DON MASSIMO LAPPONI OSB
THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT
A CODE FOR FAMILY LIFE
* * *
FOUNDATIONS FOR THE RENEWAL OF CHRISTIAN LIFE AND THOUGHT INSPIRED BY THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT
The present volume gathers different texts, all of which concern a deeper understanding of the Rule of Saint Benedict and its unique value for the renewal not only of monastic life, but also of family life, clerical life, school and theology. The first and main text had been already published by St Paul Publishing UK, with the title “The Rule of Saint Benedict for Family Life Today”. The original Italian text had been translated by Liam Kelly. In the present edition the translation has been partially modified. The other documents were previously unpublished.
We do not speak great things; we live them
The Rule of Saint Benedict a code for family life
Preface by His Eminence Cardinal Franc Rodé 9
Five preliminary documents 11
First document (a letter) 11
Second document (a letter) 14
Third document (a quote) 27
Fourth document (a letter) 30
Fifth document (a quote) 37
Suggestions for family life inspired by the
Rule of St Benedict 41
1. Work 42
1.1 Domestic work 42
1.2 Professional work 43
1.3 Creative work (art or craft) 44
2. Rest 46
3. Meals 49
4. Clothes 52
5. Going out 53
6. The surroundings 55
7. Furnishings 57
8. Tools 58
9. The arrangement of the house 62
9.1 A place for worship 62
9.2 The library 64
9.3 The space for work in common 66
9.4 Artistic adornment 67
9.5 Devotional objects and images 68
10. Prayer 69
10.1 Prayer in common 69
10.2 Private prayer 70
11. Charity 71
11.1 Charity within the family and mutual service 71
11.2 Charity beyond the family 72
12. Fraternal dialogue. The times and means
of conversation and silence 74
13. Reading 76
14. Study 76
15. Music and sacred and secular song 82
16. Relaxation and the more traditional arts, modern means of
amusement, artistic expression, communication 86
17. Friendship between a natural family and
a monastic family 88
Appendix 1 91
Appendix 2 99
End notes 104
Foundations for the renewal of Christian life and thought
Inspired to the Rule of Saint Benedict
Proposals for the renewal of family life in light of the
Benedictine tradition 111
The crown of twelve stars 121
Economy, school and monastic tradition 123
Dangers and opportunities of the media 153
The mission of a Christian family 165
Conversations about the Rule of Saint Benedict 169
First conversation 171
Second conversation 176
Third conversation 180
Fourth conversation 185
Fifth conversation 188
Sixth conversation 194
Seventh conversation 200
Eighth conversation 205
Ninth conversation 210
An answer to Austin Ruse 215
The Rule of Saint Benedict a Code for Family Life
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 Saint Francis’ 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 vest-
ments, 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
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 auth- ority 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,affectiveandmoralinadequacies, 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
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.”
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.
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
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!
FOUNDATIONS FOR THE RENEWAL OF CHRISTIAN LIFE AND THOUGHT
INSPIRED BY THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT
Proposals for the renewal of family life in light of the Benedictine tradition
We must make visible, perceptive, beautiful and engaging the sphere of the sacred. In order to achieve that, we should be working with dedication and necessary skills.
1. First of all we need to plan and make our homes become a place for prayer that is meaningful and speaks to the hearts of young and old. Attending a recent exhibition we have become familiar with the examples offered by the Andean Baroque. The beautiful examples of religious iconography, bought by many Latin American families because they are rightly regarded as a blessing for their homes, make us understand what healthy attractive power it is, to possess a beautiful sacred symbolism at home – and by contrast the negative suggestion of the worldly images, frequently immoral, that so often adorn modern homes. Round the principle image, or statue, – which of course you can choose freely – you can create an adequate decoration: altar cloths, doilies, smaller images, flowers, lights, candles, etc… This requires different abilities, with which other families may help you, because not everyone knows how to do this. The above principle should be kept in mind throughout the following proposals, responding the objection, that this is too much work for two poor parents and their small children. To create something personal, and involve the children in this, could be very useful also to learn how to model with your own hands the sacred images. For this an appropriate teaching is indispensable, which could also be useful for purposes that are not sacred. As we mentioned, someone, having acquired the necessary skills, could make them available to teach the different families.
2. It is then necessary to acquire educational and religious sensitivity and to have a wide repertoire of songs and prayers that truly moves the heart, suitable to the different circumstances of the liturgy and family life. This implies, in addition to adequate cultural training, the need to learn effectively to perform the prayers and songs. It is therefore proposed to organize teaching of the valuable religious tradition and liturgy and prepare a collection of cultural texts, prayers and songs, available without great expense, for all families. This role may well be played by a cloistered community that takes this project to their heart. The sacred songs can easily be learned in the context of teaching music for other purposes, which will be discussed later.
3. Another need is to have prayer texts with artistic handwriting and beautiful executed miniatures. Our fathers have left us a heritage of liturgical codices, which artistically embellished beautifully prayers. On the contrary, many liturgical and devotional publications today are characterized, from the graphic point of view, as a list of telephone numbers – not to mention certain modern iconographic productions that make you lose the desire to pray if wanted. Also here you could create teaching lessons, which could coincide with the ones mentioned above. Those who have learned the art of writing and miniature could make themselves available to the needs of families concerned and also this could become a source of income – this of course applies to all skills.
4. The presence of the sacred is to be extended everywhere: the table, the living room and private rooms must not be lacking adequate symbology, or the presence of appropriate songs and lyrics – like songs of prayer before and after meals. Here, too, the advice of competent persons can be valuable. In addition it is also necessary to educate on the themes of personal prayers, sacred learning and reading, and victory over selfishness, by renunciation of superfluous, acquirement of virtues and the joy of self-control and charity to the needy. Only on this experiential and emotionally basis effective religious education can be based.
5. It is proposed to introduce in all families a beautiful Sicilian custom. In Sicily, like on the day of Epiphany, on the day of the dead too small gifts are given to children – as for the choice of the gifts take note of what will be said later. It is the dead who bring gifts, and this is a beautiful link between the children and their ancestors. This bond is deeply motivated and strengthened by another and even better custom: the old man who knowingly prepares to die, begins in time to greet others, especially the children, hugging and blessing and promising to keep a hand over them from heaven waiting for them in the Father’s home. Against the unspeakable diffusion of the Halloween feast, this could be opposed by the propagation of this moving Sicilian customs.
Profane, so to speak, because every good thing is sacred.
Parents should understand that their natural or acquired abilities must be used first at home and for the benefit of their children – but not only their own, also of those who attend their home: creating a partnership between families can have unexpected development.
Unfortunately many things you learn in school serve little for domestic life. For this reason, many believe they fulfill themselves best in professional activities outside the home. But it is, in most cases, a great illusion. However, since the school often does not provide the necessary skills on how to live together in daily life, we have to remedy with proper teaching.
Starting with the principles to which we must seriously commit ourselves:
1. Make the home beautiful and pleasant
2. Commit our time and energy to serve the children to grow well and have healthy occupations
3. Create moments of joyful living, especially during meals, evenings and weekend recreation
1. To make the home beautiful and enjoyable we must first form a suitable taste that can be obtained by humbly attending the school of experienced people experts in fine arts. We then need to eliminate everything that makes the home messy, ugly and unpleasant – and, in addition to laziness and neglect, how much stuff has been introduced by the worst fashion in our homes! The acquired taste will allow us to know how to choose appropriate objects to make beautiful our home. But it is very important to learn to do things with our own hands, because the industrial products always carry the anonymous trade mark. Therefore we must regain the manual skills of our ancestors that we, in the excess of mechanization, have lost. Proposals can be made for teaching sewing, embroidery, drawing and painting, artistic writing, art, decoration and furnishing. A brilliant and heroic woman, who died prematurely during the war, wrote that the challenge of modern times is to rediscover the spirituality of work. Now work cannot find this spirituality unless it returns to being creative expressions of ourselves. This can hardly be achieved in today’s profession, but you can easily make it at home, for the benefit of the loved ones, and also on a broader basis, for the joy of yourself and others. This creative work can only be a job done with your own hands and with simple tools that do not cancel the work of human hands. Moreover, the perfection of the work requires collaboration and continuity of generations. For this we need to resume the inheritance of our fathers, taking their accomplishments and their techniques, and maintaining, in our homes, beautiful family memories.
But we must not neglect the more technical aspects of the home and the need, even for a significant cost savings, to acquire the skills necessary for the maintenance and repair of its various usages that the consumers of modern living have. Therefore it is proposed, in addition to teaching art and craft, also teaching of modern techniques of construction and maintenance.
2. Everybody should by now know that the replacement of the traditional games, manual and creative, with hours spent watching television and the illusory nature of the communication media and electronic gaming is destroying the nervous system and mental faculties of our children. But no one dares to correct the prevailing custom. But without being intimidated by anything or anyone, we have the duty to go against the stream. We can do this if we engage ourselves to remove from the children the disproportionate excess of virtual messages – which must be reduced to a minimum size, especially for the little child on the formative stadium – and replace it with the manual games. If you want, you can make this not only much more fun than passively looking at the television or the artificial excitement of the electronic games, but also highly creative and instructive. Doing so you may encourage the development of not only manual but also intellectual faculties of the child and you will introduce him to an easy learning of concepts useful for school and life. Not to mention that we will avoid the drying up, behind the recast industry pseudo cultural, the children’s imagination, naturally open to the intuition of the deepest mysteries of life. But to do this we must spend our time with our children, and do not let them (seemingly!) good to watch television while we devote ourselves to “serious” and “adult” things, like to talk on the phone with a friend or read a sport newspaper. We shall have to guide them in their games – and not just in their studies! – and this requires a prior preparation. Other necessary learning: reacquiring the entertainment and educational skills of the game made with simple materials. It seems a small thing, but there are lots of forgotten games to rediscover, put in the attic due to the absolute empire of television, besides the opportunity to invent new ones suitable to promote in children an easy learning of useful concepts, according to the methodology already in their time promoted by Maria Montessori, Freinet and other great educators.
3. Also to make meals joyful we need commitment. First of all, here you should definitely close of the television. But not enough: we must all be scrupulous punctual, to precede the meal with beautiful song and prayer, tastefully decorate the table, remove the fast-food and recapture the art of good cooking. In all this – which of course requires time and effort – the mother should not bear all the work, but on the contrary should strictly require the cooperation of all. This will also have the effect of teaching children – and daughters – early to love the art of good food and do not consider the effort dedicated to it a waste of time.
As for evening and Sunday recreation, this also requires a substantial reduction in the use of television, which should be confined to cases – quite rare – in which it proposes programs that have educational or artistic value. Instead we must rediscover and re-evaluate many other common forms of recreation. In addition to games and crafts that have been discussed, it is very important to give importance to the sharing of music and reading poetry and literature. But when it comes to music and language – not only literary, but the everyday one – care must be taken to distinguish between musical and linguistic expressions that elevate the soul and recreate and those that brutalize – unfortunately so widespread today, especially among youth.
For this it is absolutely necessary a teaching adapted specifically to parents, to form their taste and to give them the necessary skills of singing – and possibly also of instrumental performance – and expressive reading, and provide the relevant historical knowledge. In addition to this we should make available to all an easy and inexpensive access to a wide variety of beautiful lyrics and beautiful singing popular music, classical and modern, and musical instruments, and the inexhaustible richness of poetry and literature, sacred and profane, ancient and modern – and in this respect modern electronic means, properly used, offer an inexhaustible wealth. As has been said about the liturgical prayer, even in this context – as in all those listed in this proposal – a cloistered community could put itself at the disposal of human families to give them the cultural formation, the transmission of the necessary skills and the availability of texts and tools.
But what we require of families is really very much! And so, in order to help them, now we are going to organize a real “School for families”!
The Crown of Twelve Stars
High School for Families
1st star: projecting and interior designing of the home. Saint Benedict is Patron of Architects, because he planned, as an architect, the spaces and times of the life of a community.
2nd star: technical skill to care the house
3rd star: artistic skills and craftsmanship
4th star: sparing and environment
5th star: gardening and animal breeding
6th star: cookery
7th star: manual game
8th star: music
9th star: poetry and reading
10th star: artistic handwriting
11th star: religion, self moral training, liturgy
12th star: social and charitable activity according to the social doctrine of the Church
Economy, School and Monastic Tradition
Christopher Dawson wrote:
“To the ordinary educated man looking out into the world in A.D. 33 the execution of Sejanus must have appeared much more important than the crucifixion of Jesus, and the attempts of the government to solve the economic crisis by a policy of free credit to producers must have seemed far more promising than the doings of the obscure group of Jewish fanatics in an upper chamber at Jerusalem. Nevertheless, there is no doubt today which was the most important and which availed most to alter the lot of humanity”.
At the light of all this, let us read the page of the Acts of the Apostles that speaks about this “obscure group of Jewish fanatics in an upper chamber at Jerusalem”:
“Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, brothers?’ You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The promise that was made is for you and your children, and for all those who are far away, for all those whom the Lord our God is calling to himself’. He spoke to them for a long time using many other arguments, and he urged them, ‘Save yourselves from this perverse generation’. They accepted what he said and were baptised. That very day about three thousand were added to their number. These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. And everyone was filled with awe; the apostles worked many signs and miracles. And all who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed. Each day, with one heart, they regularly went to the Temple but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.” (Acts 2, 37-48).
Ancient monastic rulers, and among them obviously also Saint Benedict, have always had in mind the image presented by the page quoted above, from the Acts of the Apostles. Now this page does not speak about particular religious groups apart from the Christian community, but about the Christian community in its totality. The fact that the ideal communitarian life of apostolic times soon faded away, brought slowly monastic life founders to propose it as a model for separate communities. But there is no doubt that the model, for its primitive vocation, did not have a separation function, instead involved the interests of the whole Christian community. That means that, though they were not conscious of it, monastic life organizers – and so Saint Benedict too – worked for a project designed for its nature to flow back from monasteries to the entire society: to Christian society, of course, but with the apostolic function to attract all human society through its force of salvation and redemption, not only afterlife. The author of the Acts in fact says that the new community had the “sympathy of the entire people” and that “the Lord everyday added to the community who was saved”. The true apostolic force of predication, then, was the life itself of the Christian community. But let us see its essential tracts.
