By Denise Trull
Blessed feast of St Benedict.
It might be easy for us to admire Benedict from afar, being mothers and fathers of Catholic families. We might tend to skip over his life in our quest for more domestic patron saints. After all, what do we have in common with a monk peacefully ensconced in his monastery praying quietly in his stall? But I have discovered over the years, that this would be a real mistake, for St. Benedict can teach us much about strengthening our Domestic Churches. His wisdom has traveled far beyond the walls of his monastery, although he did not.
St. Benedict emerged out of the great mess made by roaming barbarians far from home who had come initially with armies to sack Rome and then had just stayed on. The world was in chaos -- with plagues, displaced people, roaming bands from different countries. A world power in the last throes of life. A most unstable place. Benedict knew that God could not dwell in a chaotic soul, or an unsettled, noisy heart. God dwelled in hearts that stayed put and waited for him to come, who made a place for Him. Benedict would spend his life making quiet, stable homes for God to dwell and he invited other men to do the same.
There were many monks already in existence at that time. Benedict probably had heard of them and studied their thoughts. When he was a young man, he was sent to school in Rome and became disheartened by the loose living and chaos he found there. He decided to travel to an out of the way place to find some peace. He took his old nurse with him and he settled in the town of Enfide, Italy. On his walks outside the town, he discovered the entrance to a gloomy valley that ended in a cave ten feet deep. Above that cave, built on the overhanging cliff, was a monastery where Benedict met a hermit monk named Romanus. Romanus spoke often with Benedict about his search for peace and prayer. Benedict decided to become a hermit like Romanus and accepted a habit from him. For three years he led the life of a hermit in his cave, praying and fasting and thinking. He became very holy and wise in those few years. So much so, that a group of monks near Subiaco whose Abbot had died, asked Benedict to become their father and he reluctantly accepted. He made many demands on the very lax community. The lazy monks soon realized that perhaps they had made a mistake. They chafed under his rules of prayer and discipline and plotted to poison him. But good Benedict prayed over the cup of wine they gave him to drink. It broke into pieces and he was saved. Another time, an envious monk put poison in his bread, but before Benedict could eat it, a raven swooped down and spirited it away.
Benedict soon realized that he could not put new wine into old wine skins. He started from scratch. He founded twelve monasteries in the vicinity of Subiaco that began to flourish. He ended by founding the great Monastery of Monte Cassino which lies on a mountain between Rome and Naples. It is through the experiences of these monasteries that Benedict grew to understand the power of stability. As he went from monastery to monastery, he must have begun to notice that each of them had its own ‘flavor’ and characteristics born from the particular personalities of the monks who had made their providential way to its doors. Even the land and the towns near where each house was built gave the monastery unique qualities different than those of the other monasteries.
Benedict always insisted that his brothers work the land and get their hands dirty so they would never forget that they too came from the soil and would return there when they died. They were to take the wild, harsh wilderness and use their intelligence and their understanding of science, seasons, and powers of observation to tame a wild earth -- much as they spiritually put their powers to work in taming their own wild soil -- their fallen human body and passions. Working the land and seeking innovative ways to preserve and take care of it were metaphors that gave insight into their spiritual lives with God.
One specific metaphor really struck me. It came through the making of cheese. Cheese itself is made from milk -- a substance that so quickly and easily spoils and is lost. The monks managed to devise ways of preserving it for the future through careful study and experimentation -- in the making of cheese. The cheese itself took on the properties of the land it came from. The kinds of herbs and grasses the cows ate gave the unique taste to each cheese. So it is with the Benedictine way of life. Each monastery, like each kind of cheese, has its own flavor. Each monastery 'tastes' like the monks who found their way there by the grace of God and who added distinctive flavor to the community with their own specific gifts, virtues and weaknesses. The outer reaches of the monastery -- the people and workers in the towns they settled near -- also contributed to form a wholly unique community in its service of God.
