“Let all guests be received as Christ” ~ St. Benedict (Rule of St. Benedict, Rule 53. See our Soul Shepherding article on “The Rule of St Benedict” for excerpts of this ancient program for discipleship to Christ.)
When you climb the hill at the Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, CA and you’ll discover that life in the heavenly realms is not as far away as you think. I’ve led a number of retreats for groups of pastors and ministry leaders here.
The Lord Jesus Christ is waiting for us. His arms are outstretched to embrace us, as depicted in the statue of him that welcomes us to the abbey retreat center. Jesus says, “Come with me to a quiet place by yourselves and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).
Come… Come to Jesus… Come and listen… The birds have already come to Jesus and they’re singing cheerfully all around us as they flutter from tree to tree. Come and look… Blooming flowers and the vast blue of the Pacific Ocean in the background surround us. Come and breathe in deep… Heavenly ocean breezes carry sweet floral scents to our souls.
Come and hear the church bells at the Prince of Peace Abbey – they’re our call to prayer. The monks who live here are inviting us to join their rhythm of life, which includes chanting the psalms five times a day. As we immerse ourselves in their chants and follow along softly we experience something mystical. Surely this is bigger than an ancient and sacred 1,500-year tradition! It seems that the heavens have opened up to reveal choirs of angels! And, at the same time, it feels like the chanting has always been somewhere deep inside our own heads and we’ve just now discovered it!
In any case, we’ll join the monks in their worship, signing Psalms to our Lord and bowing in humble adoration before Father, Son, and Spirit. We’ll also gather on our own as a group for prayer, meditation, and conversation. We’ll enjoy relaxing meals together. And don’t be surprised if Abbot Charles or one of the other monks stops by to share some jokes with us! Before we leave we’ll follow the steps of Jesus together as we walk the abbey’s Stations of the Cross that meander through trees and gardens.
One of the benefits of doing our retreat at the Prince of Peace Abbey is the opportunity to be welcomed into their community and to participate in their way of life. Prince of Peace is a community of Benedictine monks that has been in San Diego County since 1958, but their community spans more than 1,400 years of uninterrupted tradition dating back to St. Benedict.
Benedict was born in Nursia, Italy in 480 and died in 543. He was the son of a noble and grew up in Rome. At the age of 19 after reading the gospel he forsook his father’s house and wealth and the love of a woman and gave himself to serve God only. He took his old nurse with him and settled in the Simbrucini mountains, choosing a life of hardships and labor. He met a monk there who guided him for the three years that he lived in a cave as a hermit.
Then Benedict chose to live in community rather than continuing as a hermit and he went on to establish a number of monasteries and he wrote The Rule in 530 to organize these religious communities.
The Rule changed the way monks practiced their spirituality. Up to that time the way monks lived was disorderly and isolated and Benedict brought much needed order and community to the religious life. Furthermore, monks at that time often practiced austere disciplines like extensive fasting, repeated night vigils, and harsh physical penances. Benedict moderated the practice of the religious life, directing monks to have adequate food, drink (including wine), and sleep and providing for the care of the sick, reception of guests, and journeys away from the monastery.
St. Benedict’s rule is the basis of Benedictine spirituality and continues to be followed by monasteries from various traditions throughout the world to this day, including the Prince of Peace Abbey.
Following the example of St. Benedict, the monks at Prince of Peace Abbey (and monks and nuns in other Benedictine communities) make three perpetual (for life) vows at their time of profession to enter into their community:
The vow of stability is the monk’s pledge to live out his entire life with a particular community of monks.
Conversion of morals
The Benedictine’s conversion of morals vow is a commitment to “die to self” and live for Christ by practicing the spiritual disciplines of the Benedictine way with humility. St. Benedict taught that humility was the supreme virtue that facilitated the perfecting of all holiness. In the prologue to his Rule he described the humility that his followers needed:
These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated about the good in them. They praise the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet: “Not to us, Lord, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone” (Psalm 115:1). In just this way Paul the Apostle… declared: “By God’s grace I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
A vow of chastity (sexual purity) is a part of this conversion of morals. By renouncing not only unholy lusts, but also holy sexual pleasure in marriage, the monk is encouraged to deepen intimacy with Jesus as Bridegroom and the one true Lover of the soul.
