Saint Benedict: A Wise Guide for Living Well Today

In preparation for the feast of Saint Benedict today, Sunday, July 11, the Benedictine Primate of the Confederation of Benedictines, Abbot Gregory, reflects on the wisdom of Saint Benedict.

It was published in today’s Osservatore Romano:


Saint Benedict: A Wise Guide for Living Well TodayAbbot Primate Gregory Polan, O.S.B.

Can a text which dates back 1,500 years be practical for living well today? The Rule of Saint Benedict stands as a classic text of spiritual insight and humane behavior. Such classic texts often give us a brief word which has much to say to us. We live in a world and a culture that bombards us with words. Often there are so many words that shower and flood us each day that we have little or no time to take in their meaning and impact. The early monastic tradition understood the value of well-chosen and well-spoken words, as well as silence. In a moment of excitement or reaction to the comments of someone, how often have we regretted our immediate or less measured response? While we may have a well cultivated language, we often have a less cultivated sense of what is best left unspoken, or said in a measured and reflective way.

The opening words of The Rule of Saint Benedict offer an instruction that calls for an interior discipline. The text of the Prologue to the Rule reads, “Listen carefully, my child, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” As language has developed through the centuries, so have the number of words and their distinct nuances. The more words that bombard our hearing, the less intent we are in carefully appreciating their meaning, their impact, and their power. Yet in contrast to this, a few words, well spoken can touch the heart, lift the human spirit, transform the mind, give direction in life’s choices, and remain within us as a guide to fruitful Christian living.

We can carefully distinguish the difference between “hearing” and “listening.” We can hear words that are spoken; and they quickly pass on, often unnoticed and hardly considered. In contrast to this, when we truly listen to what a person is saying, this act implies our reflection on the impact of what is said, a careful consideration or rumination on the impact and meaning of these words. If we are truly listening with the ear of the heart, these words pass from the ear to the mind and to the heart. Often when we honestly listen to what is said, it asks something of us. Should I ponder these thoughts more seriously, question my motivations for what I am doing, reconsider what I am doing? And sometimes this contemplation assures me of the values I am trying to live. That command to ponder seriously is how Saint Benedict begins his Rule; this initial command serves as motto for the monastic life, “to listen with the ear of the heart.” But isn’t that also an invitation to anyone of us in the movement of our lives, our daily living?

In the Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament, the heart was understood to encompass a process and reflection of both the mind and the heart together, working in tandem. This was understood to be an endeavor of the whole interior of a person. Too often our reactions arise from an initial thought that comes to mind; rather, to begin with thoughts of the mind and then to reflect from the posture of the heart brings together a better and fuller expression of what is best. “What does this mean … what are the implications of what is being said … how does this challenge me to think differently?” Saint Benedict could challenge us in our own day to take on this process of “listening with the ear of the heart” in our decision making, in our relations with one another, and in our responses to the variety of situations and questions that come before us. What a difference this would make on every level of our human existence: within the family unit, within a business operation, among families and friends, among world leaders, among warring nations, among countries seeking peaceful resolutions.

Pope Francis presents to us an important challenge with his announcement of the forthcoming Synod of Bishops; the focus will be on creating a synodal process for the Church as it moves into the future. One of the key elements which can have an impact on this process of involving the whole Church in this endeavor is the act of listening. And Saint Benedict has something very worthwhile to offer to this – that this process will include a “listening with the ear of the heart,” as he begins his Rule. This calls for a great humility and openness to what another has to say, to offer as a suggestion, to seek a peaceful resolution. Could this person be an instrument of God’s will being manifested to us? A synodal process calls for great sincerity and a true sense of listening deeply, profoundly, lovingly, openly, and receptively.

This year the feast of Saint Benedict, one of the patrons of Europe, falls on Sunday, 11 July. His teaching in the Rule offers us a profound way of renewing our hearts through the manner of our listening – that is, whole heartedly. Imagine the blessings of peace and hope that could resound throughout the world if his instructions on the manner of our listening to one another could become a reality. Whether this special kind of listening is between struggling nations, warring political parties, religious leaders, and even within families, our ability of listen with a depth of respect for one another as children of God holds the promise of peace and blessing for all. Even in our day-to-day lives, “listening with the ear of the heart” holds out to us the promise of peace and hopes as we move forward into each new day. Saint Benedict, pray for us; help us to listen to one another with the ear of our heart (“Prolog 1, The Rule of Saint Benedict).

St Benedict

Today is the summer feast of the Holy Patriarch Benedict.

