Benedictine Wisdom for Church Renewal

Benedictine Wisdom for Church Renewal

A group in our congregation has started examining The Rule of Benedict as a source for our personal growth and for the renewal of our church.  We are using Joan Chittister’s book, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century.  In the book, Chittister provides commentary on each chapter of The Rule.  This Wednesday night, we considered Chapter 1 on the kinds of monastics.  What an odd place to look for renewal of a Presbyterian church!  We are not the monastic type.

The four types that Benedict describes are the cenobites who live in community under a rule, the anchorites who after living in community for many years are ready for a life of solitude, the sarabites who live alone or with a few others but without the intentionality or discipline of a tested rule, and the gyrovagues who are wanderers taking advantage of the hospitality of serious communities without taking responsibility for maintaining and nurturing them.  It is clear that Benedict believed in the efficacy of monastics living in community and under a rule.  Eventually, some might be called to a solitary life, he acknowledged.  But as for the freewheelers and wanderers, he carries skepticism and contempt.  He seems to be saying, “Don’t play around with the spiritual life.  If you avoid commitment and discipline, don’t expect for your efforts to bear much fruit.”

I don’t believe that the takeaway of this first chapter is that only monastics in community stand a chance of seeing God.  Jesus assured us in the Sermon on the Mount that all you need is purity of heart to see God.  He said nothing about joining a monastery.  But how does one gain purity of heart?  Is that a simple matter, as simple as joining a church and ascribing to certain beliefs?  I happen to believe that at the root of the decline of the church in the west is the failure of the church to produce pure hearts and life-changing knowledge of God.  People in the church don’t look much different or more spiritually attuned than those outside.  Sometimes they look worse because they are self-satisfied and judgmental at the same time–a really bad combination.

Maybe it’s because Joan Chittister is such a good interpreter of The Rule, but it became clear in our most recent gathering that Benedict’s thoughts about the different kinds of monastics was eerily relevant.  Churches don’t seem to create Christlike people.  Is it because we don’t ask much from people other than a transactional relationship?  Members provide money and some commitment of time and volunteer support and pastors and church staff provide religious services such as entertaining worship, messages which make people feel good, and education and fellowship for children so that they might turn out alright.  Consumer church reflects consumer culture and neither do much in promoting spiritual growth.  Consumerism claims that the customer is always right.  With this belief firmly entrenched in our consciousness, we have created churches catering to people’s endless desires and preferences.  We have abdicated the development of wise and sensitive leadership and looked for performance and showmanship.  Church ends up resembling politics and the marketplace–lots of hype and promotion, very little of integrity and substance.  No wonder people have grown cynical!

I was struck when doing a retreat at a Benedictine abbey last year, at how different worship at the abbey was.  There was no attempt to entertain, to cater or sell.  There was silence, reverence, focused attention on ancient texts and musical expression in the form of chants.  The focus wasn’t on the self and satisfying its wants and needs, but on quiet and steady attention on the Holy.  People weren’t chatting before worship.  Somehow the collective mindset was different than ordinary life.  We weren’t customers judging the performance of the monks.  We were pilgrims, hungry for God, longing for a Presence in the silence to touch and transform our hearts.  “How,” I found myself asking, “do we recreate this in the church?”

It may not be possible.  Swimming against the tide of culture is no easy task.  It starts with leadership having a clear vision and with a church becoming willing to let go of cultural models of church and to step out in faith that a new way of being church is possible.  The Rule of Benedict does not only address how to do worship, but it also addresses very practical aspects of living in community–the nature of leadership and relationships, the relationship between necessary work and the spiritual life, hospitality, humility, discipline and mercy.  Benedict’s genius is the rhythm and balance he sees as necessary for spiritual growth.  This is the insight that hit me with startling force at a retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault as she said that it is not enough to have spiritual practices.  We need a daily pattern and rhythm which binds it altogether and keeps us returning to God, moment-by-moment.

I found myself, recently, thinking that the wisdom of Benedict’s Rule would be a lovely gift to leave with my congregation.  I am in my last years of full-time ministry and I want to leave my best gifts behind.  So I am beginning to explore it with others.  I plan to work with leadership about this.  Our denominational polity requires every church to have an operations manual.  We don’t and I learned recently that we are in good company.  Administrative detail is not a passion for me.  Yet, I know that when I retire after a twenty-five year pastorate that there will much that falls through the cracks if I don’t think about the details of my work and the church.  The thought came to me: “what would an operations manual benedictine style look like?”  Suddenly, an onerous responsibility took on new life.

My sense is that there are some, maybe a minority but a significant one, that hunger for a spiritual path that will produce the fruit of change in their lives.  They long to be able to navigate their days without being overtaken with habitual reactivity or looking for ways to escape.  There is a longing to be more than we are, to live into the more that we sometimes sense that we are.  Some with these longings are already in the fellowship of our church.  They are willing to explore with me how Benedict’s Rule might guide and deepen our own journey to God.  Step-by-step, we are seeking patterns to bring us into greater awareness of God in our lives and in our church.  In this intention, The Rule of Benedict is providing true help.  It challenges and inspires, and reminds us that we don’t simply fall into growth.  Growth requires intention and discipline, and a community of others who share the same longing.

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