Benedict was born in Nursia 480 A.D. died 550A.D.
Educated in Rome, he was appalled by the immorality of the city. Benedict fled to the countryside for solitude and perspective. He left to be a hermit in Subiaco. Other monastics were attracted to him and asked him to be their abbot. The relationship was a huge failure, Benedict was too strict and the monks tried to poison him. He left and established decentralized monasteries with one abbot each. Eventually he ended up in Cassino and founded a monastery that he remained in the rest of his life. There he wrote his ‘Rule.’
The rule is a combination of teaching on Christian virtues, the structure of the liturgy of the hours, the balance of work, study, eating and praying, and how to discipline the wayward. Key elements in the Rule and the elements I am most attracted to for our life together are the principles of obedience, conversion and stability. Briefly stated:
The word“Listen, my son, to the precepts of your master, and incline the ear of your heart, and cheerfully receive the admonitions of your loving father…” “Listen willingly to holy reading.”
Benedict had a close friend named Servandus, a deacon and abbot of a nearby monastery. They would meet regularly for an exchange of ‘sweet words of life.’ He and his sister Scholastica acted as Benedict’s spiritual ‘directors.’
Why is it so difficult for us to ‘listen?’ Who acts as a ‘father’ or ‘mother’ in our own lives?
“Prefer nothing to the love of Christ…hold nothing dearer than Christ.”
Is conversion a once for all experience or is it a lifetime of experiences?
“The workshop in which we perform all these works with diligence is the enclosure of the monastery, and stability in the community.”
A Benedictine monk promises to stay in his community for the rest of his life. Why is it so much easier to ‘cut and run’ from community—church, family, and other relationships.
Churches need that kind of discipline. There is a loyalty there that says, ‘I’m here in this community for the long haul. I will give without asking anything in return. I am not a customer, but a part of the body. Therefore, I give, without asking anything in return.’ One writer says, ‘The very gift of sacrificial giving defines what it means to love each other.’
All of our topics over the coming weeks will touch on these three topics—they are simply a subset of them. It’s really the Christian life itself: we listen and obey Christ in all things, we are constantly converted more and more to him, and we do it not as individuals but with others in the body of Christ.
I mentioned how easy it was to find biblical passages for the themes of Benedict. He ends his rule by stating that his rule is a guide, but nothing like the Bible. Today’s topic is ‘possessions.’ How simple it was to find, and I didn’t or won’t change the lectionary readings for our series—how simple to find what Jesus said about possessions in our gospel today.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
He then goes on to discuss the urgency and immediacy of the kingdom in comparison to possessions. There seems to be an exchange here—trade your possessions for the kingdom. He repeats this three times in Luke. In Luke 14 Jesus says pointedly, ‘So therefore, none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ Benedict says in his rule that no one should own anything, except for what the Abbot wishes. You only have what you need, you have a two habits: one to wear, one to wash—everything else, books, everything, belongs to everyone.
His Rule says, The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root…let no one all or take to himself anything as his own (cf. Acts 4:32).
This is the kind of thing we expect from monastics, but Christ’s words seem even more stout. ‘If you don’t give up your possessions, you cannot be my disciple.’
Joan Chittister says, “do I have to have the top of the line in everything? Isn’t it one thing to indulge myself in one aspect of life—my clothes, or my furniture, or my toys—and entirely another to do it in everything? The point is that once I begin to clutter my house with things that separate me from life, I have become unfree, a prisoner of consumption, a hoarder of artifacts…I have to surround myself with things that are not real and do not fill the inside of me or of anyone else. They own me now; I don’t own them.”
We can all in some way relate. It’s like the movie Wal-E that pixar did. Wal-E is a robot who is left alone on earth. The people of earth have escaped to space because the world has been filled with trash and junk. The Wal-E robots were created to dispose of it, but life on earth became unlivable and little Wal-E and his friend the cockroach is the only one left. But I don’t want to push you into a state of guilt and despair. What I want to do is give us a sense of spiritual awareness about this—this is the point of Benedict, and the book of Acts and the words of Jesus. The more you have, the more anxiety surrounds you and the more you have to lose. As Dostoevsky said, ‘blessed are those who have nothing to lock up.’ And St. Francis:
“If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.”. Also, Francis reasoned, “what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige. They are truly free.”
It’s not so much that possessions are bad, it’s that the more we have, the more we have to lose. This is exactly what is behind Jesus’ words, ‘give up all your possessions.’ His desire for his disciples was for them to follow him without holding anything back.
And his solution is actually just as important. Give what you have to the poor. Why the poor? Of course out of compassion and love. But also there is a principle of Jesus—give to those who cannot return the favor. And be free. Upside down reciprocity. Give to those who can never pay back or give back, give with absolutely no strings. It is not only freeing for the recipient, it is freeing to the giver.
This is what Jesus means by making ‘purses’ for the kingdom. The investment on your return when you give to someone who cannot return the favor is an investment in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not some ‘earn your way to heaven,’ just a principle of the spiritual life. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
If your treasure is your stuff then your heart is in your stuff. If you don’t have much to hold on to, then your treasure is in the Kingdom and in others.
So how do we get there? There is an instinct in us that looks at monastic principles and looks at the words of Jesus and we saw in our hearts, ‘yes, that’s true,’ but we have no way of getting there. The purpose of taking so many weeks to be looking at Benedictine spirituality is to help us get there a step at a time. There is inner work that needs to take place and outer work will follow. The first principle and goal is simply to listen to what God is saying. Then to act. Conversion of life is not a one time event but a slow process—almost like AA. With each of these topics we need to come to a point where we say: ‘I am powerless against possessions…’ and admit that to the Lord. I believe when we make space for his Word to penetrate us, actions will follow. I’m going to leave this open-ended and commend you to your study guide. The last step is an action step for God to speak and lead you. Some may be called to live in community or leave anything, I don’t want to leave that option out.
I close with a story about Emperor Charlamagne. Charlamagne was one of the most powerful Roman Empires in history. He actually ruled from France and divided the whole empire. The story is told that when Charlamagne died, he was entombed still seated on his bronze throne with his purple robe wrapped around him and a crown on his head, surrounded by his riches.
180 years after his death officials of the Emperor Ortho were sent to open his grave to loot the treasures. When the officials came to the tomb they found riches after riches. But they also found something quite unexpected. There was a skeleton sitting on a throne still dressed as a king–but there was an open Bible on his lap. The dead emperor’s bony finger was pointing to Mark 8:36, which reads, “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The more you have, the more you have to lose.