Now That I Have Your Attention

Have you ever tried to teach a toddler? It’s a challenge for you and for them. You need to hold their attention long enough to communicate, but their interest is fleeting, and our noisy world is your competition. It turns out, they have much to teach us about ourselves.

Listening is difficult because it requires us to be focused and intentional.  We miss the mark when we think of it as passive and for many, it is simply being silent as they wait for the other person to stop talking.  It’s even harder to listen to God.  In her book Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insights for a Balanced Life, Lonni Collins Pratt wrote this prayer:

Holy God, I believe there are masters of vision, masters of peace, masters of wisdom and joy and love for me to hear. But my inward ear has been dulled by all the nonsense it hears and the cacophony of my world. I don’t know where or how to start but teach me to listen and help me believe I can actually hear you.

Long ago, Saint Benedict founded an order of monks who lived quiet, disciplined lives to intentionally mute the world so they could better hear God’s voice. Many people still retreat to their monasteries on day-trips or short visits to learn the secrets of their purposeful, simple existence. My friend, author Karen Wright Marsh (who will lead our Literary Life Book Club in April) did exactly that and found the experience instructive.  Writing in her wonderful book, Vintage Saints and Sinners she said

In view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the sisters of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels live together, worship together, and make amazing gouda cheese. I’ve set aside one autumn day for a silent retreat here, psyched for an intense encounter with God. As the nuns chant, I slip into the small chapel during morning prayer. I wander outside to read psalms, write in my journal. Five minutes in, I urgently need a snack. I walk to my car and check my email from my phone. I know, I know, that’s cheating. The next round of chapel prayer lulls me into an unplanned nap in the sunshine. Hungry again. I’m irritated by my failure to focus, to achieve my self-imposed goals for this spiritual field trip.

Meanwhile, the Benedictine sisters quietly go about the same routines they will follow tomorrow and the day after. Down in the cheese barn, elderly Sister Barbara likens her menial task to prayer, “like a communion with the Lord and what is becoming cheese under my fingers.” Did Sister Barbara ever feel as I do? Unmoored. When it’s time (finally!) to drive home, I turn the radio way up and roll the windows down, letting in the cooling Virginia twilight breeze.

Even though that little crash course in Benedictine spirituality was a letdown, it revealed the power of my compulsion to stay busy, keep up the pace. To change my outward habits and reorient my spirit to God, I’ll need more than good intentions; practice is the key. This is the wisdom of Benedict. To make a start, I resolve to go to bed at eleven(ish). I put a daily alarm on my phone, a reminder to pause for Scripture at nine o’clock. I opt for quiet over radio news on errands in the car. I’m starting with mini silences here, and my resolutions look distressingly small. Ah, well. God, help me to stop. Sit down. Shut up.

If any good can come out of the current COVID-19 situation, maybe part of it will include lessons we learn from the toddler’s time-out imposed on us. As Saint Benedict said at the beginning of his instruction book

Listen carefully, my children, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.

Psalm 46:10

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

 

