There are few people, to whom a greater debt is owed by Western civilisation collectively than St Benedict, whose feast we celebrated yesterday. Born at the collapse of the Roman Empire, in Nursia, in northern Italy, Benedict’s monasteries were what preserved the best of Western culture and learning, subsequently passing it on to later generations. Initially, Benedict went away into the wilderness, to live life as a hermit, seeking God, away from the disintegration and chaos that now characterised the once glorious Roman empire. His sanctity, however, attracted several people, who came to him, asking for his spiritual guidance. Over a period of time, Benedict founded monasteries, where those who came to him, lived a common life, under a rule of life and in obedience to their spiritual father, Benedict, who became their first Abbot. The Rule of St Benedict has, since then, continued to inspire, guide and form monks in their way of life. It is a rule full of spiritual insight and pastoral wisdom. Benedictines, even today, take the same vows for their common life that they first took under Benedict, which is indicated in their rule. These vows are different from – though containing within them – the poverty, chastity and obedience usually professed by religious. Benedictines take vows of obedience, stablitas(stability) and conversatio morum (conversion of life). Strangely, it provides a wonderful lens through which to hear the parable of the sower from our gospel today. The Rule begins with a Prologue, even the first few lines of which, summarises the spirituality of the rule:
Listen, my son to your Father’s instruction
and incline the ear of your heart to my words.
Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father's advice,
that by the labour of obedience you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
In the first few lines, the Rule also encompasses the spirituality of the vows taken by Benedictine monks. It begins with the call to listen, with the ears of one’s heart. This word carries with it, all the force of the Scriptures, from the Jewish Shema (listen) to the Listen! constantly addressed by Jesus before his teachings (Matt 13:18, Mk 4:3). The Rule calls out to the one who has gone astray on the way of life, in the manner of the Prodigal Son. He is called to pause, and listen; to take note of his situation, his surroundings, to the voice echoing within his heart. This is the voice of a loving Father. Hearing it, he is to turn first and foremost as he begins his return, through the labourof obedience. He returns to him where he will find his home and he can become fully who he is. The word ‘obedience’ comes from two Latin words, which literally mean ‘to listen towards’. The one who first hears and experiences the love of the Father in his wandering, is to turn – or convert his life – and to find his way back, towards a home. Here he can put down his roots (stabilitas) and find himself. Beginning with this Prologue, we can now hear the parable of the sower.
At the beginning of the book of parables, Jesus gives us a parable to ask us how well we listen. We are given four different soils, four attitudes of the heart, three of which cannot receive the Word. The seed, as it lands, reveals the kind of soil it is – a negative pointer, but nevertheless a path towards holiness.
First comes the pathway, the place where people tread, causing it to harden. If we are given over to a lifestyle that has permanently compromised with sin, that part of our life will become hardened to the Word of God. Over time, in treading upon the voice of our conscience, we can snuff out our ability to hear the God’s Word regarding our state. Our particular ideologies, experiences of life can all contribute towards this hardening. One can be trampled on by being betrayed in relationships, the abuse of trust, repeated disappointments and so on. This is the person, gone wayward, whom the Rule addresses, right at the beginning.
Then, there are those with no roots. In the Rule, Benedict talks about different kinds of monks. The Cenobites are those, who live under a Rule and in obedience to an Abbot, like in the Benedictine communities. These are the ones Benedict favours and addresses. He also speaks of the Sarabites and Gyrovagues. The first are a small group of monks who decide to live together but without an Abbot. They create a rule for themselves out of bits and pieces they take from everywhere or worse, have no particular rule at all. In putting together a path for oneself, rather than receiving the spiritual path as gift – something which you receive, rather than control – it does nothing to tame the ego, the stubborn self-will. Since this life is self-constituted, according to one’s own comforts, a difficulty that arises will mean that the monk is tempted to reform the rule rather than reform himself. In doing so, he misses the crucial aspect that obedience brings about; he is still a slave to his own will. But the latter are worse. They wander from community to community and never settle down. They never learn to embody the stabilitas, so crucial to the Cenobitic path to holiness. London today, in some ways, is full of Gyrovagues, people wandering from place to place, community to community, relationship to relationship, and never settling down. Largely, this is also due to the number of people who find themselves single (not necessarily through any fault of their own). It is quite unique in history, just in terms of numbers, that there are so many people today who are single. Being single though, does not mean being vocation-less. There are multiple paths to sanctity within it. The danger, however, as Benedict would have seen it, the particular seduction of the single life,comes in living as a slave to one’s own ego. Similar to the latter classes of monks, one is free to walk away from a relationship, a job, a community that becomes difficult. The seed takes root, only to die in the sun’s heat. One who is married, with a family, has all kinds of constraints put on her, in taking care of her children to working to keeping the house in order. One has to constantly think of the other and work towards serving them, several times against one’s natural inclinations. This is a constant purification of one’s own ego, a dying to one’s own will. Here, one is rooted within a community. It has a lot of joy within it, but one does not leave during times of distress. It is a growth in stability and virtue.
And then, we come to the thorny soil. The seed can take root in this soil. It is good news. These would be the Cenobites, rooted in their monastery and with the beginnings of stabilitas. These thorns, however, which can be thought of as one’s controlling vices, choke the spiritual life without letting it produce any fruit. The vices arise from one’s idols, money, sex and power being the primary three. The conversatio morum the monk is called towards, is to clear these thorns, through growth in virtue. Benedict saw his monasteries as workshops of virtue. It was where the labour of obedience was lived out. There was always a lot of labouring in the monasteries, as they lived within a strict rhythm of work, prayer and rest. This labouring was as physical as it was mental and spiritual. It helped focus one’s mind, strengthen it against his wayward thoughts and desires, as he increased in stabilitas. This stabilitas means the monk is becomes more and more open to listening to the voice of God, whether from the Scriptures, in his daily Lectio, or from his Abbot. His growth in virtue causes him to choose according to the Spirit’s inspirations more freely. But he has to listen every day. This listening, is what gives him the spiritual strength and inspiration to carry out his conversion. It’s however always possible to be rooted in these and our own communities, yet live without true conversion, without eradicating our idols. Many times, we can be even aware of our faults. But conversion requires an ongoing letting go of the self-will, through a path of action, which can be painful, be it in small or big ways. Maybe the Word convicts you to spend better time with your family, and you do obey – but if you’re checking your phone every five minutes, while spending time with them, it won’t be fruitful. One could feel God calling them to deeper prayer. But that might require going to bed earlier to get up to pray. It would mean prioritising and making more sacrifices for which one is not ready. We don’t become free to love the way God calls us.
And finally, there’s good soil, that bears fruit. Good soil is soil that is broken. When one has been broken open, maybe even through the hardships of life, rather than hardening it, their heart becomes fertile soil for the Word. In reality, rather than being four mutually exclusive soils, these can all dwell in the same heart. The most hardened criminal will have pockets of brokenness, and holy people will have areas where they are blind. But if the seed can find that broken soil, if we can respond in that first calling, and yield to the grace that the seed brings with it, then the rest of the soils can be similarly broken open. Through a continual conversatio morum, all of the soils can become whole, bearing fruit in thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.