St. Benedict vs. Rugged Individualism

July 11 marks the feast of St. Benedict in the Catholic Church's calendar. Benedict (ca. 480-550) may at first glance seem quite remote, at least as compared with heroes of July 4th and American independence such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. For Benedict not only lived a millennium and a half ago, and in Italy, but he was a celibate monk. He is best known for the rule he wrote for monasteries.

I would like to suggest that at least some of the wisdom found in the Rule of St. Benedict could well inform and guide current U.S. debates about immigrants, health care, taxation policies, and balance between work and the rest of life.

After a period of studies in Rome, the young Benedict withdrew for a time from most human contact in order to live in a cave as a hermit devoted to solitude and prayer. But after a while he left his solitude and founded a monastic community at Monte Cassino, and it was initially for this monastery that he wrote his Rule. Rejecting extreme versions of monastic life, such as that of desert ascetics, Benedict prescribes a community life of work and prayer, in which humble, faithful service of others takes precedence over spectacular individual accomplishments. Such service of others, not competition with each other, is the ideal he promotes.

Care of the sick is a matter to which the Rule gives no small attention. Indeed, Benedict states that such care must rank above all other concerns, so that the sick may be served as Christ. Citing Matthew 25, Benedict insists that to visit the sick is to visit Christ, and that what one does for the least of one's brothers one does for Christ. And thus the abbot must insure that the sick suffer no neglect; and the sick must be allowed special privileges, such as the eating of meat. Today, Americans continue to debate whether or not to guarantee access to health care and how to make health care affordable. In Massachusetts, the state legislature recently debated whether or not to fund dental care for Medicaid recipients. A disgraceful compromise offered would provide care for front teeth only, and leave the poor with no care for other teeth. Many states offer no dental care at all to the poor. I dare say that St. Benedict's prioritization of care for the sick above other matters offers a better example to contemplate and imitate.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, guests, too, are to be received as Christ. For Benedict, the monastery is not to be simply an enclosed oasis, but rather it is to be a place of welcome for guests, for the poor, for pilgrims. One thing Benedict does not do is establish criteria for distinguishing what could be imagined as suitable or unsuitable guests; rather, all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. Again citing Matthew 25, the Rule states that strangers are welcomed as Christ: they should be greeted with a kiss of peace; with their hands and feet washed by the monks, guests should dine at the abbot's table; maximum care and solicitude is to be shown to the poor and to pilgrims, for in them, even more than in others, Christ is received. Thus it is a very, very long way indeed from Benedict's ideals to the present realities of using immigrants as scapegoats for unemployment or crime, and of illegal "aliens" languishing in American prisons. Something of Benedict's zeal for caring reception of various guests could benefit the U.S. by substituting welcome for contempt for the stranger and the foreigner.

Citing repeatedly the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 4, on goods held in common by Christian communities, Benedict insists on rooting out the "evil" of private ownership. Distribution of goods, in the monastery, is to be according to needs, and goods should be regarded as the possession of all. While such communalism, or communism, may frighten and shock Americans worshipping at the altar of rugged individualism, promotion of the common good is surely more biblical than the so-called "free" market that produces ever larger disparities between rich and poor. No doubt Benedict's rejection of private property may not easily be adopted outside a context such as a monastery, but there are plenty of ways of sharing goods, at least to some extent. One of them is through vigorous, progressive taxation of the healthy and wealthy, so that the needs of others may be met. Recently, François Hollande, president of France, proposed a tax of 75 percent on annual incomes above 1 million euros. Would that American politicians had such courage! St. Benedict, whose title includes that of patron of Europe, would likely approve of Monsieur Hollande's tax policies.

The Rule of St. Benedict details a daily schedule in which various times of community prayer alternate with times of work, times of rest, times of silent prayer and reading. This balanced approach to daily life may contrast rather sharply with the frenzied and frantic daily experiences of many Americans in an age in which some persons are forced to hold two or three poorly paid jobs, while other persons wallowing in wealth. It is a noisy age, one of omnipresent cell phones, sound bites and of attention spans rarely lasting more than a minute. If one is unable to pay attention, one is, among other disabilities, incapable of prayer. Monasteries such as the Weston Priory or St. Joseph's Abbey, both in New England, offer the visitor a taste of a way of a life enduring in its attractiveness, even though, and also because, that way seems at odds with so much of life today.

St. Benedict is a saint, a wisdom figure, a model who can inspire and challenge laity and clergy, Catholics and others, men and women, certainly not only medieval monks or nuns, but all persons in the 21st century. For Americans given over to unlimited individualism and a loud, relentless acquisition of material things, he may be difficult to accept, but he offers a precious example of a life more fully human, a life of balance, of sharing of material things and of care for one another.