St. Benedict on Humility and Disinterestedness

January 17, 2014

Carefully stacking a Dry Sandstone Wall, one piece at a time: this wall will be 8 ft. tall and over 100 ft. long. Photo by permission of the Abbot.

Clear Creek Abbey – Carefully stacking a Dry Sandstone Wall, one piece at a time: this wall will be 8 ft. tall and over 100 ft. long. Photo used with permission of the Abbot.

The year 1875 marked the 1500th anniversary of the birth of St. Benedict, whose Rule I am bound to follow by my choice of becoming an Oblate. Now, another 125 + years later, not a day goes by that I do not marvel at the wisdom of this “Father of Western Monasticism” and how it applies to my life today. Moreover, by the grace of God I can see how He has arranged my life to make it possible to follow this Rule without complications. Not that the road is easy – just that the path is not hidden. The barbed-wire fences and hedgerows along the way keep me from wandering beyond the point where I would lose direction. That is, in fact, one purpose of having a rule in the first place.

In Chapter 57 St. Benedict writes:

If there are craftsmen in the monastery, let them practice their crafts with all humility, provided the Abbot has given permission. But if any one of them becomes conceited over his skill in his craft, because he seems to be conferring a benefit on the monastery, let him be taken from his craft and no longer exercise it unless, after he has humbled himself, the Abbot again gives him permission.

Abbots, like parents, have special graces granted by God to fulfill their duties of guiding and protecting the spiritual and temporal life of the family. In the case of the monastery, the community is supposed to be self-sufficient under the direction of the abbot. The talents of the various members are to be applied, according to the discretion of the abbot, in the service of the daily upkeep of the household.

In a monastery we have a gathering of multiple talents, just as we observe in families and in secular society. Painters, carpenters, artists, bakers, cooks, musicians, writers, farmers, etc. each have gifts needed to support the community. As a society, we cannot be self-sufficient without the gifts of all the members. As a family, we cannot do well if everyone doesn’t pitch in to do his/her job to make the house run smoothly and peacefully.

Here’s what Father G. A. Simon wrote about this part of the rule:

It naturally happened that the production surpassed the needs of the house. St. Benedict sees nothing wrong in drawing profit from that production. But what he is anxious about is that the success in a trade or an art and the consideration of the gains which the monastery draws from it do not lead the workman or the artist into temptation. They are to work by the order and under the good pleasure of the Abbot. They are to work also “in all humility.” As the monk’s soul is worth more than the money he earns or the advantages he brings, it is preferable to take him away from his work rather than let him succumb to vainglory….

It is a very frequent temptation that prompts us to glorify ourselves over what we produce, whether the concern is with science, with art, or even with manual labors. We attribute to ourselves an importance which we have not, and this vanity, at first more or less conscious, may end by encumbering our spirit and may prevent our soaring towards God. We are pleased with ourselves, we are somebody, we admire ourselves.

As lay people, many of us without spiritual directors, we must take great caution in the exercise of our talents so that we do all for the honor and glory of God. In fact, one of the mottoes of the Benedictines is “that in all things God may be glorified.” If we make that our starting point, we can consciously admit prior to exercising our talent, that it came from God, that we received grace from God to develop it, that His grace gives us the physical and mental power to accomplish it, and that the purpose is to glorify Him and not ourselves. This means that God can take away what He has given us any time He wants and we have to be ready for that to happen through humility and disinterestedness. We might also add detachment to this duo and make it a trio.

There is nothing like aging to bring this point home. But we can also tell from life circumstances that God may be asking us to put down something and take up something else. It may be through reverses in health, reverses in finances, losses of one sort or another that we see God setting up the barbed wire fences and hedgerows, but at the same time introducing us to fellow travelers on whom we can lean and to whom we may give a gift we didn’t even know we had. This is why I appreciate the Holy Rule of St. Benedict so much and the life circumstances God has gifted me with.  It helps me focus on the really important things like the development of virtue, seeking God’s will, obedience to Him, and always looking and listening for Him.

The other benefit of living the Rule is the understanding of community and our part in it.  “No Man is an Island” is the theme of Meditation XVII by the English Renaissance poet John Donne. St. Benedict would have appreciated Donne’s words. Our highly individualistic society would have us stamp out any sense of connectedness, of authentic generosity towards others, of extending ourselves personally for the good of our neighbor and instead make a god of our government or some athlete or movie star rather than looking to the One, True God who created us in this time and place that we may help one another reach heaven. Today’s world would have us glorify ourselves and we can see the worthlessness of it all when we realize that we can’t take an Oscar or a Nobel Prize into the next world with us, not even that little sports trophy we’re so proud of.

This chapter of the Rule makes me ask myself:

  • What talents is God asking me to use for my local community today?
  • Do I trust that He will take care of my needs when I give away to others what He has given to me?
  • If I make a profit from my talents, who does God want me to share it with?
  • Am I keeping in mind with every undertaking, “that in all things God be glorified”?

