How Shall We Live?
There is a clear beacon for our darkening but beautiful world. It’s from the sixth century, when a single monk chose to live a life that made the world new.
This article appeared in our December 2003 issue.
We live in a moment in human history that calls for the deepest wisdom and will require holy struggle on behalf of all creation to resist chaos. The map of the world is changing. People are starving to death on the television screens in our family rooms. People who have worked hard all their lives fear for their retirement while we continue to invest more money in Neanderthal instruments of destruction, which in this new geopolitical world appear increasingly useless, than we do on human development.
What is the spirituality we need for the 21st century? We lace a choice: to retire from this fray into some marshmallow paradise where we can massage away the heat of the day, the questions of the time, the injustice of the age, and live like pious moles in the heart of a twisted world. Or, we can gather our strength — our spiritual strength — for the struggle it will take to wake up from this pious sleeps.
An Ancient Model for Today
In fifth-century Europe, the Roman Empire, then the superpower, was in decline, and the world was a restless, seething, fearsome place. The Church had become more temporal power than spiritual leader. With the breakdown of Roman government, the highway system was unguarded, and piracy and pillage were commonplace. No one was safe. Barbarians were crashing with a vengeance through once-tight borders. Slavery, the exploitation of one set of human beings by another, was a given.
The Western world was awash with the defenseless poor. Their lands were gone, their governments in chaos; families, tribes, and cities were fractured everywhere. Rome itself had been sacked by vandals. Force had become a substitute for government. Power was the drug of choice. All society’s little people were ground up, ground down, ground to dust by competition for it.
No institution was big enough to confront this global chaos, no organization mighty enough to calm this storm. Why? Because the very people who were appalled by it, oppressed by it, destroyed by it, supported it. The very people who had the most to gain by its reform sustained it. How? Simply by assuming that nothing else was possible and that nothing else could be done, that circumstances were unchangeable.
There are always those who accept, approve, or surrender to the system, and those who do not. In the sixth century, one young man resolved to change the system, not by confronting it but by eroding its credibility. He simply decided to change people’s opinions about what life had to be by choosing to live differently, by refusing to accept the contemporary morality, by organizing communities, outlawing slavery where he could, sharing goods, caring for the earth, and teaching a new view of our place in the universe. And because of his example, thousands did the same. Thousands more, in villages, capitals, and cities all over Europe, did the same.
The young man was Benedict of Nursia, whom we now call Saint, when what we mean, surely, is icon, model, star, hero, Christian. The Benedictine values maintained the social order in Europe, safeguarded learning, gave refuge to vulnerable travelers, and made rules for war that at least reduced the chaos. Those values transformed Europe into a garden again, embodying the equality of peoples and providing a link between heaven and earth.
The Most Important Question
How was this transformation achieved, and what does it have to do with us in America at this moment in history? After 9/11, who are we? What questions are we asking? Surely, the major social question of the time is not why a fundamentalist extremist called Osama bin Laden struck out, but rather, why students danced in the streets to celebrate him and mock us. Ask the Benedictine question: Why?
The answer, I suggest, is that what does not live in us cannot thrive in our society. Benedict demanded far more than private religious exercises which, good and necessary as they are, risk becoming more personal comfort than spiritual growth. He modeled a way of walking through the world that made it a better place. If the 21st century needs anything, it may well be a return to the life-giving vision of Benedict the Illuminated One. Perhaps we need a new reverence for bold Benedictine wisdom if civilization is to be saved again — and this time, the very planet preserved.
We live in a world of knowledge and technology aplenty, but one that is clearly lacking in wisdom and spirituality. We are taught to want money, to retire as early as possible, to get ahead whatever the cost to others, to worship at the altar of the self, and to be in control of everything and everyone at all times.
But those values are a recipe for extinction, a blueprint for human destruction. They are precisely the values that have destroyed the rainforests, melted the polar ice cap, and deprived peasant farmers of their lands. These values have left babies of color dead in their mothers’ bony arms, old women to sleep in public parks, and one out of five preschool children in the United States in poverty. In the richest nation in the world, 20 million are hungry and 40 million have no health insurance.
The values that saved Western Europe in a social climate akin to our own today were creative work, not making profits; holy leisure, not escapism; stewardship, not exploitation; loving community, not individualism raised to the level of pathology; humility, not arrogant superiority; and a commitment to peace, not vengeance or domination. Today, just as 1,500 years ago, those values have been foresworn. We dearly need them again.
