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St. Benedict's Far-Reaching Impact

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles ) | Jul 10, 2014

After a June full of multiple solemnities, July takes a bit of a respite from multiple high feasts. The Sundays and the two feasts of apostles (Thomas and James) are the highest feast days. The rest of the month sets the rhythm of Tempus per Annum or Season of the Year or Ordinary Time (discussed previously here and here). The Sundays of Ordinary Time set the theme for the week. The weekday Masses echo the Mass Propers from the Sunday (antiphons and prayers). This is only different for saints’ days, whether they be feasts, memorials or optional memorials.

Of particular note is St. Benedict of Nursia (or Norcia) whose memorial is July 11. Formerly his feast was March 21, but this date always falls during Lent or Holy Week, overshadowing this universal saint. The 1969 Calendar reform moved it to July 11, allowing full celebration of this special Father of the Church. For those who belong to the Benedictine family, March 21 is a feast, “The Passing of Our Holy Father Benedict" and July 11 is a solemnity.

Although the Church has one day to celebrate St. Benedict, his memory and impact extends  into our everyday life. The saint gives us much food for thought and provides us with many tools and reminders for our spiritual lives, especially as we lay the groundwork in Ordinary Time.

Rule of Benedict

The impact of St. Benedict is extensive. Montalembert as quoted by Pius Parsch raves:

Immeasurable are the fruits of Benedict’s work. Particularly remarkable, however, is how oblivious he was of the social and cultural contributions for which he was responsible. It is characteristic of true greatness to do great things silently, spurred on only by humble and pure ideals, leaving the increase to God who blesses a hundredfold.

Pius Parsch continues: "St. Benedict’s  “Rule for Monks” was epoch making—it remains a sure guide to sanctity in any age" (The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume II, p. 395).

The influence of the Rule of St. Benedict has been long-reaching, being incorporated into rules of other religious orders through the centuries. And the Benedictine family itself is very expansive, all incorporating the Rule in different ways.   

St. Benedict used the family structure as the basis for his Rule for his monasteries. The community life of a monastery imitates the primary unit of society, a family.  Vice versa, the family can use the Rule as for guidelines for structure in daily life and prayer. This is not a new idea. There are several Protestant books on this idea, and Father Dwight Longenecker mentions this in Applying St. Benedict's Rule to Fatherhood and Family Life.

While I’m not suggesting turning our home into a monastery, the Rule has many examples that we can apply to our family.  Living in common requires charity and humility for others; we have to remember we are working for the common good of the family, no matter the size. Chapter 2 explains how the word “Abbot” comes from Abba – Father. The Abbot acts as a father to his monks. Obedience is key to keeping the community working together. The same structure with the father and obedience can apply to the family. “Instruments of Good Works” in Chapter 4, which are the “tools of our spiritual craft,” is a list of 72 rules (do and do not) and further chapters cover important virtues that also apply to family life. And of course, the Benedictine motto "Ora et Labora" is based on the Rule. St. Benedict puts forward the opus Dei, but then prayer is followed by communal and intellectual work. 

The prayer and work looks different in a family, but the principles still apply. The Rule itself is short and easy to read, lending to discussion with family members.

Work of God – Praying the Liturgy

One of the key points throughout the Rule of St. Benedict is his emphasis on the Work of God. Pius Parsch notes:

St. Benedict founded an Order noted for its devotion to the liturgy. A key sentence in his program reads, “Prefer nothing to the work of God (Opus Dei).” The liturgy constituted the warp and woof of his life (The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume 2,  p. 396).

Opus dei is the communal or liturgical worship which consists of praying the psalms throughout the day. Before Benedict, religious did regularly pray the Psalter, which is all 150 Psalms, but he established much of the order of the canonical hours and psalms for the Divine Office. St. Benedict is known as the “Creator of the Breviary.” There is an excellent three-part series by the Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey in the Catholic Culture library on the Divine Office in which Part II  details Benedict’s involvement, concluding:

We may say that we owe to the great Saint a definitive ordering of the Divine Psalmody which was followed from the middle of the sixth century onwards, not only at Subiaco and Monte Cassino, but in the very centre of Christianity.

Praying the Hours

It is not a new idea to encourage the laity to pray the Divine Office. The Liturgical Movement which was especially strong during the first half of the twentieth century in the United States made huge strides in presenting the breviary for all to pray. Laity do not have the obligations as priests and religious do, but in small ways praying the liturgy is a way to unite all our work and prayer with the Mystical Body of Christ.

