{Practicing Benedict} Gentle Piety, Warm Charity

At the entrance to the monastery there should be a wise senior who is too mature in stability to think of wandering about and who can deal with the enquiries and give whatever help is required. This official’s room should be near the main door so that visitors will always find someone there to greet them. As soon as anyone knocks on the door or one of the poor calls out, the response, uttered at once with gentle piety and warm charity, should be ‘thanks be to God’ or ‘your blessing, please’. If the porter or portress needs help, then a junior should be assigned this task. (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 66)

I keep thinking about the words we speak and St. Benedict’s charge to the “porter or portress” of the monastery, that their words should be gently pious and full of warm charity. Those two requests, that notion of piety and charity? They’re totally not our style.

That’s not to say the Christian sub-culture isn’t full of piety. In fact, we love piety and have filled up books with every kind of Christian-y clichéd phrase so that we can most easily express our piety. (For more on those clichés, see my friend Addie Zierman’s blog). The problem with most piety is that it doesn’t get lived or spoken with gentleness. In fact, I would say that piety is such a charged word for me (and my generation) that if I heard something “pious” spoken with gentleness, pious would be the last thing I’d call it.

If we as a culture truly valued depth and stability and true kindness, we would change much of what we speak, especially what and how we speak about God.

We believers are rarely gentle with each other. When it comes to piety, we use our words to battle over theological stances, to speak judgment into each other’s circumstances. Moms battle over ideas of work and non work, sleep training and child rearing. We speak to each other at play dates with frantic worry. We speak with fearful, wandering minds.

And then, when we want to calm down, we speak with sarcastic snark. It’s like we don’t know how to be sincere anymore. All we know is how to battle, how to worry together, how to make fun of ourselves.

Of course, that’s a generalization. Of course, there are those who are kind, earnest, and sincere in their language. But there’s a reason Jon Stewart is the voice for our generation. We don’t know how to see the world except through the lens of the scoffer.

If I’m going to Practice Benedict, I need more than spiritual notions for my heart. I need to change the words I’m saying and how I say them. What does it mean to speak with gentleness? What are the walls that my sarcasm has built up in order to protect me from emotional and relational pain?

We all crave beauty. We all crave earnestness. I’m convinced we’re simply afraid of it. We’re afraid of piety because it has always been harsh. We’re afraid of speaking with charity because we don’t know how to convey warmth. Instead, we take the easy way out. We joke. One of the most beautiful things about Christianity is the high calling to live counter-culturally. What if we counter our culture by speaking true words with kindness?

Now is when I confess that I’m the severe sarcastic type. My humor is totally wrapped up in snarky remarks and I don’t see that changing any time soon. In fact, I’m not saying that I need to stop being sarcastic. But, I’m convicted by the thought that my first response is most often to make a joke instead of speak to the need in front of me.

What I want is to be the deep elder with a heart of stability.

What I want is to grow into the faithful one at the door waiting for the pilgrims. I want to live patiently aware so that as soon as anyone knocks on the door longing for a place to stay, a place to belong, a place where words are spoken that have weight and joy inside them, I will be brave enough to utter the good truth, to speak love with warmth and hold out piety with gentle hands.


If you think a part of your personal statement sounds pretentious or silly, it probably is

  • This reminds me of something David Dark said in his book “The Sacredness of Questioning Everything”:

    “I’d be willing to bet that a good number of the hateful and destructive sentences that still ring in our heads were followed by some variation of a grossly ineffective, “I was just joking.” Our words go on and on, with consequences we can’t measure, with reverberations beyond our control. Making our words do the right things, making them into a means for caring for one another, often involves stopping before we start or confessing we didn’t know what we were saying, that our words outran our limited wisdom . . . Language, after all, isn’t just a tool for communication. Our language is, to put it strangely, our “lifeworld.” And the limits of out language are, in some sense, the limits of our lifeworld. When out language is added to with a better way of putting things, we are expanding our lifeworld. We call this better way poetry. The poetic isn’t the fancy stuff or the words the pretentious depend on to sound deep. Poetry is how our lifeworlds are made new. Poetry frees our speech and loosens our lips and our strangled imaginations. Poetry is called poetry because people decided to testify concerning the power of certain arrangements of words. They testified by calling these words, these testimonies, poetry.”

    • michaboyett

      Thanks Greg. Language as our “lifeworld”…that’s great stuff. I should totally read David Dark’s book. Putting it on my wish list now!

  • Great post, Micha. Gentleness is such a simple, powerful thing. Easy to forget the “quieter” fruit of the Spirit.

    • michaboyett

      Thank you Kevin. So grateful you’re here reading.

