Dwight Longenecker believes that the Benedictine tradition is a source of inexhaustible wisdom for today's Catholic fathers
Iv hen my
eight year old son is screaming and slapping what do I do? Do I wade in screaming and slapping as well? Do I come down heavy with threats and retaliation? Do I opt out like a lot of Dads do — letting my wife deal with it?
A sixth century monk has some very relevant answers to the everyday demands of bringing up a Christian family. Saint Benedict's recommended form of discipline is isolation. Bad behaviour means the family member doesn't know how to behave in a community.
As a result he should be excluded from that conununity. So when I'm confronted by an eight year old who's lost control, I try to keep control myself, and isolate him from everyone else. 1 keep in mind that the severity of the offence should determine the severity of the isolation. Furthermore, once he is isolated I ask his mother or a brother or sister to go and cheer him up.
These are examples of the practical principles of fatherhood which permeate the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule of Saint Benedict may have been written for monks, but it offers a practical and profound rule of fife for lay people in many walks of life. The Rule's gentle wisdom and profound understanding of human nature gives guidance for ordinary Christian living.
Its principles for living together in community offer excellent guidance for the "domestic church" of the Christian home. Benedict says the Abbot is the father of the community. Indeed, the word abbot comes from the term "abba" which Jesus himself uses of his heavenly Father. The abbot also speaks with authority. He may he an earthly father, but he speaks for the heavenly Father. If Benedict's abbot speaks with the Father's authority he is also meant to rule the monastery with the heavenly Father's compassion,
self-sacrificial love and service. Benedict's abbot, therefore, presents modern Christian fathers with an excellent role model.
Benedict's principles for discipline are always measured and loving. He writes. "disciplinary measures should be proportionate to the nature of the fault."
Even isolation must be moderate and restrained. Elsewhere Benedict says his rule lays down "nothing which is harsh or burdensome." When somebody is punished, the abbot "should carry out with the deepest concern his responsibility for the brethren who fall into sin." He is to send another brother to console the one being punished in order to win him back in love.
In every case the Abbot deals with discipline in a careful and solemn manner, always being aware of human weakness, "he must bear in mind that it is the care of sick souls he has undertaken, not a despotic rule over healthy ones." This pattern of compassionate fathering may sound very modern, but it fits exactly with Saint Paul who wrote, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Fph. 6:4) The Christian father, like Benedict's abbot, must be flexible and loving towards each individual child. He "must adapt and lit himself to all...one to be encouraged, another to be rebuked, another persuaded, each according to his own nature.
"He must show the tough attitude of the master, and also the loving affection of a father." In every detail, Benedict's abbot is mature and balanced. always aware that he has a great responsibility, "The Abbot should always bear in mind what he is; and let him realise that more is demanded of him to whom more is entrusted."
Benedict's rule goes into great detail about how sixth century Italian monks live. We learn about their footwear, their clothes, their eating and drinking habits and how they should sleep. He advises how old men, children, the sick and the guests should be looked after: "all who arrive as guests should be welcomed as Christ." He also goes into great detail about the monks' religious duties, laying down which psalms they should sing during their services in church eight times a day.
All these details are interesting to read, but it seems difficult to imagine how they apply to busy 21st century families. Beneath all the mundane matters Benedict is making the point that the mundane matters. The details of what we wear, what we eat, how we worship and what we read are all connected to our Christian life. Benedict would agree that if Jesus Christ hasn't got into our daily life then he hasn't got into our lives at all.
Some people say the devil is in the details, Benedict thinks the divine is in the details. The details are important, but beneath them is a spirit of discretion and Christian dignity. From the rule we can draw conclusions that a Christian family should be well fed and clothed, with care and comfort, but not with vanity or greed.
Benedict sees material things as sacred, so the principles of the Rule help us have proper respect for possessions and the natural
world. Benedict wants the monastery to be a secure and welcoming place; so, too, the Christian home is to be a place where the whole family live together in abundant simplicity and look outward with warm generosity. Modern Christian parents can look to the Rule of Saint Benedict for a sane and balanced approach to life; an approach which applies today yet links them with a U me-honoured tradition.
The Benedictine motto ow et labore is a reminder that for Benedict work and prayer are fused into a whole life dedicated to God. The rule integrates prayer and praise into the most mundane activities in the kitchen, in administration or study. Likewise in the Christian hotne no task is too menial to be integrated with prayer. The drudgery of life and the demands of parenting can be transformed by the Benedictine spirit which sees each job as an expression of a deeper life of prayer and worship.
At the heart of Benedict's wisdom is the assumption that the Christian family is a community of prayer. He gives detailed liturgical instructions, but balancing all the rules, he speaks clearly about the need for prayer to be natural and from the heart. "Indeed we must grasp that it is not by using many words that we shall get our prayers answered, but by purity of heart...Prayer therefore should be short and pure".
he oratory is the prayer chapel of the monastery, and it should be kept free so "if a brother should have a mind to pray by himself, he will not be disturbed." For a Christian family, it makes sense to have a special place in the home dedicated to prayer time. If it is decorated with an icon or some candles and flowers, all the better. Every family will be relieved to discover that Benedict disapproves of long prayers. Prayer is better short and sharp than lengthy and longwinded.
Benedict's rule is infused with Scripture and, his praise is always in the words of the psalms. Benedictine family prayer should feature a formal element as well. A short Scripture reading and a psalm is ideal. Children love memorising portions of Scripture and establishing a responsory psalm for various times of day is an simple way to do this. For example, at the beginning of the day, the parents can say, "This is the day the Lord has made," and the children respond with "Let us rejoice and be glad in it."
The rule of Saint Benedict is a treasure chest of practi
cal wisdom on living together and loving together. Benedict's writings are not instantly accessible to everybody, but his principles are. There are plenty of books about the Benedictine way which make the bridge from the rule into ordinary life. In addition, the Benedictine Yearbook provides a detailed list of all the Benedictine monasteries and convents. The Benedictines have a great tradition of hospitality and a good number of the religious houses now offer retreats, conferences and seminars on the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Benedictine life.
Whatever a person's place in life, Saint Benedict offers a "little Rule for beginners". The principles of the spiritual life which he sets down do not raise us to the esoteric heights of mystical speculation. They put us down firmly in life right where we are. Benedict believes we should bloom where we're planted. God is to be found here and now, not there and then. He is found in the face of our husbands, wives and children. He is found in the terrible moments of family life as well as the wonderful moments. Benedict helps us to cope with the reality of life just where we are, and that is why his wisdom remains as fresh today as it was the day it was written over one thousand five hundred years ago.