Living By A Rule of Life
The Rule of Saint Benedict: Prologue, Verses 8-13 Let Us Then At Last Arise
Photo by Winnie Southworth
Let us then at last arise, since the Scripture stirs us up saying: It is time now for us to rise from sleep (Rom 13:11). And our eyes being open to the deifying light, let us hear with wondering ears what the Divine Voice admonishes us, daily crying out: Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts (Psalm 95:7-8). And again, You who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the Churches (Rev. 2:7). And what does he say? Come my children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord (Psalm 34:12). Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness of death seize hold of you (John 12:35). 1
The Rule of Saint Benedict
Arise! Rise from sleep! Hear! Stirs us up! Run! These are all action words that call us profoundly to take the spiritual life very seriously. As we can see from the multiple Scripture quotes Benedict uses, this call to arise or awaken is found all through Christian Scripture. It is also found in the writings of spiritual masters and guides throughout history. The words are different, but the same call is found in other religious traditions as well. It is a foundational spiritual principle that we need to be reminded of again and again.
But arise from what? It is interesting to me to remember that The Rule was written for monks—for people who had already committed themselves to a monastic order and to live their lives in a monastery for the express purpose of focusing on their relationship with God and on their spiritual growth. One could argue that Benedict’s audience had already chosen the extreme option in their spiritual lives, and yet early in the Rule Benedict still feels the need to be very clear in reminding the monks under his direction to “rise from sleep,” to “hear…the Divine Voice,” and to “run” in their response to the Divine call.
Yet, anyone who knows anything about monastic life knows that the monastic discipline can and often does, become routine. Monks and nuns can fall into a routine. They can go from one time of prayer and reflection to another and from one monastic duty to another by route. They can be “asleep” to the real depth of the spiritual life they are so committed to. And so it is “for the rest of us” as well, and even more so. William McNamara has put it this way:
Few of us have the courage to burn—to be totally called, awesomely marked, thoroughly spent, and imperiously sent. The divine summons is ignored, the human vocation is dodged, and the eternal banquet celebrating the final love affair, is postponed because we are so fearful. Ignorance and fear have plagued us from the beginning until now and are responsible for our multiple idolatries.2
Our “multiple idolatries” are legion. Like the monks we can find ourselves so caught up in our daily routines, whatever they may be. Our particular versions can be seemingly legitimate activities such as work and family and even ministry. They can be such leisure activities as television, the internet, computer games, or sports. Even those of us who attend church regularly and have our own daily practice can allow it to become routine and dry. Regardless, “the Divine summons is ignored” and Benedict’s call for us to “arise” speaks powerfully to us to begin anew.
My own spiritual practice has changed my life profoundly. I know without a doubt that when I keep my commitment to that practice the conversion of heart it facilitates continues. I know just as clearly that when I fail to take those times apart, or when I don’t take them really seriously, I fall back into old destructive patterns. I know that, but I still find my own version of the multiple idolatries McNamara speaks about so powerfully, and Benedict’s call to arise makes my soul restless. I know that I am passionate about listening and being obedient to that Sacred Inner Voice, but clearly not passionate enough.
It is important to recognize as well what this calling really is. Benedict talks about “what the Divine Voice admonishes us,” and McNamara talks about ignoring the “Divine summons.” What exactly is this Divine summons? In contemporary Christianity we can be tempted to interpret it as our initial call to be committed to God. If we have made that commitment as evidenced by making a profession of faith and being baptized, we can think we have already responded to the Divine summons. If we have made a commitment to our own spiritual practice we are even more tempted to think we have responded. But remember that Benedict is addressing his call to monks who have clearly made both commitments. If we recognize that we have fallen short on our commitments we can then be tempted to think that all that is required of us is to renew those commitments.
Taken in context it is obvious that both Benedict and McNamara are calling us to something much more profound and much more challenging. They are calling us to be really serious about listening to our own Sacred Inner Voice where the Divine Mystery calls to us personally and provides us with guidance and support. But even more than that they are calling us to respond to that calling in the nitty-gritty details of our daily lives. They are calling us, not just to our initial commitment to God, not just to our ongoing commitment to our spiritual practice, but to actually live our lives in daily response to our own Sacred Inner Voice. As McNamara points out, that is often why “the Divine summons is ignored.” Intuitively we know that if we take this Divine summons really seriously it will demand way too much of us. It will call us to go where we are not sure we really want to go. We would rather continue in our old patterns. We would rather continue to believe that Baptism and Church are enough. But we know that they are not. They are only the beginning, and Benedict is calling us to continue the journey. Benedict knows these temptations all too well.
That is why Benedict is so insistent that we “run while [we] have the light of life, lest the darkness of death seize hold of [us].” Whatever else this reference to “the light of life” and the “darkness of death” means, it is clear here that Benedict recognizes that we need to respond to this Divine call while this calling—this spiritual light—still burns inside of us and calls to us. He recognizes the very real possibility that when that call is ignored long enough it fades into our subconscious and we fall into a kind of spiritual darkness, no longer really open to the Divine summons. That is why McNamara is so insistent that we “have the courage to burn—to be totally called, awesomely marked, thoroughly spent, and imperiously sent.”
I cannot leave this reflection without commenting on Benedict’s offer for us to “Come my children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” The phrase fear of the Lord can engender all kinds of images, some helpful and some downright destructive. If our image of God is of some kind of “divine judge” who will somehow punish us or send us to suffer the fires of hell for all of eternity, we are likely to either ignore the calling altogether or be paralyzed with fear. Either way we will undoubtedly fail to respond freely and passionately to Benedict’s calling. More likely than not, we will not look that deeply. We will put down The Rule altogether on the premise that it was written for monks in a language we do not understand, and is thus not relevant to our time.
Yet, if we listen to this passage more deeply we may find that a part of the Divine summons is for us to reflect seriously on our image of God. We may even find that our “fear of the Lord” is not nearly so much a fear of punishment for not responding to God’s call as it is a fear of what would happen if we took that calling really seriously. Our concern may very well be that we are afraid that God just may not show up at all—that God may not speak to us and all that would mean about our own image of ourselves. On the other hand, if we have sensed God’s call to us before, our “fear of the Lord” may be that He will show up, and He will ask more of us than we are willing to give.
The real challenge that Benedict presents to us here is for us to reach past our fear and our lethargy and to “arise” and commit ourselves again to the real work of the spiritual life: to the ongoing discovery of who we are called to be and to the incarnation of that discovery in the reality of our day-to-day lives.
1. From a translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict by Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. of St. Andrew’s Priory, Valyermo, California, published in Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary & Work book on the Rule of Saint Benedict by Norvene Vest, Oblate O.S.B. (Trabuco Canyon, California: Source Books, 1990), p. 7.
2. McNama.ra, William, O.C.D., Mystical Passion: Spirituality For A Bored Society, (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), p. 4-5