The modern concept of work is polarized between the workaholic and the pseudo-contemplative. Workaholics work because work is the only value they have. Or because they want to avoid anything else in life, such as family, prayer, or living. Or because they don’t really want to work, but they want money, more money.
Pseudo-contemplatives, on the other hand, want to gaze into space or reflect. They spend every new year of life processing last year’s. Nobody tells them, “It’s over. You can go on now.” Pseudo-contemplatives have missed the point that Adam and Eve were put in the garden to till it, not gaze upon it, to live off it, not lounge in it like pigs in mud. They were put there to co-create it.
So the young visionary Benedict required specified periods for manual labor, prayer, and prayerful reading. He did not concern himself with saccharine pieties or theological niceties. He set out to save the world by weaving creative work and meditative or contemplative practice.
To Benedict, work was to be done with a vision. Laziness and irresponsibility, oppression and exploitation, the insane production of weapons of global destruction, and the ravishment of the planet all are, to the Benedictine mind, forms of injustice and theft because they tear the world down rather than build it up.
Work is our gift to the world. It binds us to the rest of humankind and to the future. It saves us from self-centeredness and leads to fulfillment. It lets us give back as much as we take from life.
But the work of this century has become, at least for us, what we call security. Annual defense spending by the United States is three times the combined annual defense spending of Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. This year, we are spending anywhere from 47 to 80 percent of the 2004 budget on the military, depending on how you calculate. If you include the necessary borrowing, the price of homeland security, and the cost of the current war, you understand then why next year we will be cutting back on subsidies for housing, Head Start, and medicine. We can’t afford development. So infected have science, industry, and the political process become by inflated military contracts that we doggedly, patriotically, and immorally resist downsizing the military-industrial complex for fear that the country will be economically damaged. But the simplest arithmetic tells us that spending a billion dollars on the production of guided missiles creates about 9,000 jobs. If we spent the same amount of money on pollution control, it would create 16,000 jobs. A billion dollars on local transit creates 21,000 jobs; and a billion dollars on educational services creates 63,000 jobs. According to Employment Research Associates, a $40 billion economic conversion program in this country could bring a net gain of more than 650,000 jobs.
If we had the Benedictine spirituality of creative work, we could do it. The goal of life is not to get out of working, but to work and work and work, because the world is unfinished and it is our responsibility to keep building and creating.
Leisure is as essential to Benedictine spirituality as work. But real leisure, holy leisure, Sabbath leisure, contemplative leisure, has more to do with our quality of life and depth of vision than it does with play or vacations. The rabbis taught that the purpose of Sabbath was threefold: First, to free the poor as well as the rich for at least one day a week. Nobody had to take an order from anybody on the Sabbath. The second purpose was to give people time to evaluate their work as God evaluates creation, to see if their work is really life giving. And finally, Sabbath leisure allowed people to contemplate the meaning of life.
The purpose of holy leisure is to bring lives gone askew back into balance, to allow time for a contemplative as well as a productive life. When people sleep in metro stations, it’s holy leisure that asks why. When during the Iraqi war of 1991, 200,000 soldiers and 100,000 civilians, most of them children, were exterminated in 43 days and their land made desolate, it’s holy leisure that asks how such a thing can possibly be of God if we are truly a Christian and civilized people. Now 12 years later, a reporter asked a high-ranking official why there were no estimates reported of the number of Iraqi dead. The answer was, “That is a number in which I have no interest whatsoever.” It is holy leisure that breaks the secular silence and asks the Sabbath question, “Why don’t you:
Holy leisure is the foundation of contemplation. In Benedictine spirituality, life is not divided into parts, one holy and the other mundane — all of life is holy. All of life’s actions bear the scrutiny of all of life’s ideals, and all of life is to be held in anointed hands.
