KB Categories Archives: Monastic

The Form of Monasticism


Donald Richmond: I have a pronounced suspicion of formulas. Whether they are “biblical” (as in Dispensationalism), theological (as in Systematics) or practical (as in “one plus one” must always make two), I resist and almost always reject every human formula. With Coptic monastic, Matthew the Poor, I insist that “[f]aith transcends logic. When we follow Christ, we’re no longer limited by our thinking and calculations.” It is a human problem, most evident among American Christians, that we “attempt to force the simple and free teachings of the Bible into schemes to be analyzed and committed to memorization” (Words for our Time: The Spiritual Words of Matthew the Poor, Conciliar Press, 2013).

My resistance extends even into the Rules (“Regula”) of monastic practice. To be sure, it is important that we govern (regulate) lives. Certainly there is a biblical mandate to do so. Nevertheless, I think we must be cautious about how we govern, and who we allow to govern, our lives.

There are many different monastic Rules. The Rules of Basil, Augustine (of Hippo) and Benedict immediately come to mind. And, of course, there are others. For almost two decades, as an example, I belonged to an Anglican monastic order that, while drawing from the past, wrote their own Rule. As might be expected, I was highly suspicious of this.

With me, you also should be cautious about writing your own Rule. Often with such a project we tend towards being overly harsh or generous with ourselves. Moreover, it is important that a Rule reflect and re-source history. As Christians we will want to properly govern our lives. But to whom should we look?

Scripture, of course, immediately comes to mind. However, although it must not in any way be overlooked, Holy Scripture is far too broad in its content, context and concerns for us to develop a consistent and daily discipline from it — although, of course, some have done so. A Rule is needed to take these biblical principles and draw daily practical application from them. The question is “which Rule?”

In part the answer to this question will be determined by God. Thomas Merton went so far as to suggest that God choses the religious order to which we will belong. We do not choose it, it chooses us. Nevertheless, let me commend the Rule of Saint Benedict (whose Feast Day just passed) as a guide. I would especially urge you to find a local Benedictine community with which to associate. This will help to apply the teaching of Saint Benedict to your own life-context. There are at least four reasons why I suggest the Rule of Saint Benedict: (1) It is biblically based, (2) It is community-oriented, (3) It is adapted from harder Rules to the Western mindset and (4) Benedictine communities and commentaries are readily available here in the United States.

Everyone needs a Rule by which to govern his or her life. What form this takes will depend upon a number of variables. I commend the Rule of Saint Benedict as interpreted through (along with being in a community) Commentary for Benedictine Oblates: On the Rule of Saint Benedict by G. A. Simon (Wipf & Stock).


DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

Image top right: Saint Benedict of Nursia. Detail from the fresco ‘The Crucifixion’ by Fra Angelico, 1441-42, Convento di San Marco, Florence, Italy.


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The Function of Monasticism

Donald Richmond:

grand-chartreuseWhat is the function of monasticism, its fundamental purpose? When asking this question of myself, several salient answers come to mind.

The purpose of monasticism is LISTENING OBEDIENCE.

The purpose of monasticism is to FOLLOW CHRIST.

The purpose of monasticism is to realize fullest UNION WITH GOD.

The purpose of monasticism is to BECOME WHAT WE BEHOLD IN AND THROUGH WORSHIP.

The purpose of monasticism is to BE SAINTS.

Of course, even upon casual examination, each of these are linked. Listening leads to the obedience that allows us to follow Christ into the fullest union with God whom we behold in worship and become through its spirit inspired and empowered practical applications.  We are called to be saints.

When I was a child, my driving passion was to be a saint. I loved God and wanted to show it. Following the example of child-saint, Dominic Savio, I slept on sticks so that I could buffet my body into submission. I was about seven or eight years old at the time and, although my unusual sleeping arrangements were short-lived, my desire to live a sanctified life did not change. Although a wide-array of people, places and experiences reshaped my understanding over many years, the desire to be a saint has never altered. In fact, it is my opinion that the truest indicator of salvation in Christ is the desire to be sanctified by Christ — through the Holy Spirit.

But this raises a number of difficulties. The world, flesh and Devil militate against our God infused desire. Although patterns vary, at first we are tempted by the world. Having experienced many of its charms (we often overlook the wrenching heartaches!), the allure continues to tempt. Later, our temptations tend to center upon the flesh — “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” Finally, and always waiting for the opportune time, Satan whispers, insists, incites and roars for our attention — if not our devotion.

