If there’s one thing modern Americans have in common it’s that we are all individuals. We are individuals with our particular likes, dislikes, hobbies, desires, fundamental beliefs and convictions, and more. Each individual is to respect the other individual’s ability to create themselves as individuals as they see fit. We call this freedom (there’s an amazingly subtle conformity in all this, but that’s a different discussion). But what does this ‘freedom’ do to Christians? Is it actually good for our maturity in Christ as His Body?
Christians throughout history have recognized that to be a Christian is to be different. Often, this means we’re weird. We love enemies, we give generously, we care for those who the rest of the world says, “them? really? They’re not worth it.” That’s what God’s kingdom is like, to which we’ve been brought through Jesus (Col. 1:13). But does it feel easy to live in this kingdom in the midst of the world? Do we find the kingdom way to be easier to inhabit than, say, scrolling Facebook or watching Tik Tok or arguing about immigration policy or mask mandates or American political drama? Those other things seem to swamp our imaginations in very unhealthy and immature ways, pushing out the space to inhabit the Way of Jesus. True, we find ourselves in this country at this time, and addressing these issues is important. But we must always do so as Christians first. Which takes practice and formation and space to do so.
Enter the monastic tradition. Whatever you may think of monastic communities and their various failings or bad motivations (running away from the world), they got one thing beautifully right: serious and intentional Christian formation takes space and time and commitment. Therefore, we must prayerfully create spaces to do this. The world around us, in every context and time and culture, is deforming us in some way or another. This is painfully apparent in American Christianity. So what to do? Well, thankfully the cloud of witnesses has left us treasures to mine as a part of the Christian Story, which we and they inhabit. Saint Benedict is one of those witnesses.
Saint Benedict created one of the most famous monastic orders in the early 6th century, still around today and influencing many other monastic communities. He wrote a short outline of it (called The Rule, or The Rule of St. Benedict) and it is embedded with profound practical wisdom (all wisdom is practical, though!) for ordering our environment and life towards faithfully embodying Christ. It’s stable enough to direct us yet flexible enough to allow us each, in various contexts, to order our life differently, though towards the same goal (Christian maturity in Jesus).
Typically, life in monastic order consisted of a few main things: prayer, study, work, and hospitality. Strangers and travelers would visit, and the monks were required to receive all guests as if they were Christ Himself (p. 51). Monks would also be on a regular rotation that would involve manual labor. One week a monk would be working in the kitchen for meals, and the next week he would be tending the garden. As embodied creatures, the use of the whole body was crucial. There were also times for study and reading, for example, the liturgy or psalms. Most importantly, the day was ordered around prayer. Specifically, seven times a day in the Benedictine communities (Eight if you count the Vigils late at night). There are various other parts, but these are some of the primary foci of an ordered life. The result is a day shaped around key practices that St. Benedict says “prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his [the Lord’s] instructions” (p. 5).
We Anglicans have another resource that supplements the Benedictine riches: the Book of Common Prayer. Each home was to have its own BCP, with its prayers modeled after the daily prayers of the Benedictines. In effect, this turns every home into a mini-monastery! Families (whether Christian marriage with biological children or intentional communities or friends living in common, etc.) can order their lives around prayer in whatever way is feasible for them given their circumstances. You can even wear a brown robe if you want. What better way to give up our hyper-individual focus than to pray and live in common? To be oriented toward the same goal (God), one we haven’t chosen for ourselves, but that has actually chosen us? And what better gift to rediscover right now than the resources and tools to enter into daily rhythms of prayer and Scripture reading, the rhythms of work and rest? When structure becomes liquified around us, blending home and work and school into a mash of temporal goo, what better anchor than key practices (spiritual disciplines is the real term) that establish habits of heart and body that are oriented to our Lord?
“The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings” (p. 5).