a powerful teaching tool. Parents and children should obtain ﬁrst hand an appropriate aesthetic formation so as to thus acquire unerring taste for the melodies and songs suitable for arousing in children the best human and Christian sentiments. In my opinion, a repertoire to be re-discovered and re-evaluated, including it within the weave of daily family life, is the most rich heritage of popular Italian and foreign song, sacred and secular, and eighteenth- to nineteenth-century opera, especially Italian. At one time certain songs were known by everybody: today, for the most part they have been usurped by the most vulgar compositions of television variety. In the ﬁeld of religious music, too, often the latest most grating and ear-splitting improvisations prevail. A hundred years ago a wise author wrote that one experiences the world’s complete pain in listening to the music which nourishes and delights our people. What should be done today? Here, too, it is essential to take a step back. In fact, the tradition of popular song and classical opera, with their overwhelming celebration of the loftiest and most loving human sentiments, implicitly Christian because the fruit of a centuries- old religious education, was not abandoned because it was no longer suitable to a new era, but simply for ideological and basely commercial reasons. When this heritage is re-proposed at the right moment, the human person and young people today are captured by it and feel that it responds to their truest aspirations.
Families, therefore, should learn to interweave moments of relaxation and work with beautiful songs from popular and classical traditions, and also an appropriate choice of modern songs, among which there is no lack of beautiful compositions – but it is not easy to ﬁnd them in the chaos of commercial music.
“Wanting to recreate a beautiful and strong race”, Fr Paul Doncoeur wrote many years ago, “we promised ourselves to teach them again how to sing.” But, he added, “music, song without any connection to life are dead; they will not be pleasant for you and your effort will be neither fruitful nor lasting if you do not really imbue your life with music… The only picture of beauty, harmony, and joy which can make song spring forth is that of the land of the good God, the road, the forest, the mountain and the ﬁeld, the farm and the home.”
There is no doubt that our modern false and artiﬁcial life kills song, since, distancing the human person from nature, it dries up the secret and precious sources of the joy of living.
16. Relaxation and the more traditional arts, modern means of amusement, artistic expression, communication
Let each one look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 49
The Rule of St Benedict does not foresee times of relaxation or use of art, but the life of the monk, even if austere, contrite and always open to sharing the cross of Christ, is deep down a life of joy, in which “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overﬂowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (The Prologue). Furthermore, St Benedict states that he does not want to set down “[anything] harsh, burdensome” (ibid.), despite the severity of the discipline which aims at correcting vices and preserving charity. It is no surprise, therefore, that subsequent monastic tradition accepted into the daily timetable times for recreation and play and broadly developed artistic activity. That must be imitated by a family which wants to follow the Benedictine spirit, also because, as has been hinted, common participation in playful or artistic endeavours greatly encourages spiritual communion and dialogue.
Just like art and craft, traditional games have the merit of engaging the physical and mental faculties of the human person without the screen of artiﬁcial energy.Asalreadysuggested,thatisveryusefulandeven indispensable for the development of the intelligence, creativity, manual skill and aesthetic sense of young and old. Furthermore, as was so poetically expressed by Fr Doncoeur, the human person needs real contact with nature and to exercise directly over it his/her own cognitive, appreciative and creative faculties. Sadly, the super-development of technology and electronics has distanced us evermore from this live experience of nature and has falsiﬁed our life, removing it from its genuine roots and artiﬁcially over-exciting it by evermore unreal and debase experiences of commercial propaganda. That does not mean that the most modern electronic developments, if well used, cannot offer new extraordinary opportunities for human action. The fundamental principle for the correct use of them, as already hinted, is the following: electronic means must never replace the reality of nature nor the natural use of human faculties. Therefore their place must never be ﬁrst, but always second. That means that the human person must ﬁrst have their experiences in direct contact with nature and other people and in the natural exercise of his/her own faculties – intelligence, physical effort, knowledge of reality and admiration of beauty, transforming diligence and artistic creativity, sharing with others life, thinking, and feelings – and only after having done all this will he/she be able, without risk and through modern electronic means, to broaden his/her now well-established faculties and communicate what he/she has learned, thought or achieved in the new dimensions of space and time. Obviously, this hierarchy not just of values but also chronology, implies, as has been suggested, both a prudent delay of a few years before approaching education through electronic means and, subsequently, moderate use of them, in such a way that their use is always integrated with and never substitutes contact with real life. In this sense it would be important that young people and families in general use means of visual reproduction as largely as possible to create and transmit their own ﬁlms of their own lives, work, and achievements in order to communicate them and share them with other family and cultural groups, even at a long distance. This and other similar experiences would have the great advantage of encouraging active creativity instead of passivity with regards to electronic means and at the same time would teach about making them tools for faithful communication of reality and not its falsiﬁcation, as instead so easily happens in the world of communal information, advertising and soap operas. These latter, of course, if well chosen and not too often, can have a very valid teaching role. I say “not too often” because a ﬁlm of true art containing a strong human message needs a lot of time to be taken on board through memory and reﬂection. But my decidedly negative opinion about electronic games has already been expressed earlier.