BENEDICT AND SCHOLASTICA
Choose the Good Life

Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?
“EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.” WHAT A DULL CLICHÉ! Give me a thrill, a challenge, a climb. I’ve never attempted a marathon, but I do push my limits. Staying up late is a habit I perfected in school. Most nights I clocked three or four hours of sleep, propelled by wretched instant Suisse Mocha International Coffee. Exhaustion is a strange badge of honor, one I’m wearing to this day. When I cut sleep, I feed the illusion that my tasks are critical, that I’m indispensable. One more hour answering email just might buy me the compliment, “Wow, you’re so busy, Karen. How ever do you do it?”
Tonight the alarm’s set for 5:55 and a morning run with Erica. At best, I’ll get six hours of sleep, assuming I don’t wake up in the dark to rehearse the tasks I’ve neglected, the letters I really must write, the payment I forgot. Six hours. Any less and I won’t make it through tomorrow without a throbbing headache.
I take short cuts. While I pack Nan’s school lunch, I eat breakfast standing up, always the same coffee and toast plus a multivitamin. A protein bar at my desk keeps me going through lunch. Food and sleep are fuel I grab to go, commodities in short supply. My “efficiency” doesn’t give me more hours off the clock; it buys me more time to feed my busyness addiction.
It’s not my fault! It’s the times I live in! Obviously, a sensible, rested life was easier to achieve in earlier eras, back when things shut down at sunset. What if I lived in, say, the fifth century? There would have been no electric lights, no 24/7 wireless connection, none of the clamorous deadlines and pressure I’m under today. Clocks weren’t even invented yet. Seriously.
If I lived in the fifth century, I’d have all kinds of hours for uninterrupted prayer and meditation, out in the fields tending the sheep or planting potatoes. My family and I would sit around the fire, companionably telling tales and singing ballads. I’d be focused and serene, fully present in the moment (when not distracted by the occasional plague epidemic, itchy straw bedding, and a craving for steaming bubble baths).
Of course, the simpler times of the Middle Ages were anything but. The last Roman emperor was ousted by the invading warrior Odoacera in 476. Europe collapsed into chaos, a barbarian free-for-all of plundering by Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths. Under attack, the Christian church was ripped by conflict within. Glorious cities slid into decline, and the countryside offered little refuge.
About then, up in the Italian Umbrian mountains, the twins Benedict and Scholastica were born. Genteel Scholastica, like other girls of nobility, remained at home when her dutiful brother Benedict was packed off for Rome to receive his standard classical education. Once in Rome, young Benedict was appalled by what he saw.
Benedict complained that his privileged classmates were degenerates and that his rhetoric courses were irrelevant, each day a dull “cycle of studying and drunken partying.” Why waste time at school while the whole civilized world was falling apart? Barbarians were literally at the gates. Benedict grew convinced that any hope for his society would require God’s active intervention.
Disgusted by the excesses of his peers, the teenager considered his options. He had heard stories of earlier Christian desert fathers and mothers, those spiritual purists who’d opted out of Emperor Constantine’s complacent Christianity and rejected the easy city life to live apart in the Egyptian wilderness. They were Christians who’d stop at nothing to sacrifice body, mind, and soul to God. Benedict esteemed their self-deprivation as one way to express both great love for Christ and detachment from the corruptions of power and pleasure.
Without telling his parents, a classic adolescent move, the boy slipped out of Rome and headed into the hills in search of a better way. What Benedict had in mind was a committed life of solitude and dedicated prayer. For several years, Benedict lived secretly as a hermit. Eventually, word of his devotion to God got out. One raggedy band of monks begged Benedict to come and be their leader and he agreed, reluctantly.
From the start, Benedict insisted on disciplined austerity within the community. But it seems that the monks didn’t take well to Benedict’s rigorous standards after all. In a bizarre act of mutiny, they poisoned Benedict’s wine; his life was miraculously saved when the wine glass spontaneously shattered in his hand. Shaken, Benedict made a beeline straight back to the solace of his old hermit’s cave, which he called “the place of my beloved solitude.”