It is a day to heed the advice of Benedict: seek the Lord and listen to him. It is also a day to celebrate the feast with beer made by monks.

Benedict’s vision for monastic life is that the monk/nun live in community. One’s life in a stable, permanent community locates and lives the reality of the Lord’s Incarnation. We are keenly reminded that in Benedict’s experience human interaction shows an experience of Christ: the abbot holds the place of Christ; Christ in the guest, in the young monks, and in the seniors. Ultimately, no one is excluded in the Benedictine vision monastic life: every human interaction the monk/nun meets the Lord, in the flesh. This is keenly true for the Oblate and every other person.

I am remembering the words of Saint John Paul II had for the sons and daughters of Benedict: “May every Benedictine community present itself with a well-defined identity, like a “city on a hill,” distinct from the surrounding world, but open and welcoming to the poor, to pilgrims and to all who are searching for a life of greater fidelity to the Gospel!”

As with all solemn feasts in the Tradition of the Church there is an octave. It is a way to continue to enjoy and relish and to attend to the graces of the feast! Over the next 8 days how will you celebrate St Benedict? What grace will you beg from the Holy Spirit? How will you live the charism bequeathed to us by Benedict and his children through the ages?

St Benedict

Saint Benedict is a spiritual master who zeros-in on the key spiritual teaching of Christianity: nothing is preferred to the love of Christ. We do this by making a total gift of self, by a life of humility and forgetting self thus putting on the new person.

Saint Bernard’s only sermon Benedict says: “His holiness will preach to us, his offering of himself instructs us, his justice encourages us.”

Benedict and the charism he has bequeathed to us is demonstrated in one’s attention to the sacred Liturgy, an emphasis on charity and the practice of unconditional hospitality. All this leads to a peace that never fails.

The Rule of Benedict has the dimension of living in fraternal context. This was one of the points that the Cistercians promoted in their Charter of Charity of 900 years ago by Saint Stephen Harding, it is also the emphasis of many educational enterprises, religious and ecclesial communities, e.g., Communion and Liberation.

On this feast of Saint Benedict, let us listen attentively to the Lord and to the Rule of this Man of Blessing.

St Benedict’s feast today

Today, July 11, is the blessed feast of St. Benedict of Norcia, patriarch of western monasticism, and one of the patrons of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

St. Benedict gives inspiration to us not to build a frozen model of Christian or one that forgets the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Tradition of the Church.

Saint Benedict educates us by demonstrating for us not to prefer anything to the love of Christ. In the Gospel we here St. Peter say: “here is that we have left everything to follow you.” Can you say the same?

Let us hold each other in prayer through the intercession of St. Benedict praying for Fr. Carron and the Movement. Additionally, let recall before the Throne of Grace all the monks, nuns, sisters and oblates who live by the Rule of St. Benedict.

Benedict’s sole concern

The Church invites us today, through the figure of St. Benedict, to choose the path of an uncompromising holiness: to forsake our own treasures, so as to receive in  return the hundredfold promised by Jesus, and as our inheritance, eternal life.

If the Church applies to St. Benedict the reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus we have just heard, it is because it bears witness to the fruitfulness of the offering of one’s life. Already before his life of retreat, Benedict did not leave indifferent those who came in contact with him, as testified for instance by the miracle of the sieve broken and made whole. This shining forth led Benedict towards retreat, so as to consecrate himself to God alone.

But even under the bushel, the lamp kept shining. Benedict became the Father of Western monasticism, and also the Father of Europe. After Benedict’s death, Europe was to become covered by thousands of monasteries and priories. During unsettled times, they appeared to many as places of shelter, places where one could live reconciled with one’s brothers, reconciled with God, and reconciled with nature. In these schools of the Lord’s service, monks would dwell so as to serve God alone.

Were the times in which Benedict was living more unsettled than the times we are living in today? One could not claim that. Yet, it is certain that in today’s monasteries Benedict’s disciples still have to give the testimony of their faithfulness to the answer they gave to the Lord on the day of their solemn consecration, that answer which is the one the rich young man should have given, “Uphold me, O Lord, according to Thy word, and I shall live.” In return, the Lord promises not that which is merely just, but a hundredfold, and as our inheritance, eternal life.

This hundredfold promised to the monk is from now on already a life of fraternity inside the community; it is a peace conducive to seeking God. This hundredfold is also the grace to be able to gather to sing the praises of God in choir, or also to gather in the daily manual work.