17. Friendship between a natural family and a monastic family
The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset.
Rule of St Benedict, The Prologue
Doubtless many readers will object saying that the ideals presented here are very demanding and hardly practical without very much going against the grain and disturbing the predominant habits of life today. But, as I have observed elsewhere, many families ﬁnd themselves forced to radically modify their whole way of life following tragedies such as a son on drugs or in prison or a daughter abandoned by her husband. So wouldn’t it be better to modify family life voluntarily with the aim of preventing, in as much as is humanly possible, such adversities rather than being forced to modify them afterwards in order to put things right? In my humble judgement, in fact, there is no doubt that many of these tragedies are due to the imbalances which the current situation, passively accepted by families, provokes in the formation at the developmental age. In current circumstances, in fact, as they grow up little ones often pick up strong neurological, mental, affective and moral inadequacies, and thus in adolescence and beyond ﬁnd themselves unsuitable for a healthy social and married life, with all the tragic consequences that ensue. Opposing the urgent need for essential changes in current family life, therefore, with the usual reasons of impending work and lack of time seems like wanting to imitate an ostrich, which hides its head in order not to see things. One could ask: when tragedies then arise, what happens to the apparent beneﬁts one thought to have obtained by frenetic work and lack of time?
But we would like to conclude, besides the exhortation to reﬂect seriously on what has been said in these pages, by inviting families who wish to make their own the teaching of St Benedict to embrace a stable friendship with a Benedictine mon- astery, male or female. In such a way everything that one tries to achieve in one’s own house might be found, more complete and in some way transformed, in the monastic community and its home. In fact the monastery should become – as I have written elsewhere – “a centre of worship, school of sacred chant, model of everyday community life consecrated in work and prayer, through means of communication with experiences of holiness, culture and art of past generations, workshop of craft and artistic creativity, an ediﬁce in whose structure and art is incarnated in a more perfect way than can happen in a family home the raising up, exhausting but real, of every expression and every moment of individual and communal life in the light of God.9”
28 December 2008,
Feast of the Holy Family
Many years ago, in a moment of clear inspiration, I wrote some considerations about family life which seemed to me to be very topical. However, unable to see any practical outlet, I put them to one side and almost forgot about them. Re-reading them now, after new experiences led me to write this book, it seems to me that those considerations had in no way lost their interest and that ﬁnally they might ﬁnd their true place in the proposals suggested here in this book. Therefore, I am setting out the considerations here as I wrote them, with a few brief notes of explanation.
It is probably not mistaken to state that in the young and very young of today there can be a critical, precocious conscience. Now there are two possibilities – if there is a difference between the culture of the family and that of society, either:
1. The child will criticise the family; or
2. The child will criticise society
It all depends which of the cultural approaches asserts itself on the young person with greater authority and conviction. If the family passively and habitually progresses its own culture, then the child cannot be but fascinated by the aggressiveness of society’s culture. There is therefore a moral obligation on parents to know how to create conditions of a family culture which can give rise in the child, by contrast, to a critical conscience with regards to society’s culture.
