Prayer and community, according to monastic scholar Fr. Columba Stewart OSB, are the two central disciplines of Benedictine life.
Praying the Psalms
Thirteen of seventy-two chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict (RB) are devoted to instruction about liturgical prayer. Benedict goes to great lengths to establish a rhythm of life in community which is punctuated by prayer (the liturgy of the hours) and saturated in Scripture. Most central is praying the Psalms, which reflects the longstanding appreciation for the way this form of Scripture connects so deeply with the human experience.
Esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann, in his book Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit (2nd ed., Cascade Books, 2007), writes that every Psalms speaks to at least one of three movements: orientation, disorientation and reorientation (p. 2-4). Orientation speaks to a sense of equilibrium and confidence in God, as we see in Ps 139: “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Disorientation describes the experience of living with chaos, disorder and a lack of wholeness. Ps 13, for example, begins, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Reorientation is the gift of surprise, graciousness, caring, friendship and hope, much like Ps 103: “as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”
We pray the Psalms for our own personal formation and in intercession for the world, which is an important nuance to remember on those days when a particular Psalm does not resonate with our immediate experience. Someone somewhere is in a state of disorientation and we pray on their behalf, just as somewhere in the world others are now praying Psalms of reorientation for us. The discipline of praying the Psalms is one form of submitting to God’s work through this mutuality.
It is interesting to note that the chapter on humility, the longest chapter in RB, precedes immediately the instruction on liturgical prayer. And what follows that section in chapter nineteen and twenty are about praying with reverence: “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices” (19:7) and “lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion” (20:2). The importance of praying the Psalms with humility and authenticity are clear. What makes praying the Psalms an essential Benedictine practice is that it epitomizes the intersection of prayer and community.
Within the context of the Benedictine school of spirituality, community is understood to be more like a verb than a noun. The exercise of long-term relationships fosters mutual sharpening as suggested by Prov 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.” The exercise is not always comfortable, but the commitment to the discipline of living in community is foundational to the Benedictine way.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German Lutheran theologian who participated in the resistance to Hitler during WWII, lived with Benedictines in Ettal for a time. He also helped create an underground seminary at Finkenwalde and both experiences seemed to have honed his understanding of Christian community. He wrote, “Christian [community] is not an ideal we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we must participate” (Life Together, 30). He goes on to suggest a dynamic three-part rhythm to the exercise of community: the day with others, the day alone and ministry. The need for time alone and time with others is relatively self-evident, even if striking a balance proves a continual challenge. His notions about ministry, on the other hand, offer insight into how community becomes something that we practice. He identifies seven unique forms of ministries, all interdependent aspects of community:
The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue
RB speaks strongly against murmuring and emphasizes silence as a matter of focus and simplicity. Bonhoeffer echoes these matters of healthy relationship by quoting Eph 4:29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
The Ministry of Meekness
Rom. 12:14 reads, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Meekness is not about being trampled, but living out of an awareness of our own weaknesses (and forgiveness!) that leads to compassion for others. RB speaks often of the special considerations which need to be given to others, especially the young, the weak and the sick.
The Ministry of Listening
The first word of the Prologue to RB is “Listen.” Bonhoeffer writes, “We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God” (Life Together, 99). If the beginning of love is learning to listen to God, it follows that we then learn to listen more fully to others.
The Ministry of Helpfulness: Active helpfulness is the simple assistance in trifling, external matters. According to Bonhoeffer, we must “allow ourselves to be interrupted by God,” for “it is only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy” (99). The reality of community is that it does ask something of both of us to be in relationship together. Ideally, that will come to look like mutual helpfulness.
The Ministry of Bearing: Gal 6:2 reads, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” We are invited in community to accept each and every person as they are, learning to bear with one another as Christ. In acceptance and forgiveness are the potential for real growth in community.
The Ministry of Proclaiming
This discipline relates to listen to one another and finding the courage to speak the truth in love. We practice humility in speaking the Word of God to one another. As Bonhoeffer writes, “We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need” (106).
The Ministry of Authority
Genuine authority is exercised in the service of ministry. RB provides pictures of leadership that are always relational—physician for the sick, shepherd for the sheep, etc.. The leader’s credibility is found in the degree to which they live what they speak and demonstrate wisdom. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:43).
Pray slowly through Psalms 139, 1 and 103 (Orientation, Disorientation and Reorientation, respectively). Pay attention to which one seems to be the prayer of your own experience today and which are praying for others in the world.
Each ministry is essential to enriching community, although circumstances may make one more prominent at a given time. To which of the seven ministries in particular are you being called today? What gift will that bring to your community?