Eventually, Benedict would be so struck by this discovery that he instituted a vow of stability. It was important that each community grow up organically with each other and with the land that surrounded them, no matter what or where it was. The monks committed their lives to each other and to the place God had led them to dwell. By promising to never leave until death, they created a stable, constant environment for God to take root and grow among them. They had to face and contend together with any sufferings that arose. They had to learn how to make up for each other's weaknesses and to grow strengths within themselves by having to face challenges presented by their location. They could not run away from it or each other. Thus, love began to root deeply, grow and flourish upon this stable, unchanging soil made fertile by suffering and the burdens borne one for the other.
And this vowed dedication to stability is where Benedict can inspire our domestic churches. Each Catholic family is unique. Each family is born through the mutual love of a specific man and woman each with his or her own gifts, virtues, and weaknesses. The children born of this love are also unique. They add their own flavor to the family -- a flavor unlike that of any other family. They take on the habits and customs of the extended families from which they spring, the particular community of grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends that surround them. There is no one family the same, by God’s design.
Each family needs to understand itself. It cannot look to other Catholic ‘influencers,’ no matter how helpful and beautiful, to tell them how to live. What works for one may not work for another. So much agitation can arise by looking at others and saying: why can’t I be like them? We all do it. We wonder why our house isn’t bigger or better or in a different location. We wonder that perhaps life might be better if we move from the city to the country, or the country to the city. We think: if only our children had all the opportunities we see other families able to give their children. We might wish we had those go-getter children instead of the quiet dreamers we do have. We might wish we didn’t have such a difficult, willful child. We might wish so many things. We might just wish our life away while God is waiting to dwell within our particular Domestic Church and does not find us at home.
Each family must look within. It must begin to see its unique qualities. It must not continually ask: why don’t we? But must begin to ask: what have we? What have we to offer God just the way we are? It might not look like any other family’s life. It will be our own. Maybe we were meant to have go-getter children who will make society better by their energy. Maybe we were meant to have quiet dreamers who will one day paint great pictures or write poetry to honor the beauty of the divine. Maybe that grandfather is our very own because his love and prayerfulness are secretly meant to help nurture a vocation in one of our children. If we had moved away in pursuit of that elusive, perfect job, he might not have had that chance. Maybe that grandmother’s talent for cooking makes the family table so warm and appealing that love for meals together begins to root and reap benefits of conversation and laughter, inspiring us to hold dinnertime sacred in our own homes. Maybe that child with Down syndrome brings a chance for slow and sweet tenderness to root in an otherwise power-driven family. Maybe that single mother’s great energy and sacrifice are there to show her children how important it is to be utterly given to someone else the way their mother is to them. Maybe that difficult, willful child is being prepared to change the world for the better and to do great things one day, and we have been given the specific key to help them grow into their greatness.
Each family has its own jokes, its own lexicon of movies, books, experiences. Each family has children that will one day be fast friends if given the chance to grow up together over time -- friends that will help each other get to heaven in the way God planned.
There is another Benedictine custom that fits well among our Domestic Churches. Each monastery writes an occasional letter to the other houses telling of news, of vocations, of calves born, of crops lost or gained, of ordinations or deaths. These were sent to ask for prayers, to entertain, to bring fellow feeling among the monks in their vocations, to build love and support among the brethren. We, too, can do this. We can rejoice in each other’s unique families -- their gifts and challenges. We can pray for one another without trying to be one another. We can admire, lift a burden, laugh in fellow feeling at the foibles every family experiences. In this way, we will find the strength and will to be the family God has asked us each to be, knowing there are others out there doing the same.
Our Domestic Churches need to take their own vow of stability. To daily seek the will of God within their midst. To not go hankering after this model or that model of family life, but to rest in the will of God for them. To know He loves them for their particular qualities and gifts as well as their challenges and sufferings. He seeks to dwell among us. Let us always be at home to welcome Him.
St Benedict, pray for us.