  • I must confess, that I, too, love the Rule of St. Benedict, and have read through it several times, and I am working on allowing it to inform my ongoing spiritual formation.

    In addition to your thoughts, I found two things which were also striking to me. The first is that the porter is to be a wise person who is mature. Essentially, this is calling for the revered people of the monastery to be doormen/doorwomen. This is also quite a cultural reversal, because even in our churches, we have secretaries or administrative assistants that answer the telephone, screen the calls, and help people who come to the church. This all operates under the assumption that the work of answering the door/telephone is less important than the work that is going on “behind the scenes.” Rather, the rule sees those who come to the monastery as work of ministry to be respected and honored, rather than an interruption in the work of ministry.

    Secondly, when someone comes to the monastery, the porter is to respond with “Thanks be to God” or to invoke a blessing. I love your discussion on the phrase “gentle piety and warm charity”. Even so, I think that the words that are given to respond to the guest are also fascinating. The idea of thanking God for someone showing up who needs something is also quite counter-cultural. In a lot of ways, even our churches have been infected with the busy-ness of the world and we see those who present themselves as a distraction to those things which we need to accomplish.

    Thanks for your thoughts, you certainly have me thinking.

    • michaboyett

      Matthew, I totally agree! I actually looked at taking in this post in the direction you brought up. I think all the time about how necessary older believers are and how few of them there are in our “relevant, progressive” churches. Where are the mature porters who don’t need to be “wandering about”?!!! Thanks for all your thoughts. Maybe this passage should be a three part series?

      • Just like with sermons and scripture passages, there is a wealth of directions that one can take and that is what is so fascinating about it. Each sermon that I preach is like dipping a cup into a well, there is always more water that can be brought up, and we cannot possibly take it all up at once. It is simply our job to bring up some water for our people. Despite the host of other directions that there are in that particular chapter, you definitely offered all of us the opportunity to drink deeply in reflecting on what St. Benedict can offer to our lives regardless of whether we are within our without the monastery.

  • Carolyn

    This was such a truthful and thoughtful post. It will give me a lot to mull over today.

    • michaboyett

      So grateful you were here today, Carolyn…

  • Love your new digs, Micha! But I haven’t yet gotten an email from this new site, though I am subscribed to the old one. Hoping it clicks in soon.

    This post and the one about the book you found in MI are terrific and so helpful for moms of young kids, especially.

    So glad you chose the smiling pic for your banner – everything looks great.

    • michaboyett

      Thanks friend! I’ll check in the Patheos folks and see if we’re any closer to getting the subscriptions over. I was really hoping it would work today. Thanks for letting me know. So glad you like the banner. : )

  • Wow, your bit about Jon Stewart being the voice of our generation is something I need to sit in the corner and think about for some quiet time! Gosh! Good thoughts.

    I’ve also been thinking that evangelicals are raised to, um, evangelize. So no matter what we end up believing as adults, we’re trained to evangelize. I try to evangelize for egalitarianism. There are a few folks I know who grew up evangelical and are now strident atheists who “evangelize” for atheism. Just something to think about.

    • michaboyett

      Man, I have to think about that. We’re all evangelizing. But do you think that’s only those with evangelical pasts? Doesn’t every body have a cause they’re pushing? (Of course, not every body has spent their childhood learning how to stick it to ’em with apologetics!)

  • I think gentleness may be one the most overlooked of all the virtues. It’s nice to see you highlight it’s merits here.

    • Can we pretend there are not two glaring mistakes in that comment?! With gentleness, of course. : ) (*of, *its)

      • michaboyett

        I promise to pretend I didn’t see those! : ) And, yes, we don’t talk about gentleness enough. Why is that?

  • Kim

    This really struck something deep in me.
    I, too, can be snarky, way too often.
    I was transported by the image of the porter at the door and what his ( my) job entailed. I can only explain that everything sort of shifted in me in response to it.
    And by the end of the post, I was crying.
    Got to spend some time unpacking that.
    Thanks, Micha.

    • michaboyett

      Kim, I’m honored that it meant something to you. This is one of those posts that even after I wrote it didn’t quite feel like I know what it means. I’m thinking about that right along with you…

  • “I want to live patiently aware so that as soon as anyone knocks on the door longing for a place to stay, a place to belong, a place where words are spoken that have weight and joy inside them, I will be brave enough to utter the good truth, to speak love with warmth and hold out piety with gentle hands.”

    Amen. I need to print this on a file card and stick it in my prayer book!

    • michaboyett

      Thank you, Ruth. I need to stick it in my prayer book too. 🙂

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