THE GREAT TRADITIONS OF CATHOLIC SPIRITUALITY – PART I
AND THE BENEDICTINE TRADTION
I. Schools of spirituality are different ways of approaching God through Christ. They have similar elements, but combine them in different ways.
A. The different
traditions are all authentically Catholic, but focus on different methods
and emphasize different aspects of the faith. The traditions are
generally associated with specific religious orders (e.g., Benedictine,
Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit). However, many of the traditions,
such as those developed by the desert fathers, St. Augustine, and St.
Francis de Sales, grew among the laity alongside of the founding
of an order or even before there was an order to live them.
B. The different traditions use varying approaches, but there are many common elements to the traditions.
1. Keeping the
moral law is always crucial to any spiritual progress, for the moral
law is God's light and guidance that we may advance toward Him.
See, e.g., Matt. 7:24-27.
2. All of the traditions
recognize that humility, in such ways as openness to God=s
will, appreciation of the goodness of others, and the recognition of
a need for improvement, is the baseline, and that charity in prayer
must be put into action.
3. There is a
complementarity of knowledge and mystery. We are called to advance
in the spiritual life through understanding, but also recognize that
thee is a mystery beyond our understanding.
of the traditions have a complementarity of order and freedom.
There are both principles that discipline the human spirit, but also
a liberation to soar in the spirit. As Jesus says, AYou
will have the truth, and the truth will set you free.@ John 8:22.
5. All of these
traditions, being Catholic, are based upon the Bible and Church teachings.
6. All of these
traditions deal with the question of human suffering, and all of theme
recognize that sacrifice is needed for progress.
II. Benedictine spirituality focuses on growing through order and stability and the resulting peace with God.
A. St. Benedict, who lived from about 480 to about 547, and his twin sister St. Scolastica who died a short time before him, incorporated the great Roman heritage into the Benedictine tradition. This tradition was founded upon the work that came to be known as The Rule of St. Benedict.
1. Saints Benedict
and Scholastica were born into a noble family in Norcia, Italy amidst
collapse of Roman empire. St. Benedict was academically gifted, but
eventually wanted to be a hermit and work on his spiritual perfection
away from the world. However, other people who wished for perfection
found him, and he again became popular as a monk. After an unsuccessful
attempt to lead a group of monks, he established twelve monasteries
of twelve monks each near Subiaco. And then, he established a
larger monastery at Monte Cassino and wrote what would become known
as The Rule of St. Benedict for this monastery. And thus the Benedictine
order was established. His sister St. Scholastica, whom St. Benedict
said was much holier than he was, likewise led the women=s
side of the Benedictine order in a nearby convent.
2. The Benedictine
rule became widespread, particularly under the influence of St. Gregory
the Great (590-606), who had been the abbot of St. Andrew monastery
in Rome, which was run under the Rule or something very much like it.
3. Under the
influence of Charlemagne in the early ninth century, the Benedictine
order became the central style for monasteries in Western Christianity.
4. In the tenth
and eleventh centuries, there were several reforms of the Benedictine
order. Thus, for example, although Benedictine monasteries usually
run themselves with little central leadership from outside, the monastery
at Cluny, France would lead a reform, which other monasteries were glad
to join. The Cistercian and Trappist orders would likewise spring
from the Benedictine order, emphasizing simplicity and contemplation
even more. The likes of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Aelred,
come from the Cistercian order.
B. Benedictine spirituality very much emphasizes orderly, patient progression in prayer and work. There is a focus on setting a time set for all things and keeping a schedule. One is neither neglectful nor impatient in work and prayer, but simply puts forth one=s best efforts and accepts the results.
1. In a Benedictine
monastery, life is very regulated, with a time for everything, such
as prayer, work, sleep and even recreation and one=s own projects. There is a great
freedom from worrying about what to do. One may be doing the same
things or praying similar prayers day after day, and week after week,
but one does them more and more carefully.
2. Although regular
life for most people cannot be so carefully and precisely ordered, there
should be a sense of allocating time on projects, not spending too much
time on things one likes (e.g., entertainment, dealing with pleasant
people) , nor too little on things that are less entertaining, such
as administrative tasks or tedious people. Such an allocation,
or budgeting, of time is not only helpful in accomplishing things, but
also helps us overcome our self-will and be guided more by God.
