Follow the Rule
St. Benedict offers road map for human formation, virtuous living
When I knocked on the doors of St. Meinrad Archabbey as a young novice in my early 20s, I never would have imagined that the Rule of St. Benedict would be so instructive to my life as a future priest. I was drawn to the life of monasticism by the witness of my Benedictine pastor on Long Island, New York, the celebration of the liturgy and the organic life of Christian community. But there was much more to come under this time-tested Rule, which became the road map for thousands of saints through the centuries. Indeed, I think that St. Benedict’s emphasis on human formation and Christian virtues speak powerfully to contemporary priests of all ages. Here are three that I understand as being of primary importance to the ministerial priesthood.
St. Benedict regards listening as the gateway to conversion. Remaining radically open to God’s word becomes the crucial instrument of our growth in the Spirit. There are some virtues that we may not possess as priests, but I hope we are never hard of hearing. Listening will make us better servant leaders, because sharpening our ears to Scripture and the pastoral needs of the people we serve in the confessional, at parish council meetings and in everyday encounters will foster collaboration and a compassionate heart. When I hear the opening word of the Rule, “Listen,” I am reminded of God’s iconic encounter with Moses in Exodus in which the Lord says that he has heard the cry of his people and desires to lead them into freedom (cf. Ex 3:9). No wonder St. Benedict urges us to listen with “the ears of our heart.”
Our ability to hear deeply in prayer and in our pastoral ministry cultivates the gift of humility. How? St. Benedict’s celebrated “Ladder of Humility” in Chapter 7 builds on a constant awareness of God. That means letting go of our need to control and leaning into a consciousness of God’s providential care. When we pray “Thy will be done” every day at the Eucharist, we mirror our identity as an alter Christus; it means being aware of God’s ongoing action in my life as we live out of the core of our identity of the Son speaking the word of thanksgiving back to the Father. On a personal level, I think this call to humility has asked me to be more transparent and authentic in prayer. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours takes on a new meaning by being emotionally available to the anguish and the joys of the psalmist’s cries to God. Allowing God to transform my prayer has helped me to be more present to others in my teaching, preaching and pastoral ministry and in the life of community. Humility invariably involves the process of self-knowledge and self-compassion. These seminal religious dispositions will lead us by the Spirit into the very heart of Christ.
St. Benedict thought deeply about how we might return to God not in some abstract way, but by the very pattern of the complete self-offering Christ revealed to us in the mystery of the Incarnation. So obedience becomes the lifeblood of how we offer ourselves up to God. Certainly we promise obedience in our vows at ordination. Every good priest knows that when asked to make a move by his ordinary he will bring this vow to the forefront of his discernment. But as I tell the novices, obedience is practiced every day and not just when we are asked to do an important task. Moreover, Chapter 71 asks the monk to practice “mutual obedience” with confreres. What would that virtue look like at the next presbyteral assembly or convocation as we honor one another in mutual respect and love? The Rule “On Obedience” makes clear that unhesitating obedience is the hallmark of humility. All God asks is our consent as a self-gift. What better virtue can we bring to the altar of our lives than that?
FATHER GUERRIC DEBONA, OSB, is a monk and priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey and a professor of homiletics.