We have covered the earth with concrete. In 20 years, Chicago has added 46 percent more landmass in mini-malls while its population grew only 4 percent. And we wonder why children have little respect for the land. While we pump pollution into our skies we question growing rates of lung cancer and the incidence of childhood asthma in the United States alone. We’re producing items that don’t decay. We’re packaging things in containers that can’t be recycled. We’re filling our food with preservatives that are poisoning the human body. And we wonder why we don’t feel well today. Worst of all, we’ve failed to see any of these things as moral, spiritual questions. In Africa and Bangladesh, drought is destroying food supplies for years to come. But every time we use a product that emits a toxin contributing to global warming, you and I contribute in our own small way to that drought. Stewardship demands that we reverse these trends. The world’s poor are suffering, and it is we who are creating that suffering for so many who cry out to us for help.
The U.S. produces 163 metric tons of garbage — 401 pounds for every United States citizen, starting with me. Much of what the world cannot dispose of is made of the Styrofoam cups we use and the tin cans we discard rather than recycle. Meanwhile the rest of the world reuses three to five times as much material as we do. In the same way, what we spray on our gardens and inject into our animals ruins human health around the world.
We must incorporate these concerns into our own spiritual lives so that others can be safe. If I will not serve poisoned food to my family, then because I have internalized Benedictine spirituality, I will write postcards to legislators asking them to see that our food production processes do not poison others. I’ll support the local food bank or soup kitchen to see that the hungry are fed. I will join a group interested in ecology. I’ll spend money I earn the hard way to give to groups that work to make the world better for everyone.
We exist to be miracle workers for one another, and in community we are called to see God in the other. In community we see our emptiness filled by the other. It is community that calls me beyond the pinched horizons of my own life, my own country, my own race, and gives me the gifts I do not have within me. But Americans, you and I, have been groomed for independence and self-sufficiency, not community. So prevailing is the syndrome that in our lifetimes, for the first time in history, narcissism, the inordinate and insulating love of self, has been added to the DMS 3 handbook of mental illnesses in this country.
Narcissism has become a hallmark of American culture. The idea that we, above all the others in the world, are unique, superior, and entitled to expect endless resources, cheap energy, and high wages here, thanks to slave wages there, has become a signature of the American dream. It’s also a sin against human community. The function of community is to enable us to be about something greater than ourselves. Today’s culture tells us that we ourselves are enough to be concerned about, and that if we do that, everything else will take care of itself. I take care of me; you take care of you, that’s going to be good for everybody.
But that kind of unenlightened altruism has brought us to a deterioration of the centers of our own cities, while the suburbs flourish and the greatest corporate greed that the world has ever known has created a sense of human alienation that is corroding our neighborhoods, our children, our culture, and the very core of American life. In a world without a sense of human community, all of life becomes a television screen — remote, unreal, unreachable. We sit in the fortresses we call our homes — small, isolated and insular — fearing the Arabs and the Koreans and the gays and blacks and anyone we don’t know, while life goes by and we miss its richness.
A Benedictine spirituality of community calls for more than togetherness. Togetherness is very cheap community. Benedictine community calls for the open mind and open heart. Benedict called for minds open to the shattering implications of the Scriptures. Jesus was an assault on every closed mind in Israel. To those who thought that illness was punishment for sin, Jesus called for openness. To those who considered tax collectors incapable of salvation, Jesus called for openness. To those who believed that the Messiah had to be a military figure to be real, Jesus called for nonviolent openness.
The Benedictine heart, the heart that saved Europe before us, is a place without boundaries, a place where the truth of the oneness of human community shatters all barriers, refuses all prejudices, welcomes all strangers, listens to all voices, black and white, Arab and Jew, male and female. The data are in. The world is an electronic, commercial, political village. We cannot, you and I, go on much longer simply nodding to the neighbors in the parking lot after church, in the name of hospitality and community. We must begin to see the immorality of being socially, globally, unconscious and narcissistic, and calling it the free market and the free world.
Benedict makes the keystone of his rule of life a chapter on humility that he wrote for Roman men in a society that valued power and independence at least as much as ours does. But it is humility, Benedict taught, that provides the basis for community and union with God. The first degree of humility, the Rule of Benedict teaches, is to keep the fear of God always before one’s eyes. We must ask what God wants for the world, rather than simply what we want.
We’ve made ourselves the gods of the 21st century to whom the rest of the world pays tribute, asking sacrifices from those least able to afford it. Yet even our own children lack food. I live in the ghetto where our soup kitchen and pantry are the only lifeline for many of our neighbors: elderly women, sick men, educationally limited teenagers, America’s new permanent underclass. While our politicians compete for office on the size of their tax breaks for the wealthy, we abhor welfare for the poor in the form of food stamps, subsidized housing, and day care. Welfare for the rich that we call tax breaks, we applaud.