C. Central in Benedictine prayer is lectio divina, a slow, prayerful way of reading Scripture and other holy works.
1. This type
of prayer varies in detail among people who use it, but it involves
common elements. First, one reads a Biblical or other spiritual
passage, perhaps a miracle, a prophesy, or a half a chapter in an epistle,
once as usual. Then one prays over it, trying to gain insights
and applications. One then reads the passage again slowly in context
of that prayer and then prays over it again, concentrating attention
even further. On then prays over the passage a third time, perhaps
trying to develop applications to one's life or resolutions to carry
2. One progressing
through a book of the Bible or other spiritual work carefully in this
fashion. There is no rush; the desire is for deep wisdom.
3. Eventually one comes to "enjoy holy reading" as one's own will comes more in tune with God's. St. Benedict emphasized that, by reading Scripture and the works and lives of saints carefully, we become attracted to their example.
D. Benedictine spirituality emphasizes order by the careful use of time. As the Rule says in chapter 48, "Idleness is the enemy of the soul."
1. There is,
consistent with the schedule and the faith, a certain liberty of thought
about such things as what to pray about or what books to read.
And St. Benedict did emphasize that each person's individual talents
should be developed. But there is an emphasis on finishing what
one starts with consistent effort and avoiding giving into distractions.
2. For example,
in chapter 48, which deals with sacred reading, but is applicable generally,
St. Benedict says that people should be especially on guard against
those who are "slothful, lazy or gossiping, profiting little himself
and disturbing others." There is a great caution against neglecting
prayers or work, even for a short time, simply because something else
seems more attractive, or one's work is getting dull. That attitude
leads to opportunities for sin, as well as an inability to focus on
3. One of the
Benedictine mottos is "Ora et labora," i.e. "work and pray."
The steady application of labor disciplines the soul and allows one
to pray better. St. Benedict then describes prayer as "the work
of God." Part of the wisdom for today is that: (1) our daily
labor can help us build such virtues of discipline, patience, and humility
that are helpful in prayer; and (2) those virtues of dedicated labor
that are so valuable in earning a living in the world should be applied
with even greater vigor to the spiritual life.
E. Benedictine spirituality focuses heavily on praying, working and learning carefully and attentively. The Benedictines sing much of their prayer, and emphasize the Mass and the Divine Office, the common prayer of the whole church.
1. The idea is
to focus on what one should be doing, as one is doing it, and trying
as much as possible to stay with it for the time planned, rather than
jumping from one project to another whenever one's attention wanders.
2. This tradition
would avoid what we now call multi-tasking, instead concentrating on
the work or prayer (or lawful pleasure) of the moment.
should instead be a peacefulness in that clear focus on the duty at
hand. Another of the Benedictine mottos is simply "Pax," or
F. In one sense, Benedictine life is very hierarchical, insofar as there is a great deal of willingness to accept governing rules and authority. But it is recognized that this hierarchy is for order and stability and the conquest of selfish pride, not for the sake of honoring power. St. Benedict strongly emphasized that a higher rank does not make one holier and that the Holy Spirit can speak through anyone.
1. In his Rule,
St. Benedict very much calls for obedience to officers, assuming that
what they say is in accordance with the law of God. However, near
the beginning of the Rule, he is strictest on those in charge saying
that they will be responsible to God for laxity that they could have
prevented. He adds in chapter 21 that officers should be removed
in they persevere in showing arrogance.
G. Overall, the regular progress in life, focusing attention on the project at hand, and recognizing the need for obedience all help us overcome our false selves, which result in being dominated by desire, and bring us to the true joy of heaven.
1. St. Benedict
thus begins by addressing his Rule to all "who laying aside your own
will take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight
under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ." And he ends the
Prologue saying that "as our lives and faith progress, the heart expands
and with the sweetness of love we move down the paths of God's commandments.
. . We patiently share in Christ's passion, so we may eventually enter
the Kingdom of God."
2. In chapter
7, St. Benedict describes the need for humility, beginning with obeying
God's commands. This humility enables one to accept all things
that come one's way as leading to salvation. And eventually
leads one "no longer [to] act out of the fear of Hell, but for
the love of Christ, out of good habits and wit a pleasure derived from
1. The Rule
of St. Benedict, which was the only written work of St. Benedict
that survives today.
Four Dialogues and the sermons of St. Gregory the Great. The
Dialogues include a number of accounts from the early centuries
of the Church, including a life of St. Benedict.
3. On the
Love of God and The Steps of Humility and Pride by St. Bernard
of Clairvaux, the most preeminent Cistercian/
4. The Seven
Story Mountain and Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton,
a convert and a Trappist of the twentieth century. Although some
of Thomas Merton's life, even as a monk, was troubled, his insights
have bee considered profound.
5. Sacred Reading: The Art of Lectio Divina (1996) by Michael Casey, a Cistercian from Australia.