A family culture of that kind cannot be comprised solely of prohibitions. It must be fundamentally positive and propositional: that is, it must offer such content to the child that he/she can be led to love and defend it.
We will try to clarify some aspects of a healthy family culture:
– The centrality of personal life and communication between people founded on the communion of the inner world of each person is an essential part of the family. At the family level there does not appear to be any opposition between the inner life and social life, because here it is clearly obvious that the inner life is essentially social, inclined to spread, to be nourished in giving and receiving. Statistical generalisations are published about this which consider the person only as a number10.
– By its vocation, therefore, the family is inclined to have a conscience which opens out in the ﬁrst place on a horizon of immediate, profound (inner), dialogical and affective personal relationships.
– From this communicated inner life there is a spontaneous raising up towards communication with a superior spiritual world – a response to the inﬁnite richness of shared interiority.
– At the same time every immoral manifestation can only be experienced as foreign in a co- existence founded on the mutual valorization of each person in dialogue and profound (inner) love.
Characteristics of modern social culture which are opposed to the natural culture of the family
– Social problems tackled in an abstract and anony- mous manner (statistics)
– The invasion of modern means of communication into the sphere of family communication, with consequent harm to communication itself and its own culture
– The immorality of customs justiﬁed as an appro- priate expression of an emancipated society – de facto opposed to the culture proper to the family society – in this sense we note that society’s moral benchmarks are different from those of the family, because they are founded on abstract relationships and abstract solutions to abstract problems11.
In fact the contrast between certain tendencies in today’s society and authentic family culture could not be sharper. How can common ground be found between a love of total, profound (which involves the most intimate inner world), indissoluble, sacred and inviolable (which goes as far as involving the very personal relationship with God) communion and a certain social culture based on abstract economic relations, on a torrent of contrived images and pseudo-musical expressions transmitted non-stop by the media, and on a propaganda and practice of immorality spread at all levels of relationships between the two sexes?
We note how – beyond the exterior of necessary prohibitions – Catholic doctrine on this point is based on the need for love founded on lofty motives (not therefore exclusively carnal and susceptible), spiritual in its essence, therefore total, sacred, and indissoluble. That constitutes a very strongly positive proposition, that prohibitions have the unique mission of safeguarding. Through this sublime way in the human person is called to enter deeply into the kingdom of the spiritual and inner relationships between human beings. Relationships with children enjoy the same fullness, trust, self-giving, and spiritual intimacy.
Opposed to this strongly creative and positive proposal is a social morality which considers the human person simply as an individual closed in his/ her autonomy, quantiﬁable only for his/her external working action, which cynical commercial interest attempts to remove from ecclesiastical and family protection to make his/her human relationships based exclusively on a superﬁcial search for emotions and pleasures (on this basis commercial interest can freely work out its proﬁt).
Let us think now about the situation of a child or young person: on the one hand he/she has a world of affection and moral, human and religious principles; on the other, a way of life and feeling based on the autonomy of family relationships, on a world of superﬁcial emotions advertised by all means possible, on the possibility of free relationships between the sexes is presenting itself. If the family culture he/ she comes from appears to be habitual, banal, tied exclusively to a sentimental infantilism which has nothing to say about the needs of an adult today, fatally he/she will fall victim to the seductions of society.
Therefore it is necessary that the family culture be effectively positive, creative, complete, adult and critical (pugnacious) with regards to the destructive aspects of the culture of society. Thus the precocious criticism of the modern child could become a valuable ally of the family culture, exerting itself on the very society that wishes to seduce it.