Heart-Door2And so we enter the monastery, specifically the monastery of the heart. We persistently knock at the door and ask admission. We seek direction, a “word in the desert.” We find solace in Christ, community, commitments, duty, disciplines, order and denials. And these are good and very good in the course of our re-creation.

Then comes the thunder, winds, hailstones and fire. We knock but the gates appear to remain closed. The word we seek is rare, and the howling silence is almost deafening. Moreover, in short order, we find that community fails (sometimes miserably), commitments become crushing, duty is drudgery, disciplines are distasteful and denials are irksome. The “cell” of our world closes in and, apart from Christ, we want to scream. And we do: “My God, My God, WHY?”

“WHY” is the place of entry into the monastic life.  It is the door where, in some traditions, we wait three or more days in order to gain entrance. Jesus asked a similar question upon the Cross. Jesus waited three days in the grave. Jesus invites us to this great stripping away of all the sins and skins and layers and expectations that must be abandoned in order to enter a life with him — a monastic life.

Another purpose of the monastic life is TO LEARN TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS, THE REAL QUESTIONS, THE QUESTIONS THAT MAKE US BLEED REAL BLOOD. When I told one of my first Spiritual Directors that I was “bleeding” profusely, he simply laughed, clapped his hands and said “Good…Good.!”

Do you want to be a DISCIPLE? Do you want to be a MONK?

I close with a poem of my recent experience.


after this unstrung decade
I am a stench.

the neighbor
the friend
the priest.

some foreigner
some fool
someone of questionable reputation.

someone with forgotten history
some gathering of disciples
who finally understand
Lazarus is dead, dead, dead
but come to him.

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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The Foundation of Monasticism

Donald P. Richmond:

Titus in a Monk's Habit by Rembrandt Van RijnA brief and broad analysis of history might suggest that monasticism was a fourth century response (or reaction) to the popularity of Christianity because of Constantine’s Edict of Milan. This perspective, however, is far from factual. Although there certainly were a great many people who resisted the results of Constantine’s equalizing (and later preferential) legislation, and saw the Church as a sinking ship, monasticism (in its many expressions) existed well before the fourth century of the Common Era.

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, monastic expression can be found in various Scriptural narratives as well as in the Qumran Community —- and this being only a cursory consideration. However, along with these references, there are those who suggest that monasticism is in fact rooted in our Lord’s own emphasis upon self-denial (See, as one example, The Desert Fathers: Saint Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism). This cannot be denied, and is crucial to Christian experience and expression.

There are many people throughout history who have criticized Christianity because of its dour outlook on life. Others, like a far-too-comfortable Buddhist man I have spoken with over the past two days, suggest that Christianity has far too many rules. As well, some suggest Christianity embraces and promulgates an unwholesome perspective on “the flesh.” While strong contradictory arguments and evidence could be mounted against each of these negative assertions, it should also be suggested that a relationship with Christ DOES INDEED require realism, rules and a healthy dose of self-denial. That is, in other words, Christianity requires (as the Puritan, Matthew Henry, has written) “the cross before the crown.”

monastery_doorOver the past two decades (or a bit more) monasticism has, once again, become a popular consideration. Many people have begun to knock at the door of the monastic enclosure seeking entrance. This interest, a re-claiming of our history and heritage, is not bad. Indeed, monasticism has a great deal to offer 21st century Christians — most especially those of us who live in the West. But before we knock at the door of the monastery, we must ask ourselves about whether we are willing to embrace the foundation of monasticism: Taking up our “cross” daily in order to follow Christ.

One of the desert fathers was approached by a man who wanted to enter the monastic life. This desert father told the man to go back into town, purchase strips of meat, clothe himself with these strips of meat and return to him. The man obeyed. Along the way, dogs nipped and bit the man who had clothed himself in this unusual manner. Upon arrival, the desert father said this: So it happens to the person who does not entirely rid himself of the unwise entanglements of the flesh.

As I write these words, a weight of conviction falls upon me. Moreover, as I reflect upon our Lord’s words, I am challenged to an ever-deepening conversion (hear “sanctification”) through and in Christ by the Holy Spirit. But am I, and are we, willing?

Image above: “Titus in a Monk’s Habit”, Rembrandt.

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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On Study and Self

Donald P. Richmond:

In a recent well-known film, one of the characters asserts that people read so that they will know that they are not alone. This is true, but there are other reasons why we should read and study. There is a dynamic correspondence between reading well, self-awareness, and living well.