Another important discipline in the Benedictine’s conversion of morals is a vow of poverty. In order to fix his desires on God rather than the things of the world the monk chooses to share everything he has – treasure, time, talent – with his brothers. This helps them to live by the biblical teachings that nothing belongs to me and everything is a gift from God to be used for the common good of the community. By rejecting the temptations of possessing worldly goods and trusting in God to provide all that is needed there is freedom.
The vow of obedience places the monk under the leadership of his abbot. St. Benedict taught that the abbot is considered the “abba” or spiritual father of the monastery who “has undertaken the care of souls for whom he must give account” (Rule, 2:34) and the monks are to obey him as unto Christ. Similarly, they are to submit themselves to their community as a whole. St. Benedict’s Rule says,
The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted… This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all… [to] obey [Christ] at all times (Prologue).
St. Benedict’s Rule teaches a simple way of life that is centered in Christ through daily rhythms of listening to and responding to the Word of God in private meditations and communal praying of the Psalms. St. Benedict’s spirituality was remarkably wholesome (particularly given the austere practices of monks in his day) as he balanced solitude and community, silence and conversation, inward prayer and outward works, sacrament and life experience.
The Benedictine way of life can be adopted in some degree by anyone, not just monks and nuns living in a religious community. It’s a way of life that we in our fast-paced, fragmented, and distracted culture desperately need to learn from.
There are four aspects of Benedictine spirituality put forth in St. Benedict’s Rule that seem especially important and helpful for you and I:
For Benedictines, the Liturgy is “the work of God.” Each day they gather together as a community five times to pray and sing the Divine Office (a special organization of the book of Psalms in the Bible) and once per day to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice. This Liturgy is the foundation of their daily life, forming a rhythm of praying the Scripture that frames, informs, and inspires everything that they do. The daily prayer service times at the Prince of Peace Abbey are:
5:30 AM Vigils
7:00 AM Lauds (includes canticle of Zechariah)
11:00 AM Mass (includes the Eucharist)
5:00 PM Vespers (includes canticle of Mary)
8:00 PM Compline
Monks like those at Prince of Peace Abbey have accepted from God the duty to continuously praise God in a special way, not just for themselves, or even themselves and God, but also on behalf of all the people “down the hill”. They believe that the “fruit of their lips” (Hebrews 13:15) in prayer and their way of life shines a holy light for all people to connect them with God’s grace.
St. Benedict taught daily Lectio Divina (Latin for “Divine Reading”) as a form of meditation on Scripture in which Bible passages are read slowly and prayerfully, with the purpose of listening to and responding to the living and present Word of God. Lectio Divina cultivates the “listening heart” which is central to Benedictine spirituality.
The process of using Lectio Divina with a passage of Scripture flows gently through four phases:
- Lectio: read the text slowly
- Meditatio: reflect and ruminate on the passage
- Oratio: respond in prayer to God’s Word to you personally
- Contemplatio: rest silently in God’s loving presence
Benedictines typically practice Lectio Divina with the Bible and other spiritual books in silence and solitude (though as we experience in our Christ’s Ambassadors Group it is a wonderful exercise to share in community as well).
Solitude and Silence
St. Benedict taught that, “the spirit of silence is so important” even though speaking may be “for good, holy edifying conversation; for it is written, ‘In much speaking you will not escape sin’ (Proverbs 10:19), and in another place, ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue’ (Proverbs 18:21).” Therefore, he stressed that “the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen” (Rule, 6). Silence, especially with solitude, is so important for learning to be attentive to God.
The monks at the Prince of Peace Abbey follow the ancient custom of observing the “Grand Silence” from the beginning of their “Compline” at 8:00 pm and through the end of “Lauds” at 7:30 am. Following the tradition established by St. Benedict, their first words after the night silence are sung out to the Lord: “Open my lips that my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Their mouths were sealed like Zechariah’s but then as part of their morning Lauds service they sing out Zechariah’s canticle.
“Way of the Cross” is a wonderful prayer walk at the Prince of Peace Abbey that overlooks the ocean and is lined with trees and flowers. It includes the Stations of the Cross, a gazebo, and benches to sit and reflect. It’s a favorite place to go for solitude and silence.
For Benedictines work and prayer go together. The work of manual labor or serving other people is an expression of love for God so each member of a religious community is assigned by the abbot one or more jobs to do.
A typical “work day” for a Benedictine monk is about six hours. Benedictine abbeys may have active ministry in schools, parishes, missions, or medical facilities. Other monasteries, like the Prince of Peace Abbey, feature a more contemplative ministry of offering retreats and spiritual direction for individuals and groups. Whatever a particular monastery’s specialty is, the work of maintaining the abbey and the monks’ way of life is divided up amongst the all community members. This includes things like physical plant maintenance, grounds up-keep, cooking, religious worship, music, and finances.
