I first visited a Benedictine monastery when I was a theology student in England. I wasn’t a Catholic, but I was impressed by the beautiful abbey church, the austere lifestyle and the obvious dedication and simple stability of the monastic life. Over the years I have made my annual retreat at many monasteries and learned that St. Benedict’s fifteen hundred year old wisdom is as relevant and vital in the twenty first century as it was in the sixth.
In the sixth century St. Benedict walked out on the decadent, crumbling Roman Empire to establish small, intentional communities in the hills of central Italy. Men and women lived a simple life of prayer, work and study, and on that foundation the seeds of a great Christian culture were established. Rod Dreher’s recent book, The Benedict Option argues that the same thing is needed today. Sure enough, Benedictine monasteries around the world are enjoying a resurgence of vocations, but the principles of the Benedictine life are not just for monks.
Studying the Rule of St. Benedict, I discovered that the same wisdom that governs the monastic life can help me as a husband and father. I gathered some thoughts together in my book Listen My Son: St Benedict for Fathers. The three vows that Benedictine monks make are the first guideline for a strong Catholic home life and Benedict’s instructions to the abbot give us a more specific portrait of the strong and spiritual father.
A Strong Cord
The three Benedictine vows are like a strong rope braided with three strands. Singly they are weak. Together they are flexible, tough and can bear a heavy load. Unlike the Franciscans who vow poverty, obedience and chastity, the Benedictine vows to pursue obedience, stability and conversion of life.
While laymen don’t take these vows in a specific way, it helps to see that these three aspects of the monastic life help build a strong spirituality for everyone. As husbands and fathers, if we take obedience, stability and conversion of life seriously we will see many benefits in our own lives and in our homes. Furthermore, through the marriage vows we do make a vow for life, and for a marriage to be strong, obedience, stability and conversion are vital.
In our fast paced, technologically-driven, ambition and achievement oriented culture we need more than ever to set a different standard and pursue a higher calling. The vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life help to ground us and give us the focus we need.
Obedience: Listen My Son
“Obedience?!!” I can hear you say in a shocked tone. “Why should I obey and who should I obey?” Our society worships individualism. The secular world teaches that every man is his own master and the Frank Sinatra song, “I Did it My Way” is a kind of unofficial American national anthem.
Yet at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is the crucial phrase, “Thy Will be done.” The constant struggle of the human race from the Garden of Eden onward has been the battle between “My Will be done” and “Thy will be done.” Disobedience was the first sin and it is at the heart of every sin.
Therefore, right up front St. Benedict demands obedience from his monks. At first the monk must be obedient to the abbot—the head of the monastery. This obedience is expected to be instant and military in its precision. The abbot gives an order. The monk obeys without question. This obedience is designed as a kind of spiritual boot camp. St. Benedict teaches that the monk must learn to obey the abbot instantly so that when the Lord calls on him he will already be trained in the discipline of obedience.
You might say, “Who shall I obey? I am not a monk. I don’t have an abbot over me.” First of all we obey the word of the Lord expressed in the teachings of our church. We all have the Ten Commandments and the precepts of the church. We should all know the corporal works of mercy and the spiritual works of mercy. There is enough there for anyone to obey and to teach our families.
But at the heart of the call to obedience is something deeper. The root of the word “obey” means “to listen.” While we should obey with submission and joy we should also be listening carefully to understand more deeply the wisdom of the church. We should also listen carefully to the personal call of the Lord in our lives so that when he calls us to a particular task in the church or for our family we will respond with instant joy.
Stability: God is Not Elsewhere
When the monk promises stability he vows to remain as a member of one particular community for life. Although abbots may come and go and community members shift and change, he will stay put. Stability is the virtue that does not allow the monk to go church shopping. Stability means “God is not elsewhere.”
It is a great temptation in our mobile, consumer centered society to shop around for a “better” church. We think another pastor or a different youth group or better music or nicer people will suit us and our family better. Its not true. Every community has its strengths and weaknesses, and when we shop and hop from one to another we never put down the roots that are necessary for real spiritual growth.
St. Benedict calls us to be rooted and to bloom where we’re planted. Another woman is not the answer. We have made a vow to our wives. If we can’t learn the difficult lessons of love with the wife God has given we will never learn them anywhere else. The children we have been given are the work God has given. They are our challenge and our joy. Turning away from them for other entertainments or diversions will not bring us happiness. The work we have is where we will learn patience, perseverance and perfection. Hopping from one job to another, from one place to another and from one relationship to another will only lead to further instability and weakness.
Stability roots us not only in the everyday duties, but it is in those duties that we will find not only human love, but God’s love. God is there in the dust and dirt. He is born in a stable and walks the dusty roads beside us. Stability teaches us that if we cannot find God here and now we will not find him anywhere.
Conversion of Life: Transformation of All Things
The vow of conversion of life is not simply to be converted in a religious sense, but a vow to pursue the transformation of all things. Through obedience and stability, step by step, brick by brick we build a solid, secure and stable spiritual life. This life is then the fountain and wellspring of a good and happy life for ourselves, our wives and our children and grandchildren.
This prosperous life is not the result of seeking yet more money. It is the fruit of a spiritual life that is rooted in Christ, in prayer and in service. When we make this our first priority, everything else is eventually transformed. Our sexuality is purified. Our ambition is focused. Our pride is channelled. Our anger is calmed. Our addictions are conquered and our loves are converted into a greater Love.
Abbot: Abba Father
The Abbot is the head of the Benedictine monastery. The word “Abbot” comes from the same root as “Abba” which means “Papa”. St. Benedict’s rules for an Abbot are therefore a suitable portrait of the Catholic father in the home as well as the monastery.
In the opening chapter of his rule Benedict lays out what kind of man the Abbot should be. The father should realize the responsibility he has for the proper upbringing of his children. He should never expect them to do something he would not do first. Next he should not have favorites, but treat each one with the same respect and honor. The good abbot/father will be engaged with his children and the development of their virtue: using conversation, encouragement and discipline where necessary. He must always take care for them as a shepherd cares for his sheep.
Elsewhere in the rule St. Benedict stipulates that there should be nothing in the life of the monastery that is “harsh or burdensome.” The image comes across of a genuine Catholic gentleman. The abbot/father is fair, firm, kind but uncompromising. He is constantly engaged for the welfare of his wife and children and always with a spirit of loving service knowing that he himself will be called to account one day.
What Have I Learned?
My own children are now at college. I look back on my years as an active father and can only see my own failures. I have not lived up to the high calling as I wanted to, but on the other hand, the Benedictine principles did guide my own feeble attempts to be a good father.
Benedict calls the Abbot to understand and know each of his monks and to see them as a beautiful child created in God’s image. He works with each one according to his own gifts and personality. The abbot/father nurtures each one to follow the Lord on his own unique adventure of faith.
This is the final beauty of the Benedictine path of wisdom: that there is a rule, but the rule liberates. It does not restrict. For the family, strong guidelines are like the trellis that a vine grows on. The vine needs the trellis, but the trellis is not the point. The vine, the grapes and the good wine are the point.
The way of St. Benedict has given me a strong framework for fatherhood. I hope the wine from the vine will be good for the drinking!
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He was ordained under the Pastoral Provision which allows married former Anglicans to be ordained as Catholic priests. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.