A Letter to St. Benedict, on his Feast Day *
My Dearest Benedict,
You and I didn’t meet in the regular way. I wasn’t making lifelong vows in a sacred space, a cross pressed to my chest, holy fingers on my forehead.
Instead, I was soaking in an Epson salt bath, recovering from birthing a child. (Something I’m guessing, you encountered little of in your cloistered life. Though, of course, who can be sure?) I was reading a book and stumbled on a few lines about you. Maybe one sentence? It was about how you believed there was enough time. How you always believed there was enough time.
Oh, Benedict, I longed for you to be right. Of course, what would you say about our lives today? My four-year-old playing Angry Birds on his grandfather’s iPhone? What would you say about my staying up late tonight, coffee in hand, to write this post about you? What would you say about how tired I am, how I’m relying on caffeine to get me through my work? What would say about the noise of this world I was born into?
There is enough time, you’d say: Enough time for work, for prayer, for rest, for study.
You’re known for your reasonableness. Reason is something I need more of in my life. I come from a culture of Christianity that says if you love Jesus you must shout it really loud. The louder you shout, the more Jesus will be glorified. You, Benedict, said humility was the key to Glory. You said it’s better to keep quiet.
I come from a culture that says, Go out by yourself and do something great for God! Do something big and individual and prove your worth! You came to me holding out the quiet goodness of community, of hard work, of prayer.
I come from a culture that says Pray long and elaborate!, a culture that wants me to prove how well I know God by the holy order of my words. You said to keep prayer short.
I come from a culture that demands we do good deeds from a distance: short term mission trips, twice a year work at the Food Bank, money passed in clean and tidy ways. You said that every guest should be considered Christ. You spread the doors of your home wide open. There was always room, always food for the traveler.
Benedict, you imposed “nothing harsh or burdensome,” even when the culture around you demanded penance, demanded solitude in the far-off caves. You offered kindness, gentleness, charity. That’s why I heard your words and clung to them that day in my bathtub. In that moment, I was not sealed into a flock of brethren. I was not blessed by sacred hands and ushered into a new name and new robes. But I discovered that you and I had a lot more in common than I ever would have believed. Your words have walked with me through these early years of childrearing. You might not agree with me, but Brother, you have a Mother’s heart. You gathered and gathered and look at us: We are still being gathered into your fold, your cloister.
Thank you for offering a world to me I had never imagined: the hope of quiet faith and severe hospitality. I have found in your words a beautiful perspective of time and work and God’s sweet goodness.
I don’t know how to go about celebrating a saint on his feast day. You probably can’t imagine this, but we Protestants don’t usually do that sort of thing. I imagine, though, that in celebration I should do what you’ve taught me: Practice gentle humility.
The cloistered life is the gentle life, after all. I’ll dress my boys for bed here at my parents’ home. I say a blessing over their heads, like any faithful priest. I’ll visit my grandfather in his nursing home bed, where he lies uncertain and a bit confused. I’ll run my fingers through his hair like I do my little boys and sing the old invitation hymns to him while he falls asleep, his mouth curled tight around the empty space where his false teeth have been removed.
And, like you would do, I’m sure, Benedict, I’ll raise my thumb to his ancient forehead, run it down and across his wrinkled lines. I’ll mark him with the cross, a blessing for an old man in the in-between, a man who told me Jesus would be coming for him soon.
I’ll sing quiet, like a monk chanting ancient Psalms: Great is Thy Faithfulness, Lord unto me. And that will be my celebration, Benedict. As quiet and simple a celebration as you would require.