Skip to comments.Applying St. Benedict's Rule to Fatherhood and Family Life - Using 6th-Century Wisdom Today
Posted on 08/19/2004 5:57:41 AM PDT by NYer
CHIPPENHAM, England, AUG. 18, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A Benedictine oblate and father of four has discovered how to relate the guidelines of St. Benedict to his domestic church.
Dwight Longenecker, an American-born author and broadcaster who has lived in England for more than 20 years, penned his application of the Rule of St. Benedict to family life in his book, "Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers" (Morehouse).
He shared with ZENIT how the wisdom of the father of religious life can help modern dads humbly guide their families and provide loving discipline.
Q: Briefly, what are the main tenets of the Rule of St. Benedict?
Longenecker: St. Benedict's rule is a simple but profound set of guidelines for community life in sixth-century Italy. At the heart of the rule are the three Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.
But in a sense, the spirit of the rule is the most important thing. St. Benedict's rule has survived because he had a deep understanding of human psychology, he tempered discipline with compassion and he saw the spiritual quest as a joyful pursuit of God within the structures of ordinary life. It is this joyous delight in everyday spirituality that makes the rule come alive for so many.
Q: What inspired you to apply the rule to parenting, particularly fatherhood?
Longenecker: As a Benedictine oblate I have studied the rule and tried to live by its spirit for some time. When I married and we were blessed with children, the simple principles of living together under God's love that St. Benedict taught seemed right for family life.
I was struck by the opening words of the rule: "Listen my Son ... turn you ear to the advice of a loving Father." When I sat down and read the rule through the eyes of a natural father I saw how so many of the principles and guidelines offered good advice for families.
The advice for families is excellent because of the inner dynamic of the rule. St. Benedict was not writing a great and lofty treatise on prayer or spirituality. He was writing a practical rule for ordinary people to live together. He expected them to work hard, read hard and pray hard. His rule therefore applies to family life because it is about the grace-full blend of prayer, work and living together.
Q: What aspects the Rule of St. Benedict relate the best to parenting?
Longenecker: St. Benedict has sections on the discipline of monks, which help us to reconsider the need for loving discipline in the home.
His guidelines on prayer help us to structure a simple but effective prayer life for families, and his practical advice on living together in peace and with open communications help families to work together on the difficult lessons of love.
Most importantly, I wished for the Benedictine spirit to come through my commentary on the rule. St. Benedict's ideal is that each member of the community be valued and loved unconditionally.
Discipline is always for the good of the person being disciplined -- not for the comfort of the abbot or even for the good of the community. Every member of the community is expected to obey and serve one another in love, not simply obey the abbot in a militaristic fashion.
These principles establish the home as the primary Christian community; therefore, it becomes the primary building block of a larger Christian community and a Christian culture of love.
Q: What particular challenges do fathers face in guiding their families?
Longenecker: Fatherhood is under threat today. The forces of feminism, homosexuality and secularism attack patriarchy, but truth will always triumph. Children need fathers.
Of course there are many bad fathers who have done great damage, but we rarely hear that there are also many bad mothers who have done great damage to children.
Blaming others does no good. The response to bad fathers is not to get rid of all fathers, but to encourage good fathering. There is a longing in all of our hearts for strong, loving and spiritual father figures.
Men today need to take their fathering role seriously. If they do not have good father-figure role models themselves, then they need to get some. They should not be ashamed to join men's groups that nurture and strengthen their masculinity -- but this masculinity needs to be fully Christ-like.
It needs to be strong, but not be ashamed to have a tender heart. If men can get themselves sorted out, then they will in turn help their sons and daughters to be strong, pure and noble children of God.
Q: How is being a father of children similar to being an abbot -- like St. Benedict -- of monks?
Longenecker: The word "abbot" comes from the same root as the word Jesus used for God -- "abba." Abbot therefore means "father," and the relationship between the abbot and his monks from the very beginning of the rule is essentially that of a father to his sons. The similarities to natural fathering run through almost every page of the rule.
It is interesting that the relationship between abbot and novice monk grows through the rule in a very subtle manner.
