The 11th of July is the feast of St Benedict of Norcia (or Nursia for the English-speaking world), an Italian saint from the early Middle Ages whose rule of monastic life has endured throughout the ages. My first taste of the Benedictine life happened many years ago, when I was working in a really demanding job in Canary Wharf. I picked up a little book from the library titled “Finding Sanctuary”, which was written by one of the monks of Worth Abbey. Two years later, I was honoured to meet the author of such a life-changing book in person at one of the many retreats I have been taking at Worth Abbey with a lay Benedictine community.
I do not belong to the lay Benedictines at present (or any other Third Orders for that matter), but these retreats have been a lifeline over the years. They allow me to retreat to the countryside for a few days and immerse myself in the rhythm of the monastic prayer life. However, what the book Finding Sanctuary is about, and what I truly need, is to better incorporate that rhythm into my day to day life. While going to the well to refuel is great and necessary, I have realised that there is so much more I can do to avoid getting there completely empty. Here are 5 things that I have learnt from the Rule of St Benedict for the proverbial busy bee.
Root yourself in prayer
Advocates of specific ways to pray are always adamant that they don’t take quite as long as people think, but the well known Latin catchphrase “Ora et Labora” is about more than creating a habit of prayer in your life. Still, St Benedict left plenty of instruction for corporate prayer and the liturgy of the hours. In a busy work schedule it may be difficult to find the time for the full office, and many laypeople stick to morning and evening prayer, but whether you pray any of the office at all, I find that forced prayer pauses are a simple way to integrate prayer in the rhythm of my life. The popularity of meditation and mindfulness in the secular sphere testifies to the benefit of such spiritual nuggets. A simple way to start would be to set alarms for the Angelus or for the different hours even if you only say a quick prayer. I use the Echo app to send me prayer intention reminders on my phone ever 3 hours (but you can choose your own schedule).
Treat work as part of your discipleship
For St Benedict, work is not a necessary evil but, if approached the right way, it is a good. Whatever your role, it is an opportunity to practice virtues like obedience and self-control, and serve others. Still, we can go deeper. In a world obsessed with career progression and in which the first thing anyone asks you at parties is “What do you do?”, it is easy to find meaning and even a sense of identity in our work, which leaves us dissatisfied when the task at hand is not as exciting as others. Benedict had a lot to say about work and pricing our work that is countercultural, but still all he said rests on two principles we can easily embrace: work should provide our sustenance (so no exploitation or self-exploitation), and expect an encounter with the sacred even in the most menial of tasks. You don’t need to travel the world speaking at Catholic conferences to do God’s work. And, of course, not being lazy in whatever your work requires is also part of this link between faith and works in the rule of St Benedict.
Timekeeping is a spiritual discipline
Chapter 43 of the Rule of St Benedict deals with tardiness. It is specific to the situation of a monastery, but it has some lessons we can draw from other situations. He allows for legitimate excuses at the discretion of the Abbot and even up to about 5 minutes of lateness which have minimal consequences unless a repeated offence, so our battle with public transport and circumstances beyond our control is not what I’m talking about. Being on time when meeting others is of course a sign of respect for them, but what about those times we procrastinate, or take some time before answering our own bells because busy with something that is not urgent or important? Perhaps you too are guilty of the endless Instagram scrolling while leaving Netflix on autoplay? Making a schedule and sticking to it within the realm of what we can reasonably control is another way to embrace the monastic lifestyle outside of a monastery. The fil rouge of the Benedictine way of life is, after all, living a life of moderation.
We need to let go of recognition
Being recognised for the work we do is nice and often needed when we feel discouraged, however there are ways in which we can easily become too attached to recognition and sometimes even get to a point when we do not want to do something anymore because it keeps going unnoticed while someone else gets the credit and career progression opportunities we also want. Humility and a desire to serve God and not man help us to let go of these very understandable human needs, although it is a really hard spiritual journey that takes time so no need to beat ourselves up when we slip. St Benedict was very aware of our human tendency away from humility, and dedicated chapter 7 of the Rule to 12 steps to achieving it. If you think this is a problem that you have and want to work on, you can also pray the Litany of Humility.
Be a good listener
Perhaps I should have started the list with this one, because it is really important, especially at a time when our overuse of smartphones and multitasking has made us all less and less able to focus. We need to be better at listening to God’s voice and to what others say, with both our ears and our hearts. The best known Benedictine practice for listening to God’s voice is lectio divina, which consists of the slow and prayerful reading of a short passage of Scripture 3 times, meditating on its words not as a study of the original meaning but as a way to hear how they speak to us individually. However, we can take this principle and apply it to human communications too. We should listen fully, and not while our brain prepares a response that often rudely interrupts the other person before they even finish, with the intention of understanding what the other person is saying.
Join our conversation on social media to let us know if and how the Rule of St Benedict has impacted your life, and if you will embrace some of these tips if you were new to it all.