Listening to and Obeying the Voice of the Lord
St. Benedict began his Rule saying, “Listen carefully, my son… with the ear of your heart” (Prologue). And he began every day with praying Psalm 95, the heart of which says, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
Listening carefully to what God is saying to me personally right now is the foundation of all the components of the Benedictine way of life. Not only is it how we’re to read the Bible, but also it’s how we’re to respond to all the events and experiences of our lives. The way to learn to listen is to be silent and this is true both in terms of our relationship with God and one another, in solitude and in community.
In the Prologue to his Rule St. Benedict implored his readers to the alertness of listening to God and the obedience that follows:
Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: “It is high time for us to arise from sleep” (Romans 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: “If you hear this voice today, do not harden your hearts (Psalm 95:7-8). And again: “You that have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7). And what does he say? “Come and listen to me sons; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:11)…
Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” (Psalm 34:12). If you hear this and your answer is “I do,” God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life, “keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim” (Psalm 34:13-14). Once you have done this, my “eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me I will say to you: ‘Here I am’” (Psalm 34:15, Isaiah 58:9).
What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?
We listen to God in order to obey him. Listening simply is not complete without subsequent obedience. Jesus is our Teacher and his words are the rock that we’re to build the houses of our lives on (Matthew 7:24-25). “We must obey him at all times” Benedict says. “The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings” (Rule, Prologue).
A School for the Lord’s Service
St. Benedict’s stated purpose in the Prologue to his Rule was to “establish a school for the Lord’s service,” which he actually did in the monasteries he personally established. His hope was to “set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.” At the same time he knew that for the good of the whole community there needed to “a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.”
Dallas Willard mentions The Rule of Saint Benedict, along with The Imitation of Christ (by Thomas A. Kempis) and The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, as “some of the most profound treatments of discipleship to Jesus” (Divine Conspiracy, p. 370). He says that these works are examples of effective courses of study led by a mentor for apprentices who want to learn how to be with Jesus in order to become like him.
Eugene Peterson also insists that we need such mentoring and courses of study and challenges churches to become like “monasteries without walls”:
The genius of the monastery is its comprehensiveness: all the hours of the day are defined by prayer; all the activity of the monks is understood as prayer. Hour by hour, day by day, year by year, this external comprehensiveness penetrates community and soul. The life of prayer is interiorized and socialized at the same time…
The monastery has walls and the parish does not. But the walls are not the critical factor in either praying or not praying. What is critical is an imagination large enough to contain all of life, all worship and work as prayer, set in a structure adequate to the actual conditions in which it is lived out (Under the Unpredictable Plant, p. 98-99).
Peterson says that the structure to live out a “prayer-defined life” is to “develop and practice a working, customized askesis” (p. 99).
“Askesis is to spirituality what a training regimen is to an athlete… Mature spirituality requires askesis, a training program custom-designed for each individual-in-community, and then continuously monitored and adapted as development takes place and conditions vary. It can never be mechanically imposed from without; it must be organically grown in locale” (p. 74-75).
What Peterson calls “askesis” can also be called a “Rhythm of Life.” Studying Jesus’ Rhythm of Life in the Gospels is one of the most important studies I’ve done. Peterson’s personal askesis implements key components of the Benedictine way of life. It is simple and comprehensive at the same time, flowing between three core components:
- Lord’s Day Worship with Your Community
- Daily Praying the Psalms
- Recollected Prayer through the hours of the day (p. 107).
I have been on my own spiritual retreats many times at the Prince of Peace Abbey. This has included receiving spiritual direction from Father Basil and Brother Daniel. I have also led a number of retreats at the Abbey.
I am not Catholic, but I have appreciated the opportunity to learn from these Jesus-loving monks. I have applied the things I’ve written about here into my discipleship to Christ.
When I lead groups at the Prince of Peace I say something like:
May God help us to be renewed in deep and lasting ways by our time at the Prince of Peace Abbey so that we take home into our daily lives a new vision for living continually with and for Jesus in his kingdom of the heavens – revitalized in our spiritual fervor and prepared to incorporate into our daily life some of the Benedictine’s rhythm of life.
I love St. Benedict’s affirming words to the monks and nuns who live in Benedictine communities. May they also be true of us:
As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching… until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen. (Rule, Prologue).