Test all spirits
We know very little about Benedict of Nursia, whom we remember today. His claim to fame is that he is the “Father of Western Monasticism” because he was the first to popularize the practice of Christians living ascetic lives in communities set apart from the world.
Benedict lived in central Italy in the early sixth century, a time when the Roman Empire was in its death throes and war with invading barbarians was a way of life. Civilization was literally breaking down. Benedict greatly disapproved of the resulting immorality of his day. He withdrew to a cave in the countryside outside of Rome and spent his days as a hermit, praying and fasting. Every once in awhile another monk he knew would come by and lower food and water to him by rope.
Benedict’s devout life soon drew a number of other people to him, people who began to follow his example on how to live a Christian life. However, these original followers found his way of life too harsh, and they tried to poison him. Benedict forgave these monks and began again with other followers. This time he wrote what has become his very famous “Rule of Life,” a prescription for how to live life each day in a monastic community devoted to the ways of Christ.
Holy Women, Holy Men tells us that Benedict’s Rule had its followers spending about four hours a day in communal prayer, five hours in spiritual reading, six hours doing the physical work of the community, one hour eating, and eight hours sleeping. The monks would read all of the Psalms every week in the course of their worship. The many communities which have subsequently used Benedict’s Rule of Life have all found his prescription a well-balanced way to live an intentionally Christian life—if not the actually allocation of time in any given day, then the four-fold way of life spend in prayer, service to others, study, and Christian fellowship.
The question for us today is which piece of Benedict’s ample wisdom is calling for our attention. There are two aspects of the Rule of Life which I want to mention, and they are related. The first and most important is that the theme of love is deeply intertwined in the Rule. By living Benedict’s Rule of Life we come to see that the ultimate point of our life is love. We begin by learning to accept that we are beloved of God, loved beyond measure. And this boundless love that God has for each of us then allows us to love everyone else whom God has put into our lives.
The second aspect of Benedict’s Rule of Life that I invite our attention to today concerns his view of the proper response to those who seek entry into the Christian community. Today we make it a practice to be very accepting of all who come to be part of our communal life. We bend over backwards to welcome newcomers and hope that they will stay with us. Benedict, though, would caution us to be clear about whose needs we are meeting when we do so. Perhaps our unquestioning acceptance of all into our community—particularly leadership in the community—meets our own needs to get a job accomplished, or even our own need to express love for the other and to share all that God has so freely given to us. But on occasion this might not be the most loving response, if it feeds rather than alleviates the newcomer’s neediness.
As shocking as it might be to us today, Benedict advised his monks to let newcomers knock on the door over and over again, and for those on the inside to be uncooperative for awhile as a way of testing the person seeking entry. He even had his monks heap a bit of abuse on the newcomers. (I hadn’t realized until just now how Benedictine our diocesan discernment process IS for those who are seeking Holy Orders!) Now I am not advocating that we abuse our newcomers. But for Benedict, this was a way of warding off those who might see the community as the easy answer to whatever their neediness was. “Beloved,” Benedict advised,” do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
I wonder if it might not behoove us—if it might not be more loving, perhaps—to follow Benedict’s advice? First, are our lives ones of living and sharing God’s love? In other words, do we practice what we preach? And do we let our own need to be hospitable sometimes outweigh the community’s need to test the spirits of those who enter into the Christian way of life?
I ask these questions in the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustain of Life and Love.