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Benedictine spirituality: balance and paradox

Lynne Baab • Wednesday March 9 2016

Benedictine spirituality: balance and paradox

Esther de Waal, in her book Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, uses the language of paradox and contradiction to describe Benedict’s genius as he interprets the Gospel of Jesus Christ into everyday life. We are called to find God in this place and to seek the peace and discipline of stability, yet we are also called to grow and change and be willing to move. We are called to welcome strangers and accept them for who they are, yet we are not called to change our own priorities as we welcome them.

Many, including de Waal, use the word “balance” to describe the life patterns laid out by Benedict. We are called to prayer, work, study, and rest in fairly equal proportions. Each is important, but to overemphasize any one of them would be unhealthy. Benedict invites us to embrace the balance between community, where we live and work, and time alone for prayer and reflection. Benedict encourages us to engage in self-reflection without self-absorption and to strive for sincere repentance without dwelling excessively on our shortcomings.

Benedict calls us to a radical obedience that sees all of life as a response to God’s voice and God’s initiative, yet we are not encouraged to strain for that kind of obedience. In fact, Benedict encourages us to accept that we will fail as often as we succeed. We are called to believe that we have enough today, in this moment, while we also acknowledge that we are looking to heaven for our ultimate fulfillment. The grace of God overflows in every moment, in every place, and in every human life, and Benedict’s balance is firmly rooted in God’s character and God’s presence with us.

It is not surprising that so many people are finding joy and peace in visiting monasteries to pray and reflect on their lives. Many are choosing to be oblates, people who have made a commitment to be associated with a monastery without becoming monks or sisters. Benedict’s wisdom about a balanced life can give us restored perspective for our daily lives. His call to balance is particularly appropriate at midlife, when we realize we need to reevaluate all our scattered priorities and settle into a few disciplines that can serve us into the second half of life.

Those who are unable to visit a monastery may wonder how they can benefit from the Benedictine tradition. More churches and retreat centers are offering day-long prayer retreats, which can be a good way to start. An hour spent in an empty church on a weekday can provide a small taste of the silence and reflection that visitors to a monastery are able to experience.

The call to rhythm that is so much a part of monastic life can flow into our everyday lives if we are intentional. We can adopt habits of prayer that are connected to the events of our lives that happen every day. We can embrace the discipline of praying every day right after the kids leave for school, while we are waiting for the computer to boot up every morning, or when we get in the car to head home at the end of the day. We can read a psalm every night at bedtime.

As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate praying before meals and before bedtime. When I was younger, I viewed “saying grace” as a perfunctory, legalistic pattern of behavior. Because life has speeded up with each passing year, I can see more clearly that praying regularly requires disciple. Because I have grown in appreciating the riches that rhythms can give us, I am now deeply grateful for my husband’s commitment throughout our marriage to pray before meals and to have an extended time of prayer together on our Sabbath day.

We can also spend some time considering Benedict’s call to a life of prayer, work and rest with a balance of solitude and community. Benedict’s three vows – stability, conversion of life, and obedience – are very relevant for daily life. Any Bible study group or support group can use Benedict’s priorities as a structure for holding each other accountable. At midlife, in the swirl of seemingly endless activities, the balance inherent in Benedict’s priorities and vows can help us slow down and find the meaning and depth that we long for.

This is the ninth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
The second vow, conversion of life
     The third vow, obedience    
     Hospitality, service and work

Next week is the last post in this series, and it focuses on one woman's story of her experience with Benedictine spirituality. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab.

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(Need a boost in challenging times? Do you find it hard to navigate both sadness and gratitude? Check out my book, Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life, which encourages us to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. It guides us into experiencing both the brokenness and abundance of God's world with authenticity and hope, drawing on the Psalms, Jesus, Paul, and personal experience. It is available for kindle and in paperback, 80 pages. To see my other books and Bible study guides, look here.) 

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

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