My own knowledge about St. Benedict and the Order he founded was very scanty. I knew some dates and about the medal, but I truly didn’t know who he was or what his spirituality was all about. A couple of years ago, I was at a library when I found a small prayer book published more than one hundred years ago called “St. Benedict’s Manual.” I bought it, took it home, and used it as much as I could.
There was a great deal in that prayer book that I loved including the meditations for Mass, the litanies to various Benedictine saints, and the special Benedictine devotions. When I prayed, I felt consoled and I felt a great deal of happiness. I also found in the Benedictine prayer life something close to what I had known in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Several months later, I found a set of Benedictine breviaries at the same library. I used them from time to time. At first, I was frustrated by the Latin and the length of Matins. Being used to all kinds of short and Roman breviaries, I didn’t know at the time that the Benedictines had their own unique Office that had been recited for centuries until Vatican II and that had its origins in the Rule of St. Benedict himself. Due to my frustrations, I let the set be and found myself a short version of the Benedictine Office that consisted of all the hours except Matins.
The months went by, but there was still something inside of me that wanted to pray. I prayed different offices and flirted with my large collection of breviaries. I prayed from my Benedictine prayer book and started discerning my vocation to the religious life. Yet as I spoke to various spiritual directors, I found the same old recommendation to pray at a set time every single day.
It was only during this September that I hauled out my Benedictine breviaries and began to pray them with all the earnestness that I could muster. In the beginning, the going was slow and frustrating. I would switch breviaries mid-course and then stop for a while. Recently, however, this has not been the case. Rather, I have prayed the Benedictine Office every single day and have found myself greatly consoled and edified.
I have written elsewhere on this blog about the beauties of the Divine Office and its many different fruits. But I also have found that by praying the Benedictine Office, I have started to understand why St. Benedict called it “the work of God.” Indeed, the Benedictine Office is a long one because it was intended to be prayed in a monastery. Aside from the Mass, the Divine Office was the center of the monk’s day. Aside from this, they were engaged in various types of manual labor. Yet the manual labor was a means to stay alive physically, while the Divine Office and the Mass allowed the monks to live spiritually.
St. Benedict’s ideas on the monastic life, however, are not something new. They evolved over the centuries from the lives of the hermits scattered all over the Egyptian desert, the monasteries founded by St. Basil, and those that were to be found elsewhere throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Yet St. Benedict’s Rule is one that is different than the others because it is simplicity itself. Like the Franciscan rule, St. Benedict’s rule is one that is made up mostly from the Scriptures and also includes St. Benedict’s own practical insights. Among its beauties is St. Benedict’s own recommendation for the recitation of the Divine Office, which opened helped me to recite the Office with much more devotion and to understand it better.
The Benedictine lifestyle is one that embraces prayer and work in equal measures. It is not a life that may be conducive to every single person discerning a vocation, but it is there for those that seek it. Indeed, the Benedictines do not embrace one single apostolate. Many Benedictine monasteries have several, while others may be fully contemplative. St. Benedict’s Rule allows for this and many Benedictine abbots and abbesses have managed to adapt this to their own particular lives and situations.
It is also interesting that the Benedictines are an Order, but can also be considered a federation. St. Benedict established the monasteries so that they would be self-governing. Each monastery would be under his Rule, but it would not be under a particular provincial. This is one reason why most vocations directories will list many different monasteries under the name Benedictine rather than the names of the provinces. Another interesting aspect is that there are many different Benedictine congregations under St. Benedict’s Rule.
Indeed, there is a great deal of good that has come from the Benedictines over the centuries including the conversion of many disparate European nations. Their success can be traced back to the Rule itself and to its holy founder. For St. Benedict believed the Benedictine motto with his whole heart, “Ora et labora” (Work and pray.)
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Benedict, pray for us!