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The Benedictine Challenge

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience.”
Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue.1-2

I am, by nature, a very quiet and introverted guy. However, when dealing with others, my “relational” personality tends to the sarcastic (humorous and light-hearted, but sarcasm nonetheless). Now, I know this is not a positive attribute, but as a high school teacher, it sometimes works. There are times, however, when it can have the opposite effect.

One day, while reading through my students’ blogs (which they have to complete once a week), I noticed one of my students reflected on the reality of bullying at school. She noted how some students are unable to communicate about how they truly feel and instead go along with the remarks thrown at them. I was crushed. Whether or not this student was talking about me, the truth hit hard: I am guilty of such behavior. As a teacher, I am supposed to offer my students a safe environment where they can be themselves without fear of being bullied or ridiculed, and there are times I fail in that mission. I felt horrible, and rightly so. However, the paradox of the entire situation was that the guilt I experienced was the greatest gift I received that day.

Listen in Silence

Monk reading in silence
Mural from the St. Meinrad Archabbey Chapter Room

Norvene Vest, in her book No Moment Too Small, describes Benedictine spirituality as a movement from hearing to response to transformation, and our great spiritual writers have written about God’s action in the soul, being the first to move the heart to grace and transformation through the experience of guilt and shame. The obstacle in that transformation is, namely, us. It is difficult for us as humans to accept the fact we are not perfect. Contemporary culture is constantly bombarding us with the idea that we are perfect, incapable of mistakes or wrong answers. However, constant listening to the Word of God, and I mean true listening, always makes us uncomfortable as it brings us face to face with our inadequacies and sins. This revelation is not done to destroy our self-esteem or drown us in the mire of self-pity or self-loathing. On the contrary, this introspection offers us the opportunity to recognize areas for growth and maturity. After speaking with our elders and spiritual guides, we are able to engage true change and work on becoming the best version of ourselves.

This movement of the spirit is precisely what I experienced when I read and listened to what my student wrote on her blog. I listened to her condemnation of bullying and recognized it in my own actions. My response to this listening was one of guilt and remorse, and I won’t lie: I was tempted to rationalize those feelings away, pretend the truth did not apply to me. However, I allowed the experience to run its course, and while I had a miserable lunch that day as I reflected on my sinfulness and failures, I was comforted by the realization that all could still be well: God’s transformation was already beginning to act within me. I could still change and make things right.

Listening is the key to the challenge of spiritual growth, but unfortunately, it is one of the many virtues lacking in our culture today. It takes time to listen for the Word around us, it takes patience, and it takes courage. Listening is seen by many as weak, indicative of the fact that one cannot do for oneself, cannot think for oneself, and cannot lead on one’s own. Listening has become synonymous with humility and meekness, two other indispensable (yet unpopular) virtues for spiritual transformation. However, practitioners of Benedictine spirituality (and really any school of spirituality) understand the importance of silence in daily life and work to make time for silence amid the hustle and bustle of work and responsibilities. We listen for the whisperings of God in our loved ones and strangers, joys and sorrows, leisure and work. We listen for the promptings of the Spirit in the psalms and Gospels, in the words of biblical and modern-day prophets, in the reflections of mystics, and in the blogs of our students. Listening is what allows us to enter into the heart of the Word and learn from the Master, who is himself meek and humble of heart.

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience.”
Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue.1-2

The opening lines of the Rule beautifully illustrate the journey Benedict experienced and envisioned for his monks: listen with the heart, welcome the Word, and practice it – listening, responding, and transformation. This path is tough, but the challenges are truly life-giving. Spiritual growth is not easy, but when I can stand in front of my students and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve, it is then I understand the transformation is not for my benefit, but rather for the benefit of those whose lives I touch.

Discussion Questions

Do I find time to listen for the voice of God in my life?
How have I allowed myself to be moved and challenged by God?

Categories: Benedictine

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Andres Munoz, Jr.