Wisdom from the West

How St. Benedict is a Model for Civilizational Catholicism

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict two aspects struck me as especially important for civilization. First, Benedict’s injunction to abbots to take council with all the members of the society whenever making a large decision. “Hear even what the youngest has to say” clearly indicates that the distribution of valuable input throughout the monastery is not uniform. Wisdom can come from the mouths of the youth, just as from the learned. Thus, the wise person will seek input from the community before making decisions.

As a teacher and administrator  it is so useful getting feedback from students about things that do and do not work, certainly learning at a graduation party that some aspect of one’s teaching does not work is far too late. We must be upfront about providing useful feedback and soliciting it too. Constant improvement is a part of the Christian journey to Holy Wisdom. Hence the examination of conscience, hence St. Benedict’s injunction to the abbot to always seek counsel even in small matters.

To promote wisdom at JPII, we have the house system. The house system provides students the opportunity to be leaders, to organize activities, promote virtue, and provide feedback. Any student with something to offer becomes a participant in the school culture as opposed to passive recipients of it.

Parents, as well, craft our school culture. Feedback and active participation from parents is the bedrock of a hybrid school. The privileged position of parents as first educators and facilitators 2 days each week means that they know things about their students that teachers and administration might not know. This goes both ways, and thus communication is not only necessary for our function but is the beginning of our wisdom.

The second bit of wisdom I gleaned this week from the Rule of St. Benedict was his emphasis upon the equality of the monks with regard to things of the world. Wealth, rank, and honor from the previous life count for nothing in the life of this community, only virtue distinguishes monks from each other. The fundamental Christian dignity shared by all monks alike is enforced by the Rule. This might seem a small thing, but the belief in equal dignity of people before the Rule is a fundamental principle of Western society, which now is based on equality before the law.

The Rule sets out to supply a model of monastic society that closely approximates the true city of God. It is a real constitution for a model Christian society. There is no doubt that Benedictine monasteries, and monasteries based on the same principles, spread throughout all of Europe and saved its civilization in the early Middle Ages. Would there be any “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal” without these monasteries enculturating this “self-evident” truth for millennia? Certainly, much more also had to happen, but nonetheless, it can honestly be proclaimed, that without St. Benedict’s constitution, we would not have had the necessary model for a community of equal citizens which gives modern law its moral force.

For us the lesson of St. Benedict could be that even a small community can one day be a cornerstone of civilization. “Let us build our school community on the same foundations, for civilization may depend on it!”

But that conclusion, would be too easy and would ignore a complicated dynamic. There is a tension between the Rule of St. Benedict and what Benedictine Monasteries came to represent. Their purpose is the life of prayer and poverty, not civilization building. The fact that they became something more than a human attempt at the City of God and became so many centers serving the needs of man, the needs of literacy and manuscripts, of food and even at times defense, indicates a drift in the plan towards fulfilling the needs of the moment. The question of conformity then arises. Who is conforming to whom? In the 13th century Benedictine monasteries no longer had a role as the centers of learning, they were superseded by the great medieval universities. But nevertheless, Benedictine orders, and other religious orders, and the culture that sustains such things, continues to produce consequential scholars and scientists, technicians and inventors through to 2020. The culture of Catholic religious orders is astonishingly capable of maintaining that tension between holy purpose and worldly service over millennia.

In the novel The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) Father Jacobus is a great Benedictine monk and statesman at the same time, serving both the functions of international diplomacy in a life dedicated to that higher purpose. Even when the Order serves the world, it receives its nourishment and direction from faith, and so it is merely looking for a practical way to apply a few centuries of acquired wisdom. The true lesson, I think, is about the relationship between high culture and the needs of civilization. Decoupled they both become dangerous to each other.