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Benedictine spirituality: monastic living in ordinary life

Lynne Baab • Thursday February 4 2016

Benedictine spirituality: monastic living in ordinary life

Paul Wilkes, a Catholic writer and teacher, wrote a very helpful book called Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life. He describes his attempt to become a Trappist monk several times during his life. The Trappists are a monastic order based on the principles of Benedict’s Rule. Wilkes spent extended periods of time living at a Trappist monastery, hoping to receive a call from God to monastic life.

Instead he received a call to marriage and parenthood. He continues to spend time regularly at a Trappist monastery located several hours from his home, and the basic disciplines of monastic living have flowed into his everyday life, giving structure, joy, and stability to his family life and his work.

On one recent visit to the monastery, he was daydreaming during a prayer service. His eyes wandered up to a round window high in the cupola of the chapel. Bright white clouds danced across a deep blue sky, and he realized how well he could see the clouds and how bright were the colors because his view was restricted to a little piece of sky. He writes, “Such it is with the monastic life; so restricted, a small, pure peephole on the universe – but what a view! Profound, rich, more than enough for human eyes to behold. We need to restrict the view in order to better see the movement of God; by seeing everything, we see nothing at all.” He saw clearly that his own life, with all its wanderings until he settled down to family life in his late forties, was “living proof of that.”

On another visit, he was struggling with the tepid nature of his experience of God. He felt his prayers were almost always one-sided, too many frantic words directed to God with very few answers in return. He deeply wanted his faith to flow over into his life more and more, but he continued to experience irritation, lack of patience, and anger. He wanted a deeper experience of God that would transform him.

He talked with Paul, a wheelchair-bound monk, about his concerns.

“Don’t go at it so . . . so . . . frontally,” [Paul] said. “God will let you experience his love, but this is never to be desired. That would be prideful. In fact, it can be harmful to approach God so adamantly. Rather, I think,” he said, in a voice of tentative innocence, not that of an expert who as a monk had sought God for almost sixty years, “the whole idea is to cooperate with the little graces every day brings. God lets you know if you are pleasing him or offending him. Monks seek the supernatural, but that is rooted in the natural, in natural relationships, living within the ‘School of Charity.’”

Paul, the monk, goes on to say that we each have our own “school” in which God teaches us, if we will allow it. And that is the genius of the Rule of Benedict and the many monastic groups that follow it. Benedict taught clearly that God is present in everyday life; he speaks to us, teaches us, and gives us “little graces” as we serve, pray, seek to love the people around us, and try to be faithful to what God is teaching us and where God is leading us. Ordinary life overflows with God’s presence, and the disciplines of prayer, service, and thankfulness enable us to experience that presence.

We may have a stereotype of monastic life as somehow holier than our everyday life. In one sense, monks and sisters live a very ordinary life with mundane tasks to do. They are not superhuman or even super-spiritual. However, their commitment to prayer and to their vows enables them to live in a way that calls into question many of the aspects of ordinary life we take for granted. In this increasingly secular, sexualized, and materialistic culture, we can learn much from monastic living to illuminate everyday life outside the monastery.

This is the fourth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were

(Next week focuses on the first vow in Benedict's Rule: stability. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below.)

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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