Benedict’s sole concern was to seek God, and as he did that, he became one of the main evangelizers of Europe. Today, Europe has grown old, its faith has grown cold. In the eyes of our contemporaries, the world no longer appears as the splendid work of a loving Maker, but as the fruit of a cold and soulless chance. Although telescopes may bring our eyes ever farther towards the ends of the universe, our hearts no longer know how to consider our closest friend as a being who is loved by God, or creation as a gift to be respected. The eyes of our hearts have grown dimmer, and have eventually become obscure.

Amidst silence and darkness, the monastery bell should still resound, a messenger of divine Love in a world no longer able to love, a messenger of the monks, who pray for those who no longer pray.

Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault

St Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict
Who can measure the extraordinary influence that these few pages have exercised during fourteen centuries on the general education of the Western world? St. Benedict, however, only thought of God; he has thought only of souls desirous of ascending to God; he only wanted, in the quiet simplicity of his faith, to establish a school of divine service: Dominici schola servitii. It is precisely because of this jealous search for the unique necessity that God has blessed the Rule of the monks with a singular grace of fruitfulness, and that Saint Benedict has taken rank in the lineage of the great patriarchs.

Dom Paul Delatte, Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, Introduction, p. II.

St Benedict

Friends, a blessed Feast of St. Benedict!

“Help me, great St. Benedict, to live and die as a faithful child of God, to run in the sweetness of His loving will, and to attain the eternal happiness of heaven. Amen.”

Saint John Paul II expressed his sincere hope: “May every Benedictine community present itself with a well-defined identity, like a “city on a hill”, distinct from the surrounding world, but open and welcoming to the poor, to pilgrims and to all who are searching for a life of greater fidelity to the Gospel!”

Blessed John Henry Newman tells us: “We are told to be like little children; and where shall we find a more striking instance than is here afforded us of that union of simplicity and reverence, that clear perception of the unseen, yet recognition of the mysterious, which is the characteristic of the first years of human existence? To the monk heaven was next door; he formed no plans, he had no cares; the ravens of his father Benedict were ever at his side. He “went forth” in his youth “to his work and to his labour” until the evening of life; if he lived a day longer, he did a day’s work more; whether he lived many days or few, he laboured on to the end of them. He had no wish to see further in advance of his journey than where he was to make his next stage. He ploughed and sowed, he prayed, he meditated, he studied, he wrote, he taught, and then he died and went to heaven. He made his way into the labyrinthine forest, and he cleared just so much of space as his dwelling required, suffering the high solemn trees and the deep pathless thicket to close him in.
(‘The Mission of St Benedict’, The Atlantis, 1858)

St Benedict, the transitus



By your ascetic labors, God-bearing Benedict, / you were proven to be true to your name. / For you were the son of benediction, / and became a rule and model for all who emulate your life and cry: / “Glory to Him who gave you strength! / Glory to Him who granted you a crown! / Glory to Him who through you grants healing to all!” (Byzantine Troparion)

St Benedict’s Legacy on Work

Our Catholic Faith, I believe, has something important to say to the concerns of post-modernity, especially regarding matters of faith and reason AND faith and the public order. Work –our labor– is one of those things that Catholicism speaks eloquently about. We still live with the legacy of Marx and his kind when it comes to understanding the role and place of work. Contrary to Marxism’s theory of alienation, we would say, human labor does have meaning and there is a dignity to the process of work and the worker.

The following is an excerpt of a 1980 letter sent to the Benedictines by John Paul II on the 1500th anniversary of monastic life. John Paul writes:

Man’s face is often wet with tears impelling him to pray, but these tears do not always spring from sincere compunction or excessive joy. For often tears of sorrow and disturbance  ow from those whose human dignity is disregarded, those who cannot achieve what they justly desire, and who cannot do the work that suits their needs and talents.

St Benedict lived in a civil society deformed by injustices. The human person frequently counted for nothing and was treated as a criminal. In a social structure drawn up in orders, the most wretched were segregated and reduced to slavery. The poor grew poorer, while the rich grew richer and richer. Yet this remarkable man willed to found the monastic community on the prescriptions of the Gospel. He restored man to his integral condition, no matter what social order or rank he came from. He provided for the needs of each according to the norms of a wise distributive justice. He assigned significant duties to individuals, duties which cohered aptly with other duties. He considered the conditions of the weak, but left no room for easy laziness. He allowed space for the cleverness of others lest they feel hemmed in, or rather, so that they might be stimulated to give their best. Thus he removed the pretext of a light and sometimes justified murmuring, and brought about the conditions of true peace.