The office is the Church’s prayer par excellence. The layman who uses it, following the cycle of the liturgical seasons and feast days, is drawing close to the mind of the Church. One who loves the office dearly has said that he finds in it the pulsing life of the Mystical Body. Even when recited privately, its universal character is manifest; one is conscious of the great unison of hearts and voices, all praising God with the same accent. Great consolation and strength are to be gained from this community sense, the charitas fraternitatis of St. Benedict’s wonderful chapter 72, “On Good Zeal.” For St. Benedict the office is the opus Dei, the pre-eminent “work of God.” He makes it the heart and center of the spiritual life of the monastery, ordaining that nothing is to be preferred to it. One might perhaps dare to suggest, by an analogy with the eighth degree of humility (“that a monk do nothing except what is authorized by the common rule of the monastery, or the example of his seniors”), that the mental prayer of one who recites the office “worthily, attentively and devoutly” never go seriously astray ("The Layman’s Prayer," T. F. Lindsay, Orate Fratres, Volume 24, p. 149-150).

Praying the Divine Office can seem daunting. For many it seems complicated. One of my favorite sections, Chapter Five, in the recently published book The Little Oratory by David Clayton and Leila Lawler (previous review) provides practical suggestions and baby steps to incorporate some of the breviary into family prayers. In my own family we are gradually adding small parts of the Divine Office into our common prayer. Right now we pray the antiphon and canticle for Compline or Night Prayer for our night prayers.

So often we put up mental roadblocks and need to remember to just go ahead and try. Or as the Nike slogan says, "Just do it." The Liturgy of the Hours FAQ for Benedictine Oblates gives the most straightforward advice for a layperson:

Knowing some of the pitfalls, a person really has no reason to worry seriously about possibly being in the wrong place, making mistakes, or “doing it wrong.” As one senior monk once told an enthusiastic but highly exasperated Oblate novice who was frustrated with trying to pray the Divine Office, “Just do it, and do it consistently, always conscientiously, and, most importantly, always prayerfully and reverently. You will quickly find over time through God’s grace that things will fall into place, and that you will become familiar with the flow of Divine Office over the four-week cycle and with moving around the breviary in conjunction with the Liturgical Year for its special seasons, solemnities, and feasts. But this will not happen unless and until you just do it”....

Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion, in Christ, the Ideal of the Priest, describes the benefits of praying the Office as being assimilated into Jesus Christ. He says, “When we recite the Hours in communion with the whole Church, Christ, as head of the mystical body and centre of the communion of saints, takes up and unites all our praise in Himself .... How imperfect and deficient is our giving of glory! But Christ supplies for our weakness” (pp. 235-236).

This can be a point of discussion with the family to see how this liturgical prayer connects the Mystical Body of the Church through all the centuries. The little breviary has connections with members of the Church past, present and future. We can imagine monks, nuns, other religious and laity all over the world through all time praying through the day, united through this liturgical prayer. It is an inspiring personal connection to pray the same Psalter as St. Benedict who lived in the 5th and 6th centuries! Perhaps seeing the Divine Office through this view can inspire the family to try to pray it in small ways.

Bees and Benedict

It's time to set the patronal record straight. Just because you read it on the Internet, it doesn't mean it is true. Many years ago I came across a small booklet entitled A Candle is Lighted by P. Stewart Craig, a woman writer from the Grailville movement in England. Catholic Culture has shared many excerpts from the booklet, including this Blessing of Bees on the Feast of St. Benedict. I think there might have been a misunderstanding with the author (maybe she meant St. Bernard?) or there was just a local custom connecting Benedict with the bees, because St. Benedict has no official Catholic patronage with bees. St. Ambrose, St. Bernard of Clairvaux are listed as official patron saints, and even Pius XII mentioned there was a vague connection with St. Dominic and Bees, but no where is there an official connection with Benedict and patronage of bees. The excerpt from P. Stewart Craig's book has made St. Benedict the Internet's patron of beekeeping, but this is a popular idea, not an official patronage of the Church. But it is not far-fetched to see the connection of a Father of monasticism with bees. Most monasteries would have kept bees for the wax and honey.

There is a mention of St. Benedict with bees through "druid" connections. St. Benedict's original feast day fell near the vernal equinox, the time the bees would start to build forage for pollen and make more honey. Pagan writers say St. Benedict would bless the hives at this time of year. Regardless if that is true, the Roman Ritual does include a Blessing of Bees and pinning the blessing on a certain feast makes it easier to remember from year to year.

I've merely scratched the surface on the far-reaching impact of St. Benedict on our liturgy and everyday life. His feast can be an impetus to reading his Rule and perhaps following some of the Rule for our own family. We can also start in small ways praying the Divine Office in our home. And perhaps while discussing the family plans, the adults can enjoy a wine or liqueur made from Benedictine hands. A few ideas come to mind: D.O.M B&B Benedictine & Brandy, Dom Perignon, or Abbey Winery. These are all reminders of the "ora et labora" of the Benedictine monks, started by St. Benedict 16 centuries ago.

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