An important point: up to a few decades ago the culture of society was strongly inﬂuenced by the (Christian) family culture and this family culture had the opportunity and often the energy to show itself to be creative and pugnacious in ensuring its ideals prevailed in society. We can say that there existed a very strong family culture tradition, which was not seduced as it is today by the media. This tradition was the fruit of generations who had worked and handed on down the years and centuries a world of feelings and thoughts (ars longa vita brevis). Now this culture has not naturally declined, as many human things do, but has been violently removed and wiped out. However, many traces of it remain, often boxed up with the futile objects of children. But if we examine the situation deep down, we discover that in those traces one doesn’t ﬁnd just a pleasant and vain infantile dream, destined to disappear as time goes by, but powerful creative forces capable of forming and inspiring with strong ideals the life of mature adult people. This whole culture must be truly re- discovered so that it may be continued and enriched by the experience of new generations. The violence of the present society must not prevail in such a way as to cancel the past and lay claim to the future. The future does not depend for an insurmountable destiny on the social conditions of the present, but on our creative freedom. But in order for our creative freedom to inﬂuence the future (by means of continuity with children and nephews), we must propose a culture which is worthy of overcoming the forces of social disintegration.
First of all, therefore, we try to recover a cultural tradition which has been unjustly and violently silenced with the excuse that it has waned and is inappropriate for the new era (in fact it was the new social trends which wanted to impose themselves excluding the culture because it was incompatible with them). The desire to exclude it had to ensure that it appeared antiquated in order to remove it. Hence the accusations of infantilism, paternalism, romanticism, avoiding social problems, intimism, selﬁshness, etcetera. All empty accusations, whose validity is founded exclusively on degenerate forms of traditional family culture. But the healthy, creative, heroic forms of that culture make the prejudiced accusations of the new culture melt away like snow in the sun. We have had the opportunity to speak about notable and also sublime examples of the social fecundity of the religious and traditional family culture.12 We have seen how the sacred human and religious relationship which intimately binds family members is capable of expanding indeﬁnitely for the good of society, not on the basis of abstract statistical and purely external schemes, but through social involvement of spiritual forces capable of re-awakening in society itself and in the people who comprise that society the most internal intimate energies. This is the path of the truly effective and beneﬁcial revolutions.13
We come now to the book we have spoken about.14 Today it is easily relegated to the childish books15 which the presumptuous young person of our time doesn’t even want to know about. But in fact President Lincoln was not ashamed to refer to the author as “the little lady who made this big war!” and the social power of this novel lies precisely in its knowing how to arouse all the moral and religious energies of human interiority for the renewal of society. So I would ask you to ensure it is read and read it yourselves to your children and relations to reawaken in them the best feelings of the heart and enthusiasm for their conquering and redemptive social mission to a cruel and inhuman world. In this way the power and seriousness – not infantilism and inadequacy – of the traditional family culture is seen. This is the power which young people must feel, experience and love in order to be able to understand the need to stand up to the social culture which ﬁghts this power.
Let us try now to draft a programme to achieve this aim.
1. First of all it is good to connect again with the cultural tradition so unjustly marginalised, revealing its most digniﬁed, heroic and immortal aspects. For thus it would be appropriate to re- establish, through a library and other means of transmission (music, images, etc.), the various aspects of a spiritual world artiﬁcially declared to have declined, but which is in fact timeless.
2. Then there is a need to have the courage to enrich this tradition, showing by works and accomplishments worthy of being handed on to our descendents the creative strength of a family and Christian culture so unjustly fought and ridiculed. It is precisely the evils of society caused by the abstract, commercial and immoral culture which make us strive to be object of the merciful, creative and salviﬁc spirit of the human and Christian sentiments which the family has the mission to guard and hand on. Children and young people must be involved in these achievements, bringing to what is good the enthusiasm, intransigence and tendency to criticism and self-afﬁrmation which is typical of their age.
NB The contrast between generations arises precisely when the expiring generation has not been able to hand on to the emerging generation a richness of thought and feeling of which it can be proud and ready to defend and develop.
Prayer, life, ritual and education
In catechesis on prayer, the problem about the relationship between prayer and life is often raised, a problem which stems from a sort of split between the spiritual sphere proper to the religious and Christian dimension of life and the sphere of common interests and earthly activities. In response to all the often valuable answers, solutions and suggestions which spiritual directors are used to giving, one would like to add here some observations arising from reﬂection on the Benedictine tradition.