Let us make a summary: 1) Contrition 2) Redemption from sins 3) Gift of the Holy Spirit 4) Renunciation of pervert society customs 5) Daily constant listening of the apostolic word 6) Common brotherhood life 7) Eucharist, prayer, praise of God, Temple meetings, fraternal agapes: everything lived in common joy 8) Social voluntary use of property.
These are the elements that we find in all monastic tradition and in the Benedictine Rule. What makes the difference is the separation, brought about by the necessity not to obscure the paradigm with the adaptation to mundane customs, and the radical privation expressed in vows, brought about by the encratist tradition that from the beginning accompanied Christianity expansion. In fact the aspiration to delete all those ties to the present world which could distract from the perfect communion with God in Christ is already found in the first letter to the Corinthian (see 1Cr 7, 29 ff), and already in the first letter to Timothy (1 Tm 4, 3-5) we find the necessity to defend the lawfulness and holiness of marriage and of the use of earthily goods against encratist excesses.
Let’s observe that the spread of monasticism coincides with the dissolution of civil society and traditional customs, particularly strong above all from the III century ahead. It is in fact the show of a society – which was even officially Christian from the end of the IV century A.D. – in which not only the apostolic ideals, but ethic principles are eclipsed to push the most spiritually motivated men to strive to re-establish the apostolic model outside secular society. This choice appears caused by the necessity to oppose to the explosion of the demonic greed of humanity, no more stopped by moral and religious tradition, an example of heroic will of spiritual freedom.
As we saw, among the essential tracts of this model, there are the conversion of the heart, the importance of prayer and the social use of property. In fact the communitarian dimension invests every element of the model, first of all spiritual life, both in its aspect of conversion of the customs from the corrupt world and of prayer and worship. But we must notice that the communitarian dimension does not mortify at all the interior and personal dimension: in fact if every aspect of this new existence could not profit singles without the contribution of the community, on the other side without the involvement of the interior energies of everyone the model would expire in an exterior organization, purely formal.
The first thing to be noticed, then, in the apostolic model and in its monastic re-edition is the centrality of the work on personal selves. The primary call to conversion consists in it.
From this aspect a peculiar way of considering work, both material and spiritual, derives.
Let us read another famous text from the Acts of the Apostles:
“About this time, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews: in the daily distribution their own widows were being overlooked. So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we can hand over this duty. We ourselves will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.’ The whole assembly approved of this proposal and elected Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these to the apostles, and after prayer they laid their hands on them” (Acts 6, 1-6).
Here we have two forms of personal effort: material – canteen service – and spiritual – prayer and preaching. Both these works are presented as activities which involve the intimate participation of those who follow them, so much so that for canteen service are required “men full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”, on whom the Apostles, after prayer, laid their hands, like they will do for missionary mandate.
We can see here the Christian revolution of work: washing our brothers’ feet – service reserved to slaves – is a work that draws up us to God and to the bloody sacrifice of Christ. But the revolution concerns also spiritual work, which is not meant as a simple “intellectual study”, instead it is expressed in prayer, worship, fervid communication of God’s word.
Then in the structure of work, spiritual or material, there’s the effort of the inner conversion. But, as we said, this conversion happens in the climate of a common participation to the new ideal of life, without which the single could realize the change but very flawed.
This both intimate and social involvement is realized in the daily activity inside the Christian community, and it could not be only an academic study and neither a personal mystic experience. It is rather an ordinary form of communitarian life spurred by a yearning of spiritual zeal.
Now what pops up is that the Rule of Saint Benedict is just the commitment to delineate in details the community daily life, with particular attention to the organization of liturgical prayer and to everything related to it – such as the carefulness for choir and recitation, the observance of the timetable, and the necessary dispositions, physical (feeding moderation) and mental (praying attention). But the monastic ruler’s solicitude reaches out the entire daily activity of the community, such as work and the spiritual inspiration that should characterize it, the way we eat, we sleep, we wear clothes, we talk, we travel – always in the spiritual light that to these activities flows from the effort to follow God’s word, absorbed through liturgical prayer and personal and communitarian reading.
In the same light of spiritual effort of conversion the relationship with property appears. The monk must not possess anything of his own, but everything has for him a sacred value, almost like an altar vase. For the monastery objects should be treated with extreme carefulness, inventoried, kept in order and cleanness and, not used anymore, kept apart for the poor.
Let us notice, in passing, that the care of the poor is not confined in the donation of clothes and objects no more useful to the community. Benedict recommends to the monastery bursar to reserve to the poor a privileged treatment – as already Egyptian monastic bursars did, destining to poor people’s relief the revenue of monks’ work.
And here an element appears, which had not been evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles: the work of the members of the community. We read in the related text:
“The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common.
The apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and they were all accorded great respect. None of their members was ever in want, as all those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from the sale of them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any who might be in need” (Acts 4, 32-35).
Someone noticed the lack of any convenience in this program and the fatal reduction in poverty of a community that sells and consumes every good for the daily necessities of its single members. This fatal impoverishment would be demonstrated also by the collection in aid of the Jerusalem Church (as referred to in Saint Paul’s letters). Someone has observed that these first believers awaited as imminent the return of Christ, so they didn’t care about future, too.
Though this may be exact, we need to say that the Acts do not tell everything and that surely we must suppose believers worked as well as they prayed. Anyway, this is surely true in monastic tradition, so much so that tradition has summarized Benedictine wisdom in the famous saying: “Ora et labora”. Pray and work.
But, as we have already said, work – spiritual and material – in monastic paradigm has particular characters: it isn’t oriented to exterior realizations or to pecuniary earning or to the acquisition of skills or arts.
“Idleness is the enemy of the soul” Benedict writes, “so monks must dedicate themselves to the work on stated hours and in other hours, stated too, to the study of the Word of Lord” (The Rule of St. Benedict, 38).
So work must be useful to the spiritual well-being of people who follow it. It is fair to recall here Ruskin’s words about the work in modern factories, in which we forge useful instruments, produce sugar or coffee, but forging and enlightening a living soul doesn’t enter into our economical calculation.
Let us observe that Benedict keeps perfectly in his mind the necessity of work to survive:
“If, however, the needs of the place, or poverty should require that they do the work of gathering the harvest themselves, let them not be downcast, for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands, as did also our forefathers and the Apostles” (The Rule of St. Benedict, 48).
However the efficiency is always subordinate to the souls’ well-being:
“If there be skilled workmen in the monastery, let them work at their art in all humility, if the Abbot giveth his permission. But if anyone of them should grow proud by reason of his art, in that he seemeth to confer a benefit on the monastery, let him be removed from that work and not return to it, unless after he hath humbled himself, the Abbot again ordereth him to do so” (The Rule of St. Benedict, 57).
Is this way of working anti-economic? Apparently yes. But we have to consider things with greater deepness and in a long term. First of all it is clear that a job done with the participation of one’s spirit and with the aim of increasing one’s spiritual life through it, will be done much better than a job done for a merely purpose of usefulness, or even for a merely technical or intellectual improvement. Similarly, investing on human formation towards industriousness, humility, obedience, spirit of sacrifice and service is much better, after all, than investing just on the acquisition of a particular technical or intellectual skill or even on the accumulation of material stuff. In fact people used to industriousness, moderation, generosity, joy of self-donation are infinitely more “economically convenient” than people used to think about personal advantage, and therefore prone to toss worries and to find only personal satisfaction, intellectual or material.
Sacrifice and self-donation spirit can give a positive sense even to the most ungrateful and monotone works. So a hard housekeeping work, a tiring agriculture work, a factory work, a heavy and lacking of real interest study will be done so much better, and also with the joy of Christian sacrifice, by people spiritually motivated according to the Rule of St. Benedict. There’s no doubt however that the self-donation joy, as it is experienced feeling the increase of the habitus of virtue, it is also experienced watching the results of one’s own work as an expression of one’s being – and these “results” can be even an untidy room smartened up, or a not working machine mended. Not the same we can say about a purely mechanical work, in which we don’t know even the exact finality or utility, and the finished product of which we will even never see.
Now the strain to put the souls’ well-being as first condition of human work could reorganize work in a different way from the merely productive one, typical of modern economy. In fact, in order that people have the right disposition to self-donation and service, it is absolutely necessary that they constantly receive the spiritual feeding which only a community oriented to its preservation can give. Now the instruments for the transmission of this spiritual feeding are the sensible instruments typical of human bodily condition. They will be, therefore, the word of God celebrated and the human word talked in daily life, the sound of voice and song, the gesture, the clothes, the example of humbly and lovely serving, the impressing of all sensible messages of Christian spirit in the results of the ordinary work and in the representative particular works which rise to art valour – architectural environment, images, poetry, music, etc.
Then a community, having to provide for all these things, will not organize its collective work so that the souls’ well-being be eclipsed by a purely exterior production and will not favour an intellectual activity which does not involve a spiritual absorption in prayer and in practiced charity.
If the community must mind as its chief duty to educate and to preserve people ready to serve and love, it must orient its own activity to create the instruments suitable for this purpose. You will tell that, first of all, the community must grant food for everyone. This is obvious. But earning a living implies the ability to do it, and so the ability to work in a proper way and to consume and economize in a proper way. Both things want a constant work on people.
On the other side, if we consider the way of energy investment typical of modern familiar and civil communities, we will see that great part of it is not oriented to the production of needed goods. First of all there is the necessity to make the children grow up, not only giving them food, clothes, house, health treatments, but also giving them occupations, occasion of experience and growth, education and, last but not least, a reason to hope and live. How does modern society attend all this? Not certainly taking care only of the essential intakes production! There is a whole organization that goes from childhood play to sport, to school, to youth entertainment etc. They are all things that recall the necessity to invest on human person and not on the consumer’s goods. But how is this investment made?
Let us suspend the answer, now, and let us focus our attention to adulthood. Here too energy is not all directed to the production of the consumer’s goods, of course. How much do we spend in information, entertainment, extra-work activities? And even if we consider the work-world, certainly not everything is directed to the satisfaction of primary necessities: transports, communications, political activity, health activity, scholastic activity, sport activity, sport worship, show, show worship, vacation and entertainment, cooking, fashion, pursuit of the enjoyment in any form… what more? As much distorted from their original sense, we can refer to the evangelic words: “man does not live by bread alone”.
But let us come back on the question we have suspended before: if, as it is obvious, we must invest on human person, at least in the age of education, how is this investment conducted? How does modern familiar community invest its energies on its children? How does school invest on its pupils?
As for family, it seems that, in the majority of the cases, we try to make children transit until the scholar period with the least disturb of adults’ activities – not only strictly work ones. So we try to obtain from them affective satisfactions exchanging them with the epidermal satisfactions of childhood entertainment industry and with things which do not cost too much time or attentions to the adult. This type of relationship continues, even if in changed conditions, also with the beginning of the scholastic period.
As for school, what do we want to teach children and young people? A human ideal is surely difficult to be found with some clarity in modern school. On one side there is the “useful” knowledge, which is not only “technical” skills: besides to “reading, writing and counting”, there is the general world knowledge, the ability to think and express ourselves, in our or foreign languages. But moreover scholastic tradition brings a great expending of energy in learning history and literature, ancient languages and philosophy, superior science and math etc. All these things go beyond immediate economic usefulness and testify the need of a human education without which the mere technical skills of production would not be sufficient to organize social life.
But now it is legitimate to ask: if then we know that human education – not only in the age of development – is a necessary investment even from the general economic point of view, are we sure that the way it is realized today is not absolutely ruinous, not only from the religious and ethic point of view, but also for the specifically economic purposes of our society?
Family is interested overall – at least as a general inclination – in letting children have fun without hampering adults’ life; school in turn invests on pure intellectual activity, as if theoretic knowledge of scientific or historical-literary data were sufficient to direct energy in expansion of childhood and adolescence. At the same time, entertainment industry – enormously strengthen by the recent technical growth provided for the age of development with easy learning of necessary skills – makes dangle the mirage of an endless happiness easily achievable in front of little and young ones’ imagination. Then – as already foreseen by someone a century ago – “external excitements grown out of all proportion, against weaker and weaker inner forces of opposition and exterior preventives”.
It’s clear that appropriate “inner forces of opposition” and “exterior preventives” could be offered to the age of development – and not only to it! – exclusively by a rethink of formative effort, both familiar and scholastic. This rethink should plan not only an infinitely firmer investment than the current one on the people’s inner spiritual education, but also on the creation of an external environment proper to communicate sensible messages to human condition – tied to bodily nature – fit for the purpose to interiorize states of mind adequate to attend life.
The second demand is functional to the first one, but without it the first one itself couldn’t be concretely realized. They are not, in fact, mere lessons or lectures that direct human inner life, but much more habits of language, gesture, work, instruments of daily use and of transmission of feelings and emotions.
But if this rethink program would entail a revision of the targets themselves of assets production and its methods, it firstly would imply a different way to set up the whole familiar and scholastic activity. Let us now focus our attention above all on the second demand, keeping in mind that in family is mainly brought the stock of scholastic knowledge.
Now school spontaneously recalls what we started with, i.e. the Rule of Benedict. As in fact we have found in it a different way to consider work, similarly we find in it a different ideal of school.
Benedict runs away from Rome “knowingly ignorant and wisely unlearned”, because he has seen the depraved life of the students in the capital. What is school to those students useful for? Certainly not to learn how to live! So he shuts himself away in solitude and there for two years he looks for light under the eyes of God. When Providence pulls him from solitude and makes him master and guide of the young people trusted to him, he starts to create a new kind of school, the one that himself will call “Schola dominici servitii”, a school of God’s service. But mind: here “school of God’s service” really means: “a school of service to human life.” Yes: to learn to serve God means to learn living, because the springs of life, that is of man’s feeling and acting, are mysteriously hidden in his deepest being, in that “intimius intimo meo” (most intimate heart) in which S. Augustine placed the sacred dwelling of God in man.
