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Saint Benedict’s Toolbox

What do Baptists and Benedictines have in common? Not much other than they both start with the same letter. On second thought, that’s not true. Both movements began as radical attempts to get back to first-century Christianity. Benedictines remained within the established Church but withdrew from the world. Baptists remained in the world but withdrew from the established Church. Only by the early seventeenth century when the first Baptist churches formed, the established Church in England was no longer Roman Catholic but Anglican.

I, a Baptist, find myself drawn to the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to Christian living. Even though it was written specifically for silent monks a millennium and a half ago, it still speaks to anyone who will “incline the ear of [their] heart.” In fact, Benedict offered his “little rule for beginners” as a gift to all, addressing it to “whoever you may be.”

In chapter 4, the Rule enumerates seventy-two “tools” of spiritual craftsmanship. Among these are some usual suspects such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” Others are more monastic in flavor: “Love fasting,” “Love not much talking,” and “Love chastity.” My favorite is number twenty-one: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” In chapter 43, the Rule says, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the set times of communal prayer in a monastery. Thus, the Rule equates prayer and loving Christ, since both are identified as the pinnacle of Christian spiritual practice—that to which nothing should be preferred.

One thing that strikes me is how Benedict begins and ends his list of spiritual tools. He begins where Jesus began, telling his hearers “to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.” That’s number one, and it’s a positive command. He ends with a negative command. Number seventy-two says, “And never despair of God’s mercy.” These two form the bookends of spiritual disciplines. I believe Benedict positioned them intentionally. Those who attempt to love God by obeying his commands and living a good life ultimately fail. No one can love God perfectly, keep the commandments continually, or practice spiritual disciplines consistently, even in a monastery. The temptation then is to wallow in self-pity. Self-pity makes you want to give up, feeling you’re not good enough for God. That’s why Benedict ends by telling us what not to do: never despair of God’s mercy. No one is so far gone they can’t be forgiven and restored. No one.

A monk was once asked, “What do you do there in the monastery?” He replied: “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” That’s a picture of the Christian life outside the monastery too.

The tools in St. Benedict’s ancient toolbox for monks can help anyone live a healthy spiritual life today. Even a Baptist.

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