What We Can Learn From the Benedictines

It was a mild December night in Minnesota as a hundred Catholic adults converged upon the beautiful house of a lovely young couple in order to meet a monk. They entered the house and, having been welcomed with a smile, dove right into the fudge and wine and entered into conversation with the other like-minded acquaintances present.

After and hour of socializing, the monk, Fr. Cassion Folsom, O.S.B., the founder and Prior of a new community of Benedictines, began to speak.
He told us about his order, which established themselves in a monastery in Norcia, Italy, the birth place of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, in 2000. Benedictines had been in Norcia for hundreds of years until they were suppressed by Napoleon in 1810. This group of monks has been growing well and is nearing 20 monks.

It is not a coincidence that the Benedictines are drawing new vocations. The work in which St. Benedict engaged, preserving the Church, community life, knowledge, and virtue, is a work that is again of immense importance today. Fr. Folsom shared this quotation from Alasdair Macintyre, from a book published in 1981, which is still relevant today:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are.
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

 If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.

This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” (After Virtue, p. 263)

Macintyre and Prior Folsom both believe that people seeking to live virtuous lives need to build communities that foster their virtue. We need to do something now, while society deteriorates around us, to preserve all that is good in Western culture. Now maybe things are not as bad and secularized here as they are in parts of Europe, but the possibility is looming. We see the need for better local communities in recent events, such as the recent Michael Brown shooting and the reaction to it in Ferguson, Missouri. A good community preserves morals, teaches them to our children, and never stops seeking to become better.

Prior Folsom spoke of the importance of the pockets of Catholic community that we already have in the United States. We need to cling to them, be formed by them, and allow our wider communities to be transformed by them. Having a good Catholic community is more and more essential to being able to actually live a Catholic life in the modern world. It is also easy enough to find online community support, but the real, live, in-person community matters the most.

I don’t have a ton of practical advice on how to build community, but probably the best place to start is in your home life. Monks model for us a real community built on rules and a schedule that requires prayer, work, and community. When I first read the Rule of St. Benedict, I realized how helpful it was to planning a good family life. There is a beautiful book The Little Oratory that gives great advice on establishing a life of family prayer. The routine of family meals, family prayer, and extending hospitality to others are basics of community life that are not hard to incorporate.  We can imitate this in our own families, bring it to our community of friends, and to the wider communities we live in. We need to be making conscious efforts to bring the goodness of our Catholic communities to those around us. Transformations must begin at the most basic level. So, we must begin with ourselves, transforming our own minds and our own lives of virtue and then grow out from there.

Originally posted at Truth and Charity.