With these things in mind, it must also be said that we must not be indiscriminate in our reading. Readinganything can be, and often is, worse than reading nothing. The Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the books that helped save and shape Western civilization, urges us to attend to holy reading. This discipline includes the why, how, and what of reading.

Why should we read? Reading good literature can help us become far-more self-aware. We come from and live within the context of history. In order to appreciate where we are in life, and where we are going, we must understand where we have been. As just one example, how can we survive the subtleties of the post-modern denigration of mega-narrative if we have no appreciation of post-modern theory, thought, and history? Do we even understand the implications of this philosophic system? If we do not read, if we have little understanding about self and society, we will not be able to defend ourselves from some of the destructive orientations of this (and other) modern philosophies. And be quite sure that how we think will determine how we live. Our feelings and how we function in life are determined, at least in part, by the philosophies we embrace.

How should we read? Thomas Merton, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, warns us about being “greedy for words.” His warning was prophetic. Very little effort is required for us to see, hear, and experience the unwholesome avalanche of “words” proliferated by both the media and (at times) each one of us. Billboards, television, radio, as well as a wide array of other public and private forms of media, bombard us with information, misinformation, and disinformation. A great deal is being “said,” but very little is actually being communicated. We are often “greedy for words” because there is frequently a pronounced lack of substance in what is being said.

But there is another reason for our informational “greed.” It is far easier to hide ourselves behind an avalanche of information than it is to face ourselves and deal with others. It is very difficult to face our dis-order, dis-ease, and dis-connection. In contrast to this, disciples of Saint Benedict encourage holy and reflective reading — sacred study. Benedict, as communicated through the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, urges us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” those “texts” which are most important in life and living. Reading and reflection are not intended to distract, but to help us discern what is most important. Learning is for effective living.

What should we read? To a certain degree the answer to this question will depend upon each individual. Every good book, or other vehicle of literature and learning, must suit each person in each of his or her unique life-circumstance. So, once again, what should we read? Although it is tempting to appeal to the “classics,” those books that have endured the test of time, we must not exclusively appeal to them. Some “classics” can be classically dull or damning. Instead, while not disparaging classic literature, we should read and reflect upon texts that demonstrate a clear appreciation for words and language. That is, more pointedly, we should read and reflect upon those texts that tell the truth — even if truth is told from “slant,” including myth, poetry, film, and fiction. Holy reading seeks truth. Holy speaking attends to truth. Attending to reading, wise reading, helps us attend to self and to society. Wise reading can lead to wise living.

The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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Donald P. Richmond:

St. Benedict

In one of his most profound writings, “Four Quartets,” T. S. Eliot tells us that the answer to our “disaffection” (alienation) is to “descend lower, descend only/ Into the deeper world of perpetual solitude.” Only this can help us to escape from being “distracted from distraction by distraction” (Burnt Norton III). But the price for many people may appear to be too austere, too demanding. The sensual in all its expressions must be answered with what Eliot calls “deprivation.”

The very first word in the Rule of St. Benedict is an austere and demanding word. Its expectation is severe and its experience is deprivation. “LISTEN,” is St. Benedict’s first and foremost rule. Intensifying this word, however, are other words that make even the heartiest of souls to hesitate. We must listen to our “master,” as we “receive”, “carry out”, and “labor” to “fulfill” God’s expectations. We must “renounce” our own will and “pray earnestly” to perfect God’s will.

The cultivation of a listening heart is not an easy task. In fact, listening requires that we “dig” our ears. A great deal of clutter must be cleared, including the clutter of our (at times) resistance. Some of this clutter may be sin, the outrageous cacophony of our “disordered passions” staging riots. At other times the clutter may not be sinful but it may be of secondary (at best) importance. There are other occasions when we must abandon the clutter of the good in order to acquire the best. As an example, Martha was not wrong in her desire to serve Jesus; it was just that Mary had chosen “the better way.” In order to embrace the better way we will need to sink down into silence. We must “descend lower.”

How can we do this? How can we attain and maintain a listening ear?

There are several means for achieving this, some of which were hinted at in previous articles. Seeking solitude, using the Jesus Prayer, and securing a spiritual director are crucial. But there is another means of achieving stillness, silence. It is the way of patterned prayer using the process of Lectio Divina as a guide.

What is patterned prayer? What is Lectio Divina? The desire of every Christian is to speak with God. If we do not have such a desire we are either not Christian or there is some other impediment that must be swiftly addressed. Often, however, when we do pray our prayers are often undisciplined and they have very little connection to the historic church or its life. Our prayers may be of either longer or shorter duration, and are not inherently wrong, but must be more thoroughly grounded in God’s word and in the history of the Church.