Now to this inward dwelling we do not get through speculation, but through the way taught by Benedictine tradition: “Ora et labora.” So the access to the springs of life will be neither the traditional school study nor the work for a merely economic aim, but only that involvement of mind, heart and arms that Saint Benedict precisely calls “service of God.”
The school of Saint Benedict therefore will be school of prayer and work. But mind: to teach praying for Benedict means first of all to organize community life so that prayer has, in daily activity, its adequate way, place and time, and to teach working means firstly to infuse in work, both material or intellectual, the spirit of prayer itself with all the personal involvement and self-donation which it implies.
Let us focus on work, for the moment. We have already observed that personal involvement in work entails effort in “conversion”, improvement, self-donation, “penitence for one’s own and other people’s remission of sins”, in following the paradigm of Christ bringing his cross. If all of this gives a sense even to the most painful and less valuated effort, at the same time it bears in itself the mystery of Christian joy, the experience of resurrection, which always go together with the crucifixion of ourselves, and the experience of “that charity that, when it is perfect, drives the fear away; thanks to it” the monk “will then start to hold with no effort and almost naturally, thanks to the habit, everything that before he saw with a certain fear; in other words not because afraid of hell, but because of love for Christ, for the same good habit and because of taste of virtue. Those are the fruits that, thanks to the work of the Holy Ghost, the Lord will consider worthy of making clear in His servant, purified from vices and sins.” In facts “going forward through the monastic life and in faith, the way of holy precepts is run with the heart wide open by the unspeakable sovereignty of love” (Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 7 and Prologue).
If those are the inner dispositions of Benedictine work, we must add, however, that the personal involvement in work implies also the experience of the product of one’s own effort. It’s true that the Fathers of the desert often obliged their disciples to absurd works without any goal. That was for them a way to develop in the disciples the sense of unconditional obedience, together with a total dedication of themselves without a personal advantage, or at least not an immediate one. But with the development of monastic life, monks’ activity went on works more and more useful to the monastic community, church and civil community. It is also important to note that the personal involvement into the work gains a new quality when the work becomes true expression of one’s own self, a real creation. This but rarely happens in a work of chain production in a factory, or even in a work only made for a lucrative goal in a whatsoever reality – office, shop etc. – the aims of which are completely foreign to the worker’s interests.
Now, if on one hand the spirit of sacrifice of the monk has to make him ready even to a job in which he cannot express himself, on the other it is just the spirit of service, to the brothers of the community, Church, and society, that orientates all monastic activity towards works that help men to get closer to God. Those works are going to be above all the ones directed to make the celebration of liturgical prayer livelier. That spirit which it is already asked for in the Rule – choice, ordering, study and meditation of the texts, timing, inner involvement, care of prayer environment, care of chant and reciting – through the centuries gave life to an immense creative work, in which monks expressed themselves through activities that have at last overflowed the proper field of liturgy, going to pour in works of art, literature, handcraft which hugely enriched human civilization.
In all of this, the detachment spirit, if it on one hand has held monks from engagement in some jobs for fear to give in to worldliness too often, on the other has given to their job a peculiar mark of elevation of spirit and feeling, which has strongly contributed to make human feelings, also in secular society, purer and closer to the celestial model.
To all of this has to be added the lovely cure of personal service, practiced in the community circle, and also outside, through the humble works of cleaning, cooking, tailoring, sewing, taking care of the sick, the elders, the younger etc.
From what has been said it is possible to get useful teachings about intellectual labor too. It is peculiar of monastic study the interior involvement, which, if on one hand approaches study to prayer and gives great importance to the deepening of the word of God and to everything that enhances religious life, on the other hand conveys in the monk that spirit of sacrifice and penitence which supports him even in doing unpaid intellectual efforts, both for properly religious or apostolic aims, and for practical goals at the service of the monastic or civil community. Moreover the spirit of service which inspires the effort of the monk doesn’t allow that study brings him to unreasonably neglect other needs that can be more urgent, like punctuality to liturgical prayer and other common activities or the service requested by duty and brotherly charity. Vice versa, when study reasonably seems more urgent and important than other activities that do not have the requirements of immediate duty, the virtuous monk will give priority to intellectual labour, without losing the spirit of humility and service.
Let us now notice that, if the spirit of prayer has to give life to work, the latter in its turn, as said before, is absolutely necessary to animate and foster the spirit of prayer. In fact it is necessary that spiritual feeding be given to man – who is embodied spirit – through messages conveyed by the entire sensible world: not only through spoken and sung expression, but also through gesture, clothing, environment, furniture, decoration, rhythm of life, food etc. So there is a reciprocal coordination between ora et labora: without the spirit of prayer work can’t be real self-donation, but without work, not only intellectual, it’s impossible to cultivate properly the spirit of prayer.
At this point the necessity of reconsidering human work, as well as school as preparation to life and work, appears clearly.
Preparation to life: does our school actually question itself with this objective? The answer is quite dubious, even because a clear life project does not exist nowadays. Modern school was born from the Enlightenment prejudice that education was equal to upbringing and preparation to life. Now the simple reflection suggests that the two things are not equal at all – the experience of Saint Benedict is an authoritative confirmation of this, and other confirmations are the various movements that have characterized the critical pedagogical research of the 20th century and on, from scouting to active school, to Montessori and Freinet methods, to descholarization, to the school of Barbiana, to homeschooling etc.
I am now making a provoking and apparently paradoxical proposal: in monastic life institutes during novice period humanistic studies are forbidden, because all the effort has to be focused on the spiritual formation of the novice. The said spiritual formation of course involves study and meditation too, but, according to the best tradition, the real trial of the novice is the practice of virtues. It is remarkable that the most “spiritual” chapter of the Benedictine Rule is chapter VII, the title of which is “Of humility”. The word “humility” comes from “humus”, soil. In fact all the pedagogical effort of Saint Benedict is put into making present and working even in the mud of mortal life the spirit of God, which humiliates himself so as to become the animator of every action, gesture, feeling and thought of the human disciple.
Could not this ancient monastic rule become the inspiration of a newer school, more adequate to the real needs of our time? It would be possible to set a first year of school similar to the novice period of religious institutes – but we notice that a similar prior spiritual and moral formation was requested even by ancient and venerable educative institutions, like Pythagorean schools, and by the religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. In it humanistic, technical and scientific teaching would be suspended or reduced to the minimum, so that all the effort would be directed to the formation of will, feelings, and the intimate life of the little disciples’ spirits – and it will be obtained also through involving in brotherly service and physical toil. We notice that, for how much the contribution of religion – not necessarily Catholic – would be very precious in this program, it could be realized even on a purely lay base.
Let us proceed onto our provoking and paradoxical proposals.
Once finished this “novice period”, it is not to believe that spiritual formation comes to an end and that one can now pursue only traditional intellectual scholastic formation. On the contrary, the approach to scholastic subjects should always happen with a spiritual discernment of their influence on the disciple’s more personal life. This would imply even a hierarchic valuation: which are the studies, or also the practice abilities to acquire, that will allow the greatest inner perfection?
Probably the answer to this question will revolutionize the traditional hierarchy of sciences, knowledge and formative activities. At the first place there should be all the subjects – intellectual and practical – which involve the most personal life of the spirit. The “behaviour” mark, traditionally considered last for importance, would be the absolute first.
If we consider the question in a religious prospective, we should give more importance to prayer and exercise of renunciation of oneself and of brotherly service. The proposal could seem reductive. But it has to be considered that it would imply on one hand a strong intellectual effort to express all the implications of spiritual and religious life, and on the other hand the acquiring of a large number of abilities, useful for a effective service of our familiar and social communities and generally speaking of the more needy.
At this point even some among the most traditional school subjects would find their right collocation: reading and writing, if not indispensable – in facts some civilizations give more importance to memory and oral culture – in the tradition of our culture are very useful devices to learn and communicate the most precious experiences of the spirit. So drawing, poetry and music will be the expression of the most intimate life of the soul.
Of course a lay prospective would lead to a radical review of this program, but I don’t believe to a refusal of it. It is clear in fact that even from a lay point of view the acquisition of practical virtues of solidarity and abilities necessary to an effective practice would be highly esteemed. Now the acquisition of those virtues implies also the personal effort to cultivate one’s own feelings and habits in order to improve one’s empathy and active generosity. This in any case requires a change in the hierarchy of learning, giving a place of greater importance to what forms the soul, feeling, and habits of kindness and self-denial.
In this prospective science itself would appear under a new light. Mathematical and positive knowledge seems to have stopped so far to natural reality. Even when it has studied man, it has limited itself to partial aspects of his corporal and sometimes psychic life. But it should clearly appear that a truly universally scientific conception cannot ignore the human mystery in all of its dimensions, even the ones traditionally reserved to the domain of religion and philosophy.
Here is an example that I think pretty explanatory: a great part of music is nothing but math, and a musician that does not have a strong mathematical intuition would not be a good musician. There is an equally and more important part of music, however, that in no way could be represented with mathematical concepts. But who in the world can say that the mathematical part of music is the only objectively real? All the rest would only be a subjective and unreal game? And how can it be explained that this game produces overwhelming effects in real world in the destiny of men and peoples? How can it be explained that the economical life of nations itself is in great measure determined by their musical life? If we admit – as we must – that this reality which goes beyond its mathematical base has an existence of its own we can adequately test, how could a truly scientific conception ignore it? How could it not try to determine its nature and the mysterious bonds it has with its mathematical base?
Starting from this example we could propose a new way to consider science and its mission. The statement, repeated by many, that science is “morally neutral”, in this prospective appears deprived of any foundation. If science cares about what is good for man – like medicine does for his health: but, what does “health” mean? Can it limit itself to a not well specified “only-physical-health?” – we cannot see how it is possible to pursue this aim but through a universal consideration of all of his dimensions. The queen of science will probably be a not yet well determined, and nonetheless absolutely necessary, one: that which will care about real man, in his whole richness of life experience. If science would declare itself alien to this target, it could not legitimately claim that superior hierarchical place which instead it claims.
If we start from the hypothesis that this “queen of science” can and must really exist, it is pretty clear what deep bond it should have with that strain towards spiritual perfection we have put as an absolute foundation of our hypothetical “school of the future”.
You have talked to us – really in a rather unusual way – about school as formation to life. But what can we say of all these utopias, if we consider school as preparation to work?
Let us start from the fact that Saint Benedict is considered by everyone as the saint of work: “ora et labora”. Everybody knows that Benedictine monasteries are, in European history, well regarded for their works of every kind, from agriculture to handcraft, from assistance of the poor to architecture, from brewing to music. “We do not work like this anymore today”. No, sure. But is it good?
We have already underlined the importance of self-donation, patience, constancy, and joyful endeavour towards inner perfection for an effective formation to work. Through these virtues, as said before, it is possible to face with success even tiring, harsh and deprived of any human satisfaction jobs, both material and intellectual. But we have also said that self-perfecting spontaneously strives for a customized work, because through it it is possible to offer to our neighbour a better service, a gladder occasion of sharing, a greater aesthetic joy, a more effective message of faith. Now I think that our society is in extreme need of both those “working” states of mind: on one hand the helpfulness to do ingrate and not esteemed – because lacking of any human satisfaction – works, on the other hand the ability, not only technical, but spiritual too, to offer performances and products in which human spirit expresses itself in a sort of love gift.
If human society, in familiar and scholastic areas, would get far from the present custom and, instead of frantically seeking for artificial amusements, shaped in advance by an anonymous industry, and for a mere intellectual and technical formation, more or less oriented to a similar productivity, would give priority to activities answering real needs of man, to sharing of truer joys and therefore to a human formation directed to these aims – maybe the problem of work would be differently faced.
To explain this downright important point better, it may be expedient to refer to a personal experience.
I had the occasion to recently pay a visit to the isle of Mannar, belonging to Sri Lank and linked by a bridge to the main isle. Up to two years ago it was difficult to get there because of the war.
This got tourists and hotels not to arrive in the island, in spite of its beautiful seaside – as it has happened in other parts of Sri Lanka. The Mannar population is practically all Christian, in a way, for us, totally outdated: before six o’clock a.m. a song that reminds Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist melodies is spread through loudspeakers. Instead it is the rosary of the Holy Virgin; rosary, moreover, is currently recited at home by families; fishers – fishing is of course the main economical activity – ask in turn blessings for their boats; they tell me that fish caught on Sunday mornings is given away to the Church; everywhere small chapels and holy images are seen and people say hello joining their hands and asking blessing; scholar activity gives a notable time at the beginning of morning lessons to prayer, followed by a compound of gymnastic exercise, choir, dance, religious praise worthy of the greatest attention. Of course family customs answer to this kind of society and its moral and religious values – moreover the visages and smiles of children and young people are sufficiently revealing.
But there is something worthy of consideration: entering a house, for our parameters obviously poor, we hear the usual clumsy melodies of inferior quality youth music. They come from the TV, which of course is not lacking – though as soon as the family sister, who is a nun, and her company arrive it is immediately switched off, which rarely happens in our countries.
Maybe now that war is concluded, soon tour operators will hurry up to build hotels and, with the aim to bring “work”, “progress”, “welfare”, they will land in the island bringing customs totally different from the current ones – that is the so-called “economic development”.
Economic development model, we already know it: school = general education according to global standards, with a university degree to be showed and technological skills; work = possibly a desk work, to enhance the degree showed; property = cars, house with modern comforts, holiday house, money surplus for journeys, entertainments for grown-ups and amusements for children and, according to their measure, for young people.
To pursue this model ancient forefathers’ traditions are not useful, instead, they impede. What is the place of religion in all this, if not a remnant to know a little as a historical-cultural phenomenon? Technology grants us an increasing welfare and the gradual solution to all our problems. This is modern culture! The rest is ignorance! The proof is that while parents and grandparents had poor houses with rudimental bathrooms, the children – who have studied in foreign countries with their parents’ savings – have instead houses with double services, after the western fashion. Are not parents ignorant and children evolved?
But maybe children’s culture is all condensed in “instructions for use” and they do not know anything of themselves, but that with the “instructions for use” they live it up. So up that they will consume everything with use, even themselves. So all the savings will end and with them the economic development.
