The Benedictines were the most resilient form of Christian community for some thousand years.
A communal experiment
Benedict began his communal experiment around the year 525. This adventurous young man had nearly 200 years of monastic wisdom to turn to. He knew the desert fathers particularly well, and had also learned of some of the organised communities that had sprung up across southern Europe.
But on a rocky hill (Monte Cassino) about 130 km southeast of Rome, he put together a new plan for monastic life that fitted the needs of his own place and time - the Rule of St Benedict is what we call it today.
A grim period for the church
It was a grim period for the church, with Rome under the control of one barbarian kingdom after another, and many leaders compromised by false teachings concerning the dual nature - God and man - of Christ. Italy and much of Europe was, in effect, the scene of constant power struggles within both church and society. For this reason, and, more personally, to work out his own salvation, Benedict founded what would become the most important expression of Christian community for centuries to come.
In a complex and troubled world, he happened on a very simple idea: 'we are about to open a school for God's service', he declared in the prologue to the Rule. He added: 'As our lives progress, the heart expands and with the sweetness of love we move down the paths of God's commandments.'
A communal endeavour
His expression of the gospel was a communal endeavour, focused on spiritual growth and serving God out of love. Benedict referred to it as a 'guidance of souls'. While the lonely outpost of Monte Cassino seemed, at first, irrelevant to the troubling social and political realities of the day, it soon became a major attraction to those seeking spiritual renewal, wholeness and, yes, stability. Even the barbarian kings came to witness the distinctive life of the monastery.
The community formed by the Rule was profoundly relevant - the only reminder, over vast stretches of time and place, that there was such a thing as life in the kingdom of God 'under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ'.
An old idea
Organised community life was not a new idea. It was a natural response to what the earliest Christians referred to as the 'way of the apostles', as expressed in Scriptures like:
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.
1 Peter 1.13
if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
1 John 1.7
The apostle Paul called this
training in righteousness
2 Timothy 3.16
and it was taken very seriously by those who thought that following Jesus changed everything. Benedict had thought long and hard about what this sort of conversion required. After some trial and error, he developed the tools, the patterns and practices needed to walk with Jesus on a day-to-day basis in the company of fellow disciples.
Living well together
He laid out in detail how to live well together. The details span the areas of worship, work and the reading and study of Scripture. Ultimately, a daily rhythm of these activities formed an alternative culture that expressed what one Benedictine scholar has called 'the love of learning and desire for God'. The seven-fold pattern of prayer in a daily cycle was the most conspicuous feature of the new model.
Participation in liturgy
Participation in the carefully structured liturgies was crucial because it was there that a certain kind of knowledge of God was gained. Some call this 'participatory knowledge', because it is about a way of knowing God that comes through the visual, symbolic and embodied actions of worship. This knowledge doesn't come individually, but corporately, and is the product of the careful co-ordination or synchronisation of spirit, mind and body. What is most interesting about this kind of knowledge is that it is more implicit than explicit and it comes by being involved as whole persons. It picks up on rhythms, patterns and structures, and internalises them so that we are shaped or conformed to the reality they all point to.
For Benedict, this reality was God's love. By entering into the whole experience of the 'hours', we come to know more deeply of our relationship to God and each other. That is because the liturgy orders these relationships through its unique way of listening to the living Word in the written words of Scripture. In the Eucharist, our relationships are also formed by the tangible hospitality and sign of divine graciousness that we taste and see at the holy table.
An alternative script
Benedict urgently wanted Christians to find an alternative script to that of the violence and confusion of the world beyond the monastery. He knew, as did the apostles, that we need a different kind of awareness - an attentiveness to the grace of God, the light of Christ and the peculiar sort of fellowship that only the Holy Spirit makes possible.
All the details we encounter in the Rule produce this awareness of the Triune God in action, and the results are quite astounding. Each member of the community becomes more attuned to the needs of others, more pliable in their will, and more discerning of what God is up to and how we might enjoy his transforming presence. There is a fresh sense of perspective here - of the order of things and the relation of parts to wholes. Some call this wisdom, and it is a hallmark of Benedictine life to this day.
What an impact
What an impact Benedict had! It was one of his greatest admirers, Pope Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine, himself a Benedictine monk, on that great rescue mission to southern England. In today's violent and confusing world, many weary souls find a peaceful sense of order and spiritual truth in the cloisters of monastic communities.
This is yet another fresh expression of the church that incarnates the gospel with transformational, disciple-making vigour in an intensely relational atmosphere of divine love.