During the six weeks of Lent I have been blogging about the six aspects of the Benedictine life. First we considered the three vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life. Now, for the second half of Lent we’ll look at the three practical ways that the three vows are lived out day by day.
Obedience, stability and conversion of life are put into practice through the threefold life of reading, prayer and work. These three aspects work together for the purification and perfection of the three aspects of the human person: body, mind and spirit. Work perfects the body. Reading perfects the mind and prayer perfects the spirit.
Reading, work and prayer are also intertwined with the three Benedictine vows. Reading holds hands with stability because, through study, the monk puts down deep roots into the great intellectual traditions of the past. Through work the monk strives with his body to live a life of obedience. Through prayer the soul is strengthened and the monk attains conversion of life.
The first of the three aspects of Benedictine life is reading. This does not simply mean the casual curling up with a good book. Certainly, reading for entertainment and diversion is a useful aspect to the life of study, but the Benedictine approach is deeper than that. For the Benedictine monk or nun “reading” really means concentrated, directed study. The hard work of philosophy and theology is the cornerstone of Benedictine reading. In addition, the monk or nun is formed in the study of history, languages and Western Christian culture. From this foundation he or she may also develop a specialist study. Benedictine monks and nuns have become world class experts in everything from bee keeping and cheese making to physics, art, architecture, hydraulics, engineering, art restoration and more.
When St Benedict founded his monasteries in the sixth century, the monks consciously collected and preserved the manuscripts from the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Because of their diligent preservation of the classical authors we have today the great books from antiquity. In addition, the monks preserved, copied and maintained the venerable wisdom of both the Jewish faith and the early Christian church. Their dedication to the “great books” provided the intellectual foundation for the schools and universities of the Middle Ages which, in turn, provided the foundation for modern systems of education.
If we would pursue a Benedictine life as lay Catholics, then we need to turn off our omnipresent screens and pick up a good book. The great books of fiction and fantasy offer wonderful insights, but we should also read nonfiction. We should not neglect the great biographies, works of history, philosophy, theology and contemporary books of cultural commentary and criticism. As we read our minds are expanded and what we read inevitably informs our prayers and action.
Reading good books is part of our never-ending search for truth. By reading Benedict expects his monks to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentalism and subjective opinions. Instead we are to deepen our lives through learning and strengthen our lives through scholarship. Reading helps us to think clearly and logically, to clarify our feelings and cement our faith through a solid grounding in the objective facts of history, the solid reasoning of the church’s great thinkers and the creative imagination of the great writers.
Finally, reading is important because through reading the great books, our minds are turned away from the shallow stupidity of the mass entertainment media and they are renewed from within by the radiance of truth. In this way the wisdom of St. Benedict echoes the teaching of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you might establish all that is good, and acceptable, and perfect in the will of God.” (Romans 12:2)