“You were within me, but I was outside me” Saint Augustine confesses to God. And Benedict saw in Rome many young students committed maybe to acquire grammar and rhetoric, but ignorant of themselves and unable to guide their own life towards goals worthy to be pursued.
If grammar and rhetoric were not sufficient to know oneself and the secret of one’s destiny, computer science and business economics are probably even less useful to this purpose.
In the first sermon I preached to our dear Singhalese people – in which I could speak freely in Italian, while a nun, who has been for a long time to Italy, translated – I told them that Saint Benedict teaches us that the real improvement of our life cannot happen only through work: ora et labora. Working for merely external improvement and enrichment and turning our back to our fathers’ religion and wisdom brings only to ruin. In monasteries sciences and arts were always cultivated, but never without putting them in relationship with the perfecting of the heart and soul. THAT we want to bring you: of course culture and progress, but culture and progress that always pass through the way of inner growth taught us by the Gospels.
Can we now explain this paradoxical and provoking work and school project better?
Let us notice, first of all, that in the greater part of Sri-Lankan family houses there is a room used only for religious worship. This thing, in my opinion, is beautiful, and beautiful is the custom of families, greatly widespread, above all in some areas, to meet there together more than once a day. We must however observe that in these home sanctuaries kitsch and plenty of low-quality holy pictures reign undisputed and that, in the same time, the religious cult is as devout as poor. Now, would it be not a high culture undertaking if families, and above all young school pupils, deepened their technical and artistic knowledge in order to make precious their places of religion, and at the same time developed their religious and theological knowledge – with all related scriptural and historical implications – in order to enrich and make more conscious their devout practices, and, last but not least, brought to a high expressive level the holy familiar singing through adequate musical skills? This would certainly be not a culture unrelated to the most intimate life of the soul and at the same time, in a possible and desirable spreading of this model, it would bring good occasions of paid work. And from this school valuable artistic vocations could be born.
If this is not done and every cultural and technical-artistic commitment is put in abstract notions and in skills directed to frivolous entertainment, there would follow the illusion that “real and modern” culture is wholly contained in viveurs’ world, while home cult is something only for the ignorant, retrograde and superstitious.
What we have already said about sciences may be sufficient for the moment. It is left something to say about technology.
So far technology has had for its aim immediate usefulness and pleasure – for example faster travelling meant less time to get what we need and the possibility to experience new emotions. These goals were in part contested, above all, or only, when the damages caused by them to the environment was detected. But it does not seem that the same attention was brought to the damages caused by them to man. Here there would be a huge field of improvement for technological research. In fact as now for years we have been seeking alternative techniques that would bring the same advantages of the old ones without causing damages to the environment, so we should look for techniques that would avoid psycho-physical and ethic deterioration of man.
It is clear that in this way of planning technologic research could but move in synergy with medical, psychological, ethical and religious sciences. And the same synergy should be searched also – in accordance with what we have said so far – by political and economical sciences.
If we consider things from this point of view, the strain of school and human activities to bring scholastic education and work to healthier and even economically safer conditions would appear really enormous and would require the energy of the whole society.
Is all this speech utopian? Is it better that the Benedictine Rule remains confined to monasteries and apostolic experience to history and edifying and liturgical reading? Maybe, but we can ask whether it is not more utopian to believe that, if the model nowadays universally accepted continues undisturbed its run, it can maintain and nay more and more spread universal peace and welfare.
Dangers and opportunities of the Media
(The use of the media in family life)
If a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the media, on family life and society, from the appearance of the first radio and then the television should be done, it would be necessary to insert the discussion in a broader context. That is to identify the hazards which the modern approach of the school system and culture has carried with itself and which the advent of the media has only worsened. Without claiming now to deal in a perfect manner with such a vast argument, one initial observation, that should be obvious, but for this same reason ends up being neglected, could be done.
Already about a hundred years ago Förster observed that the harm of our school system and our culture is that of putting a spotlight on what is secondary and to leave in the background what is essential. As a matter of fact it so happens, because of the massive commitment of the intellectual formation of youngsters and the almost idolatrous worship of the scholastic success. This often distracts attention of educators and their pupils from the more trivial every day moral. For example we see plenty of young people exhausting themselves in the preparation for the school leaving examination, but to whom no one teaches how to help the mother with housework or simply just to say thank you.
Förster himself, during his moral lessons to young people and in his various writings, gives numerous examples of this widespread phenomenon. One among many:
A man gathers his friends to read his religious poetry for them. While starting to declaim, the little daughter of the laundress lady buzzes on the door, she has been sent by her mother to ask at what time the next day she should deliver the laundry. The man, irritated over being stopped, mistreats the girl and dismisses her rudely. Then he starts again to read his religious poetry. This example shows us, how all our aesthetic and cultural education is abstracted from real life, bringing us to macroscopic contradictious behaviour. It is useless to write religious poetry, beautiful and inspired, if then our feelings and our actions in everyday life contradict the religious principles that we declaim in our poems.
I would like to illustrate two personal episodes.
One day I had decided to tell a profound Christian tale to a group of school boys. While I was preparing, a communication arrived from the hospital that one of my friar brothers admitted there, was going through quite a serious crisis. As my superior wasn’t present at the moment, my first reasonable thought was to run to the hospital. But due to my immaturity I didn’t want to renounce the programmed tale, and so my brother waited in vain for a visit. Of course he then complained. The contradiction between the message that I wanted to give to the youngsters and my personal behaviour here is obvious.
But more significant is another episode which dates back to my early adolescence. My father to my great enthusiasm was starting to initiate me to classical music. At that time the maximum of technology were the thirty-three L.P. discs. One day I had bought the complete edition of “Othello” by Giuseppe Verdi and I was very excited and eager to show my father the purchase and to listen to it. Without bothering I entered the studio, where my little brother was doing his home work with the help of my aunt, and began to listen to the opera for full volume. Of course my father instead of complacency scolded me severely. The episode, and I could tell you many similar, is emblematic of the abstract education that is universally given to the youth: intellectual development unrelated to the reality of ordinary life and the care for the acquisition of its virtues. In this case, the music was appreciated for its beauty and the high feelings which it could arise, but attention wasn’t given to the fact that the high feelings which inspired it and that it should inspire are rooted in charity, patience, caring attention to our neighbour in everyday life.
With this in mind, we can say that the danger of media in family and ordinary life, since the very beginning, and due to the rapid circulation, has been to exacerbate the maximum gap between the exercise of intellectual and emotional faculties and the attention to the real human relationships and the reality in which we live our everyday lives – the so called “world of life”. In fact, since the very beginning, especially with the advent of the television and thereafter, many have fallen victims to the charm of the screen that has attracted increasing attention, escaping from taking care of their personal life and commitments and attention to human relations and the environment. Duties towards parents and brothers, keeping the house, one’s own moral and religious education: everything is now more than in the past left on an invisible background. While now not only the ambition for academic success, but also, and often even more, the excitement of the show, so handy, have taken over the entire attention.
This situation has acted in a truly destructive way with respect to the education of children and adolescence. This was brilliantly foreseen already in 1950 by the American writer Ray Bradbury in his short story “The Veldt” (http://www.veddma.com/veddma/Veldt.htm). In fact, the formative years are more exposed to the charm of virtual reality and all its tricks and manipulations. The negative results are evident to all, and have been greatly aggravated by the rapid development of electronic and information technology. Endless hours spent in front of the various screens, negligence of human relationships, carelessness of daily reality, neglect of domestic rules and no distinction between day and night. A special role in this phenomena, macroscopic but yet not seriously considered, relays to music. The modern tools help to obtain very showy effects, but insubstantial, in the field of music. In fact, first they give the illusion, even to small children, to know how to play without effort, thanks to the various electronic devices that introduce automatically different effects with a simple scan. The electronic allows the creation of varied sound effects with extremely high volume resonance, such as to induce the listeners into a completely abnormal state of excitement.
This music, with poor commitment in its creation and performance, and consequently poor melodic quality, but exciting by its obsessive rhythms and its strong or very high sound, its diffusion more and more widespread and intruding everywhere, was prepared by the “pop” music in the 50 of the twentieth century – a phenomenon of great historical and social significance, which has been paid almost no attention either then or later. It has then found in discotheques and via computer and personal headphones its fullest expression.
That this music has not and cannot have any functional illumination to revalorize real life and its interior fundamentals is evident. Its only scope is that of an easy escape from reality looking for excitements for its own sake. Moreover, music is generally considered, outside the research for excitement only, an insignificant everyday condiment, as demonstrated by the general broadcast in supermarkets and in offices of light music or more rarely sweetened classics.
I would now like to point out two different aspects, supporting each other, of the destructive influence of the widespread use of media and music by them broadcasted in family life. First, the character of evasion and search for excitement, not only of music, but almost of the entire virtual world transmitted by the media, is manifested, as already mentioned, in the break of any regular daily hours observed in the family – not only of the time established for the life in common in family or society, but also of the natural time of alternating day and night. In fact the charm of the virtual world is so overwhelming to attract the whole attention of the young or even the children, removing them entirely from demands of common life and keeping them from feeling the need of rest in night. This shows not only in the phenomena of discotheques but also in the increasingly widespread habit of children who spend the night with the screen switched on, to enjoy the show or to chat with their friends.
Secondly, we must underline the low melodic and content level of most of the music played by the media, as well as of the various popular entertainments on the video screens. It is obvious that the really creative works, in the literary field as well as in music, require commitment not only intellectual and technical, but also spiritual and moral, and are often the result of heroic devotion and inner distress. Obviously therefore the works of value will be relatively few. Now the need for 24 hours a day transmission of constant electronic diffusion requires a huge amount of products, whose value can only be generally poor, or even very scarce. So therefore to support this huge media universe you can only appeal to the excitement produced by the rhythms and obsessive sounds of music artificially exaggerated by modern electronics – and of course to the sensual instincts, which are also inflated by the powerful suggestion of visual and audio devices in the virtual world.
The lifestyle that is imposed by the invasion of these messages in everyday life, especially for youngsters and children, is that of happiness at hand, available through uncontrolled and uncontrollable excitation.
It is evident that the disposition resulting from this model of life is absolutely not compatible with any religious or humanistic tradition. Everything that represents the “old world” has no longer any value for those who think that their life, thanks to modern techniques, has totally changed and has nothing in common with that of our fathers. As if man were not always the same and the modern techniques had not increased always the same vices, and these did not bear always the same consequences, of course multiplied indefinitely.
It is also obvious that a music which, more or less, approaches and is inspired of the music abundantly diffused by the media cannot really harmonize with the spirit of the Christian mysteries that animates liturgy and its artistic tradition. On the other hand in order that liturgy can draw from human and artistic expression constant nourishment it is necessary that in the very “profane” life be present manifestations of feeling and art that can draw on the depths of human experience and not just virtual game devices. We must therefore take note that if you want to get a revival also in the more specifically ecclesiastical and liturgical field, it is necessary to have it preceded and accompanied by a revival of authentic human feeling in family life and society. Now this rebirth cannot take place unless you restore the respect for community and nature times and recreate a wholesome relationship between real life and culture and musical and artistic expressions and delete the habit of escaping from reality into a degenerated virtual world.
How can we obtain this? Can the media work together in this project rather than hinder it?
First, we must acknowledge that the development of technology, in spite of all the dangers of abuse involved in it, recently, however, is making available to a very wide audience an immense and invaluable material: methods related to almost all sciences, arts and many different disciplines and skills; texts of all kinds and ages, once difficult to find; achievements of theatrical, musical and lyrical works of the highest level, often only in recent years or decades dredged up from oblivion, or even never before performed, or only now restored in their original texts. Thus we have the miracle of a past world, which had been declared buried by the prophets of the future, and that instead, just thanks to the development of technology, is rising from the grave, coming back to life and becoming available for a numberless public in a measure never even dreamed of before.
It is certainly not improper to see in this extraordinary phenomenon the work of Providence, which makes us realize that flowing time is a very relative thing and that many realities have the character of eternity, which never sets and often reveals all the wealth of its messages not immediately, but only centuries and millennia later. Before this very important news, to the arrogant young man who invites an elderly person to open up to modernity, the latter can with complete certainty say that there is nothing more modern than the way in which the most recent techniques miraculously give a new life to people and achievements that seemed gone forever.
This fact gives us a unique opportunity to totally change the lives of our families, if only we will take advantage of it with intelligence and commitment. But first we must emphasize that culture, science, art and music should be at the service of real life of people and families and not vice versa. Therefore every means must be used so as not only not to disturb, but to encourage the full psycho-physical, moral and religious development of children and adolescents and the good performance of family life.
This means that 1. The cult of school and academic achievement must be reversed: the real purpose of human formation is not the acquisition of sciences, much less an educational qualification, but the human, moral and religious growth of children and young people. 2. Similarly, the media must neither substitute for the real world, nor divert the child or the adolescent – or the grown up – from the loving attention to those who live with him or to the natural or domestic environment where personal and communal life takes place. 3. That’s why the use of the media must be wisely proportioned to the age of the user, and the times of family and natural life and the duties that they involve must be absolutely respected and impose their own pace to the use of the media, and not vice versa. 4. All the wonderful opportunities offered by the latest technology must therefore be wisely managed, so that they not only do not offend, but rather enrich family life and the personal growth of each one.
To better understand how this can happen in practice I refer to what I have written elsewhere of the unequal conflict present in Sri Lankan houses between the sacred part, represented by images and devotional books – both with the characters of a low artistic and cultural level – and the powerful computer equipment that coexists under the same roof, and inevitably attracts all the attention and passion of youth. Given the use generally made of these tools, you can easily predict that young people will eventually turn their backs on ascetic tradition, either Buddhist or Catholic, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the world of dazzling promises of cheap happiness so effectively represented by the media.
But now I have to add a new consideration: the conflict remains for as long as you use the media in the way today most widespread, and of which we have abundantly spoken above. But if you become aware of the wonderful new opportunities and change totally the way to use them, then they will become the most powerful allies of the sacred dimension of family life.
