I was about to set off to university. My friends and I headed north for a week of camp sponsored by Young Life — it was at the extraordinary Malibu Club on Princess Louisa Inlet in British Columbia.
They called the camp “College Prep” and the message was clear: We’d been Christians in high school, but staying Christians at college was going to be tough. There were countless temptations. A lot of people would tube their faith under peer pressure. We needed to commit ourselves now to growing as disciples.
St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c.545) faced the same problem, but he didn’t realize it till he got to school in Rome. (Alas, no Young Life in the early sixth century.) All his friends were giving themselves over to loose living.
Benedict didn’t want to tube his faith. He took radical action — far more radical than you see today. He found a cave and moved in for three years. He wanted to seek God alone — in both senses of that phrase.
He was no fool about it: He made plans with a monk from a nearby monastery to lower him some food on a rope every so often. And God took care of him: when his friend died, God gave a local priest a vision telling him to find Benedict and feed him.
Benedict’s biography, written by St. Gregory the Great, doesn’t give many details about what he was doing in that cave. He tells us that Benedict prayed, letting his life be formed by communion with God. He tells us that Benedict fought against temptation, growing strong in faithfulness and holiness.
“But how can that be?” we ask. “How can it be holy to live alone in a cave when we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves?”
Here’s the deal: God used Benedict’s solitude like a spiritual boot camp. Some shepherds stumbled on his cave and met him. They were so impressed by the presence of God in his life that they were converted. Word spread. When the abbot of the local monastery died, the monks came and recruited Benedict for the job.
The pattern gets repeated in Benedict’s life — and ever afterward in the movement he catalyzed.
- When his first experience as an abbot failed (the monks actually tried to kill him) he went back to his life of prayer in the solitude of the wilderness.
- And then he came back to spend the his life founding better monasteries under the Rule that he wrote.
- People joined Benedictine monasteries to live in prayer, obedience, faithfulness, humility.
- And then God called many of them to go out in service — a medieval honor roll of missionaries, bishops, and theologians.
Benedict did love solitude. And he really was transformed by God there. And so, God used him to bring others to a deeper discipleship.
- Seeking God in solitude…
- …leads to transformation
- …leads to mission.
What Benedict gave the Church was a structure to do this in community. Together, Benedictine monks and nuns create solitude for seeking God — a structure for transformation that leads to service. Most may stay within monastic walls, serving the community and serving the world through prayer. But some also are prepared inside to serve outside in traditional and innovative ways.
On this feast of St. Benedict I give thanks for the man and the movement he built. And I pray that churches like my own might find ways to follow his example.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What might our Christian communities today do to create the space for things that so transformed Benedict and his followers — solitude, prayer, obedience, virtue?
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