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Community and Balance of Work in the Rule of St. Benedict

This is my fourth article offering some reflections based on my reading of Judith Valente’s book, How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing. 2018). You can see the three previous articles as follows: “Being Spiritual in the World Today”, “Striving to be Disciples of Christ.”, and “Overcoming Anger with Prayer.”

Today I would like to continue with what Valente offers from the Rule of St. Benedict in chapter 10 on community and chapter 11 on workaholism.

Are we connected to our neighbors? Valente writes, “I moved into a high rise where hundreds of other people lived. I could actually peer into the living room of the couple who lived in the building next door to mine. I saw them sit down to dinner, and could see what they were watching on TV. The buildings were that close. Yet I felt utterly alone” (88). We live with all kinds of other people around us but do we know who any of them are? Do you know anything about your neighbors? Do you even know their names?

Contrast this to this description that Valente provides from Sister Thomasita Homan of Mount St. Scholastica describing ‘a monastic community as “a place where people agree to link arms, support one another, and help each other grow”‘ (88-89). Now, we can’t know everyone around us but do we have any real community? Who do you spend time with in more than a superficial way necessary for work or needs?

Strong communities seek to work together but there can still be conflict. Here Valente quotes Sister Molly Blockwell, also of Mount St. Scholastica, ‘”What gets confusing sometimes,” she said, “is that we think liking is the same thing as respecting, or loving, or caring for a person. Well, no. Liking comes and goes fast. What we aim for is a deeper relationship – one that says we’re in this together, that there is something bigger going on between us. We can disagree with one another and not see that as a total betrayal or as a chance to hack the other person to pieces, or view each other as a never-ending threat” (90, my emphasis). These words were spoken in the context of a small monastic community but these words, most especially the last sentence need to be heard by many people across the world. Can we have real dialogue with people we disagree with? Can we build unity (community) with people we disagree with?

Can we trust people who have a different opinion than us?

Valente speaks of the time of which St. Benedict wrote his rule as follows: “Faith in public officials, religious leaders, and traditional institutions had faded.” Centuries later, we find these words true today. We need to change this. Valente continues, “Benedict saw a crumbling Roman Empire and refused to crumble with it” (91). What does the Lord ask of us today to love our neighbor, to build community, to build the Kingdom of God?

Can social media help build community? One might think so but do we really know those we “encounter” on social media? Valente comments, “Two-thirds of the people who ask me to “friend” the on Facebook I’ve never even met. As Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister once observed, “Everyone is connected to everyone else, and no one is connected to anybody” (93). Much of the communication on social media is superficial. We don’t really connect or form any real community.

To add to this, it is easy and common on social media to connect with those we agree with (Valente, 93. Pope Francis comments on this in Fratelli Tutti. See my series of articles commenting on this encyclical at “Our Relationships with Others”). At first look, this makes sense but how are we to spread the gospel to people who haven’t heard it if we only communicate with those who agree with us? How are we to learn how to have real dialogue with those we disagree with if we never communicate with them? Of course, we need a strong network of those who share our beliefs. That’s a beginning of evangelization, not an end.

We see the loss of community in our parishes. Groups like Altar and Rosary Society for women and men’s Holy Name groups no longer exist in many parishes. These groups are not the purpose of going to church but the community they offered gave support among its members to be able to live out their faith, knowing they were not alone in what they believed. We need to build community in our parishes.

From here, Valente moves to her next chapter on workaholism. This changes topic some but I would like to continue here because I believe how we view “work” impacts how we look at community.

Speaking of a point in her own life, Valente writes, “In short, I had a job that included my life, not a life that included my job” (101). Does your job control your entire life or does it maintain its proper place as part of your life? As Valente writes, St. Benedict’s Rule can help us find balance (101). “St. Benedict refused to let work overwhelm. He wanted his communities to be productive. He didn’t want people working until they dropped or as if little else mattered” (Valente, 101). Balance!

We must find the work we are created to do with the gifts we have been given (see Valente, 102-103). Work is not something we do only to make money to do what we really want. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to lead us to the work God calls us to.

Remember what I said about “pausing” in the last article, “Overcoming Anger with Prayer” where I quoted Valente, “We all need to pray throughout the day to keep us grounded in faith. The busyness of life can pull us away from prayer. We need moments of prayer. Valente writes, “African tribesman who lead safaris know the value of pausing…They say they are trying to let our souls catch up with them on the journey” (71). As Valente later writes, “Increasingly, time management experts are recognizing the importance of pausing and of working more slowly, deliberately, and intentionally” (105). We need balance. We need depth. We need meaning, not mere superficiality.

The Rule of St. Benedict has much to offer us. So does Valente. I’ll write more soon.

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

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