At first, the novice is expected to obey the abbot instantly and without question. Later, the relationship matures so that the instant obedience is tempered with proper questioning and a sense that the monks should be just as obedient to each other.
This reflects the relationship of the father to his children as they mature and become more responsible. The relationship flowers into one of confidence and mutual love.
It may be controversial to say so, but the relationship between father and child is also crucial to our relationship with God. Like it or not, our human psychology is arranged in such a manner that our picture of "father"' invariably becomes our picture of God.
If fathering is faulty, our theology will be faulty. If fathering is excellent, we will have -- as individuals and a society -- an excellent image of God.
Q: According to St. Benedict, what kind of man should an abbot -- or a father -- be? What sort of a community should he strive to create in his home?
Longenecker: There is a long chapter at the beginning of the rule on what sort of man the abbot should be, and point by point it can be applied to the sort of man a Christian father should be.
Essentially, the abbot is a strong, loving, mature man who is clothed in the grace of Christ. He considers his responsibilities and authority as from God, and is therefore humbled and bears the authority with great awe -- never lording it over others, but treating each one of his charges with tenderness and total attention. The Christian home is "ruled" by the father, but in a spirit of total self-giving and loving attention for the needs of all.
This is a very high ideal, but it is a beautiful one, and one that we should not apologize for simply because some fathers have abused it. St. Benedict's abbot -- and therefore the Christian father in the home -- should call constantly on God for help and realize that he relies on grace to sustain him at all times.
Furthermore, when we fail to reach the ideal we need to be humble enough to ask forgiveness both from God and from our wives and children.
This is very important because children need to know that their fathers are not only fallible, but able to recognize their own frailty and ask forgiveness for their failings. If children see their father ask forgiveness they will not mind when they are asked to exercise the same humility.
Q: Are there any guidelines in the rule that parents should not try to apply to their children?
Longenecker: St. Benedict allows for young monks to be beaten severely if necessary, and many modern parents might cringe at this.
They would also find his demands for instant and unquestioning obedience to be harsh. But the overall spirit of St. Benedict's rule is that he demands "nothing harsh -- nothing burdensome."
There are also some specific rules that don't apply to modern family life because they have to do with only monastic life or simply because they were written for Italians in the sixth century. St. Benedict tells his monks, for instance, not to sleep with their swords on, and gives them specific dietary and clothing rules.
I have tried to get behind the specific rules to understand St. Benedict's motivations; once we do that, we can see the reasons for the specific rules and apply them as necessary in the modern world.
Q: How else do you think St. Benedict's rule can be applied to modern life by ordinary lay people?
Longenecker: The other Benedictine book I have written is called "St. Benedict and St. Thérèse -- The Little Rule and the Little Way."
In this book I've drawn the principles from Benedictine spirituality and seen the parallels in the life and teachings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The connections are remarkable. One saint is like the grand old man of religious life while the other is the little child.
Both saints saw God at work within the ordinary events of everyday life, and it is this underlying principle that really enlivens the rule of St. Benedict.
For both St. Benedict and St. Thérèse, "God is not elsewhere." They believe God is present in the joys and sorrows of our everyday lives, and the spiritual quest is the quest to see God's mighty hand in all his works -- especially in the little things of life.
Dwight Longenecker is an American who went to England over twenty years ago, and never found his way home. He went there after escaping from Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English. In England he pretended to be an Inkling while studying theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church and he now writes regularly for over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.
From Bible-based Fundamentalist to Anglican to Catholic . . . long trip!
Very nice article. The author nails it on the head regarding fatherhood.
Is it just me, or did anyone else think of a cold beer as the good man's name was mentioned??? Good thing Friday's coming! :-)
Pax et bonum!
If you are comparing this to mershon's criticism of having an over-positive outlook, then you misunderstand the meaning of the joy traditionally derived from the rule of St. Benedict. This is not the "turn that frown upside down" positivism that mershon was critizing. It is the interior joy that comes from a lifelong martyrdom for the sake of God.