The Benedictine tradition, following the Rule compiled by the Patron Saint of Europe, aims at organising the daily life of a community, including its practical and administrative aspects, with a view to the celebration, listening to and fulﬁlment, in all its daily aspects, of the Word of God and the mystery of Christ. The importance given by the Rule to the concrete aspects of daily community life and the liturgy corresponds to a sort of extension, or better still a more extended realisation of the mystery of the Incarnation. Thus the spirit of Christ animates by his divine breath the whole of the monastic Community’s activity, both in the vast and varied ﬁeld of work and in prayer: ora et labora. Already this famous Benedictine motto suggests an overcoming of the division between prayer and life. But the aspect in which this overcoming appears more directly is monastic liturgy, with all its developments down the centuries. It is especially in the liturgy, in fact, that prayer is incarnated and becomes life, so as not to remain isolated from the rest of human activity, but rather to bring about a profound transformation of it.
In my book Saint Benedict and family life I drew attention to the development, in the Benedictine tradition, of the solemnity of celebrations, liturgical music, vestments and sacred vessels and representational, sculptural, architectural and calligraphic art all linked to liturgical prayer. However, I did not give enough prominence to rituality. In the more or less recent past, rituality was often put on trial, seen almost as an external trimming which would make prayer self-righteous. Of course, that can happen and often did. But, as the saying goes, abusus non tollit usum: in itself rituality is nothing more than the most immediately visible incarnation of prayer, and so therefore it too, at a much higher level, is an extension of the central mystery of Christianity – in this sense the contribution on the part of the vocations from emerging countries, with dance customs at festive gatherings which are foreign to our culture, should not be looked upon with hostility and difﬁdence.
Does not participating, or assisting, too, at a monastic liturgy in which word, feeling and will ﬁnd their natural equivalent in the sacred building, enriched by the stamp of art and memory, in chant, in dress, and gesture, already make prayer naturally part of life? Now this rituality, with the various elements contributing to its enrichment, in monastic life ﬂows out beyond the oratory, into the chapter room, the refectory, the environment of work and study. Thus, for example, the meal extends the rituality to the requirements of punctuality, the prayers at the beginning and end of the meal, the reading, covering the whole of the meal or a part of it, service at table, and table manners. To sanctify, through liturgical rituality and its rhetoric in various activities, the way of gesturing, speaking, working in relation to communal life, and therefore by necessity sanctifying how one feels, thinks and acts in the various requirements of daily life: isn’t this naturally overcoming the division between prayer and life?
This conclusion has important consequences for the project of applying the Rule of St Benedict to family life, and especially for the suggestion about active contact between these families and a Benedictine monastery, as illustrated in my book Saint Benedict and family life. In fact, in this perspective, regular participation by a family at signiﬁcant parts of the monastic liturgy and a meal for guests regulated by a rituality in some way Benedictine, cannot but encourage lay participants in a simple approach between prayer and life, thanks, too, to the rhetoric which the experience of contact with monastic rituality should have in family life itself, in particular in communal prayer and meals. That is valid for everyone, but in a special way for the young.
In fact, recent neurological studies have identiﬁed in the human central nervous system so-called mirror neurons, through which mental activity and its behavioural consequences in the human person, but especially in the young child in formation, are strongly determined not so much by the purely mental content of educational or catechetical instruction, as much as by what the human person or child sees. So the vision of parents who act in mutual accord, or on the contrary in mutual discord, will have a much greater inﬂuence on a child’s mental and emotional formation than all the theoretical teaching on social or religious virtue. Now, while our generation has still been able to beneﬁt from a consistent presence, in the realm of life, of widespread religious images and customs, of an art and literature full of examples of lived Christian ideals, of a liturgical and familiar, religious and civil rituality, characterised by a strong sense of aesthetic dignity, sadly all of that is now largely lacking for successive generations, who on the contrary have been provided with a completely different content of images and experiences. I have been able to see how, during a retreat preparing for the sacraments of Christian Initiation, the young people present were distracted and indifferent in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and to the repetition, led by the religious preparing them, of the prayers invoking Jesus. For them Jesus was not a living and signiﬁcant presence, as he was for us, thanks to his Incarnation extended into the liturgy, into iconography, music, art and literature.
