The first word of St. Benedict’s Rule is “Listen.” The instruction is directed to all of us – from the youngest to the oldest. Much of this listening is the silence of listening to God in prayer. Some of it is simply the careful attention that we pay to one another in the course of everyday life in community. Some of it is listening to the needs of the world around us. And some of it is the listening of pondering and discussing together important aspects of our life in common. All of it encompasses the deep spiritual listening that is characteristic of the monastic charism – listening “with the ear of your heart,” as St. Benedict puts it.
Periodic community meetings are one of the ways in which we listen together. St. Benedict devotes an entire chapter to “summoning the community for counsel” (RB chapter 3). He begins, “As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the prioress shall call the whole community together and herself explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the sisters, let her ponder it and follow what she judges the wiser course… The sisters, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility…”
Following St. Benedict’s advice, we set aside three times a year in which the entire community gathers specifically to discuss important business of the monastery. The longest of these is the summer meeting which we held last week. Over the course of four days, we covered everything from routine business matters to planning for the future to topical concerns of the day.
Our prioress led the meetings, but we all participated. And we all listened. We heard from the leaders of our corporate ministries. Committee chairs gave reports. We heard from experts outside the community, as we occasionally do when we need input from those with specific expertise in a given area. We had some small group discussion, and discussions amongst the entire group of sisters. Each of us had a chance to voice questions or opinions.
No matter the topic, community meetings offer the opportunity for us to all hear the same information at the same time and ponder it together, each of us voicing that which we “hear” through our listening. Even though there is a strong practical dimension to community meetings, there is a deeper dimension at play. Meetings are an opportunity for us to express together the fundamental monastic virtue of listening as we open ourselves to the voices of our sisters. It is a chance to practice the “good zeal” of which St. Benedict writes: “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 sisters; to God, loving fear; to their prioress, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
Postscript: An issue of particular importance to which we listened as a community last week was the anti-immigration law which was recently enacted in our state. In considering our response to this important issue we listened to Sacred Scripture, to the needs of our Hispanic brothers and sisters, to facts about the law, and to one another. We also listened to the Rule of St. Benedict which reads: All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt 25:35)… (Chapter 53,1). For our statement on this issue, please see our Community News page.