Last week I started a new series of articles reflecting on 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) with my article, “Being Spiritual in the World Today.” She uses the Rule of St. Benedict as the basis for this book as well as shaping the way she lives her own life.
Today, I pick up with chapter 5 where she discusses on “The Tools for Good Works” as found in the rule. She starts by quoting St. Benedict’s words, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way” (37). These words remain true today. Our faith should not conform to the world. Rather, the world should be formed by our faith. This is easier said then done. It is much easier to conform to what it is going on around us that it is to follow Jesus.
As Christians we are called to follow Jesus’ teaching. His teaching was not radically different from what we find in the Old Testament. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount (The Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7), Jesus does not eliminate the Ten Commandments. Rather, He builds our understanding of them, helping us to live as better disciples. As I often say, God did not give us commandments because they were good for him. He gave us commandments to be tools to help us be good disciples (see Valente, 37ff).
As she discusses tools, Valente quotes St. Benedict, “You must relieve the lot of the poor, “clothe the naked, visit the sick” (Mt 25:36), and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing…Harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy. Do not love quarreling, shun arrogance. Respect the elders and love the young. Pray for you enemies out of love of Christ. If you have a dispute with someone make peace before the sun goes down” (40). If we do all this, we will become better disciples.
Yet, it is a struggle. As Valente writes, “I can read the “Tools for Good Works.” I can intellectually understand them, I can even try to engrave them on my heart. But it is still not no guarantee I will live them. For all of us, living with these tools requires a lifetime of practice” (43). Here I think of Jesus’ words, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Here I make a distinction between those who make a free choice to not follow Jesus’ teaching and those of us who do our best to follow Jesus but fall short at times because “the flesh is weak.” Here, we are very grateful that we can confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and receive forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus giving his life for us on the Cross.
Moving to chapter 6 in Valente’s book, we come to her discussion of what the Rule of St. Benedict says about silence. Today’s world is a very noisy place. The Rule of St. Benedict teaches us to embrace silence when St. Benedict writes, “There are times when even good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence” (45).
Valente mentions how Thomas Merton found activity making him ill while he found “deep peace, recollection, and happiness” in silence (46). The world today seems to run from silence in the midst of cell phones and social media while the monastic life seeks “silence and solitude” (Valente, 47). We are not all called to live with monastic silence. That does not mean we cannot embrace a proper balance with silence in our own lives and the world we live in.
When you are with friends and family, do you allow yourselves to be silent or do you think that there needs to be constant conversation (see Valente 47-48 from a story about Antony from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)? Valente offers us the following words from the sisters at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery regarding whether we should speak or not, “Before you open your mouth to speak,” they say, “ask yourself three questions: Is what I am about to say true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” (48). How often would we avoid sin if we asked these ourselves these three questions before we speak about others?
We use our words better to praise God than to speak ill of others.
When we allow ourselves to be silent, we find ourselves noticing things we never noticed before (see Valente, 50). I used to be one to always turn the TV on as soon as I walked in the door at home. Now, I don’t have cable. I do watch a few shows through the Internet but I find peace in the silence without the TV on. When driving the car, I always used to turn the radio on. Now, I often pray or appreciate the scenery.
We all need some solitude. This doesn’t require us to be hermits. In fact, over time we can learn to find solitude within ourselves even in the midst of others (see Valente, 51). Valente provides the following from Merton, “Solitude is not something you hope for in the future. Rather it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present, you will never find it” (51).
Not all silence is good. For an example of bad silence, Valente speaks of the silence covering up the sexual abuse crisis in the church. God did not want this silence. God desires truth.
What is good silence? Valente writes, “I like to think of silence as orienting us toward the right direction. It is the pause between thought and action – the element that gives gravitas and greater meaning to the word we do speak” (52).
Do you run from silence? Does it seem foreign? Do you fill silence with words or do you allow yourself to be silent and embrace the Spirit in the silence? Silence is a great tool in seeking God.