“It is no small matter to dwell in a religious community, or congregation, to converse therein without complaint, and to persevere therein faithfully until death” – Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
The Rule of Saint Benedict (RB), in its very first chapter, considers four kinds of monks. Only one of these, however, is crucial to Benedict’s forthcoming Regula: The Cenobites who are submitted “to a Rule or Abbot.” The Sarabites and the Gyrovagi, respectively referenced as the “worst” and the wanderers, are directly dismissed as a disgrace to their monastic profession, while the Hermits consist of those who have attained sustained spiritual maturity. Saint Benedict writes for those who are Cenobites, “the most steadfast.”
Remaining steadfast is “no small matter,” as both Benedict and the author of the Imitation indicate. Anyone can claim to be under authority when, in practice, there is no one (“Abbot”) or nothing (“Rule”) to which we must submit. It is easy, dangerously easy, to assert and embrace spiritual disciplines for which no one holds us accountable. If we would embrace the life of an ascetic, monastic, Oblate, or simply a committed Christian, we must with Benedict reject spiritual grandiosity in every isolationist expression and seek to live in faithful community with others.
But how do we accomplish this? How do we remain steadfast? Given the fact that people are difficult, and that sustained relationships can be hard? What are some “how to” priorities and practices that we can take to heart?
In order to be good monastics, or faithful Christians, we must realistically face the fact that remaining in community can be difficult. As Thomas á Kempis insists, it is “no small matter” to establish stability as one of our guiding spiritual priorities. This difficulty is exacerbated in a culture that celebrates (and suffers from) unrestrained “freedom.” However, like it or not, such freedoms do not make us free. Instead, freedom of this sort only asserts a socio-psycho-pneumatic theology of bondage. This type of “freedom” only asserts chaos. Instead, to be truly free, we must have constraints. We must be under authority. To be truly be free we must learn to say “no,” and not simply “yes.” We must learn to embrace, stealing from St. Paul, the profitability of Christian living and not simply the permissibility of sub-Christian living. Many things may be “permissible” to the Christian, but, in order to grow, we must govern our lives the ethic of profitability. Only spiritual children live from the perspective of permissibility. If we live from permissibility we are spiritually immature. Stability under established authority is the profitability we should strive toward.
Growth occurs, by-and-large, through dwelling in a religious community. This is not the same as having an accountability group or a spiritual director. While both of these are commendable, they are insufficient. We can hide from an accountability group. We can hide from our spiritual director. It is far more difficult to hide from those with whom we share a common life. We must “dwell” with others intimately if we are to grow exponentially. We must live in and as community, with an authority over us, if we are going to avoid hiding.
But what does it mean for us to “dwell” together? I am sure that many of us are aware of those who “dwell” together but live apart. Such “relationships” exist in marriages, homes, workplaces, congregations and monasteries. Technically they “live” together, but, practically speaking, they are divorced from each other. They share space but they do not share life. To dwell in a religious community, therefore, suggests at least three practices: religion, conversation, and confession. These, together, determine the faithfulness referenced by Benedict and refined by á Kempis.
Religion is critical to dwelling effectively together. This includes both rituals and relationships. The quality of our religion is determined by how we live our lives, by how our rituals define and refine our relationships. St. Benedict’s entire Rule seeks to regulate relationships around the priority of prayer. Every ritual and every practice revolves around what is “profitable for another” (RB 72) so that prayer will be unhindered. Every gathering, discussion, and engagement attends and submits to certain rituals so that we might more effectively live lives devoted to prayer. As such, prayer is not just a private devotional practice (although we must pray privately) it is a poignantly social discipline. Spiritual disciplines for the purpose of prayer require disciples. There must, citing the Lord’s Prayer, be a practical “Our” if God is “Father.” Practically speaking, therefore, the Christian religion must be entirely relational and familial.
Conversation also determines both the quality of our relationships and of our prayers. Let us face, again, some facts. Living as a community will at times be difficult. Being accountable to proper authority is not easy. Every relationship will be prone to entropy. The “answer” to these problems may be found in having conversations. This, in part, is why Saint Benedict called the brothers [and sisters] to Council. In order to make sure that our relationships were sound and that our prayers would be heard, Saint Benedict insisted upon conversation. Any type of conversation was not adequate, however. True conversation for the purpose of prayer has guardrails: the Abbot, the Rule, and the voice of the young (RB 3). To neglect any one of these is to court shipwreck. We must listen to the Abbot, our guide, if the ship of “our” supplication is to be piloted properly. We must attend to the Rule, our map, if we are to safely arrive at “our” destination. We must listen to the young, the novices, if we are to avoid the many sirens of spiritual seduction that so often tempt the elder shipmates. Each must be heard. Each must be heeded. The “how” is conversation, with a priority given to Abbot and the Rule. Talk is the true tradition of the Church.
Confession is required in any relationship, and critical to the life of every disciple. We will fail. We will fall short. We will struggle and we will sin. At times our best intention will be grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. We have all experienced the painful disappointments associated with living in a community. The issue is, however, how to move beyond these difficulties and disappointments. It is easy simply to move on. It is easy to write off the offending party; but not if we live in and as community for the purpose of prayer. If we live the priority of community, according to the RB, we will need to find ways to build bridges. We must find ways to “persevere” “without complaint.” As such we must at times be committed enough to put up and shut up. Obedience (RB 5), Silence (RB 6) and Humility (RB 7) are critical to this– most especially when reconciliation is hard, or at times impossible, to achieve.
Faithfulness is what is needed. Faithfulness is the first and foremost quality required of a servant. This, as well, requires fidelity to and within the community, being fixed within the community, demonstrating practical functionality within the community (not distance and withdrawal), and seeking to embrace and abide by a fullness of faith when things do not happen as we would like to see them happen. When everything seems to fly apart, when the ship seems to be sinking, we must stand our ground. We must stand firm. We must do our duty. It is “no small matter” to be in community and to submit ourselves to proper authority. But this we must do if we are to grow.
Again we must return to the wisdom of Thomas á Kempis and the wisdom of the Community of the Common Life as articulated in the Imitation of Christ: “The wearing of the religious habit…[does] little profit, but change of manners and perfect mortification of the passions make a truly religious [person].
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.