I have been to several traditional Benedictine monasteries (not the modern variety that take vacations and have tv's and entertainment rooms). In interviews with these monks the word joy was used more than once. Walk around the monastery, though, and you don't see cheesy smiles, you don't hear giggling or cackling laughter, and you don't get the feeling that you are on the set of Howdy Doody Time (as I do often around some over positive novus ordo priests). The monks don't even speak to one another unless the situation calls for it, greeting each other with a simple bow of the head as they pass. There is silence, the mood is solemn, and there is a very distinct feeling that you are treading sacred ground. This is the joy of martyrdom, the joy of conformity to the will of God.
In St. Bernard's "In the Steps of Humility" he dealt with the 7th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict, and the twelve degrees of humility laid out in that chapter. I will list the first 3.
"12) The twelfth degree of humility is to show humility of heart and behaviour by always having the head bowed and the eyes downcast.
11) A monk should speak in few and sensible words, gently, and without laughter.
10) He should not be ready to laugh and giggle at the slightest provocation."
Contrary to these he lists the 12 degrees of pride, the third degree being "Frivolity, which is shown by over-readiness to laugh."
The modernists don't understand true joy, and never will. For them it is a feeling of frivolity and a lack of suffering. For them joy means everything is going well, not a cloud in the sky, no suffering, everyone likes me, and I am going to walk around singing "Put a smile on your face brother bob!" This is what mershon is criticizing.
The joy that is true joy is found in the way of the cross, in suffering, in trials, in temptations, in humiliation, and even in our own failure. That is the joy of Benedictine life.
I agree with it. I have some familiarity with St. Benedict, but more with St. Ignatius of Loyola, having taken his 30-week spiritual exercises with a Father Hardon-like priest twice within the past 4 years.
I would say that St. Ignatius and his spiritual exercises understood and explained more about human psychology than anything written by any so-called "psychologists" since.
The root of psychology, after all, is psyche, which in Greek is "spirit." I have no problem with objectively true psychology: it is just that most of what passes for today's "psychology" is not true, but errant.
Amen. Amen. Amen. Thanks for the commentary. It appears that at least one person reading is understanding my obviously unclear writing--for which I am sincerely contrite. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa...
"You could do this in a monastery - that's why they're removed from the world. You can't do this in everyday life. Surely I would not be doing a good job of being a wife and mother using the above rules."
I believe the point is that these principles still apply to those outside the monastery, if not as strict. Think of all the useless conversations one has every day--especially with the use of cell phones. This is not to condemn the laughter and joy experienced with one's children, but the silly, inane, frovility that passes for much of today's "joy."
And besides, for those of us who homeschool, both the late Father John Hardon and Fr. Fessio have said we are the "new monasteries," so these points apply to us more than many would like to think. To whom much is given, much is expected.
frivolity, not frovility--Nice word I apparently made up.
July 11, 2007
It is unfortunate that no contemporary biography was written of a man who has exercised measureless influence on monasticism in the West. Benedict is well recognized in the later Dialogues of St. Gregory, but these are sketches to illustrate miraculous elements of his career.
Benedict was born of a distinguished family in central Italy, studied at Rome and early in life was drawn to the monastic life. At first he became a hermit, leaving a depressing worldpagan armies on the march, the Church torn by schism, people suffering from war, morality at a low ebb.
He soon realized that he could not live a hidden life in a small town any better than in a large city, so he withdrew to a cave high in the mountains for three years. Some monks chose him as their leader for a while, but found his strictness not to their taste. Still, the shift from hermit to community life had begun for him. He had an idea of gathering various families of monks into one Grand Monastery to give them the benefit of unity, fraternity, permanent worship in one house. Finally he began to build what was to become one of the most famous monasteries in the worldMonte Cassino, commanding three narrow valleys running toward the mountain.
The Rule that gradually developed prescribed a life of liturgical prayer, study, manual labor and living together in community under a common father (abbot). Benedictine asceticism is known for its moderation, and Benedictine charity has always shown concern for the people in the surrounding countryside. In the course of the Middle Ages, all monasticism in the West was gradually brought under the Rule of St. Benedict.
Today the Benedictine family is represented by two branches: the Benedictine Federation and the Cistercians.
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