In fact we have observed that in the sacred furnishings of Sri Lankan houses there is an overwhelming prevalence of junk and low level kitsch art, and also the texts of devotion are poor and expressions of low culture. Now what a better occasion than that offered by the media to deepen the religious culture of the family, both through the abundant illustrative material now readily available online, and through the teaching of artistic techniques of all kinds, on which you can always find in the network all the desirable information, as well as through the current availability of documentation on Sacred Scripture and Christian thought, history of the Church and religions, hagiography, religious literature etc.? Not to mention the opportunity to greatly expand one’s knowledge and practice of chant and liturgical music. There is online all information useful for this, from Gregorian chant to polyphony, classical, romantic and modern singing. You can also access not only to listen, but to view extraordinary performances of a wide repertoire of sacred music of a high level, which can be both a role model, through the development of singing skills of family members, and the opportunity to enjoy moments of true happiness together, listening and watching the performance of the most beautiful sacred melodies ever written. And of course this can be a stimulus for the most talented to commit to renew the repertoire with original compositions, which will no longer be improvisations traced to the low level of light music, but the continuation of a timeless tradition.
And what has been said of sacred literature and music is equally applicable for “profane” literature and music – but really profane is only the vulgarity and stupidity of so much contemporary commercial production: everything that is real and deep expression of the human soul always brings us closer to God and never is profane. Also in this the network offers us today possibilities incomparable with what was available just a few years ago. Nothing to do with the old thirty-three L.P. discs: now you can access to an infinite amount of performances of plays and operas of the highest level with an extraordinary facility. What a vast field of thought, feeling and taste formation and how many available opportunities for sharing of the highest joys of the spirit offered to families! Today it is no longer possible, unless you just do want to, to hide from the youth the existence of the wonderful world of musical tradition. The hidden springs, paradoxically thanks to the latest technology, have emerged with a new freshness and a chance of spreading not even remotely imaginable in the past.
So the most advanced modernity and the most sacred traditions meet in a completely unexpected and extremely fruitful way. It would be a grave fault to let fade this huge opportunity for a radical and immensely beneficial change in the lives of families. Of course families need have a guide to achieve in practice this project, and it should be a lively interest of both Church leaders and all responsible educators to commit to provide their support to them. I repeat that the dignity of liturgy cannot be sustained if you do not develop in parallel a new dignity in the lives of families and in the way they express themselves through language, clothing, furniture and artistic and musical expression.
I sincerely hope that these simple notes can form the basis for a concrete operational, effective and increasingly popular program.
The Mission of a Christian Family
The mission of a Christian family is neither only spiritual nor only material. In fact there are a material and a spiritual poverty to care, and they are tied together. We see a lot of noble families that through some generations fall in poverty because their heirs become vicious people and squander all their goods. It means that spiritual wealth is the hidden but real source even of material wealth.
The mission of a Christian family, therefore, must aim to help people to redeem themselves from both poverties, and often from moral poverty as a means of redemption also from material poverty.
In fact almsgiving is a holy thing, but only if it awakens the spiritual strengths of the poor to gratefulness, piety, virtue and possibly willingness to help themselves to rise from poverty.
On the contrary, people often take advantage of alms from others to effortlessly meet their desires. So it is very important to learn how to effectively practice almsgiving.
That means that the general recommendation to “take care of the poor” should be clarified, taking into account the differing circumstances of the times. In our time, moreover, the development of social problems has been so immensely complex that it does not seem realistic to give only general indications.
But in fact, it is precisely what has been done in the life of Christian families.
We know from experience that in ordinary catechesis there is no mention of the social doctrine of the Church – and it is more than a century since it began to be formulated in pontifical documents. This neglect has brought immense damage, as the vast majority of Christian families have not had a corresponding regular engagement in their programs, so that young people have believed that there was no directive to that effect in Christian life, and therefore they were thrown en masse to other proposals, with the results that we know. And unfortunately we still continue in the same error.
The point is that social solidarity and charity are an integral part of the Christian life, but it is not sufficient to give the generic teaching “love your neighbor as yourself” or stir up good feelings in childhood through edifying tales. This is good and necessary, but not enough. In fact, to do good, either individually or socially, is the hardest thing in the world and how many of us are daily deceived in this field and, disappointed, give it up!
It is true that now there are so many volunteer activities that appeal to young people, and this is certainly a very valuable sign of the times. But this generally happens outside family life, and often in competition with it. We must instead bring this interest as part of the daily schedule of the family, so that social charity and work do not appear as a foreign body in domestic bliss. Moreover, many of the ills of modern society depend just on the disorder that reigns in the daily lives of many families , and one of the most urgent social works is precisely to restore order and harmony in the life of domestic communities. And how can we bring this order if not first through the example of well-ordered families? Therefore, charity and social work should not be exclusively individual or entrusted to voluntary groups unrelated to the complexity of family life: families must in their integrity pour their wealth, not only and often not essentially material, on social groups in spiritual as well as economic crisis.
But, as has been said, to do good is the hardest thing in the world: we must therefore learn to do so under the guidance of experienced people.
To give an example of the difficulties to be overcome in this area, we observe that charity outside a family should be exercised in such a way that the duties towards the family itself, which obviously are primary, are not overlooked by anyone. But that can be done only if charitable and social work does not arise from the individual initiative of a single, but arises from a program that invests, and therefore coordinates the entire family life.
And indeed the charity exercised by the whole family, first of all by the example of its holiness, will prove to be infinitely more effective than individual initiatives in a society in which the greatest evils derive precisely from moral disorders that affect social life in all its aspects.
From these reflections a conclusion that seems inevitable derives: the necessity to create a “school” capable of forming families in such a social and charitable work that on the one hand it effectively meets the real needs of today and that on the other hand it not only does not disrupt the regular life of families and their engagement in spiritual growth, but on the contrary exploits the wealth of well ordered affections and virtues, peculiar of Christian families, for the restoration of the so many plagues of modern society.
Conversations about the Rule of Saint Benedict
Translation by Liam Kelly
The irradiance of Saint Benedict on the school
Let us think again about the experience of the young Saint Benedict. His family was undoubtedly a good provincial family of Roman and Christian tradition. The fact that his sister, Scholastica, was consecrated to God from infancy demonstrates the air of virtue and religion breathed within the family.
But on arriving in Rome for secondary school studies, the young Benedict found completely the opposite to what he had learned in the family. In particular, young people were not taught about chastity nor responsibility for the use of property, nor the self-denial of their own free will to the common good.
These faults of the schooling of the time have been extremely exacerbated in recent times. Not only is nothing taught about chastity, but, while up to a few decades ago at least respect for it was indirectly taught, for example, through study of The Betrothed, today there are programmes designed for schools which aim to teach positively, even to the smallest ones, all sexual practices, including the most perverse – see, for example, this article: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/who-sex-ed-guidelines-promote-masturbation-abortion-homosexuality-to-childr. And the same is true as regards use of property and freedom: in and for everything our society, and indirectly our schools, too, teaches young people to squander goods without any care, to claim total autonomy and to demand arrogantly a liberty which tolerates no restraint.
Returning to Saint Benedict, we can well understand that, in his situation and at the critical time in which he found himself, he was unable to think of creating a different school open to all the young people. Benedict saw no other alternative but to flee from a school which did not teach life but death and to seek refuge in God alone. To go back to his family would not have been a viable proposition to a young person who had left it to build something new, and the idea of forming a Christian family, as well as being premature, given his age, met with the objection that, in any case, the possible new family would have been living in a corrupt world.
Notice again that, if it is true that the love between a man and a woman, the availability of created goods and the freedom to desire are the three most valued rights of human dignity and happiness, it is also true that they constitute at the same time the greatest temptations which, from time immemorial, lead to abuse, to personal and social ruin, to unhappiness. It is not at all strange, therefore, that Benedict sees, as a radical remedy for a society which was preparing its young people for the abuse of love, of ownership and freedom, and therefore preparing them for ruin, the renunciation of those same goods constituted through monastic vows.
But let us remember that in fact it is a renunciation more apparent than real.
As already noted in the second conversation, Jesus promised: “Truly, I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
The first part of the promise is no less important than the second. So it is not correct, as is usually done, to underline just the promise of eternal life without giving emphasis to the promise of one hundredfold in this life. From this promise it can be understood that, in reality, the monk rediscovers the goods he has renounced at a higher and more universal level. That is demonstrated, inter alia, also by the episode of the meeting between Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica.
Undoubtedly, Saint Benedict realized, even in some embryonic fashion, that his problem with the school and the diligent youth was not just his personal issue, but concerned the very destiny of civilization, and this intuition was to accompany Benedictine monks down the centuries. In fact, in different ways, according to the needs of different eras, monasteries have sought to undertake a mission of civilization towards civil society, too. Suffice to think of the public schools organized by the Benedictine monks at least from the time of Charlemagne.
But I think today there is a need for a substantial change as regards the civil and religious mission of Saint Benedict in society. That “school of the Lord’s service” which the Saint had thought exclusively for monks, must now manifest its profound universal nature. That is to say, it is no longer about opening schools on the traditional model, even if they have foundational religious inspiration, but of bringing into state schools that substantial revolution which was born in the dramatic experience of the young Benedict and which, by its nature, was destined, if at a distance of some centuries, to tackle and correct the fundamental flaws of the traditional school.
Already Blessed Cardinal Schuster, in an address given at Montecassino on 21 March 1942, said that to render the apostolate of Saint Benedict “stable and universal in the Church, Divine Providence arranged that the Patriarch, first at Subiaco, then in this Cassinese Acropolis, opened and established a noble Schola of sanctity, where teaching the sublime art of self-renunciation to place oneself at the service of the Lord – Dominici Schola servitii – God’s future workers might be prepared for the renewal of tomorrow’s Europe”.
And he added:
“If I’m not mistaken, I think that now more than ever”, that is, after the war, “the help of the Benedictine family will be appropriate, a family which to the sciences, to the sacred arts, to the future generations of scholars and students will open up anew the doors of the abbeys, communicating to lay people, too, the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”.
If Schuster here still lingers on the intellectual aspect of Benedictine industriousness, speaking about the sciences and the sacred arts and about scholars and students, shortly afterwards he corrects himself:
“To the Lord who is once again being sought, not of course by doctors, preachers, men of brilliance, but simply by those devoted souls whom God honours with the glorious title of his workers: operarium suum, Saint Benedict invites us in the Rule to respond: here I am!».
So, “the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”, which Schuster wanted to communicate “to lay people, too”, was not, in the most profound thought of the Blessed, mainly that of the sciences and the sacred arts, but rather that “sublime art of self-renunciation to place oneself at the service of the Lord” which forms “God’s workers” and of which the school of Saint Benedict is the real bestower.
The time has now come, therefore, when from its isolation in monasteries the Benedictine school, born as a protest to the state school, flows out again into the latter to bring about its intimate transformation, for the good and salvation of civilisation.
But we must consider this programme in more detail.
School, catechesis, charity and the reform of the educational model
To think that the state school, ready to welcome the indications of the World Health Organisation about sex education, wants to comply with Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service” is undoubtedly idealistic. But things change if we consider the perspectives of the parental school, which is already becoming widespread in Italy, and the links which it could establish with our initiative “Saint Benedict and family life” and the on-line school “The twelve-star crown”. And a similar synergy could be presented with catechesis, too, in its various forms, and with charitable and social works – a reality which, although at first sight it may not seem the case, has a substantial link with the school.
Priests themselves, in fact, should be interested in re-thinking evangelisation and charitable work – which is also addressed to non-believers –through a new awareness of the topicality of Saint Benedict’s teaching.
In this regard, it is important to note that the commandment “Give bread to the hungry” must not be understood in a reductive sense. Bread is truly given when it is given totally, that is to say when it is not limited to giving physical sustenance, which if it is “unatantum” resolves little and if it is constant could easily stir up idleness and abuse. The “total bread”could well be represented by what Blessed Schuster called the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”, which consists in creating the prerequisites of a healthy and happy life, and in particular a family life.
We have underlined the adjective “family” for the obvious fact – but which is too often ignored – that it is an almost universal condition for everyone to live in a family and that therefore the “healthy” and “happy” quality of life can only be realized at the community level. An individual can have the best inclinations, but if they are not shared by the life-style of his or her family, in practice he or she will always be hindered in the realization of a healthy life.
If, therefore, the “total bread” is extended to the need to improve, through formation and the appropriate means, the condition of people and their families, there is no doubt that in the works of charity both catechesis and school come fully into play.
As regards the former, it must tend towards not just handing on knowledge, but also realizing its meaning in everyday life. In fact, the very life of the priest should be a catechesis, and so shouldassume those characteristics of a “holy, healthy and happy life” which he has the noble mission to spread, promote and protect.
As regards the school, first of all it should hand on the teachings and resources necessary for creating and managing wisely the life of everyone, and therefore, as far as what has been said, family life.
It seems as if it can be said, therefore, that both the lay educational culture and the church theological culture should undergo a profound revision, which, stripping them of their abstract and theoretical character, changes their interior disposition, habits of life and proficiencies making those who own them capable of ordering wisely and in a Christian manner everyday personal and family life – and indirectly social life, too, which always has a bond of reciprocity with family life.
This is the character of Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service”: it does not despise the culture of the mind, but subordinates it to the formation of the intimate personality of each person, which is realized through self-giving in spiritual and work activity – “ora et labora” – in the framework of a well-ordered daily community life. It is in that that both the humble virtues and the most noble qualities and competencies find their concrete exercise.
We mentioned “revision” because, as we have indicated, neither the secular school nor the theological school have these characteristics, or they have them to an insufficient degree.
As regards the secular school, the illusion, already denounced by Förstera hundred years ago, that intellectual education was equivalent to “tout court” education and that therefore in the moral sphere, and especially that of sexual morality, everything is reduced to a problem of “correct information”, is the tangible sign of its inadequacy. But this illusion is now immensely strengthened by the increasingly mediocre trivialization of the “correct information” itself.
In a public local health service (ASL) notices of this kind can be found: “If you are using contraceptives, you can carry on studying”, while increasingly widespread is the conviction that abortion, too, offers an excellent means to “continue to study”.