The answer to this lack of discipline, or, in many cases, lack of breadth and depth, is to embrace some form of patterned prayer that has been historically tested. At its mos

t simple level this pattern of prayer must include readings from the Daily Lectionary and include reflective reading of the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles. The careful and prayerful recitation of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, along with silent listening, will be included. So as not to be overwhelmed, especially for novices on patterned prayer, maybe readings exclusively from the Psalms and the Gospels should be capitalized upon.

For a person who is a bit more disciplined, or has more time afforded them, purchasing a Prayer Book might be of use. Several texts immediately come to mind. The Episcopal Church publishes The Daily Office Book which is very easy to use and incorporates patterned prayer with readings from the Lectionary. Similarly, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod produces A Treasury of Daily Prayer. Much like the Episcopal Prayer Book, it differs in its size (one larger volume in contrast to two smaller volumes), text (ESV instead of NRSV), content (no Apocrypha for Lutherans), and price (about one-half the price of the Episcopal text). Apart from these, and although it does not include the daily readings, Dr. Robert E. Webber has compiled a couple of wonderful little prayer books that are useful for beginners: The Book of Daily Prayer and The Prymer. For those who might be inclined toward Benedictine Spirituality, the form of spirituality encouraged by St. Benedict and his followers, the most recently released Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book is very accessible, as are The Glenstal Book of Prayer and The Glenstal Book of Daily Prayer. And finally, for those intrigued by the spirituality of our Orthodox family (often overlooked), Father John McGuckin’s newly released Prayer Book of the Early Christians is a delight — although it too offers no Lectionary readings. All of this, of course, is to encourage a more robust life of prayer — prayer rooted in, moving toward, and cultivating, silence. The first two texts, Episcopal and Lutheran, are far more expansive and will require far more time. As such, for Evangelicals who may not be familiar with patterned prayer, I would encourage them to use one of Webber’s texts (for those who simply want to make a beginning) or the Lutheran Treasury of Daily Prayer (for those who want complete Lectionary readings and want to spend more time in patterned prayer).

These texts all include some form of what monasticism calls the Daily Offices, patterned prayer we pray with the Church. Nevertheless, it is not so much WHAT we pray (within certain guidelines) but HOW we pray. The idea is to create and maintain a contemplative pattern and process of prayer. This is where Lectio Divina comes into play. Father Luke Dysinger, a monastic scholar, has said that Lectio is the prayerful reading and praying of Holy Scripture. This is critical for any Christian of any age to learn. I have highlighted the website in which Fr. Luke outlines this process http://www.saintandrewsabbey.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=35  and I encourage the reader to access Father Luke’s reflections on Lectio.

The cultivation of a listening ear, of attaining stillness, is vital to a robust faith. These keys will, I hope, encourage waiting upon God with a listening ear and a still heart.

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On Being Saints

Donald P. Richmond:

Poet Robert Lax

The true and only vocation of every Christian is to be a saint. This rather unusual assertion was pointed out by the poet Robert Lax to Thomas Merton, Lax before his Christian conversion, and Merton long before he entered Gethsemane Abbey. As they were walking down the street, Lax looked at Merton and asked him what he really wanted to be. In response, rather uncommitted, Merton said that he supposed he wanted to be “a good Catholic.” In a flash, Lax told Merton that his response was unacceptable, and that his only true calling was to be a saint. Merton was stunned.

And it is likely that we, also, will be stunned. It is possible that we will begin to think of St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, St.Augustine, Mother Teresa, of martyrs such as Bilney, Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer (not to mention Thomas More or Edward Campion), or of authors such as Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, J. C. Ryle, A. W. Tozer, E.M. Bounds, Andrew Murray, or Thomas Merton, and we will assert that we are not in any way like them — men and women of great passion and commitment. To be sure, we are not these men and women. We are who God has made us to be, and, according to the Holy Scriptures, we are called to be saints.

The question is “how?” Lax suggested to Merton that it was simply a matter of will. Lax is correct. But sainthood is not achieved, nor is it in any way a matter of self-will.

Over the past several decades there have been a great many books about self-help that have been published. Within certain contexts this may be well and good, but not in regard to spiritual awakening, growth, and formation. Flying in the face of monastic tradition (which in most ways I embrace) I am as suspicious about John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent and St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility as I am about modern texts that seek to provide the reader with twelve easy steps to Christian maturity. Rarely, if not always, does such an approach lead to anything but pride or frustration.

