What contributions has Benedict made to society?—a presentation by Joanne Kollasch, OSB to the Benedictine Women of Madison Board of Directors, July 26, 2016.
I owe a great deal to Mary Collins, OSB for my reflections with you today. Scholars may continue to argue whether Benedict was counter-cultural or not. Settling this question doesn’t really matter so much because, from the beginning, the monastic way of life involved a re-valuation of persons, things and time, according to a set of standards that are different from those of the dominant culture. Monastic re-valuation can be clearly seen in the Rule of Benedict.
Persons were re-valuated not by social stratification of the Roman Empire, but the time of conversion, the time when they came to the monastery. They were valued by their humility, by their good works. For Benedict, those who lack public recognition—the sick, the marginal, the stranger—are the special ones. He says the rich automatically receive all kinds of attention, but the poor, the marginalized, they’re the people we have to watch for and look out for. In a Benedictine community, all persons are listened to for their truth. All persons—the beginners, the elderly, the scholars, the lay members—all are to be listened to because Benedict believed every person had something of the truth. Each person is gifted from God, in their person, in some way. Every person has some gift to share.
The monastic way of living also involves the re-valuation of things. The things of the sanctuary and the altar—these were certainly considered sacred. But with Benedict, anything that the monk used was considered sacred—anything handled by the monk. So there were books and tools, and the Rule talks about how you handle the books, how you treat the tools. There is no secular/sacred dichotomy in the Rule.
And how is time re-valuated? None is exaggerated or has priority, but there is a balance. There is time for communal life, time for daily manual labor, time for lectio divina, time for communal praise of God. When I’m talking to novices or candidates, I often say we don’t sleep all day, or pray all day, or work all day, but we have a balance of time.
What is the outcome of this re-valuation? There is greater wholeness in people. The whole person is developed. There is a greater simplicity because we aren’t all manual work and we aren’t all intellectual work. Someone has said, Benedictines are scholars with dirt under their fingernails. The scholar, too, must learn to balance physical work with mental or spiritual or intellectual work. So the outcome is a wholeness for people, a simplicity.
This re-valuating is prophetic, because it creates a new perception of reality. It was prophetic to people in a dying Roman Empire; it is prophetic today in our culture. Re-valuating can create a new perception of reality where humanness has been lost. Benedictine life, at its best, supports the truly human.
Something of God’s judgement is put forth and established on the disorder of society. That is also the prophetic. Monastic life refuses to cooperate with the arrogant use of power, preferring non-violent confrontation with demonic forces of bondage. Rather power comes from the word of God to expose sin and condemn it.
And, finally, there is the power of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. Benedict writes in the Rule that the Prayer of Jesus is said morning and evening so that the community has a chance to forgive one another and any faults that have arisen among community members. And so, every morning we say “we will forgive, because God has first forgiven us,” and the same thing at night. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation become powerful forces in community. There is trust in the power of God and the strength of God to overcome our fear. For Benedict, and for us today, the monastery is a school of learning to break the power of violence.
Mary Collins, OSB is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, KS, a liturgical scholar and scholar of the Rule of Benedict.