These experiences and these reﬂections can make us understand what would be the teaching effectiveness of children regularly frequenting, along with their families, monastic liturgy and its poetic, musical, artistic and ritual richness, and also if they were also involved personally in some way. The same can be said for a meal offered to family guests in which the requirements of punctuality, participating in the prayers at the beginning and end of the meal, wise organisation of fraternal service, a short reading at the start and ﬁnish, observance of certain table manners, reﬂect in some way the rituality of the festive monastic meal. If such regularly repeated experiences impact in no small measure on family customs – in conformity with the project in the book already referred to a few times – then certainly in great part the problem of the division between prayer and life would be happily resolved and it could make an essential contribution to the religious and human education of the sensibility and intelligence of little ones.
1. Reading other authors suggested to me the following image, perhaps suitable for clarifying the concept: when one admires a work of classical art, be it literary, musical or representational, one feels in communion with the eternal, it almost seems as if the artist has succeeded in attaining absolute beauty, divine beauty. But precisely because that work has re-awoken in us nostalgia for the eternal, there is born in us the desire to recapture the work again from scratch, to draw it closer to the divine model, assimilating to it, to make it more perfect, all that is beautiful, sacred, sublime that time subsequent to its creation have brought to the human experience. Finally the creation of a new masterpiece will impact on our admiration of the old one, making us discover therein meanings and intuitions that we did not understand before.
2. Monastic ascesis does not want to renounce human ideals, but wants to remove them from the empire of the evil one and bring them back to God puriﬁed and transﬁgured.
3. The recipient of the letter had the impression that Förster disparaged study too much.
4. We have refrained from speaking explicitly about Benedictine Oblates, because this institution already has its approved orders which might not coincide in every aspect with the ideas outlined here. In my opinion, of course, it would be desirable that Benedictine Oblates be the ﬁrst to adopt the suggestions presented in this book. But they can be adopted just as well by families which, without being Oblates, wish to model their own lives on the Rule of St Benedict and unite themselves in friendship to a Benedictine monastery.
5. I wrote elsewhere: “Without an environment and social custom which sustains it in daily life, the life of the individual cannot come to fruition according to an ideal of human and Christian integrity. That means that it is not sufﬁcient to evangelise the intelligence of an individual with beautiful catechesis and it is not even sufﬁcient to evangelise the individual’s heart, will and good works with the practice of the evangelical virtues: it is necessary to create social environments regulated in everyday life by customs correctly inspired by human and Christian wisdom and shared by all. Now what is human life’s fundamental social environment, the easiest to reach, the one most open to listening and which is very close to the heart of the Church? The family, naturally. But unfortunately it, too, is exposed to the greatest degradation, so that the life that is lived at home almost universally suffers conditioning by common trends passively accepted as inevitable destiny. Faced with such a widespread habit which, without asking permission, even before co-existence can begin, installs itself as boss of the house, individuals – be they husband, wife, children – feel and are impotent. Television always on and available for every kind of message, uncontrolled and often very precocious and krresponsible use of modern electronic means of communication and gadgets (internet, playstation, games and electronic gadgets, mobile phones, etc.), schedules disregarded, not turning up at meals, young people coming back at night when they want, books, magazines, newspapers and comics of a shoddy type which are found all round the house without a care, young people’s dress sense ready to follow any fashion without any restraint, pseudo-music which wafts around the house or sneaks into the brain through headphones, ornaments and pictures of every type and taste
– rarely of beautiful, classical art or religion – parents and children always absent, with the focus of their interests always outside the home. What else? Is it possible in this context not to remain a victim of the prevailing social custom, of the most cynical commercial propaganda, of rampant immorality through the most powerful modern means of mass communication? What is the point of wonderful sermons and beautiful catechesis? Returning home, even the most well- disposed individual will ﬁnd him/herself defenceless in the face of his/her family environment.”
6. In the course of the day professional and school work and too much dissipation divert attention away from the superior inspirations and ideals of life and one remains focussed on immediate concerns. It has to wait until the time of evening relaxation to re-awaken the soul’s greatest horizons and the most profound and truest aspirations. So during the day the sun’s bright light gives us the illusion that our earth is everything. But when the sun disappears and the stars appear we see that the earth is a small element in a immense universe of stars.
