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Applying St. Benedict's Rule to Fatherhood and Family Life

by Dwight Longenecker

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  • Descriptive Title:
    How 6th-Century Wisdom Can Be Used Today
    Description:
    A Benedictine oblate and father of four has discovered how to relate the guidelines of St. Benedict to his domestic church. Dwight Longenecker, an American-born author and broadcaster who has lived in England for more than 20 years, penned his application of the Rule of St. Benedict to family life in his book, "Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers" (Morehouse). He shared with ZENIT how the wisdom of the father of religious life can help modern dads humbly guide their families and provide loving discipline.
  • Larger Work:
    ZENIT
  • Publisher & Date:
    Innovative Media, Inc., August 18, 2004

Q: Briefly, what are the main tenets of the Rule of St. Benedict?

Longenecker: St. Benedict's rule is a simple but profound set of guidelines for community life in sixth-century Italy. At the heart of the rule are the three Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.

But in a sense, the spirit of the rule is the most important thing. St. Benedict's rule has survived because he had a deep understanding of human psychology, he tempered discipline with compassion and he saw the spiritual quest as a joyful pursuit of God within the structures of ordinary life. It is this joyous delight in everyday spirituality that makes the rule come alive for so many.

Q: What inspired you to apply the rule to parenting, particularly fatherhood?

Longenecker: As a Benedictine oblate I have studied the rule and tried to live by its spirit for some time. When I married and we were blessed with children, the simple principles of living together under God's love that St. Benedict taught seemed right for family life.

I was struck by the opening words of the rule: "Listen my Son ... turn your ear to the advice of a loving Father." When I sat down and read the rule through the eyes of a natural father I saw how so many of the principles and guidelines offered good advice for families.

The advice for families is excellent because of the inner dynamic of the rule. St. Benedict was not writing a great and lofty treatise on prayer or spirituality. He was writing a practical rule for ordinary people to live together. He expected them to work hard, read hard and pray hard. His rule therefore applies to family life because it is about the grace-full blend of prayer, work and living together.

Q: What aspects the Rule of St. Benedict relate the best to parenting?

Longenecker: St. Benedict has sections on the discipline of monks, which help us to reconsider the need for loving discipline in the home.

His guidelines on prayer help us to structure a simple but effective prayer life for families, and his practical advice on living together in peace and with open communications help families to work together on the difficult lessons of love.

Most importantly, I wished for the Benedictine spirit to come through my commentary on the rule. St. Benedict's ideal is that each member of the community be valued and loved unconditionally.

Discipline is always for the good of the person being disciplined — not for the comfort of the abbot or even for the good of the community. Every member of the community is expected to obey and serve one another in love, not simply obey the abbot in a militaristic fashion.

These principles establish the home as the primary Christian community; therefore, it becomes the primary building block of a larger Christian community and a Christian culture of love.

Q: What particular challenges do fathers face in guiding their families?

Longenecker: Fatherhood is under threat today. The forces of feminism, homosexuality and secularism attack patriarchy, but truth will always triumph. Children need fathers.

Of course there are many bad fathers who have done great damage, but we rarely hear that there are also many bad mothers who have done great damage to children.

Blaming others does no good. The response to bad fathers is not to get rid of all fathers, but to encourage good fathering. There is a longing in all of our hearts for strong, loving and spiritual father figures.

Men today need to take their fathering role seriously. If they do not have good father-figure role models themselves, then they need to get some. They should not be ashamed to join men's groups that nurture and strengthen their masculinity — but this masculinity needs to be fully Christ-like.

It needs to be strong, but not be ashamed to have a tender heart. If men can get themselves sorted out, then they will in turn help their sons and daughters to be strong, pure and noble children of God.

Q: How is being a father of children similar to being an abbot — like St. Benedict — of monks?

Longenecker: The word "abbot" comes from the same root as the word Jesus used for God — "abba." Abbot therefore means "father," and the relationship between the abbot and his monks from the very beginning of the rule is essentially that of a father to his sons. The similarities to natural fathering run through almost every page of the rule.

It is interesting that the relationship between abbot and novice monk grows through the rule in a very subtle manner.

At first, the novice is expected to obey the abbot instantly and without question. Later, the relationship matures so that the instant obedience is tempered with proper questioning and a sense that the monks should be just as obedient to each other.

This reflects the relationship of the father to his children as they mature and become more responsible. The relationship flowers into one of confidence and mutual love.

It may be controversial to say so, but the relationship between father and child is also crucial to our relationship with God. Like it or not, our human psychology is arranged in such a manner that our picture of "father"' invariably becomes our picture of God.

If fathering is faulty, our theology will be faulty. If fathering is excellent, we will have — as individuals and a society — an excellent image of God.

Q: According to St. Benedict, what kind of man should an abbot — or a father — be? What sort of a community should he strive to create in his home?

Longenecker: There is a long chapter at the beginning of the rule on what sort of man the abbot should be, and point by point it can be applied to the sort of man a Christian father should be.

Essentially, the abbot is a strong, loving, mature man who is clothed in the grace of Christ. He considers his responsibilities and authority as from God, and is therefore humbled and bears the authority with great awe — never lording it over others, but treating each one of his charges with tenderness and total attention. The Christian home is "ruled" by the father, but in a spirit of total self-giving and loving attention for the needs of all.

This is a very high ideal, but it is a beautiful one, and one that we should not apologize for simply because some fathers have abused it. St. Benedict's abbot — and therefore the Christian father in the home — should call constantly on God for help and realize that he relies on grace to sustain him at all times.

Furthermore, when we fail to reach the ideal we need to be humble enough to ask forgiveness both from God and from our wives and children.

This is very important because children need to know that their fathers are not only fallible, but able to recognize their own frailty and ask forgiveness for their failings. If children see their father ask forgiveness they will not mind when they are asked to exercise the same humility.

Q: Are there any guidelines in the rule that parents should not try to apply to their children?

Longenecker: St. Benedict allows for young monks to be beaten severely if necessary, and many modern parents might cringe at this.

They would also find his demands for instant and unquestioning obedience to be harsh. But the overall spirit of St. Benedict's rule is that he demands "nothing harsh — nothing burdensome."

There are also some specific rules that don't apply to modern family life because they have to do with only monastic life or simply because they were written for Italians in the sixth century. St. Benedict tells his monks, for instance, not to sleep with their swords on, and gives them specific dietary and clothing rules.

I have tried to get behind the specific rules to understand St. Benedict's motivations; once we do that, we can see the reasons for the specific rules and apply them as necessary in the modern world.

Q: How else do you think St. Benedict's rule can be applied to modern life by ordinary lay people?

Longenecker: The other Benedictine book I have written is called "St. Benedict and St. Thérèse — The Little Rule and the Little Way."

In this book I've drawn the principles from Benedictine spirituality and seen the parallels in the life and teachings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The connections are remarkable. One saint is like the grand old man of religious life while the other is the little child.

Both saints saw God at work within the ordinary events of everyday life, and it is this underlying principle that really enlivens the rule of St. Benedict.

For both St. Benedict and St. Thérèse, "God is not elsewhere." They believe God is present in the joys and sorrows of our everyday lives, and the spiritual quest is the quest to see God's mighty hand in all his works — especially in the little things of life.

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