Man is not reckoned by St Benedict as a kind of nameless machine, which someone uses to get the maximum profit, providing no moral justification to the worker and denying him a just wage. It should be noted that in his time work was usually done by slaves who were denied the status of human beings. Benedict considered work, however it happens to be done, as an essential part of the life and obliges each monk to it, making it a duty in conscience. This labor is to be borne ‘for the sake of obedience and expiation’, since indeed pain and sweat are attached to any truly efficacious effort. But this distress has a redemptive character when it purifies a man from sin, and it ennobles the things carefully worked on and also the environment where the work is done.

St Benedict, leading an earthly life in which work and prayer were properly balanced, in this way happily inserts work into the supernatural way of considering life. By doing so, he helps man to know himself as God’s fellow-worker, and truly he becomes such when his person, acting with a certain creative energy, is enhanced in an all-round way. Human action is carried out in a contemplative manner, and contemplation attains a certain dynamic quality. It influences the work itself and throws light on the ends proposed for the work.

Work is, therefore, not performed solely in order to avoid the idleness which enfeebles minds, but also and indeed chiefly, to enable a man to grow gradually as a person mindful of his duties and careful about them. Also, talents perhaps concealed deep inside the person may be discovered, and brought to fruition for the common good, ‘so that in all things God may be glorified’.

Work is not relieved of its burden of the harsh clash of forces, but a new interior impulse is added to it. The monk is united to God not in spite of his work but through it, because ‘while working with hand or mind he continually raises himself to Christ’.

Thus it happens that even lowly and insignificant work is done with a certain dignity, and becomes a vital part of ‘that sovereign effort by which God alone is sought in solitude and silence, so that to such a life is added the vigor of continual prayer, the sacrifice of praise, celebrated and consummated together, under the influence of cheerful fraternal charity’.

Europe became a Christian land chiefly because sons of St Benedict gave our ancestors a comprehensive instruction, not only teaching them arts and crafts but also infusing into them the spirit of the Gospel which is needed for the protection of the spiritual treasures of the human person. The paganism which was formerly drawn over to the Gospel by the many hands of missionary monks is now spreading more and more in the Western world, and it is both the cause and the effect of the loss of the Christian way of esteeming work and its dignity.

Unless Christ endows human action with a constant lofty meaning, the worker becomes the slave –a special kind of slave unique to modern times– of profit and industry. On the contrary, Benedict affirms the urgent necessity of giving a spiritual character to work, enlarging the purpose of human labour so that it can escape the excessive application of the technical arts and the excessive greed for what is useful to one’s self.

(An excerpt from Pope St John Paul II’s 1980 Apostolic Letter for the Fifteenth Centenary of the Birth of St Benedict)

St Benedict –our Father

Sts Benedict, Placid and MaurusAt the Introit, we sing today on the feast of Saint Benedict:

Let us all rejoice in the Lord, celebrating the feast in honor of Benedict, in whose happy solemnity. The angels rejoice and praise the Son of God.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised In the city of our God, on his holy mountain. (Ps. 47:2)

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI wrote this about this man of blessings:

The obedience of the disciple must correspond with the wisdom of the Abbot who, in the monastery, “is believed to hold the place of Christ” (2, 2; 63, 13). The figure of the Abbot, which is described above all in Chapter II of the Rule with a profile of spiritual beauty and demanding commitment, can be considered a self-portrait of Benedict, since, as St Gregory the Great wrote, “the holy man could not teach otherwise than as he himself lived” (cf. Dialogues II, 36). The Abbot must be at the same time a tender father and a strict teacher (cf. 2, 24), a true educator. Inflexible against vices, he is nevertheless called above all to imitate the tenderness of the Good Shepherd (27, 8), to “serve rather than to rule” (64, 8) in order “to show them all what is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words” and “illustrate the divine precepts by his example” (2, 12). To be able to decide responsibly, the Abbot must also be a person who listens to “the brethren’s views” (3, 2), because “the Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best” (3, 3). This provision makes a Rule written almost 15 centuries ago surprisingly modern! A man with public responsibility even in small circles must always be a man who can listen and learn from what he hears.

Benedict describes the Rule he wrote as “minimal, just an initial outline” (cf. 73, 8); in fact, however, he offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today. By proclaiming St Benedict Patron of Europe on 24 October 1964, Paul VI intended to recognize the marvellous work the Saint achieved with his Rule for the formation of the civilization and culture of Europe. Having recently emerged from a century that was deeply wounded by two World Wars and the collapse of the great ideologies, now revealed as tragic utopias, Europe today is in search of its own identity. Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic and juridical instruments are important, but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise a new Europe cannot be built. Without this vital sap, man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself – a utopia which in different ways, in 20th-century Europe, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, has caused “a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity” (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990). Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.