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V. Praised be Jesus Christ!

R. Now and forever!

(Click on the link above to read why I end my posts this way.)

This post linked to Sunday Snippets.

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Friday, January 17th, 2014 spirituality

9 Comments to St. Benedict on Humility and Disinterestedness

  1. Thank you for this article on St. Benedict. Beautifully written. I am doing some discernment of my own on my talents and work and trying to find that balance.
    I am going to stop posting Sabbath Moments meme indefinitely. It is one of the things I need to let go of.
    I may post it from time to time if I get inspired to do so as I hope to remember to find those sabbath moments in my life and it may show up on a different day than Saturday! But I wont keep it a meme. Just a post.
    Thanks for joining me all this time. Hope you continue to find sabbath moments in your life! and write about them!
    Colleen recently posted..Deo Gratias – Writing and Other Everyday Stuff

  2. Colleen on January 18th, 2014
  3. I was wondering about that. I liked that meme and credit it with inspiring me to find many Sabbath Moments all the time.

  4. barb on January 18th, 2014
  5. I like it too. However one problem with memes for me is that I feel tied down to them. They have to be a certain day and I have too many deadlines right now! Starting to wear thin.
    I will miss your weekly posts about your sabbath moments. Look forward to seeing some when you are inspired to write about them!
    Colleen recently posted..Sunday Snippets – January 20

  6. Colleen on January 18th, 2014
  7. How long have you been an oblate with the Benedictines? And what did you have to do to become one?

    You raise good points to keep in mind when using our talents and skills. Letting them go, whatever the reason, certainly wouldn’t be easy; in fact, I’d probably fight that every step of the way! I guess I wrestle with whether some new circumstance is God’s will that I must accept or simply a challenge that I have to learn to work around.

    At first, it might seem that a set of rules/principles to guide monks wouldn’t apply very well to those of us who aren’t in the religious life, but you’re doing a good job of pointing out how something like the rule of St. Benedict can work even outside the walls of a monastery or convent.

    Here’s wishing you a happy new year of great blogging!

    Evan

  8. Evan on January 19th, 2014
  9. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I became a Benedictine Oblate in 1998, I think, attached to Conception Abbey because my pastor was a monk of that community. When the Clear Creek monks came from France and were celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass, I began to make personal retreats there once a month and did a rare thing – transferred my oblation from Conception to Clear Creek because I felt a much greater affinity to their radical Benedictine life.

    To become an oblate you must find a Benedictine abbey you want to affiliate with. God will show you through an attraction to the spirit of that particular abbey. All abbeys have an oblate program with a director, so you will be guided through a training period before finally making your oblation and signing it. In my case, I was seeking more in my spiritual life. My pastor gave me a copy of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. I read it and it was so immensely sane in an insane world, so balanced, so conducive to peace of heart, that I knew this was what I had been looking for all my adult life. I became an oblate of Conception because my pastor was from that abbey. The Clear Creek monks weren’t even on the horizon yet, but when they came to Oklahoma I began to drive 4 hours one way to make retreats and receive spiritual direction. I asked permission to switch my oblation and it was granted. It was like coming home. Because of age, infirmity, and finances, I can’t drive there anymore, but every now and then I get to talk to my spiritual director who is now the Abbot. It is genuinely comforting to be connected to these monks, to know that my praying the Divine Office benefits the community and that we are upholding each other before Christ.

    As far as wrestling with letting go of a talent, God makes it pretty clear when He wants a person to drop it. He took away my ability to sing and to be involved with choirs, etc. You can always know because He’s not subtle in slamming doors and opening new ones. The thing is, you have to be prepared to stumble around in the dark for a bit at times until He’s got everything lined up for your next assignment.

  10. barb on January 19th, 2014
  11. This post is packed with wisdom and clarity, as usual, Barbara. My days are going by so quickly, and I forget what the day held so easily, I have to do more reflecting on my stewardship of time and talent, and also some soul searching. The beginning of the year and ordinary time is a good time for that.
    Joann Nelander recently posted..Sunday Snippets–A Catholic Carnival

  12. Joann Nelander on January 19th, 2014
  13. You are so right about the beginning of the year being good for soul searching.

  14. barb on January 19th, 2014
  15. Barb, I just commissioned an icon of St. Benedict from a woman who is a dear friend of Clear Creek…Peggy Shopen! Being Catholic is all connected like that…I love it….beautiful post, by the way!

  16. Charlotte Ostermann on February 3rd, 2014
  17. Thanks, Charlotte. I am addicted to icons, but they had to grow on me as I matured spiritually. Yes, we are all connected, often more than we realize.

  18. barb on February 3rd, 2014

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