January 29, 2016

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

St. Benedict’s Rule has ancient wisdom about mercy for families

Sean GallagherDuring the past two months, the Church has been observing two special years at the same time.

The Year of Consecrated Life began on Nov. 30, 2014, and will conclude on Feb. 2. During this time, Pope Francis has invited the faithful to renew their appreciation for the men and women who have consecrated their lives to Christ in a broad variety of forms of religious life.

While the Year of Consecrated Life was ongoing, the Church launched the Holy Year of Mercy on Dec. 8. This time in which Catholics are called to experience anew the gift of God’s mercy and share it with the world will conclude on Nov. 20.

Whether or not this was the express intention of Pope Francis, it seems to me that these two prayerful initiatives dovetail well together.

Religious communities over the centuries have been schools where men and women, empowered by grace, have sought to embody God’s mercy in their relationships with each other and God. This, in turn, has helped them be witnesses of that mercy to the world.

The life of families can, on the surface, seem different from those of monks, nuns, friars and sisters. Families today have many worldly concerns, and don’t often have the time for prayer or ministry that men and women religious have every day.

But a cursory reading of St. Benedict’s Rule shows that families can learn a lot from, and find inspiration in the life of religious communities.

The monks for whom St. Benedict wrote his Rule some 1,500 years ago lived the first form of religious life in the Church. Communities of women religious around the same time also sought to follow Benedict’s principles. Benedictine men and women continue to this day to seek God and serve the Church in monastic communities around the world.

While the Rule has a wealth of wisdom for families, one worth highlighting is its next-to-last chapter, which is titled “On the Good Zeal of Monks.” This chapter can teach both religious and families how to experience and share God’s mercy.

Benedict writes the good zeal that “leads to God and everlasting life” is seen when monks “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.”

These are high ideals indeed. And I’ve known Benedictines who have spent a lifetime trying to live them out more completely and consistently.

But these ideals should be at the heart of all family life, whether it’s lived in a monastery or a three-bedroom ranch house.

No matter where it’s lived, though, it is a challenging journey on an upward path. This is because, in our fallen human nature, we tend toward selfishness, the opposite of all that Benedict calls us to in this chapter.

We’ll inevitably slide back down this path into self-centeredness without the mercy of God. Humility, a prime Benedictine virtue, can open us to this divine mercy and help us start climbing again.

Families, like communities of men and women religious, can make this ascent hand in hand, sharing the mercy of God with each other every step along the way. †

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