So, it will be legitimate to ask: What studies? What school is this? Preparing for what? Simply to pass exams? Or to have some useful expertise to gain social prestige or earn a living? But live how? This school does not interest us! That a purely mental formation shares with the development of the worst vices is not a problem for today’s school! The culture it hands on has nothing to do with the formation of the character, of the will, of the convictions and moral dispositions, and therefore with the virtues needed for a healthy and happy personal life and family co-existence. In fact, family life is presented almost as a burden, especially for women, for whom, like men, waged labour outside the house and social self-affirmation are presented as the one and true realization. That to eliminate the obstacles to this outlook of “professional and social career”, contraception and abortion are legitimate, and even recommended, and it is totally normal and falls within the tendency of the current school that, much less than in Förster’s time, is there any concern about a culture which is the “culture of the soul”!
There is no doubt that Saint Benedict had much to object to in this educational model and that precisely his teaching should inspire an effective and profound transformation of the school.
In the next conversation we will look at the issue in more detail, considering also the theological school and other educational experiences.
Seminaries, colleges and the current malaise of the family
We have said that the theological formation of priests, too, needs revision. In fact, even though its object is arguments undoubtedly linked to the “life of the soul”, it cannot be denied that for the most part these arguments are tackled at the purely theoretical and intellectual level.
But, as far as priestly formation is concerned, there is a very important consideration to be made.
In the seminary years, the young person preparing for priesthood lives an almost monastic life. That is, he is part of a community of young people who share the same aspirations and follow rules of life inspired by a high moral and religious ideal under the supervision of wise and experienced spiritual guides.
This form of life could constitute a model of life and Christian schooling, in which the principles of the faith and of religious culture do not remain abstract theories, but are incarnated in the concrete actions of a daily community reality governed by precise rules. There are set times for getting up in the morning, for common prayer, for study and, even though in a limited fashion, given the mainly intellectual character of the formation in the seminary, for looking after the house.
In addition, even though the theological formation is of an intellectual character, the preparation for priesthood also includes liturgical formation, and that demands the acquisition of practical abilities, such as the expressive use of words, in reading and in preaching, music and singing. There are also expected to be experiences of pastoral and charitable work.
So, this co-existence, regulated by precise norms of Christian living which demand the concrete realisation of religious principles in everyday life, could in some way correct the intellectual orientation of theological studies. In this sense it mirrors the fundamental characteristics of the monastic life.
But the two forms of life are distinguished by two essential aspects: as we have indicated, the first consists in the markedly intellectual character of the seminary studies and in the fact that these latter can easily absorb all the attention of the learners and the teachers; the second lies in the fact that the life of the seminary lasts for only a few years, while the one who embraces monastic life remains for the whole of life in the monastery, that is, in a form of common life regulated by noble religious and moral principles. Now experience teaches that priests, once they have left the seminary, have difficulty in sustaining the rhythm of a well-ordered life, for the safeguard of a holy, healthy and happy life.
The example of the seminary, of its great advantages and its limitations and that similar, but substantially different life of the monastery, can constitute valuable reference points in a comparison with the secular school and for its possible reform.
Continuing our reflections, I would like to refer to a personal experience.
Some years ago there lived in the parish where I was parish priest a family comprising father, mother and four children, still very young – the youngest was not yet at school. As then you would understand, the family depended mainly on the father, a good man, expert in all practical work, who doted on his four children.
But one day tragedy struck. Due to a trivial job at home – replacing a light bulb – the good man, receiving an electric shock, died on the spot.
The family was messed up, not just on a financial level, but also due to the mother’s inability to face up to the situation. Just to give one eloquent example, I remember one morning I went to work about 10.00 a.m. and I found they were all still asleep.
The two eldest children, and especially the second, had already begun to have adolescent problems, and the social worker was beginning to show an interest.
Thanks to favourable circumstances, the parish succeeded in placing the two eldest children in a college in Cascia, dependent on the monastery of the Augustinian Sisters of Saint Rita.
After some years, someone who was in contact with the last of the four children told me that girl never ceased to thank God for the time she spent in the college in Cascia and for the good education she had received there.
The episode makes us understand how difficult it is to create a good family “economy” without the necessary preparation, not only and not substantially technical, but above moral. Obviously different ideas and abilities are necessary, but the substantial foundation necessary for the family economy is moral and, if possible, religious. So it was a real grace that the two children found a college like the one in Cascia.
We must bear in mind, however, that now these institutions seem to be disappearing and, in any case, only a small minority make use of them, people who for the most part find themselves in adverse family conditions.
But shouldn’t we say that almost all families today find themselves in adverse conditions? In his interventions our friend Guido Mastrobuono explains how it is the very tendencies of legislation which nurture family difficulties. But, this aspect aside, there is also a widespread mindset and culture which undermines the roots of the family economy.
The myth of the professional career as supreme and universal objective, the disdain for motherhood, seen as an obstacle to that career, youthfulness, well-represented by the adverts for a bank account which “favours” (?!) young people: “Young people can allow themselves everything!”, false sex education, which would like to be extended to even the youngest, the uncontrolled invasion of everything into life– and again: even the youngest – by means of an increasingly sophisticated electronics: these and other elements tragically render the general conditions of the modern family disadvantageous.
Can today’s school, even less a “school of souls” compared to the traditional one, offer a remedy to this situation? Obviously not!
If Förster, in his time, was able to say that a culture totally focused on resolving problems by a purely intellectual education and the development of increasingly outwardly efficient technologies serves only moral degeneration, we can well say today that this danger has increased exponentially. In fact, the knowledge handed on by the school is increasingly addressed less to interior formation and the technologies placed at the service of uncontrolled human desires have reached levels which one hundred years ago were unimaginable. Therefore, the eminent educationalist’s call to the school to abandon its intellectual and technical character to place itself effectively at the service of a “civilisation of the soul” seems more and more topical.
We must ask ourselves: if young people do not receive appropriate formation for a healthy family “economy” from the school, where will they get it from? There is the catechism, of course, but that, too, as already indicated and as we will see subsequently, for the most part is too unsuitable for its task – and, in any case, it cannot replace school, but only integrate it. So what else?
The only solution, therefore, is that the school – at least the parental school, within the limitations allowed – after a profound examination of conscience, has the courage to undertake a substantial change. As has already been seen from what has been observed up to now, such a change can only be inspired by the “alternative school” of Saint Benedict.
But we must now consider the various realities looking after the education of children and young people and ask ourselves what place the teaching of Saint Benedict and the monasteries have, or could have, in relation to them.
Comparison of the various education bodies
“Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” writes Saint Benedict in the Prologue of the Rule, quoting Psalm 33. And he replies continuing the quotation:
“If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim”.
So far, nothing special: the Prologue follows the outline of baptismal catechesis and so exhorts the disciple to distance him or herself from sin and to do good.
But, venturing deeper into the text of the Rule, we see that the Saint does not limit himself to generic exhortations, but rather enters into detail about the organization of a “domus” and gives everything a place so that the general programme of fleeing evil and doing good can be achieved without risks in a shared daily life.
If the seminary or college of Saint Rita impressed in the future priest and our small parishioner an indelible mark for the good management of their future lives, that is due precisely to the fact that neither of the institutions limited themselves to providing knowledge, nor to just giving good religious and moral direction, but, like Saint Benedict, embodied this direction in a well-organised daily life.
The seminary and college years, even if they are limited, are decisive moments in human formation. But the relative destinies of those who have frequented one or the other institute are different. While the young person who comes out of a college will probably form a family and, if their formation has been good, will put into practice in their family life what they have learned in college, the priest does not form a family, nor, on the other hand, is he destined to live in a monastery. In addition, his formation has had an excessively intellectual edge. Hence priests, even more so in today’s society, lead a life greatly at risk, with serious repercussions for their educative mission. This is a point to which we must return.
If we consider the presence of colleges today is very limited, we must then ask ourselves if and how the school can assume a similar function to them, while not having their structure and organization.
But for now let us leave aside this question try to trace as complete an overview as possible of the situation we have sought to outline.
The family is at the centre of our interest – and we have underlined the enormous difficulties which it has to face at the present time.
Then there is the school, which should be called to form young people to family life, before the call to professional life, not only and not mainly through theoretical and technical instruction, but also and above all through the formation of the character, of the convictions and virtues – all that, however, which at the moment it does not offer and is not able to do.
The work of the colleges, even high-quality institutions, is increasingly limited.
For its part catechetical formation seems to be struggling with the not-always-happy attempts at renewal, without however demonstrating a real overcoming of schemes that are too intellectual.
At the head of that there is a seminary formation which has valuable elements, but which on the one hand is also excessively intellectual, and on the other with great difficulty succeeds in prolonging its influence over clergy after their time in seminary.
The priest in a parish, in fact, finds difficulty in organizing a life healthily and healthily ordered, not having neither family, nor a community on which to rely, in a world, like ours, full of increasingly insidious and intrusive dangers.
Finally, we have the monasteries, which should spread their light as models of total and permanent realization of life entered into healthily and healthily organized, but which must still acquire the awareness of the mission, in some sense new, to which they are called today on behalf both of the family, and the school, and the diocesan clergy.
In this panorama, therefore, the presence of the monasteries seems central and decisive, monasteries as concrete and permanent realization of the “alternative school” and of the family as “house of God”, which could represent – if they were open to a new awareness and profound renewal – a decisive factor to tackle the present-day crisis.
But to better understand this point we must open a wider discourse on the Rule of Saint Benedict and on the Benedictine tradition.
The disciple’s main commitment in the house of God
We have referred to the fact that Saint Benedict, after having given a general exhortation in the Prologue about a holy life: “If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim”, in subsequent chapters of the Rule defines the concrete conditions for achieving that life in community life.
We will now try to better understand the Rule in this its fundamental aspect.
Some verses from Chapter XXXI, if they are well-examined, reveal to us its whole spirit. The original Latin text is as follows:
“Horis competentibus dentur quae danda sunt et petantur quae petenda sunt, ut nemo perturbetur neque contristetur in domo Dei”.
And a translation:
“Necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper times, so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God”.
A few words, which can pass by unnoticed, but which highlight what distinguishes the Rule from all teaching, even the most sublime, which nevertheless remains on the level of theoretical doctrine.
Actually, the words which we have quoted are addressed to the cellarer, that is to the bursar of the monastery, and so there is a tendency to interpret them as restricted to the supplies necessary for practical life. But there is nothing to stop the meaning being extended to the whole ordering of the monastery, because effectively they express much more than just the role of the cellarer. Already the fact that here Saint Benedict is concerned about the peace of souls in the house of God allows us extend the meaning of his words. In fact, certainly the peace of souls does not depend exclusively on the good management of just material needs.
But let us proceed in order. There are two other places in the Rule where the monastery is called the “house of God”.
In Chapter LIII – “The reception of guests” –it says:
“[In the guest quarters] adequate bedding should be available there. The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely”.
Here, too, there is a “material” recommendation followed by a principle which extends to every aspect of the life of the monastery.
Finally in Chapter LXIV – “The election of an abbot” –it says:
«[Thwarting the attempts of those wishing to elect an unworthy abbot, well-intentioned people must] set a worthy steward in charge of God’s house”.
In the eyes of Saint Benedict, therefore, the monastery is really the house of God, and, to be such, it must have a holy and wise superior and must be governed wisely by those who are responsible for it. If here we are still talking in general terms, the first text we have quoted provides the key for entering into its concrete realization: everything must have its way, place and time, so that in the house of God no one may be disquieted or distressed.
What does it mean, then, to build the “house of God”?
Saint Benedict invites his disciples not to some worldly purpose, realized through a profession aimed at managing earthly goods, but to a purpose of converting one’s own heart by purifying it from every sin and directing it towards the love of God and obedience to his will. Therefore, the disciple of Saint Benedict does not apply himself principally to acting on things of the world, but to working on himself.
It could be said that he realizes the ancient principle according to which the great hero is not the person who conquers an empire, but rather the one who knows how to overcome himself.
But the characteristic element of the Saint’s teaching is that, in his realistic vision, a life addressed to the perfection of his own heart, his own will and his own conduct can only be truly achieved in community. The individual cannot devote himself to this task if they find themselves living in the company of people who pursue fundamentally external objectives, like profit, professional success or career enhancement, and who, therefore, put self-care among extras.
Let us take the exhortation we read in the Prologue: “Keep your tongue free from vicious talk”. In the Rule this principle is made concrete through some norms of behaviour which define the atmosphere of community life:
“Guard your lips from harmful or deceptive speech. Prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter” (Chapter IV).
“We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind” (Chapter VI).
“The eleventh step of humility is that a monk speaks gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising his voice, as it is written: ‘A wise man is known by his few words’” (Chapter VII).
From that generic “keep your tongue free from vicious talk” we have moved on to very precise indications about daily conduct.
But let us go on.
What are the characteristics of a life directed to the principle aim of self-improvement before God? The Benedictine motto sums them up well: “Ora et labora”, that is, an exhortation to live always in the presence of God with prayer and carrying out his will through works. These elements in the Rule become the cornerstones of the daily organization of the community, and the relationship of each person to the task to be achieved in community characterizes its existence, therefore there are no times and spaces which allow the formation of individualism and isolation detached from community life. The more personal spiritual, cultural or work formation itself, which has always been increasingly affirmed, in the monasteries, too, above all since the Renaissance, can only refer to the dimensions of the common commitment to build and preserve the “house of God”.
For the individual, and indirectly for others, too, devotion to a specific study or work can certainly be important, but this laudable commitment, too, becomes incidental when the order of community life demands that it be left in order to devote oneself to preparing or carrying out liturgical prayer, or educating the young, or caring for the sick, or even devoting oneself to humble services in the vegetable garden, in cleaning, or in the kitchen.
Study and work, in fact, do not count in themselves, but to better enter into knowledge and service of God and one’s neighbor, and so it would be contradictory to pursue them to the detriment of observance of the precepts of charity which commit us in the duties of daily life.
“Necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper times, so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God” means, therefore, that prayer and work must be ordered tasks undertaken in an harmonious and united manner by all the members of the community, in a way that they do not remain just pious intentions left to individual improvisation, but become clearly visible realisations in their concreteness, structured in manner, time and place. Only this harmonious collaboration in the preservation of a holy life makes the “house of God”, where no one is “disquieted or distressed”, present and tangible.
The same temptations to sin here clash with the organization of times and spaces. The individual can be distressed by an evil thought, but cannot pause to nurture it: just as he must leave his own study or personal commitment to follow the daily order of prayer and work, so the same law of readiness separates him from the evil thought on which he would be tempted to dwell.
The excerpts we have underlined up to now already demonstrate the advantages of the monastic life compared to the diocesan parish life, where the priest, once he has left the seminary, does not have the support of the “appropriate time” fixed for things to do, to give and to ask, and can, therefore, more easily dwell on individual activities, or even on thoughts that are not good, which will lead him to overlook the duties of observance and charity. Then the conditions which ensure one is neither “disquieted nor distressed” could be missing.
It is also very important to underline the fact that Saint Benedict, more than anyone else, above all reminds man – and today women, too – not to seek true fulfilment essentially outside the house, as he was led to do, but to commit his or her energies first of all to edifying the “house of God” in his or her own family. This is the sense of the holy Saint’s reminder to exercise the virtues within the enclosure of the monastery – chapter IV. The young Benedict, who renounced professional school to devote himself to edifying the “house of God”, represents a new and more noble mature ideal, which, paradoxically, draws man more intimately closer to collaboration with woman.
But there are still many other observations to be made on the Rule of Saint Benedict and on its value, not just for the monastic life.
The influence of each school on family life
From what we have said up to now, the substantial difference between the traditional and modern school and Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service”, as well as the different influence each has, or could have, on family life, should seem clearer.
But it is appropriate to clarify this point more specifically.
The traditional school is aimed at intellectual knowledge in itself and at its possible use mainly in the professional life outside the home. On the other hand, the school of Saint Benedict is aimed at the edification of the daily life of a group of people who live together and who strive to perfect not so much their own intellect, but their own heart and their own conduct, and who, therefore, submit even the most noble intellectual activity to the interior perfection and charity which must animate community daily life.
Since the traditional school pursues a largely intellectual formation and is focused chiefly on preparing students for professional work, it follows that many formative aspects which are important for everyday family life are totally ignored by it and that a sort of “hierarchy of values” is created, according to which some competencies are generally respected, because it is presumed they open the path more easily to a well-paid and socially-appreciated professional career, while others are less esteemed, either because they don’t seem to easily indicate work careers, or because they are aimed at professional achievements not socially well-considered.
The negative repercussions of this school on family life are many and very serious.
A strong negative factor is the cult itself of the school and of study, which not from today rules unchallenged in society. If one were to ask a variety of different people what is the first, absolute and almost sacred duty of young people, almost everyone would answer: “To study”!
So in the collective imagination, and in that of parents in particular, the undisputed and incontrovertible idea that what should be the primary, almost religious commitment of young people from six to eighteen years old is application to study according to the parameters of the traditional and modern school, dominates. Obviously, not included in this appropriate commitment is what doesn’t count for the school, like those fundamental elements for a good daily life to which we have referred, while the scholastic “hierarchy of values” of the proficiency to be acquired imposes itself at a general level.
We note again that the said “hierarchy of values” has changed radically in recent decades. While traditionally classical studies were considered to be fundamental for the intellectual formation of the ruling classes and for preparation for the most respected professions, now economic and engineering proficiency have climbed the ladder.
While classical studies aimed above all at formation for a vigorous intellectual life, accompanied by strong moral, spiritual and esthetic content, economic-engineering formation aims directly at professional opportunities which are presumed to be present in the current society. If the former had, in any case, the defect of ignoring the education of the heart and the will – given that its content was too intellectual, abstract and detached from daily life – the latter simply emphasizes this disadvantage even more, addressing all its diligence to the sole dominion of the external world through appropriate professional and technical expertise.
But it was and is a common flaw in the traditional and the modern school both to favour massively intellectual formation ahead of moral formation – and already in his time Förster observed how the said system stimulated, for example, the spread of the “scholastic lie”, with serious detriment to the character of the students – and to alienate the souls of the young from the practice of and respect for “domestic work” and other expertise necessary for the good progress of family life.
Collaborating substantially with this last flaw are parents themselves, and above all mothers, who make it a sacred duty to spare their children from any domestic duties so that they might, without the hassle of jobs of an “inferior” nature, devote the majority of their time and their energies to the “superior” and sacrosanct scholastic intellectual tasks.
To what incalculable extent these characteristics of the traditional and modern school are in contrast with the interests of family life seems obvious. First of all, they distance from the soul of young people – male and female – respect itself for family life, sowing the idea that both personal affirmation and economic well-being depend solely on professional activity outside the home. In addition, they ensure that intellectual study, detached from daily family life, takes up all the time and energy of young people in the crucial years of their preparation for life, resulting in the creation of unbalanced individuals, in whom an enormously developed mental erudition co-exists with uncouth behavior, deeply anti-social and easily prey to licentious passions – and so more than ever contrary to marriage and family life: what, in fact, Saint Benedict already observed in the students of his time.
And it is precisely the alternative school which Saint Benedict wants to oppose to such an inadequate school and which today offers a new perspective for realization, not just for a limited group of people consecrated to God, but for the whole of civil society which sees itself threatened by an evermore widespread family and social disintegration.
In fact, we have seen how the school of Saint Benedict, while not at all scorning intellectual study, subordinates it to the formation of people integrated into a society with a family character, which helps them to develop those virtues and that expertise which, while they perfect their moral character, at the same time contribute to the conservation of a peaceful co-existence and to the development of the common material and spiritual well-being, so that “no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God”.
In conformity with this programme, Saint Benedict has a scale of values diametrically opposed to that of the traditional and modern school. It is expressed in an exemplary fashion in these words from Chapter XXXV of the Rule, about service in the kitchen:
“The brothers should serve one another. Consequently, no one will be excused from kitchen service unless he is sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love”.
So, kitchen service, like all domestic work, is not an “inferior” job to be despised and left to servants. On the contrary, far from being a “necessary nuisance” of inferior rank compared to study, is more valuable than study, since it enables the achievement of greater merit and is the lived exercise of charity. Through domestic work, in fact, the brothers serve one another and contribute to making the environment of community life responsive to the needs of everyone, clean, ordered, pleasant, limbs are trained to conform to the spirit and so precious skills are acquired. So they are almost the first necessary step towards the realizations of workmanship and art.
Furthermore, if the aim of the monastic life is to share “in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom” (Rule, Prologue), the burdens of domestic work serve it much more than study, and so must be more respected.
And yet nevertheless study, too, has its great dignity, both because it is also a work, at times tiring, by which one can validly serve the good of people, and, even more, because it is necessary to grow in knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and in human and Christian wisdom. So it must accompany the monk’s life of prayer and work, without alienating him from the duties of community life, but, on the contrary, enabling him to enrich it even more.
Prayer, in fact, which is at the centre of the monastic life, is nourished through the recitation and chanting of the Psalms, through the public reading of Sacred Scripture, through the exhortation of pastors, through the eucharistic worship of the Church: all things which demand great intellectual and artistic development, in the field of thought, eloquence, poetry, music, chant, sacred architecture, painting, sculpture, design, illumination… Culture, therefore, but culture incarnated in the daily life of the community, which it animates by a sublime inspiration of divine poetry.
But we will see better how this “alternative school” can be a model in the current educational crisis and shed its light in a new way on the life of families and of society.
The three bedrocks of the Rule
Saint Benedict places the whole edifice of the “house of God” on three bedrocks. In fact, he intends to establish:
1. the “appropriate times” for different activities
2. the dispositions of the soul of humility and religious service according to which everything must be done
3. the need to do everything in the best way possible, and so the appreciation of the talents of everyone, as long as they do not stir up sentiments contrary to humility and to the spirit of service.
1. To the first point are devoted the majority of the chapters in the Rule. In them are set the times for prayer and work, the disposition of places, roles and services necessary for community life, the choice of books for the liturgy or for edification, clothing, the use of objects, etc. We note that Saint Benedict has been proclaimed patron saint of architects: he, in fact, “designed” not just places, but also the times and ways of community life.
2. Obviously, this “architecture” would lose all its value if it remained a purely external form. As its bedrock, therefore, the Rule sets the spiritual dispositions which gives them its true meaning and which demand to be constantly nourished by prayer and by the habitual listening to the Word of God. So liturgical prayer has an absolutely primary place in the daily Benedictine programme. Alongside it there is, obviously, private prayer and the so-called “lectio divina” – that is, the study of Sacred Scripture. But in the eyes of Saint Benedict – who participates in the spirit of the Fathers of the ancient Church – the prayer par excellence is liturgical prayer. The psalms, in fact, which, as divinely-inspired biblical prayers, constitute the model of every prayer, made to be chanted or recited in choir, to praise God and to raise the souls of the faithful. As worship acceptable to God and effective edification of the human soul, nothing can replace this kind of prayer, which marks the most significant times of the monastic day, contributing in a substantial way to constituting and setting apart, compared to other human realities, the house and family of God.
As already has been said, Saint Benedict was not satisfied with external realisations – even less in the liturgy, as he is careful to underline in Chapter XIX – but wants everything to serve to accomplish those dispositions of the soul which alone render the life of monks acceptable to God and to men. Therefore he devotes the longest chapter in the Rule, Chapter VII, to recommending and explaining the virtue which he appreciates the most: humility. And in the penultimate chapter of the Rule, Chapter LXXII, he effectively summarises the spirit which must animate every aspect of the monastic life, without which it would just be a body without a soul: the brothers “should try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one other. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life”.
3. If, in the liturgy, just as in the common reading done at meals and at other times, the celebration of the works of God and the edification of humanity must be done publicly, that means that it must be done in an appropriate fashion that is, with order and propriety. So Saint Benedict on the one hand requires specific norms to be followed, and on the other values the talents of those most suitable for reading and for singing. He adds, however, that in this as in other cases, the talents of each person must serve the good of the brothers and be for the glory of God, but in no way must they stir up pride or presumption on the part of those who possess them. The few indications he gives on this point are valuable and we can say they have been the bedrock of an entire culture down the centuries. In Chapter XXXVIII, on the reader in the refectory, he writes:
“Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers. The reader should not be the one who just happens to pick up the book, but someone who will read for a whole week, beginning on Sunday”.
First point: order.
Immediately afterwards he adds:
“After Mass and Communion, let the incoming reader ask all to pray for him so that God may shield him from the spirit of vanity”.
Second point: the maintenance of humility.
But at the end of the Chapter the Saint adds:
“Brothers will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to benefit their hearers”.
Third point: the appreciation of talents for a worthy service of God and the brothers.
These last two points are repeated also in connection with art and craft, in Chapter LVII:
“If there are artisans in the monastery, they are to practice their craft with all humility, but only with the abbot’s permission. If one of them becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft, and feels that he is conferring something on the monastery, he is to be removed from practicing his craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting his humility, he is so ordered by the abbot”.
It is at the end of this Chapter that – after having cautioned against the dishonesty and greed of profit – the Saint adds those biblical words which have become a sort of second Benedictine motto: “Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus – so that in all things God may be glorified” (cf. 1 Pet 4:11).
The entire incalculable industriousness of the Benedictine monks in the field of work, of culture, of music, of chant, of sacred architecture and decoration and the different arts, has its roots in these few but fundamental indications of Saint Benedict.
To them must be added the truly charitable works, such as hospices for pilgrims and the poor, the various forms of help to the needy, etc. Some of these activities have been more characteristic of the Middle Ages than of more recent centuries, and it has to be said that frankly in recent times the Benedictine Order, like other cloistered orders, has experienced major crises precisely because it reproached itself for having thought solely about the sanctification of its members but not the good of society. Even though the accusation is fundamentally unjust, it is nevertheless stimulating, since it calls for a reconsideration of the function of the monasteries and re-discovery of what their role might be in today’s society.
This is a fundamental point which merits further examination.
The mission of Saint Benedict for today’s world and the renewal of the monastic life
The most recent Popes, at least from Pius XII, on various occasions have exhorted monks to enable other faithful too, to share in their spiritual wealth, and we have seen how Blessed Schuster foresaw a time, now close, when to lay people, too, would be communicated “the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”. Between the lines of his exhortation it begins to seem that this “spiritual bread” was none other than the Rule itself, capable of forming “not already doctors, preachers, men of brilliance, but simply those devoted souls whom God honours with the glorious title of his workers”.
We have already said, in a previous conversation, that the commandment: “to feed the hungry” must not be understood in the reductive sense, and that the bread is truly given when it is given completely. And we added that the complete bread consists essentially in creating the prerequisites of a healthy and happy life – and in particular a family life. If, in fact, human life is almost always family life, it would be reductive to limit it to giving individuals material support, if then the indispensable conditions so that they might acquire the formation and elements necessary for a healthy family life are not created.
If, therefore, as now would appear to be totally obvious, in the Rule of Saint Benedict and in the Benedictine tradition there is a richness of teaching and incomparable valuable help, which is not to be found elsewhere, about creating and managing appropriately the daily lives of people who live under the same roof, it follows therefore that among the works of charity significant emphasis should be put on “communicating to lay people, too, the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”, that is, to make available to everyone the teachings of the Rule and what is required to realise them in the life of families.
Of course, in a Rule written a millennium-and-a-half ago there are elements that are no longer topical, such as, in particular, the excessive mortification of the individual and of personal life – an aspect which, after all, especially from the Renaissance onwards, was gradually corrected in monastic life – but, if we look at it with a fair discernment, its truest and most profound meaning proves to be most valuable in illuminating and guiding family life today.
To whom, therefore, does it fall to communicate to families this irreplaceable richness?
Mention has been made of the school and the opportunity for its profound reform, which makes it as similar as possible to Saint Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service”, precisely because, if the primary mission of the school is to prepare young people for life, it seems obvious that its first role should be that of preparing them for a healthy and happy family life.
