When one of my sons was applying to colleges ten years ago, we visited the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. I well remember a remark of a monk of the Abbey during a classroom meeting for visitors. He stated in a matter-of-fact way that the Benedictines had been teaching young people for about 1,500 years. No other institution now on the planet, he continued, could say anything similar. It was an astounding claim, and it was true.
The memory comes to mind because March 21 was the anniversary of the death of St. Benedict in the year 547. Before the Catholic Church reorganized its calendar of saints 40+ years ago, this was Benedict’s feast. (It is now July 11.) The Rule of St. Benedict governed monastic life in Western Europe for hundreds of years. Continuing into today, the monasteries of the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Trappists claim Benedict as their founder and venerate his Rule. Benedict was not only founder and abbot of monasteries; he was also a teacher of young men from surrounding communities, and the sons of St. Benedict have continued this teaching tradition (among many others) ever since.
The Jesuits, whom most Catholics probably think of when teaching orders are mentioned, are mere pikers by comparison to the Benedictines. The Jesuits have about 400 years of teaching experience. The spiritual sons of St. Benedict preceded them by over a thousand years.
In fact, the first sons of St. Benedict preceded all modern nations; they preceded all the medieval kingdoms; they even preceded Charlemagne by a longer time than the United States has been independent of Great Britain. Benedictines preceded the schism of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholics and the conversions to Christianity of the Slavs, the Norsemen and other nomadic peoples who poured into Europe from the East. Benedictines preceded almost everything in Europe that we commonly learn about in school except for the Roman Empire itself and the Greek city-states that Rome absorbed.
The Benedictines have been praying, working, and teaching for a very, very long time.
Benedict is given credit for salvaging civilization in western Europebecause Benedictine monasteries became centers of peace and stability around which people farmed and villages prospered. One of the ways in which Benedict’s spiritual sons followed his command to pray and to work (ora et labora) was by copying old manuscripts. Thus they preserved many of the written works of the old Romans and Greeks. In the course of the centuries they also invented some of the building blocks of mechanization, such as accurate mechanical clocks and water-powered mills, that later produced the Industrial Revolution. It would be wrong to credit Benedictine monasteries alone with preserving and rebuilding civilization in the West, but they were one of the crucial groups of people in the process.
God’s providence is mysterious indeed. When he wrote his Rule and founded his houses, Benedict did not have it in mind at all to preserve Western civilization. All he intended was to lead men and women to Christ. The grace that God released upon his communities of God-seeking men and women naturally helped create islands of civility among lands that for some centuries were turbulent and unstable. Christian love and charity, even when practiced by imperfect Christians, transforms pre-Christian pride and contention.
And leading people to Christ is a very important “all.” I would venture to say Benedict considered it the only worthwhile goal there is. Civilizations crumble, but only Jesus Christ remains, for He is the Alpha and Omega of human history. In the time that remains before His Second Coming, we do not know how God is going to use our work; we are to be faithful and leave the results to Him. That Benedict’s Rule and the monasteries of his spiritual sons became foundations of a revival of an entire civilization in Europe illustrates this point on the grandest of scales.
Alasdair MacIntyre ends After Virtue, his magnificent study of the moral disintegration of our modern Western civilization, with these words: “If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another ― doubtless quite different ― St. Benedict.” With some trepidation, for I am no theologian or philosopher, I dare to say that Professor MacIntyre is wrong.
It is not “another St. Benedict” in the singular that we await, but “other St. Benedicts” in the plural. We do not need “quite different” Benedicts; we need Benedicts cut from the same cloth as the original, people who seek God first and let God use their lives as God knows best. It is understood that we still need to work for our daily bread, and we still need to fulfill our duties as citizens, parents, and whatever other roles we have taken on in life. In all that, we can do much worse than to adapt Benedict’s Rule and adopt his complete surrender to the Lord in our own daily lives. In the community of our family or in a broader community, we Benedicts can fill every day, one after another, with prayer, work, and mutual love. God will take care of the rest.