What do all these particulars – this ‘matter’ – have to do with Benedictine life? A lot! While a spiritual reality – seeking God – is the driving force that undergirds all we do, we live our lives surrounded by ducks, coffee cups, door knobs, fragile plants, and a thousand other material things. And most importantly, other people!
Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, once wrote of “the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”* While her context was literature, the concept applies well to monastic life.
Our Benedictine way of life is both profoundly spiritual and deeply incarnational. It is within Christ that “we live and move and have our being.” Yet we also move amidst the ‘matter’ of life, and amongst one another and those with whom we minister. This “contact with reality” is in service to something greater, to the mystery of God’s call and our life in Christ. This mystery, in turn, transforms our daily work into something beyond the mere accomplishment of tasks.
In his Rule for monks, St. Benedict addresses both the spiritual and practical dimensions of monastic life. Long sections deal with practical details of life in community, yet the practicalities are always placed within the context of the Gospel, the priority of prayer, and our ultimate goal of “hastening toward our heavenly home.”
O’Connor’s perceptive comment describes well the deep relationship between the spiritual and practical dimensions of life in the monastery.
*With a tip of the hat to Flannery O’Connor. The essay referenced is “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in a collection entitled Mystery and Manners.