That might seem idealistic, but perhaps it is less so in a time so full of unexpected change. In any case, we must always consider the possible wide spread of the parental school and the possibility that, at least to a certain extent, it might make the Benedictine programme its own.
But, at this point, it is appropriate to draw a more precise comparison between the traditional and modern school on the one hand and the school of Saint Benedict on the other.
We traced the spirit which animates the Benedictine Rule back to three principle aspects: 1. the ordering of the daily activities in the monastery 2. the spirit of humility and charity which must animate them 3. appreciation of the talents and gifts of individuals, always, however, subordinated to the maintenance of the just dispositions of the soul of humility and of service.
I think that it can be said that the first two points do not fall within the goals of the traditional and of the modern school. If the first were able to contribute indirectly, but in a very imperfect manner, to the spiritual growth of young people through the study of the classics, the second seems to have been rejected, now focusing totally solely on the skills useful for running the external world for professional goals.
Instead, it is on the third point that one can establish a comparison between the two forms of school. Each, in fact, are interested in promoting personal capacities through study and the acquisition of skills. The difference is that for Saint Benedict these skills, too, helpful though they are, must however be subordinated to the goal of developing the Christian virtues, and chiefly humility and charity, to the benefit of the common life and for the spiritual perfection of each person, while the traditional and modern school seek intellectual development and work skills per se.
If this is true, however, it must be observed that nearly all the most significant pedagogical renewal movements of the 20th century, from Montessori to Freinet, from scouting to the Barbiana School and to the Movement for Cooperative Education, have sought to overcome both the intellectualism of the traditional school and the pragmatism of the modern school, and aimed at a school which was closer to the real needs of young people, in the crucial years when they are building their destiny. This search for a more profound and effective incisiveness in the intimate life of children and young people recently seems increasingly to be falling dangerously towards an unhealthy thirst for affective and sexual pseudo-education, while, on the other hand, the pragmatic orientation addressed to the world of work prevails massively.
So it would not be totally arbitrary to present a reform of the school according to the spirit of Saint Benedict as a sort of recovery, in a new form, of the main pedagogical trends of the 20th century.
But now we must turn our attention to what should be the main protagonists in the urgent work of communicating the spiritual bread of Saint Benedict to families – and also to priests and to the consecrated: the monasteries.
To develop this point means presenting a true renewal in the monastic and cloistered life, which should be realised in ways somewhat original, even if founded on essential elements of the Benedictine tradition. This renewal would also constitute a solution to the crisis which for some time has afflicted the claustral life, which has to tackle charitable and pastoral needs, so heartfelt in modern civilization and which in the eyes of many people seem not to fall within the aims of the monastic communities. In fact, it would open the path to incomparable social activity, which the monasteries could exercise more and better than any other institution or initiative, not only without losing any of their identity, but, on the contrary, re-discovering all its value, deep meaning and productiveness for the life of the Church and of the world.
But it is an argument which requires an extended in-depth examination.
The mission of Saint Benedict for today’s world and the renewal of the monastic life
From what has been said up to now, it seems clear that the renewal to which reference has been made consists in the commitment, by the monasteries, to make available for the greatest number of people and families possible the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”. It is obvious that to do this the monasteries not only must not in fact renounce their in some way separated life, but, on the contrary, must commit themselves to making it increasingly in conformity with the teachings of Saint Benedict. In fact, how could they hand on this teaching if they had not first put it into practice?
In what way, therefore, could the monasteries hand on the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict” to the families, to priests, to the consecrated and to all people interested in the true well-being of the family and of society? We can suggest three channels for handing it on, two of which are, in reality, fundamental elements of the monastic tradition, which should be re-thought and renewed:
2. the school
3. modern means of communication
That hospitality is a characteristic of Benedictine monasteries should be obvious. Saint Benedict devotes a specific chapter to it, Chapter LIII, and states that “monasteries are never without [guests]”. Even if historically this aspect of the Rule has not always been observed or sufficiently appreciated, today is it more widespread. So it is a matter of conferring on this service, among other things and above other things, the function of the means to hand on to guests, and above all to families, to priests and to the consecrated, the teachings and the means to achieving a healthy and happy family life, according to the spirit of the Rule.
Here the very indications given by Saint Benedict in the chapter on hospitality can be valuable. For example, it is good that, as the Saint says, the abbot entrusts in particular one or more monks with the task of taking care of guests directly, while other members of the community, if they are not called to give particular instructions, should stand aside. And that is not in contrast with the mission of being useful to guests in the monastery. One example will suffice.
Once, staying at the monastery of Farfa, home to a Benedictine community and a community of Bridgettine Sisters, who looked after the guest house, there was a group of young people on a vocational discernment retreat. A meeting took place in the guest house, with discussions and testimonies. After the meeting, one of the young girls present said that what struck her the most was a Bridgettine Sister who, having decided not to take part in the meeting, lingered with an old lady in poor health to help her and keep her company. The episode shows how more important example is than teachings and discussions. And that is true for every aspect of religious and family life. So, for example, it will undoubtedly be useful to explain to guests the importance of a beautiful liturgical prayer, to be said in families, too, but even more effective that they see concretely a liturgy celebrated with decorum and devotion by the monastic community.
Having established this principle, monasteries should organize times when people or families can stay, housed in such a way as to undertake a continuous programme of instruction and support for the application of the teachings of the Rule in family life.
Into this same strategy is integrated the discussion about the school – it, too, for centuries always present in the Benedictine tradition. In fact, it is about promoting a substantial reform of the school, of its goals and its methods, as had already been explained. That can be done directly, if the monastery has its own school, or indirectly, above all through productive relationships which the monasteries could and should have with the parental school.
Now we are not talking the state school, which, obviously, presents enormously complex problems.
As regards means of communication, they certainly constitute a somewhat innovative wide-ranging way of influencing families, without breaking the rules of the separation of the world and the cloister. Historically, this aspect, too, is not without precedent. Suffice to recall the significant editorial work of the Benedictines in the Congregation of Saint Maur in France, who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, published critical editions of the Church Fathers which spread throughout the whole of Europe and still today constitute a valuable source for patristic students.
But, obviously, modern means [of communication] offer much greater opportunities compared to the traditional press, and of these opportunities, just as unfortunately the sowers of vice profit widely, so also should profit those who – and above all the monasteries – intend, instead, to preserve families, so threatened and so little protected, from vice.
Our online school “The twelve-star crown” could offer a model of how it is possible to use the modern means of communication to enrich families in a wide-ranging manner with the “spiritual bread of Saint Benedict”. But it is an opportunity which should be immensely appreciated, above all if well-coordinated with the activity undertaken through hospitality and the school.
A Benedictine community which embraces this programme in the three aspects proposed could devote to them an important part of their own daily industriousness, without in any way breaking the needs of separation from the world and of the cloister. That would enable appreciation in a new way of the different talents of the members of the community and would give to them new enthusiasm in the undertaking of even the most humble of duties, while at the same time it would avoid the ever-present danger that in communities there are people who are dissatisfied, turned in on themselves or afflicted by “identity crises”.
In concluding this discourse, which has gone on for many conversations, we would like to underline its united perspective, involving in a vast programme of renewal, the family, the school, the clergy, the consecrated and the monasteries, with the aim of instilling an increase of healthy life in today’s society through the everlasting light of the Rule of Saint Benedict.
An Answer to the Article of Austin Ruse “The Escriva Option: an Alternative to Saint Benedict”
First I must remind that Saint Josemaria Escrivà was helped, in Italy, by Blessed Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, and we can think that the two saints understood each other. Schuster was a Benedictine monk and throughout his life he tried to valorize Benedictine life in modern society. In a sermon delivered at Montecassino on the 21st of March 1942 he said that Saint Benedict was not charged by God «for a contingent and temporary help, such as for instance the help provided by Equestrian Orders or by the orders created for the redemption of slaves. In order to make his apostolate in the Church stable and universal God’s Providence provided that the holy Patriarch (…) founded a high “Schola” of sanctity, where through the teaching of the sublime art of self-renouncement aimed to put oneself at the service of God – “Dominici Schola Servitii” – were formed the future workmen of God for the renewal of the Europe of later times (…) Post-war society may be one which, disabused at last by human systems, will follow the Lord. Saint Benedict’s family is expressly called to satisfy this ardent desire, and through the Rule and through Catholic liturgy, which it wonderfully lives, it will be able to give a very large contribution to this re-education of peoples to Christianity».
These are not only words. Benedictine life was, through the centuries, a model and an example for human families and, in my opinion – following the teaching of Blessed Cardinal Schuster – this mission will be very largely renewed in our time. How? Blessed Schuster told us: through the Rule and through liturgy.
Let us consider that the Rule of Saint Benedict is a school for Christian people living together. The idea which lies behind the volume that I published in 2010 – “The Rule of Saint Benedict for Family Life today” – is that, since everybody lives in a communal life, nobody can live a good Christian life if those who live with him follow a different way – and that is true above all for families. So it is necessary to plan a rule for present time families, which have no rule. But we have already a rule, without inventing a new one: the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Mr. Ruse writes that the members of the families of his group are «fully engaged in the culture; banking, politics, teaching, journalism, medicine, even the movie business». Very good! But the real issue today is not so much the fewness of Christian people engaged in these things, as the fewness of people engaged in a sound family life. All people – husbands, wives and children – dream to realize themselves outside home, and home-life is abandoned to disorder. Mr. Ruse knows it. In fact he writes too that the people of his group, according to Escrivà’s teaching, are called «to live as best they can in the presence of God throughout the day from the moment of waking to turning out the light at night. This is achieved through prayer and study and a vigorous regimen of daily, weekly, monthly and yearly norms of piety». And what is it, if not a summary of the Rule of Saint Benedict? But he puts so much the accent on outside activity that he does not see the greatness of the teaching of Saint Benedict: that the virtues exercised in the home are more fundamental than those practiced in a job. This teaching, now more than in former centuries, is precious for lay people.
What once was a custom and a spontaneous imitation, today must be taught: the “Dominici Schola Servitii” must expressly extend from monasteries to families. In fact my book is a project that we are pursuing, helping families to follow Saint Benedict’s teaching adapted to their own necessities. And now we are creating an online school in order to give families all useful instructions and materials so that their homes may become «houses of God», where «no one may be disquieted or distressed» (Rule of Saint Benedict) – and they will be the real sources of all blessings for the whole society. This online school – God helping – will be also in English.
To end I want to quote a personal meditation I wrote for myself two years ago, as a comment of the letter written by the Bishop of Kurenegala (Sri Lanka, where I live part of the year) for the Year of Faith.
At the beginning of the YEAR OF FAITH we are invited to discover the reasons for the crisis of faith in modern society. Our bishop refers to “various reasons including our own negligence”, and points out the necessity for the Catholic faith “to be renewed and refreshed”. In doing that we must not be negligent, bashful and old-fashioned, but intelligent, daring and up-to-date. To be up-to-date does not mean to adapt faith to modern secular ideas, but to understand the real situation of the present world and to give an effective answer to it from the point of view of a faith which never changes.
Our bishop refers to “our parents of the olden days (…) ”, who “brought the family together in the evening to pray the daily Rosary”. But “with the present day busy schedules and attraction towards worldly affairs, this good tradition is lost often.” And “as a result we could see from our own eyes the state of families who do not pray today”. So we have to “encourage the people to pray”.
We must make further steps in this direction, but how?
Our Lord says: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins” (Mk 2, 22). Let us try to apply this words to our problem: can we put the new wine of the Rosary – in fact it is new in spite of its antiquity, both because it is eternal and because it appears as a new thing today – in the old wineskins of “the present day busy schedules and attraction towards worldly affairs” – which are really old and decaying? Of course we cannot!
Religion, according to its own nature, must give meaning to life. It cannot be an indifferent part of life unless it wants to die. Modern society, however, is trying to create a worldwide life style, in which there is no room for religion, and to impose it by force everywhere. Though this life style is now showing all its weakness and inconvenience, it still exerts a great fascination, above all to young people, with the illusory prospect of an unlimited expansion of life. As long as this “modern” life style continues among people, it is an error to try to put into it the new wine of the Rosary and religion. The first step to take is to show that this habit that pretends to be modern and to have in itself the prospect of unlimited development in fact is old-fashioned and cannot keep its false promises.
On the contrary, religion can offer a modern and up-to-date life style, which does not elude the prospect of a sound human development.
It means that we must have the courage and the creativity to offer, above all to young people, a life style which is an alternative to the one promoted by modern society.
Of course we have Catholic schools and universities. But at best they can develop intelligence and sound judgment – which is not sufficient to give a new way to life. Saint Benedict flew from Rome and its schools not in order to create a Catholic university: in fact he felt that it would not be effective to give a new shape to the life of man and society in the crisis of his time.
Really the crisis of our time is similar to the one of Saint Benedict’s time: men have to learn again to live together in a sound human and religious way everyday life. This is the Rule of Saint Benedict: to give a shape to everyday life through the wise organization of the community in which man lives. A Benedictine monastery is not a school of learning, it is “a school of divine service”, in which man learns how to serve God and those who live with him in everyday life, living according to human and religious wisdom.
In a college or in a seminary you can find human and Christian life. But when you finish your college or seminar, you are engulfed by the rule-less modern life, which devours individuals and families. On the contrary the Rule of Saint Benedict gives its wise dispositions to a community forever. So the brother who enters a Benedictine community remains there for his whole life, and a family willing to follow the same Rules can really give a new way to the life of its members, a way in which prayer will not be like new wine in old wineskins, but like new wine in new wineskins – the new wineskins being the alternative shape of life that the community or the family following the Rule of Saint Benedict substitutes to “the present day busy schedules and attraction towards worldly affairs”.
But we must understand that the shaping of community and family life according to a high Christian model is not only a question of practical work – though practical work is fundamental in it. It implies also an immense spiritual and intellectual engagement. You can see that in our online school for families, “The crown of twelve stars”, in which the twelve stars are twelve fundamental subjects in which the members of the family or community must be deeply engaged.
So the shaping of Christian community and family life is in fact the new form of a great renewed theology, of which “The crown of twelve stars” is the model: a theology inspired by the Rule of Saint Benedict.