I imagine the arguments between Benedict and God then. Benedict claiming that he could do the most good there in his peaceful hideout. What could be better than praying for the world full time? God prodding him to get on back into faithful life with other Christians. Eventually, despite the toxic episode of the mutinous monks, Benedict ventured into community life once more.
When Benedict came out of seclusion around the year 530, he did it in a big way. He invited friends to join him up on Monte Cassino in “a school for the Lord’s service,” and he set up twelve monasteries of twelve monks each. His twin, Scholastica, left the family home to form a women’s community of her own, just five miles away from her brother’s.
From countryside and urban streets desolated by war and pillage, all kinds of followers joined Benedict: rich and poor, Romans and barbarians—even repentant Goths! Leading citizens of Rome sent their children over to Benedict and Scholastica to get them out of the dangerous capital city. Benedict accepted all applicants without respect to class or background, but he did require that newcomers commit wholeheartedly to two things: true love of God and unreserved obedience to the community’s regimen.
Life in the monastery would be no freewheeling utopia, but Benedict wasn’t about crazy sleep deprivation or extreme fasting either. Balance was the key. Benedict had the wisdom to see that the way we conduct our outward lives has everything to do with our inner spiritual health. The fact is, we need to be trained toward intentional habits that create space for God and for one another. When we’re left free to indulge all of our personal preferences and quirky addictions, we are bound to suffer.
With that in mind, Benedict laid down some everyday monastic rules. Growth in holiness and harmony in life would develop through structure: a daily, rhythmic schedule of work, study, fellowship, rest, and prayer. Centuries later, we still have the details of the routine because they’re outlined in his instructive text, The Rule of Benedict.
Benedict begins the Rule with a warm invitation: “Seeking his workers in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out and lifts his voice again: Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” Look, God lovingly offers the gift of salvation, the way of true life. Why not accept, obey, and follow God together? With a unified purpose in mind, Benedict’s code of conduct isn’t meant to be about spiritual heroics; the rules are only there to promote spiritual health and communal peace. Humility and obedience are needed to help heal brokenness and safeguard love.
Benedict sketches out the routines of a balanced common life. He tells the monks what they will do, day in and day out, sunrise to sunset, so that each hour is choreographed to serve God and one another. The community will gather to pray eight times throughout the night and day. They will read through Scripture according to a set plan. The schedule includes a siesta, daily physical labor, adequate food, and, yes, a regimen of a proper night’s sleep. (There it is—everything in moderation!)
Now, Benedict is not writing for spiritual superstars. He knows he’s supervising ordinary humans prone to oversleep and cut corners. Like an attentive parent, wise Benedict anticipates the smallest practical issues, even when it comes to sleeping arrangements. Some examples: Don’t sleep with anything sharp in your pockets (so smart—you could roll over and poke yourself). A nightlight should be left on (comforting, don’t you think?). Sleep in your clothes (makes it so much easier to get to prayers in the middle of the night).
All property belongs to the whole community, to be shared without complaining. Everyone is given two sets of identical clothes; anything more is unnecessary. Benedict wants to head off jealousy and resentment, so everyone does kitchen and laundry duty, no exceptions. Even dishwashing is worthy of respect: treat pots and pans just as carefully as the vessels at the sacred altar. Anticipating some disobedience, Benedict lays out procedures for discipline and restoration of wayward brothers.
There is true genius in the Rule, for the Benedictine monastic communities founded on those guidelines flourished. Benedict and Scholastica changed the face of Christianity forever. As the grim years of the Dark Ages wore on, their monasteries sheltered learning, orthodox faith, and even civilization itself behind their walls. Even today, fifteen hundred years later, monastic communities faithfully follow Benedict’s rule of life.
For Scholastica and Benedict, Christianity is so much more than an abstract doctrinal system. It’s a complete life. They followed Jesus wholly, with body, mind, and spirit. Living in their own frightening era of excess and imbalance, Benedict and his twin sister saw a good way to live: thoughtfully, peacefully, and in moderation. Community life held them in balance day by day, and formed them in love for God and one another.

