The following is the text of a talk I gave recently to the parents of new students at Saint Benedict's Prep, the boys prep school that we run here at the monastery. It summarizes the important ways in which the spirituality of Benedictine monasticism has shaped and continues to shape the vision of our school. I'm sharing it with you as a prelude to the next blog entry, which I hope will be about Saint Benedict and the idea of suffering.
The heart of Saint Benedict's Prep is Newark Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks founded in Newark in the 1850's. We began Saint Benedict's in 1868 as a high school for boys of modest means, especially the sons of Newark's German and Irish immigrants..
It is the monks' spiritual values and way of life that give the school its character and identity. When a young man comes here to school he becomes part of the Newark Abbey community, first as a beginner, then as a full member. As parents and guardians you, too, become part of our larger community. At this moment you are on the monastery grounds, enjoying the beautiful facilities of Newark Abbey. Welcome to our home!
I've been asked to offer word or two of introduction about us Benedictine monks.
We are Catholic Christians who seek God together by living in community under an abbot (our spiritual leader) and by following the "Rule of Saint Benedict." The so-called "Holy Rule" of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480 - 540) lays out a vision of a Christian life balanced between communal prayer, work and meditation, especially on Sacred Scripture. It is not legislation written in 5th century that we are bound by today -- it does not directly control the life of the monk. Rather it is "wisdom literature" which acts indirectly on our minds and hearts, shaping the way we do things, the way we see the world, the way we define success and the way respond to difficulties and sufferings.
St. Benedict based his Rule on two great principles, which I call "principles of awareness." The first is that God is present everywhere, not just in the chapel, but in the kitchen and the classroom as well. They are all "sacred ground." According to this principle everything is somehow holy. Benedict says that the tools of the monastery must be treated with the same respect as vessels of the altar.
The second great principle of awareness is that Jesus Christ is present in every person we meet. But Benedict is fond of pointing out that Jesus is especially present in the poor, the elderly, the very young, and guests, all of whom place "inconvenient" demands on our time and attention. That troubled student in front of me is Jesus; so is that homeless woman in our food pantry, or that brother monk. They are all Jesus and I need to treat them as such.
Benedictine monastic life is not designed for heroes or extraordinary people, but for ordinary men or women who are simply trying to live out the gospel in a more intense way than people outside the monastery are able to.
The Rule of Benedict is in fact famous for its wise avoidance of extremes, its practical common sense and its deep, sympathetic knowledge of human nature. But the way of life we Benedictines espouse is very counter cultural. It encourages such practices as humility, frugality, obedience, control of the passions, and celibacy. Many people from the larger culture look at us and scratch their heads.
There are two vows or promises that Benedictines make that make us unique even among other religious men and women. The first is our vow of "conversion of life," the promise to remain faithful to the mode life we have promised, to just keep striving and not relax our efforts.
The second is the vow of stability. Benedict assumes that the monk will live out his whole life in the monastery in which he started out. The idea behind this vow is that "God is not elsewhere," so you need to keep seeking and finding God right here where you are.
The Benedictine sense of stability, a sense of place, certainly shows itself here at St. Benedict's. Yesterday, for example we had a visit from an alumnus who had returned to school after 38 years. He sat down and began telling me about things I'd taught him in class forty years ago. The interesting thing was that he came back 38 years later fully expecting to find some of his teachers still here. He was not disappointed.
As the monastic community gets smaller in numbers we are trying more and more consciously to articulate for our staff and students -- and parents -- the spiritual outlook and wisdom of St. Benedict's Rule which has shaped our school over the past 130 years.
We start by telling everyone that monasticism started as a movement of lay people just like you, not priests, bishops or professional religious folks. Then we keep presenting by word and action the monastic wisdom that underlies our Benedictine school.
§ Fr. Edwin reads from the Holy Rule at convocation a few times a week.
§ Our weekly faculty meetings always begin with a short reflection on a passage from the Rule of Benedict.
§ Many of the practices in the school are explained as being based on the Holy Rule We speak specifically and often about treating one another with respect, about being a member of the group rather than following your own agenda, about the Rule's practices of delegating authority and of dividing the community into smaller groups (student leadership and the Group System), about treating our buildings, book and clothes with respect, about the duty of the stronger or older members to help the weaker or younger.
§ Each student in our residence hall, Leahy House, prays evening prayer with the monks once a week, and prays with all the residents of Leahy House every night the public night prayer which monks have been praying for 1500 years.
These are just some of the ways that we challenge ourselves, whether monks, staff, students, parents, alumni or friends, to live out St. Benedict's vision each day here at Newark Abbey on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
I'd like to end by reading from Chapter 72 of St. Benedict's Holy Rule, "The Good Zeal of Monks." See if this doesn't sound like a Christian way to run a school:
Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other , supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.