Of course we must be disciplined. There are priorities and practices (such as Bible reading and meditation, private prayer, public worship, and participation in the Sacraments) we must observe. But this does not mean that we should support any form of “cookie cutter” spirituality — one size fits all. Such an approach is little more than a Christianized form of Babel. One Greek Elder had to remind one of his spiritual disciples that what the Elder said only applied to that particular disciple and to no one else. Luke Timothy Johnson, in Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making In the Church, tells us that “freedom is the most rigorous of all asceticisms.” These are wise words, and it is to the theology of individual freedom in Christ that we must look for help in our quest for sainthood.

St. Paul writes, “All things are permissible, but all things are not profitable.” The committed Christian, the monk in the world or in the monastery, takes this statement seriously. As those who are called and challenged to be saints, we seek to live our lives from the position of profitability and not from permissibility.

But we must be very cautious in this regard. We need balance. People tend toward extremes, and we will often be too “hard” or too “soft” upon ourselves. I am a perfect example. As a child, in imitation of St. Dominic Savio, I slept on sticks in order to mortify my body. Not a wise choice, most especially at ages 7 – 9, because I had no idea what true “mortification” really meant. As an adult, as another example, I have always sought a spiritual guide who would “[spiritually] beat me up as an old world Jesuit.” God has never seen fit to provide me with a director who was hard and harsh. Invariably, my directors were (and are) the most gentle of persons. I sought holiness, I sought to be a saint, but I did not have the insight to be able to bring God’s desire for and in me to fruition.

The insight and inspiration we need requires self-awareness. Most frequently this requires objective insight, an insight that can only be provided by another person who, with us, listens to both the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures as they intersect with the context of living our lives. The Celtic Christian Tradition has said that “a person without a spiritual director is like a body without a head.” We need a spiritual director, a spiritual mentor or guide, to help us along our path of freedom and sainthood —- or freedom to sainthood.

But I must be blunt: I am not talking about accountability groups among peers, as useful as these may be. I am not talking about Bible Study, Cell Groups, or Catechesis — as helpful as these may be. I am not referencing transformative worship. I am not talking about pastoral counseling either. What we need is an Elder (the classic spiritual “Elder” of antiquity), a Starets (of the Russian Tradition, and found in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov), a Soul Friend, or “Anam Cara” (of the Celtic Tradition), a Spiritual Director. We need a mature believer who knows God, the Bible, Church Tradition, human psychology and the traditions of spiritual guidance, to help us navigate our freedom in Christ, our pathway to sainthood.

In his wonderfully inspiring book for young people (gorgeously illustrated by Caryll Houselander), My Path to Heaven, Father Geoffrey Bliss writes these words, “All the roads go to Heaven and to Hell; and they go through all sorts of places with the names of the different kinds of lives. Sometimes I can choose my own road; but generally God chooses it for me, if I keep in the right direction” (emphasis mine). A Spiritual Director helps us to keep our choices profitable, providing us the safest and surest way to God and the grace (SHEER GRACE) of sainthood.

The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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The Solitary Life

Donald P. Richmond     

An examination of the word “monk,” as well as the earliest examples of Christian monasticism, suggest that a monk is a person who lives alone or is a solitary. In practice, however, this is not the case. Well before St. Benedict wrote his famous Rule there were various types of monks. Some lived alone, but with St. Benedict and other masters of the spiritual life, this form of monasticism was not encouraged until he or she learned to fight spiritual battles in community. Thomas Merton, as one recent example, had to wait many years until he was allowed to live alone. Other monks lived in a semi-community setting, having private cells or homes but gathering together at certain times or for certain events. More frequently, however, monks live in communities where a common life is consistently shared.

Although living the shared life (at least in the Western Latin Tradition) is the most common form of monasticism, it is wise for us to keep in mind that, spiritually speaking, we are born, exist, live, and die alone. We may be born into, exist within, and move toward community, but we do so as individuals.

This is as it should be. In his enriching little book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen suggests that a crucial element of the spiritual life, of life lived in the Spirit, is solitude. Deepening this solitude are silence and prayer. When properly nurtured, solitude, silence, and prayer, empower us to live dynamically relational lives.

How does this work?

The primary role of every monk, and every ordained clergy and Christian, is to pray. This is NOT an option. It is certainly NOT a luxury. It is an absolute necessity. Monks pray the Offices– principally Evening (Vespers), Night (Compline), Morning (Matins), and Midday prayers. Traditionally, priests were also expected to pray this liturgical cycle from the Lectionary with (not necessarily “in”) the Church– although usually only the Morning and Evening Offices were required. In fact, however, EVERY Christian must have a “prayer life,” and, more so, a life of prayer. Prayer is our profession, our life-breath, our “primary speech” (Ulanov).

