Each and every one of us is called to holiness, and answering that call requires growth and strength in spiritual practices, like prayer, study, and works of mercy. Yet, as average lay people living in the world, working jobs, paying bills, and raising families, it is easy to let spiritual growth, thriving in the spiritual life, fall further down our list of priorities. Here, I want to provide small nuggets of wisdom from religious orders that have impacted the Church and the world over the centuries. Hopefully, these small, simple steps will help lay people make the arduous journey to holiness with more energy, stamina, and success than ever before.
What a coincidence that two venerable religious communities will celebrate their most important feasts in the coming days. We will look first at the Benedictines, who celebrate the feast day of their founder on July 11. A few days following, we will deal with the Carmelites, whose patronal feast day is celebrated on July 16. These summer days make a great time to re-evaluate, recommit, and begin some new spiritual practices that will aid our growth.
Benedictine Lifestyle & Spirituality for the Laity
St. Benedict founded the Benedictine order several years after he took up a life of seclusion and prayer in the hill country outside of Rome. He had been deeply scandalized by the excessive sensuality, heavy drinking and sexual license particularly, that he witnessed in the Eternal City as a young man. So, he withdrew to a cave in the mountains and he prayed.
Eventually, others began coming to him, asking to imitate his choice and his example. Then, those who took up his practiced asked him to form them more specifically into a community. As this community took shape, Benedict wrote his Rule for the monks. The Rule of St. Benedict is one of the most well-known and most important texts in all of Christian history and culture. Still, many laity don’t realize that there is much contained in the Rule that they can practice, and from which they can benefit, too.
The first and most important point to keep in mind is that Benedict himself was a layman. There is no evidence in the historical records that Benedict received the Sacrament of Holy Orders. A layman developed this lifestyle, and lay persons certainly can keep it and incorporate it into their days. Even lay persons who have not (or will not) take up life in a monastery will find much in the writing of St. Benedict that will help them become holier by leading a type of monastic lifestyle.
Another important general principle that we can learn from father Benedict is the willingness to renounce the world for the sake of Jesus. In chapter four of the Rule, he writes, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.” This is the essence of the path to holiness, and it is just as applicable to the lives and efforts of the laity as it is to priests, monks, or religious sisters.
There are a couple of more specific points about Benedictine spirituality that deserve attention as well. From these long-standing monastic communities, lay people can learn the value of a consistent schedule. The very foundation of spiritual growth and strength is consistency. Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, an abbot in the Benedictine tradition (Trappists observe a strict application of the Rule), teaches consecrated religious and laity in his classic spiritual text, The Soul of the Apostolate. “Draw up a schedule,” he writes, “allotting to each activity a fixed time…. And then do violence to yourself, if necessary, to keep it, and control the flood of your activities” (The Soul of the Apostolate, Part V).
We might translate this more simply, “Make a schedule and stick to it, religiously!” It is much easier to incorporate healthy habits and spiritual practices when we do them at the same time each day or week. We humans are creatures of habit, and we need that in our spiritual lives as much as our secular lives.
Another constant spiritual practice that every Benedictine would recommend is lectio divina. The sons of St. Benedict were the first in the history of the Church to purvey the rich spiritual practice of praying with Scripture. By their Rule, the monks learn to silently and frequently ponder the word of God, through the Psalmody during their prayer hours and through the Scriptures read aloud during meals. Laity may not have quite as much time to ruminate, but making daily space for the Liturgy of the Hours or meditation on the Bible would be a good start. At the very least, a lay person could practice the Benedictine mandate of silence at night. Meditating on the day’s Gospel for fifteen minutes before bed would surely reap great benefits in that person’s life and in the world.
Over and above all this, there is a virtue that guides the Benedictine lifestyle, and the laity can practice it, too. St. Benedict wrote in the Prologue of his Rule that giving up our own wills and being armed with the “strong and noble weapons of obedience” will make us ready to do battle for our Lord and King. We laity should make every effort to take up the “labor of obedience” in our lives as well.
Indeed, each of us has several settings in which to practice joyful obedience. We can certainly be obedient to our spouses. We can practice obedience toward our superiors at work. We can even practice obedience toward politicians and government leaders with whom we disagree (so long as it doesn’t violate the moral law).
Finally, if someone feels a call from the Lord to live the Benedictine lifestyle and spirituality more fully, there is the option to become a Benedictine Oblate. Many Benedictine monasteries allow lay persons to associate as oblates of that particular community. About oblates, the Benedictine order says: “Oblates seek God by striving to become holy in their chosen way of life. By integrating their prayer and work, they manifest Christ’s presence in society.” This sounds like the universal call to holiness, the theme that began this article.
Living the Benedictine spirituality, as a monk, an oblate, or simply as a layperson, is really nothing other than a specific and sure way to live out the universal call to holiness. So, let’s take his upcoming feast day to commit to living a more Benedictine lifestyle, for our own growth and for the good of the world.