Good Zeal

How to Live

Benedictine medal in chapel clerestory windowHow can I become a more active player in my life? Where does my life seem to be heading? Does my life have a real meaning and purpose? These are questions that often come to mind when someone is seeking lasting happiness in life. These are some of the very questions raised by Judith Valente in her excellent book, How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community.

I was both privileged and delighted for six weeks this summer to use both Valente’s book on Benedictine life and the Holy Rule itself as the basis for sharing a weekly class on Benedictine spirituality with a group of fifteen parishioners from St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Birmingham, AL. It was a grace-filled time for me and a time of re-awakening and deepening prayer for many in the group.

With only a short six weeks, I was faced with the dilemma: where do you begin to capture the depth and breadth of the Benedictine tradition? What would be the best way to explain “listening with the ear of the heart,” and the importance of the values of silence, humility, regular work and prayer, stability, hospitality, and reverence for all things? With the help of Valente’s book, I felt the starting place was to build a strong sense of community among ourselves where everyone could be heard, questions could be raised, and where the Holy Rule could serve as the framework for discovery. Eventually our time together became a safe place for exploring “God experiences” in daily life. I made a promise to the group that after the pandemic we would organize a field trip to Sacred Heart Monastery and to St. Bernard Abbey.

Over the weeks I offered them some “tools for good works:” starting every class with praying the Divine Office; using Scripture for communal lectio divina; and introducing them to the sayings of the Desert Fathers. We also heard stories about the life of St. Benedict from the Dialogues of Gregory and shared our own creative expressions of spiritual writing and Haiku poetry. I gave each participant a blessed medal of St. Benedict and explained the meaning of the prayerful inscriptions on the medal. You can bet that I had to tell everyone the story of how the loving prayer of St. Scholastica brought about a miraculous rainstorm, and how St. Benedict was taught a lesson by his sister!

I encouraged our group to watch the movie Of Gods and Men, a movie portraying the story of a French Cistercian community in Algeria. The monks’ life together, their courage, and the monastic values they held would eventually lead to their martyrdom amid civil unrest in 1996. Their lives and their deaths witnessed to their faith in Christ and to their commitment for peace and friendship with the surrounding Muslim community. What better example of the depth of a monastic life of prayer, service, and hospitality. I wish we had had the time to view the movie together!

At the end of our time together, I asked members of the group to evaluate their class experience, and I was deeply touched by their responses. A woman recently widowed was struck by the question from chapter 4 of Valente’s book, “Is There Life Before Death?” Struggling with charting a new life after the death of her husband, she realized she had to begin living life again, and reminded herself that by “remembering death daily,” as St. Benedict encourages, she wanted to learn how to live again prayerfully. On her evaluation she commented, “Prayer is not just when I sit or kneel. It is part of every action I do every day…I am discovering sacredness in all I meet, nature, people, and Scripture.”

Someone wrote in her evaluation that her favorite passage in the Holy Rule was “All guests who present themselves are to be received as Christ.” Another participant reflected on the inclusiveness of Benedictine hospitality and observed, “Hospitality includes those who annoy me.” He also noted that Benedict’s sense of balance and stability means “Making time for relaxation and refreshment in your life is not a luxury.”

A couple of participants spoke to the importance of listening and silence. One pointed out a quote from Valente’s book that she especially took to heart, “Before you speak, always ask yourself three questions: Is what I am about to say true? Is it kind? Is it necessary.” Another remarked, “In the divisive and often hostile times we are living in now, listening to others without judging is a seemingly lost art. I can certainly deepen my faith by practicing ‘silence’ and ‘listening to others.’”

One class member stressed the Benedictine values of humility, respect for others, belief that “the divine presence is everywhere” (RB 19). She sees the Rule as a framework for Christian life, “a railing to hold on to.” Others asked, “How do I live my life so God can be my center anchor?” “How can I be more attentive to others?”

Many in the class were enthusiastic about expressing their prayer through Japanese Haiku poetry, a form I introduced to them. The poetry is three lines with the first in five syllables, the second in seven, and the third line once again in five. I was amazed at their creativity. One woman mentioned that once she started writing haiku, it seemed to pop up in her mind all the time! Here are some beautiful examples:

I sat and I prayed
Lord, let this be a good day
Budding flowers bloomed.
Cathy J.

Benedictines chant
Voices fill the air in praise
The dust stirs in dance.
Cathy J.

Lord, help me wake up
Help me be now, here, and this
Please open my mind.
Jo Ann A.

Welcome to my home                    
I ask for your blessing please       
Thanks be to the Lord.                  
Jo Ann A.

Benedict the monk
Rule for community love
Speak with good intent.

At our last class, after I shared the story of Benedict’s seeing the whole world in a single ray of light, we all expressed gratitude for the “good zeal” within our group and asked for a greater contemplative awareness of the beauty around us, coming to love the whole world with the love of Christ.

By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB

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