This requires the silence of being, a listening heart, and solitude. Apart from the imperative of praying in and with the entire Church, we must enter our own closets (cells) alone and “pray secretly” to our Father in Heaven. That is, private prayer in sustained solitude is essential. The cultivation of solitude, of the solitary life, will always precede empowered social engagement and prayer.

“Closet” and “cell” exist within the cloister. To emphasize this, the monk has the cowl (that is a hood) as a perpetually present closet of prayer. Note these words: closet, cell, cloister and cowl. All of these words speak of solitude and the solitary life. But solitude and the solitary life are not to be seen or embraced as an “end.” Rather, they form only a beginning. Solitude is the soil of effective prayer. Silence is its fertilizer. Solitude has a unique capacity to sanctify, and silence teaches us to speak– pray (Nouwen).

To be a monk in the world, to be an effective Christian, we must cultivate the solitary life. “Alone” must begin to have some appeal to us. Although our American inclination toward individualism presents unique and extremely dangerous problems in this regard, and ANY form of “Lone Ranger” Christianity is anathema, the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer must not be neglected.

When asked for a “word” from a disciple, one monastic Elder told this monk to enter his cell, because his cell would teach him everything. There is truth in this.

The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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Living by the Rule


Donald Richmond: We all live by a rule, a “creed,” by which we live our lives. Sometimes this rule is known. At other times it may be unknown and exist as an unconscious influence in and over our lives. Upon occasion, most especially if we seek to consciously conduct our lives under the direction of Scripture, Spirit, and the saints (= community of the Church which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), we are afforded opportunities to become aware of our rules, evaluate them, submit them to God, and change them.

I clearly remember the rule by which I lived my life for many years: “I’LL SHOW YOU!” The capitalization of this statement, this rule, illustrates the militant emphasis I placed upon this priority. And although an evaluation of my life-circumstances clearly reveals the etiology of this emphasis, this rule was destructive on many levels. The point, however, is that we all conduct our lives by a rule– and it will have either constructive or destructive impact.

When Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, it brought an end to the religious persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire. In many ways this was a very positive advancement. In other ways, however, Constantine’s efforts did not yield favorable results. His edict of toleration became an affirmation of favor. Soon, the Church became popular. Being a “Christian” was seen as trendy and used as a means of social acceptability and advancement. Consequently, with time, the “world” began to infect the “Church.”

At this time, between the fourth and fifth centuries, men and women in the Middle East began to flee to the desert in order to seek God. They saw society, and the compromises of the Church, as a “sinking ship” from which they needed to flee. But they were not escapists. If at any time these men and women thought that they would escape community they were mistaken. Thousands of people moved into the desert where, together (and sometimes alone), they sought God: His word, will, works, and ways. This is the foundation and fountainhead of Christian monasticism. Those who follow a monastic way of life, or are associated with it, are called monks, associates, or oblates.

One of the many monastic orders that developed over the past sixteen hundred years is the Order of Saint Benedict (OSB). Of crucial importance to the OSB, and to almost every other monastic order within the Western Tradition, is The Rule of Saint Benedict. It is a classic of Christian spirituality that has simultaneously guided the OSB and shaped civilizations. Culture, education, and prayer have all been influenced by Benedictine spirituality[1].

Benedict wrote his “Rule for beginners” as a “school of the Lord’s service.” Critical to its exercise is learning to listen, most especially listening to God through God’s revealed word. In fact, the very first word in The Rule of Saint Benedict is “listen.” This emphasis, the emphasis that dominates the entire Benedictine enterprise, is empowered by learning to “turn” (and tune) “the ear of our heart”, accepting “advice,” and practicing God’s word through the “labor of obedience.” St. Benedict, following the Old Testament Wisdom Literature and St. Paul, provides us a Rule by which we can be “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds.”

We all live by a rule. We will either consciously embrace a rule of life or we will unconsciously be “conformed to this world.” The Rule of Saint Benedict can and has encouraged a worldview and lifestyle punctuated by listening and obedience. It has impacted the civilizations. It can also help provide direction for our own lives.

Image above: “Breviary Reading Monk in the Cloister”: Carl Spitzweg

The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.


[1] The Order of Saint Benedict Oblates of Saint Benedict: An Introduction (Liturgical Press:Collegeville,Minnesota, 2007)

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