Those twins from fifth-century Italy exemplify work-life balance, that concept endlessly discussed in women’s journals, business forums, and wellness blogs. Buffeted as I am by my whims and others’ expectations, I work too much, play too little, and pray too seldom. Scholastica and Benedict point toward the good rhythms of God’s creation, where days are ordered and busy but never frantic. And I sure would like to get some sleep.
From the vantage point of my overscheduled life, Scholastica’s setup looks ideal—the fresh country air, friendly collaboration in the kitchen, healthy meals eaten while sitting down, restful interludes for angelic chanting. I am drawn to a place where every day follows its own logic, where the deadlines are not up to me. (In my initial fervor, I gloss over the part about eight prayer meetings every day, attendance mandatory.)
When I take the time to read the actual Rule of Benedict, I find that it goes on and on . . . and on. My early zeal wanes before I’m halfway through the Rule’s seventy-three chapters, bogged down in the section on “The Number of Psalms to Sing at Each Hour.” Won’t the cyclical singing/praying/reading schedule get boring? Who would want to live with all these regulations, under someone else in charge? The Rule just might be for control freaks after all.
I feel my independent nature resisting, my busyness compulsion nagging at me, as I visualize a real-life Benedictine existence. To get out of another contemplative prayer hour, I know I’d sneak off to take care of something more pressing (overdue board reports, piles of laundry, an insightful Facebook post perhaps).
Joan Chittister, a Benedictine writing today, draws me back to the founders’ larger intentions. She says, “All must be given its due, but only its due. There should be something of everything and not too much of anything.” In other words, everything in moderation. That way of living that I find so difficult.
But I see the merit in what Chittister says. Christ intends for us to have a good life that lasts forever, where God is the center of our rhythms, where companionship, worship, and service take precedence over productivity and accomplishment. Benedict calls for a reorientation, so that “no one should look after himself, but each one should strive to serve the others in everything” with love and respect. A joyful existence with lots of time for God and one another. What could be better than that?
To examine my own habits in light of the life that lasts forever is unsettling, especially when I admit that my daily routines have something, perhaps everything, to do with my spiritual life. I grumble that I’m overwhelmed, so busy, but, honestly, I’m choosing the way I live. I skip reading Scripture when I’m running late. I work for ten hours straight. I rarely bring God into it.
Why don’t I just change my ways? “It is difficult to examine ourselves.” That’s an understatement. Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine, tells it to me straight, pointing to my jammed schedule as evidence of my self-centeredness. Johnson challenges me to “break the cycle of incessant chatter.” He says, “One strategy is to recover silence in our lives. Stop, sit down and shut up. This is simple and difficult.” Stop, sit down, and shut up? Certainly I can do that.
In view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the sisters of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels live together, worship together, and make amazing gouda cheese. I’ve set aside one autumn day for a silent retreat here, psyched for an intense encounter with God. As the nuns chant, I slip into the small chapel during morning prayer. I wander outside to read psalms, write in my journal. Five minutes in, I urgently need a snack. I walk to my car and check my email from my phone. I know, I know, that’s cheating. The next round of chapel prayer lulls me into an unplanned nap in the sunshine. Hungry again. I’m irritated by my failure to focus, to achieve my self-imposed goals for this spiritual field trip.
Meanwhile, the Benedictine sisters quietly go about the same routines they will follow tomorrow and the day after. Down in the cheese barn, elderly Sister Barbara likens her menial task to prayer, “like a communion with the Lord and what is becoming cheese under my fingers.” Did Sister Barbara ever feel as I do? Unmoored. When it’s time (finally!) to drive home, I turn the radio way up and roll the windows down, letting in the cooling Virginia twilight breeze.
Even though that little crash course in Benedictine spirituality was a letdown, it revealed the power of my compulsion to stay busy, keep up the pace. To change my outward habits and reorient my spirit to God, I’ll need more than good intentions; practice is the key. This is the wisdom of Benedict. To make a start, I resolve to go to bed at eleven(ish). I put a daily alarm on my phone, a reminder to pause for Scripture at nine o’clock. I opt for quiet over radio news on errands in the car. I’m starting with mini silences here, and my resolutions look distressingly small. Ah, well. God, help me to stop. Sit down. Shut up.

Karen Wright Marsh and Lauren Winner, Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2017).

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Rick is an ordained minister who is voraciously interested in the holistic transformation of people individually and in an organizational context - enabled by technology, educated continuously through multi-channel systems and informed by the wisdom of history's greatest thinkers. He is a Ph.D. student at Faulkner University, focusing on English Literature in the context of Classical Education. He earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Science in Management from Sam Houston State University. His undergraduate studies earned a BA with double majors in Sociology and Theology from Houston Baptist University. Rick is Deputy Director of PACES PAideia Classical School and leads the Parenting Teens Adult Community at Faith Bible Church in The Woodlands Texas.

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