Thomas Griffin 7/8/21 (For Crisis Magazine)
When your country, society, and culture are turned upside down by ravenous forces of Godless philosophies, you must respond. Saint Benedict knew he had to do something to safeguard the Faith and cultivate his personal holiness, so he went to the desert and changed the Catholic landscape for centuries. If we want democracy rather than tribalism, rational debate rather than the tyranny of tolerance, and if we desire sanctity over the reign of evil, we too must respond.
Benedict was born in Nursia, Italy, in 480 A.D. His parents were wealthy, and in his younger years, he lived an ordinary life for the social class he found himself in. He was schooled in his hometown and was later sent to Rome to continue his studies. The lifestyle in Rome drove him to start a religious way of life that would shape the future of the Church and enrich the lives of millions. Today, his advice and witness are more crucial than ever before.
Rome was filled with debauchery, crime, and licentiousness. The city was consumed by lives that pursued pleasure over and above everything else. Abundant wealth, worldly honor, and sexual desires were viewed as the vehicles to usher in a life of true happiness and fulfillment. Benedict saw these realities and knew that life among the Romans would only lead to disaster.
He fled to the desert and became a monk. Rome fell only four years later. The pursuit of happiness through pleasure proved to be futile. In order for our country to avoid the same fate, it must recover and establish principles that encourage holiness and virtue over pleasure and power. The antidote lies in becoming so in tune with the movements of God and so entrenched in Jesus’ words that we instinctively know how to be in the world but not be consumed by it.
As hermits, Benedict and others lived an austere existence, providing for themselves and pursuing deep encounters with Christ through silence and contemplation. Within only three years, Benedict was named abbot (spiritual and practical father) of the community of men he lived with. His authenticity in prayer and his counsel were valued beyond all price by those who met him.
The lives of Benedict and his monks were different from those of his age. They desired simplicity and prayerfulness above all else, and this provided a perspective that saw what was most true and important in this world. Amidst all of the craziness of politics and mainstream media buzz, we must also be grounded in a humble existence fed by the fire of intimacy with Christ.
Benedict also wrote what became known as The Rule of St. Benedict, which was an outline of living that was actually meant for people who lived outside of the monastery. His writings advised how citizens could incorporate God into ordinary life; how to inject Christ into everything that you do, say, and are. Here, we see the perfect intersection of Benedictine values with our contemporary culture’s needs.
He did flee the sin of Rome to go to the desert, but his heart remained steadfast on renewing the culture that remained behind him. Benedict did not run away to give up the fight for the salvation of souls. He simply retreated to uncover the recipe for revival of faith: we must give the Lord all that we have.
The Rule is where the Church received the origins of the famous phrase ora et labora (work and prayer), which became foundational for countless religious orders that followed, along with serving as an invaluable list of instructions for how lay men and women could sanctify each day. In our careers and chores involved in family care, we are meant to see God’s hand. Compartmentalizing our public life and our personal faith is a road that the last decades proved to be disastrous. Christ’s call, and the witness of Benedict, is to have our work come alive because of our faith.
Benedict counseled others to employ certain attitudes and prayers throughout the various times of the day to serve as the bedrock for Christian living: Praise, gratitude, and joy at dawn. Blessing and communion with the Holy Spirit at mid-morning. Fervor, commitment, and a longing for peace at noon. A sense of impermanence and a willingness to forgive at mid-afternoon. Serenity and healing at dusk. Opening to the darkness at night.
These would become attitudes to order one’s life in a way that allowed one to be habitually present to the presence of God at each moment. Tapping into the power of God throughout our particular lives will transmit the divine life into every corner of the culture. This is the only way to fix our country’s worship of radical individualism, to heal our nation’s destruction of sexuality, marriage, and the family, and to renew a declining Church.
In a quick glance, one can easily notice the intellectual, practical, and spiritual genius of St. Benedict. His horrible experiences in Rome stayed with him to such a degree that he desired to spend his life in prayer and reflection on how to combat the challenges of the world in a positive manner. His Rule can be utilized by monks, priests, nuns, and lay people as the recipe to sanctify everything we do by developing a habitual mode of existing in a fallen world that needs saving.
As our world appears to become more and more like Rome before its fall, we are called to Christify the world through our sacrificial love to those right in front of us. The ordinary would never be dull if we called to mind a humble preference for doing God’s work despite the seemingly disastrous trajectory of our society. Benedict was able to do this, and he gives us the blueprint to follow after him, and Christ.
St. Benedict, pray for us, and guide the boat of the Church through these stormy waters of our own Rome.
Thomas Griffin teaches at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife and son. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.
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