Monastic wisdom never fails.
With the perspective that comes from so much time spent at home, it’s becoming obvious how much our hyper-media age loves gossip, noise, and images that take us on a dizzying marathon, at full speed, away from what is essential. Given this digital onslaught, how can we keep ourselves firmly grounded? How can we find our way and find ourselves?
Many sociologists are looking at the phenomenon of the “acceleration of time,” a major experience in our society that often causes a feeling of suffocation. This constant bombardment of all kinds of demands, this “too much of everything,” actually reveals a real gap to be filled. If we’re caught up in the daily spiral of responding more and more to things we consider urgent, but which are superfluous and superficial—in short, if we only focus on our “lack of having and doing”—we lose sight of the essence of our life: We have a “lack of being.”
Do everything in moderation
St. Benedict, the father of monastic life in the West, lived a Rule that can be distilled into something we can live as well. Fifteen centuries later, St. Benedict’s wisdom remains amazingly relevant. Among his precepts, there is an astonishingly simple piece of advice for how to stay focused on the essentials.
Regarding all the things that are a means to an end, “man needs measure. He must constantly find a balance between excess and lack,” as Dom Xavier Perrin, Abbot of Quarr, England, explains. St. Benedict points out that we are tempted to go in one direction only, when life demands a constant balancing of efforts and activities. Paradoxically, we can even err by excess in praying too much, fasting too much, or constantly working ourselves to exhaustion.
This is the reason for this key piece of advice that St. Benedict transmitted to monks: One must always practice balance between two contrary things to remain attentive to what is essential. In the case of St. Benedict’s monks, that means to balance prayer and work, silence and singing, separation from the world and welcome, solitude and common life, as Dom Xavier Perrin reminds us.
But how can we do everything in moderation? The practical genius of St. Benedict clearly suggests a guide. The just measure should be neither too high (like imitating certain feats of the Fathers of the desert), nor too low (like the way of life that the decadent monasticism of his time was too easily satisfied with).
Of course, the focus of each day, for monks, is to get closer to God through prayer. Everything is organized around this priority which leads to the essential. If defining priorities in life isn’t always the most difficult thing, however, respecting them and organizing ourselves accordingly is a real challenge.
All the disturbances and unforeseen demands of daily life give power to the dictatorship of the urgent, of having and doing. It’s hard to imagine not reacting during the day to an important customer’s e-mail, for instance, but sometimes giving yourself time to think about the answer can make you much more creative—and therefore, more effective! According to the Benedictine monk, the more important something is, the less we should rush it.
Although St. Benedict was writing for monks, the same principles apply to the rest of us. Like his monks, our goal is to draw closer to God and to love our neighbor, although with activities more varied and public than Benedictines in an abbey.
Work is important, but equally important is spending time with family and making time for prayer and recollection. Keeping up to date on news and entertainment is only in the “right measure” if we also give ourselves time to reflect on what we’ve seen, read, and heard, holding on to what is good, true, and beautiful while rejecting whatever could lead us astray.
Avoiding the extremes keeps us literally “centered.” It helps us to remember not just to “do” or “have,” but above all, to “be.” Let’s remember this wisdom of St. Benedict in the midst of the disruption of our ordinary lives caused by the coronavirus pandemic, making this guiding principle a part of our own “new normal.”