PC: Starting with Benedict

Here’s the first chunk of Psalming Christ. If I’m trying to make the argument that modern readers should consider the use of a sixth century commentary to enhance their spiritual lives, I’ve got to make the case up front. I’m connecting it into my own way of getting into the topic: an appeal to a Benedictine-infused spirit…


When I was in my late twenties, my wife, a friend, and I squeezed into my pickup truck and headed out on a weekend road trip. Where to—a concert or a festival? Actually, no. Although we did (and still do) like to go to those things, our destination was rather different. This was a four-plus hour road trip from Columbus, Ohio to the Abbey of Gethsemani: the Cistercian monastery outside of Louisville, Kentucky where—among others—Thomas Merton had lived and written. We stayed in the guest quarters, attended the round of daily prayer offices, read in the library, and hiked in the fields around the abbey. We attended mass each day, but observed rather than receiving because we none of us were Roman Catholics. At that time we were two Lutherans and an Episcopalian (all three of us are Episcopal now) and yet there we were. We were drawn to a place and a feeling and an experience that our theological traditions had, during the Reformation, denounced as an aberration of Christian life and practice. Nor were we alone, either: among the several visitors were others from a number of Christian bodies and even some agnostics seeking for something deeper.

What would cause otherwise normal Protestant young adults to seek out a place that our Protestant traditions had reviled?

For me it was part of a spiritual journey that I had been on for several years. As a young Lutheran college student I had encountered Kathleen Norris’s Dakota and Cloister Walk. A Presbyterian coming back to faith, her meditations on the spirituality she had discovered in the high plains of the Dakotas struck a deep chord within me. Her encounters with Benedictine monks, their spirituality, and the endless round of psalms and canticles with which they construct their life inspired me with a vision of the faith unlike anything I had known before. A college-intensive led by a fierce and formidable Benedictine nun from the Twin Cities didn’t satisfy my hunger, only whetting my appetite to learn more. And, as a final-year seminarian feeling restless and ill-at-ease in my Lutheran tradition, my future was decided when, in the undercroft of a small Episcopal church, I heard the rector explain that the psalm-centered rhythms of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer were the heritage of the Benedictine spiritual system granted to the whole church—not just a special subset within it. To steal John Wesley’s famous phrase, my heart was strangely warmed and I knew not only that I had found my spiritual home but also why: these rhythms answered that deep call I had heard for years.

That’s just my experience. Over the years I have heard many similar stories. I have discovered a wealth of literature for Christians who aren’t vowed to religious life, lay and clergy alike, who are drawn to the ancient rhythms of Benedictine spirituality. Certainly many are Roman Catholics, but some are mainline Protestants and non-denominational Christians, and some are even seekers who would rather not restrict themselves by any religious labels. All of us have found meaning and depth in monastic patterns even though we make our homes outside of monasteries and abbeys.

St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 543?) never intended to start a movement. He just wanted to live a Christian life. Trying to find his way through the tumultuous Italian 6th century—subject to three different invasions, a disastrous plague, and at least one major regional famine—he fled city life to become a hermit in the wilderness. Drawing a following, he reluctantly became the leader of a group of monks and founded monasteries at Subiaco and later Mount Cassino. His wisdom comes down to us in the Rule of Benedict, a brief—but important!—document that lays out the spiritual and practical principles to guide his monks into living the Christian life. His intention, of course, was to provide instructions for full-time renunciants: people who had turned their backs on secular society and who intend to live out an arduous life of prayer and service without hindrance of family or children. For hundreds of years, this was the way it worked.

His Rule spread beyond Italy, was used in combination with other monastic rules to ground the practices of hundreds of monasteries, until it was adopted as the official monastic rule of the 9th century Carolingian Empire in modern-day France and Germany. His rule became the de facto Rule across Europe for centuries, and many of the towering figures in the 12th century Monastic Reformation shook up the system and founded new orders—like the Cistercians—to get back to the core principles that Benedict had elaborated. After the upheavals of revolutions and wars that accompanied the start of modernity in Europe, Benedict’s Rule was again identified as a vital source for Christian living and a wave of monasteries were begun or refounded in Europe. These spread to America as Roman Catholic immigrants brought their faith to the New World. By the late 19th century even Anglican Christians were founding monastic institutions that either used adaptations of Benedict’s Rule or had rules of their own that partook of Benedict’s spirit.