Like the Greeks and Romans, we continue to enslave peoples for their own good. We require Third World nations to spend less and less on schools and health and roads for their own people so that the poorest people in the world can pay the richest people in the world for debts that the richest people pressed them to take, and that they have repaid in interest over and over again. By exploiting labor and resources that belong to others, Western corporations have bound the feet of people all over the world, making it impossible for them to move ahead. And then they say what we give them is better than nothing.
We need the wisdom of humility now. We need that quality of life that makes it possible for people to see beyond themselves, to value the other, to touch the world gently and peacefully and make the whole world better as we go.
Benedictine spirituality is a spirituality consciously designed to disarm the heart, to soften the soul, to quiet the turmoil within. It is a vision of nonviolence in a world for which violence is the air we breathe, the songs we sing, the national anthem we embrace, the heroes we worship, and the business we do. At one time in this country, when I was a high school teacher, wheat was our major export. Now, I would have to teach that weapons are.
Be soft with others, the Rule teaches, and you will have peace. Be simple in your needs, and you will have peace. Be humble in what you demand of life, and you will have peace. Be giving in what you take to life, and you will have peace. Refuse to make war on the innocent others in order to vanquish your political enemies, and you will have peace. Stop the wars within yourself, and you will have peace.
Imagine a World…
Peace comes from not allowing any one part of us to control others. Peace depends on our being gentle with ourselves, gentle with the earth, and gentle with the other.
Imagine a world where small children are not being jerked down supermarket aisles in the name of family discipline. Imagine a world where it would be possible to watch television in your home for one whole night on any station and not be subjected to shootouts, beatings, muggings, and rapes in the name of entertainment. Imagine a world where people could find good jobs without having to be part of a war machine designed to destroy the earth. Imagine a world where other races and nations and peoples are not demonized to justify our policies and postures. But more important, perhaps, imagine a home where members of the family do not shout at one another or slap one another into subjection or bully one another into compliance, or intimidate one another into domestic slavery. Imagine a home where being a little boy does not mean having to prove yourself with fists or with your willingness to either give or take pain. Imagine a home where both boys and girls, women and men, could cry.
Imagine what your own life, what our life as a people would really be like if we ourselves forgave, really forgave, our families, our colleagues, our children, and our spouses. Imagine your own life, your whole life, centered on creative work, holy leisure, stewardship, community, humility, and peace. And then call yourself a contemplative.
Would your one life, my one life, possibly make any difference? Well, the rabbis teach that when Moses tapped the shore with his staff, the waters did not roll back. And when he tapped the water with his staff nothing happened. But when the first Jew walked into the water, then the Red Sea parted and Israel was saved. The miracle of the Red Sea was not the parting of the water, but that the first Jew walked in. Only then did the others follow.
We can ignore and accept things as they are or we can choose to grapple with them. We can surrender to them or we can struggle to change them. We can run away from the call to contemplation, or we can embrace it with both wisdom and action, taking our disintegrating world back again one heart at a time, starting with yours and mine. And we can, if we will, like Moses and Benedict and one solitary Jew at the edge of the Red Sea, take the first step to lead our own people to new life.
In the face of profit and comfort, exploitation and narcissism, superiority and domination, let us beseech God for the wisdom to take action. Like the ancients let us beg God, now and always, forever and everywhere, to stir up holy warfare in our souls so that we refuse to be either executioners or victims in a world rife with oppressors and oppressed. Let us resolve to follow this fiery-eyed Benedict of Nursia, whose one life illuminated the Western world. Let us, in other words, live Benedictine spirituality and so illuminate our own darkening but beautiful world.
What Is a Rule?
Monks and nuns are famously poor at following society's rules: They give without expecting to receive, refuse to look out for number one, and never save money in an IRA. But they devotedly follow the Rule. It's a document, often crafted by the order's founder, giving guidelines and practices for every aspect of life. The most famous is probably the Rule of St. Benedict, the one from which Joan Chittister draws wisdom in this article.
To learn more about rules, and how to create one for your own life, read "Balancing Life by the Rule" by Debra Farrington from the Winter 2001 issue of S&H.