When I lived in a Benedictine Monastery, everything had its place and time. Before my Priestly Ordination, I received permission from the Bishop to go on a long monastic retreat. So I spent all of Lent—Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday—at Mount Saviour Priory near Elmira, New York.
It was a truly blessed time for me. By entering into the lives of the monks, from praying in the darkness of the night (they begin prayers at 4 AM) to helping with the milking of the cows, I entered a whole new world. St. Benedict made sure that everything that had to be done for God was given a place in the schedule and whatever was not in God or for God was kept out of the day.
In the wonderful peaceful silence of each day we gathering in Chapel seven times for the chanting of the Psalms. Time was also given for private prayer, for eating in common (in silence of course) and for work to sustain the life of the monks.
You did not have to worry about anything. There was time for all the important things. The non-important things were kept at a minimum. Some might say, “How boring!” To which I would answer, “Don’t knock it ‘till you try it!” It is a way of life that is so peaceful and joyful that people parked in front of their TV sets can never imagine!
That being said, our own daily lives are very different.
We cannot organize our day with the completeness that St. Benedict ordered the day of his monks. While some things are similar in our lives from day to day (meals, sleep, etc.), there is an enormous amount of things that happen to us daily in our lives over which we have no control whatsoever. And when you add to our lives the benefits (are they?) of the internet and the smart phone, we are likely to feel overwhelmed as though we have no control over our lives and over the many stimuli that affect us every day, every hour, every minute. Just as a small example: think of how many times per day that we are asked to buy something! Billboards, radio ads, TV commercials, pop ups on our computer. Maybe it is close to 1,000 times a day there is an intrusion into our lives telling us that we are needy in some area and that we can buy something that will make us happier. Add to this the emails, text messages, Facebook post, and you see that we are literally inundated with voices and visions that seek to intrude into our consciousness. In a word, we can feel “overwhelmed”.
But this is not a natural state of affairs. It has been artificially imposed upon us by the technological orientation of the modern world and by the adoption of the consumerism at the heart of capitalism and the vice of greed that seeks more and more things in a desperate attempt to stave off the feelings of insecurity that are at the heart of human striving. We are being used. What allows this to happen is our ignorance of what is occurring and our false idea that there is nothing we can do about it.
At the time of St. Benedict some 1500 years ago, there was a different type of chaos that overwhelmed people. The Roman Empire was collapsing and there was nothing to take its place. No law, no order, no police, no safety, no government, no place to seek help, no doctors, no basic necessities. Every day was a challenge since the village could be attacked by marauding barbarians. All the organs of civilization were no longer dependable or even existing.
St. Benedict created a mini-society in the monastery which provided the order and dependability that was absent in society. Hence the monastery became the order and the stability of the Dark Ages that preserved Western Civilization. St. Benedict refused to remain passive, actively created a new way of organizing daily life.
We too must have that sort of active reordering of priorities that could recreate a sense of order and give us the daily peace we so hunger after. This may require selectively letting go of the many things we want to do and concentrating on the important things in life. We have the ability to choose if we are more assertive and able to weigh the relative importance of so much of the things that we normally just accept. We need to eliminate what is extrinsic to our lives, even if it means to do without TV or Facebook or the countless other things that seem to be “essentials” of our modern lives. We need to express our freedom in creating for ourselves an “individual monastery” for our own spirits following a personal rule of conduct that refuses to just accept things on their own.
There are already many Christians throughout the world that have taken this concept seriously, living what is called the “Benedict Option”. If the Church of today does that on the whole, it will become smaller, but stronger and more focused. But we do not have to wait for that. We can choose that way forward as long as we are ready to engage in an asceticism that can direct us more directly with the true goal of our lives: living with Christ forever.
Lent is a time when we can experiment with this, doing without things to gain inner freedom. I entreat you all to take this upcoming Lent seriously as a time for real spiritual growth by emulating St. Benedict’s way in your own lives.