But—Benedict’s spirit did not simply find a home within monasteries, with cloistered professed religious who had no contact with the world outside their walls. Monasteries were places of pilgrimage and spiritual vitality within medieval communities. For many centuries, monastic priests were the local clergy, and taught the laity the spirituality they knew. Until the rise of the mendicant orders (the Franciscans, Dominicans, and their kin) the spirituality taught to nobles and commons alike was Benedictine in spirit and focused on the psalms. In Handbook for William, a book of advice dictated by the 8th century Frankish noblewoman Dhuoda to her son, she spends time focusing on his spiritual responsibilities and includes part of a treatise attributed to Alcuin on the importance of praying the psalms. Nobles would commission beautifully written and lavishly illustrated psalters for their daily prayers in imitation of monastic patterns; as centuries wore on, these would morph into the Books of Hours where Offices of the Blessed Virgin, Passion, and the Holy Spirit (among others) taken from monastic models would nourish the spirituality of the literate.

Even the illiterate knew of the the monastic patterns even if they could not participate within them. Early in its development, the fifty beads of the rosary were prayed through three times with an “Our Father” on each; praying 150 prayers allowed the illiterate to imitate the monastic recitation of the 150 psalms even if they did not have access to the words of the psalms.

Even while the Protestant Reformers railed against the theology of monasticism, they did not reject its spirituality entirely. In the early days of the Reformation, the Church of England made the conscious decision to retain daily Morning and Evening Prayer, and Thomas Cranmer’s introduction to the first Book of Common Prayer explicitly appeals to early medieval monastic models several times.

While monastic vocations fell off sharply after the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962-5), a spirituality recalling the principles of monastic life is alive and well. In recent years Christians of all stripes have discovered monastic patterned prayer in some version or other of the Daily Office. Sacred reading, Benedict’s lectio divina, is practiced and taught in and beyond Roman Catholic circles.

So—what does all of that have to do with a book on the psalms? You should be getting a few hints by this point… The psalms are the center of classic monastic spirituality. The spiritual habits borrowed from monastic models like praying the Offices and doing lectio divina are aided tremendously by a solid knowledge of the psalms—and also understanding how monastics were taught to encounter the psalms.

You may have an attraction to the monastic way of life, whether formal or informal. Formally, many monastic houses have oblate programs. Oblates are laity who live and work, and have families in the world but who are bound through love and prayer to a monastic house and return there often for spiritual renewal. Even if this is not your cup of tea—or too complicated or burdensome in an already over-scheduled life—an informal appreciation of monastic models can be nurtured by occasional visits to monasteries, reading books (like this one), and actually practicing the practices found therein.

On the other hand, you may be like my mother-in-law. Growing up in Catholic schools in 1950s and ‘60s New Jersey, she has a reflexive dislike of nuns. As far as she’s concerned they are the mean people with rulers who whacked you if you ever strayed out of line. If you can relate or simply don’t have any attraction to monasticism at all, don’t worry—I’m not going to try to make you like them. We’ll keep talking about monks because we need to explore these practices in their original context, but I’ll not force you to try and become one. What I do want to do is to introduce you to a way of experiencing the psalms borne out of a millennium of monastic experience. Hundreds of thousands of our ancestors in the faith have used these patterns to enrich their lives of prayer—and I believe they still have important lessons to teach us today.

3 Replies to “PC: Starting with Benedict”

  1. This is a terrific opening, Derek, but I would urge you to add some reference to what I found the most compelling piece of new information (new to me, anyway) in Honey of Souls. That is that our forebears felt that the Psalms contained the whole of the Godd News, that they were a summary of all of Scripture. You want to read the whole Bible? Don’t start with Genesis 1. Start with Psalm 1.

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