Feast of Benedict
March 21, 2017
At Morning Prayer every day we read an excerpt from the Rule of Benedict. Paired with that reading is a short commentary. It takes four months to completely read the Rule as we have divided it. After that we begin again but change commentators, rotating through four very fine contemporary Benedictine writers: two women and two men.
Right now we are in the midst of the work of Terrence Kardong of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota. Father Kardong is well-known in the English- speaking Benedictine world as he has written a number of easily readable books on Benedictine monasticism and has been the editor of the journal, The American Benedictine Review, for over 30 years.
In 1996, he produced what was the first line-by-line exegesis of the entire Rule in the English language. His commentary to this is based on his translation and is presented as both “Notes” and an “Overview” for each chapter. It is from his Overviews that we have drawn what is read each day during these months.
I have found Father Kardong’s reflections and comments refreshingly simple, and yet deeply in touch with the everyday life of monastics and Christians in general, as we all move through our lives as followers of Jesus in the Gospels, and, for us, also the Rule of Benedict.
There are three particular daily commentaries that I’d like to share with you tonight, as I think that they will give you a good flavor of Fr. Kardong’s wisdom.
The first is from what many say is a summary of the Rule and that is the Prologue.
Parts of the Prologue address embracing the labor of obedience, always following Christ and of doing God’s will. Never departing from God’s teaching.
Fr. Kardong adds this commentary: “If there is a single master theme in the Prologue, it is the need for action….A religion such as Christianity, with its huge body of subtle and complex doctrines, runs the risk of getting bogged down in a marsh of speculation; conversely, it can float around as a cloud of irrelevant piety….For Benedict the monastic life should produce its results here and now….The primacy of deed is a major theme of the Rule…he does not pretend that these experiences will come quickly or easily, but he does assure us that we will grow in joyful love and that this growth need have no end.”
I find his words to be uplifting and encouraging, yet honest and forthright.
Since Fr. Kardong has lived monastic life for over 60 years, I would suspect that he is speaking from personal experience about the everyday encounters, issues and challenges of life.
The second reflections that I found interesting and a little different were from his ideas in Chapter 4, which he translates as, “What are the Tools of Good Works?”
This chapter is one of the easiest to understand for us who are reading it 1500 years after its original appearance. It is primarily made up of lists: First, The Commandments, and then a long list of Christian virtues, values and spiritual and corporal works of mercy that followers of Christ should prefer over all else.
Again, Fr. Kardong shows a pragmatic side as he writes, “Benedict’s talk of tools of good works has the value of showing that monastic life is not merely a matter of ideas. If we wish to attain the goal of salvation, we must take the means to do so. True, there is the perennial danger of mistaking means for ends, but there is equal danger in merely wishing for the end without undertaking a practical program to reach the goal.”
In this chapter, as in the Prologue, and later in Chapter 65, the Christian objective of peace is presented. Kardong’s response to the oft quoted, “Seek peace and pursue it” is: “What is needed is long-term, dogged effort to “make peace,” that is, do those deeds that build a solid human foundation for true peace….Those who seek meaning and love in life must concern themselves with objective justice.”
The third and final excerpt comes from those seldom-quoted and oddly-phrased chapters on excommunication and grave faults. Here St. Benedict sets out punishments or disciplines for those monks who are guilty of some minor or serious fault. And what is this punishment? Not what was common in early Christianity, notes Kardong, that of exclusion from the sacraments or long periods of public reconciliation. He writes, “Benedict prescribes social exclusion…as it is taken for granted there is a human need for community.. … The monks are punished for lesser faults by exclusion from table, and for greater ones by expulsion from both table and from the choir for prayer.”
He continues, “Cenobitic meals are not merely occasions for feeding…. They share more than food, they share their lives. To be excluded from this participation is a form of death for those who value their place in the monastic body.”
We are blessed here in Erie to share our lives at table and in choir for prayer with sincere and holy women in community and scores of dedicated women and men in the Oblate Way of Life. May the blessings of God and the insights of the Rule come to you on this feast, and always.
Happy Feast Day.