7. Over centuries monks have undertaken a variety of roles, from missionary activity to charitable assistance, however always in faithfulness to the communal life, marked by choral prayer and mutual service. It must be emphasised that the Benedictines’ greatest contribution to the Church and civilisation has been the dissemination among Christian peoples, by the example of their regular observance and their creations in the liturgical, artistic and cultural spheres, of diligence and piety incarnated in daily life, of the spirit of sacriﬁce and service, and of the elevation of intelligence and human and religious sentiment. How much these virtuous attitudes have contributed to the prosperity, material, too, of peoples is not difﬁcult to understand. In particular, the role of female monasteries cannot be fairly assessed outside this perspective.
8. This is an appropriate moment to speak about husband and wife working outside the home. Is it appropriate for both to work? Wouldn’t it instead be advisable to re-think the modern trends which have taken the woman too much out of the domestic environment? It could be suggested that, rather than over-valuing professional work it would have been better to spiritually and culturally re-evaluate and renew domestic and family work. One hundred years ago Friedrich Wilhelm Förster wrote an extraordinarily valuable chapter on the issue – then already topical in the developed German society – from which we quoted some particularly signiﬁcant passages at the start of this book. Unfortunately it is not to easy to ﬁnd this book, but at any rate the details are: Christentum und Klassenkampf: Sozialethische und sozialpädagogische Betrachtungen, Schulthess & Co., Zurich 1908. Chapter VII focuses on the educative value of domestic work. The justiﬁcation which is usually made for a woman’s professional work is that one wage isn’t enough. When circumstances effectively respond to this motivation, one could however think of a re- dimensioning of work outside the house – part-time – in such a way as to allow the woman to better fulﬁl her role at home. But the aforesaid justiﬁcation is simply not persuasive: in fact often a woman’s wage must then be, at least to some degree, paid to a child-minder. I don’t believe it is possible to deny that in many cases the real motivation is the woman’s desire to make her worth felt professionally, considering the studies she has followed, too. But it seems to me that on this point a radical re-thinking is necessary, based on the whole discourse which is going on in this area: for the promotion of the woman the best path is not indiscriminate access to professional work, but rather the spiritual and cultural transformation of domestic work and personal service.
9. This invitation to embrace friendship with a monastery does not mean in any way to remove the family from its parish or geographic community. On the contrary: if we consider that the cultural change suggested here could only happen with some difﬁculty unless supported by other families pursuing the same ideals, it is obvious that one is not trying to remove the “Benedictine” family from the parish, but rather “Benedictinize” the parish itself, both involving neighbouring families in the project and reminding parishioners of the daily opportunities rung out by church bells according to the model of the monastic Ofﬁce.
10. On these pages the reference to “statistics”, connected with the terms “abstract” and “generalisation”, occurs a number of times, naturally with a negative emphasis. Obviously there is no attempt to disparage the statistical sciences in themselves. Rather, it is about criticising a certain widespread mentality which pretends to tackle social problems in an “abstract” manner, that is without taking into account the concrete reality of the human person with all his/her dimension of interiority and freedom, but rather considers him/her simply as a manufacturer-consumer whose economic value can be calculated mathematically. It is characteristic of that mentality to judge the inner and spiritual dimension of the human person to be “individualistic”, “selﬁsh” and “antisocial”.
11. In this context it can be said that in wishing to solve economic problems by basing oneself exclusively on the consideration of the mechanics of production and consumerism, there is a widespread mentality which believes that problems to do with morality, largely sexual morality, are irrelevant.
12. This is a reference to a series of conversations held in the library at Farfa with a group of parishioners and friends. This book has arisen out of that very context.
13. We note that, if the profound inner energies of the human person are not awoken and enlightened by the enthralling experience of personal love proper to marriage, maternity and the whole range of feelings linked to these, it is not due to this that they remain inactive: on the contrary, ﬁnding themselves dissatisﬁed, they rage and become overpowering destructive forces.
14. The reference is to the famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe.
15. It was not written for children, but for adults!