The Benedictine Charism of Slow Evangelization

I had the opportunity to spend a week in June at Saint Anselm Abbey in Manchester, New Hampshire for the annual Junior Summer School for Benedictine monks who have made simple vows. Thirty juniors from various communities in the United States, from both the Swiss-American and American-Cassinese congregations, participated in liturgies, attended conferences, and ate meals in community. The week we spent together reminded us how our Benedictine way of life continues to be a model for the entire Church, even after sixteen centuries.

One of the activities we participated in was a seminar on the upcoming Synod for Youth, Discernment, and Vocations taking place in Rome this October. Abbot Elias Lorenzo, O.S.B, the Abbot President of the American-Cassinese Congregation, led us juniors in a discussion about what we can do, both individually and within our communities, to evangelize young people in the 21st century. We divided into four small groups and answered prompts about the challenges facing the Church when evangelizing young people. Young people were defined as men and women, ages 18 to 29. Our small groups cited a myriad of challenges and opportunities we will encounter in spreading the Good News. This small reflection is a collection of the tools for good works (cf. The Rule of Benedict, ch. 4) that the whole Church may wish to use for communicating the Gospel.

How do Benedictines, anchored to monasteries through our vows of obedience, stability, and daily conversion of life, preach to the world without leaving our monasteries? Three thoughts circulated among the small groups: Vulnerability, authenticity, and the Church’s liturgical life. We enfleshed these concepts into an opportunity to grow more authentically in our Benedictine charisms of hospitality and liturgy: To celebrate the liturgy with and for the Church, mindful that we bring the whole of ourselves (the good and the not-so-good) to God so he may transform each of us into our authentic selves, scars and all. The question to be asked, then, is not solely a monastic one but an ecclesial one. How can anyone—a practicing Catholic, a lukewarm Christian, an ardent atheist, or a hopeful agnostic—find his or her vulnerable and authentic self through actual, fruitful, and conscious participation in the liturgical life of the Church?

When Benedictine monks go to the Liturgy of the Hours or Mass, they show up to work. The traditional motto of the Order of Saint Benedict is Ora et Labora [prayer and work]. When they hear the call for prayer, they are to stop their manual labors, proceed solemnly yet expeditiously to the abbey church (cf. RB 43:1-3), and take part in God’s Work, the liturgy. Liturgy forms each member of the monastic community so each monk may conform his whole life to Christ’s. The repetition of the liturgical year, the cycles of scriptural readings, the actions and gestures of the whole assembly, and Jesus’s eternal pledge of his love for humanity in the Eucharistic Prayer all coalesce into one offering that confers grace through the words spoken and actions performed. The Spirit that Christ entrusted himself to on Calvary is the same Spirit that works through perceptible signs and symbols, animating each monk’s participation in the earthly liturgy here and now for his sanctification, his confreres’ sanctification, and that of the whole world. The earthly round of the liturgical year allows each Christian to participate in the timeless reality of the heavenly liturgy.

The genius of ritual is that it cultivates within us an awareness of our utter dependence on God. The recurrent and upward motion of the liturgy carries us as if it were a wave, making us aware of our place in the cosmos—small and helpless, though greatly loved. We in turn carry this awareness of our need for the divine assistance into the world, knowing that, despite our infirmities and failures, our merciful God will never abandon us. When we commit again each day to trod the narrow way that leads to eternal life (cf. RB 5:10-11), how can we keep this Good News to ourselves?

The liturgical life begins in our Triune and merciful God, the Creator of the Cosmos. It is God’s work that every human is called to cooperate in on earth, with the hoped-for result that our loving God will sanctify all of humanity, bless the work of our hands, safeguard his creation, and, perhaps most of all, transform our whole and integrated selves. It is in the liturgy, then, that the love of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit manifests itself through the cracks of our battered and redeemed humanity. The Lord’s work washes us of our sloth of disobedience (cf. RB Prologue:2), so we may live in the truth that we are the Father’s beloved, whom Christ has redeemed, and the Spirit continually sanctifies. The reality of being loved, despite our sinful inclinations, can expose our vulnerability. This undeniable reality should aid us in tearing down the false self of sin that obscures the divine love from radiating through us.

Through the liturgy, our personal and Triune God invites us and challenges us to follow Christ, inclining the ear of our heart to listen to the master’s instructions (cf. RB Prologue:1). Liturgy is not mere function, a static concept that broadcasts a vague and impersonal message for behaving ethically in the world. The liturgy is the privileged place where Christians encounter our Risen Savior and respond to his call to live authentic lives in and for a fractured world. Christians are to sow the seeds of our gifts and talents—no matter how small those seeds may be (Mk 4:30-34)—and reap a harvest for the Kingdom where Father, Son, and Spirit bring about justice and peace through their healing and reconciling love. Our response to God’s call to live in the truth may daunt us at times and lay bare our vulnerabilities. The story of Jesus calming the sea (Mk 4:35-41) follows the parable of the mustard seed to teach us that we must not be frightened when the bleak waves of despair pound again the Barque of Peter. Jesus told us not to be afraid and we need to take him at his word.

This is where the Benedictine charism can be an example for the whole Church. Benedict directs his monks to welcome the guest as Christ (cf. RB 53), inviting the guest to pray immediately upon their arrival. The liturgy serves as a bridge to an inner-longing of the heart. The guest sees in the monastic community a collection of men or women who live, not for an idea, concept, or philosophy, but for a person: Jesus Christ. When a guest comes to the monastery, even if they are simply passing through, they should feel a calm peace, though they may not have the words to explain the feeling. They know, though, that something inside of them has been awakened to a truth which they may not be able to explain nor grasp at the onset of their faith journey; they must be patient with God, with neighbor, and with themselves. God invites them to plunge into the Church’s liturgical life where God refreshes the guest with the gift of himself, allowing the guest to rest and reflect amid the struggles and sorrows, joys and wonders they encounter throughout their earthly life. Christ integrates the guest’s life wholly and completely through the conscious sharing in the Church’s liturgy.

The Christian needs to buttress her whole life with the liturgy, good works, penance, personal prayer, and, above all, honesty about her vulnerabilities . . . and not only for an hour on Sundays. Dialoguing with our Triune God throughout the day, asking Mary’s intercession with the Rosary, or volunteering at a Catholic Worker house forms the seeker into a disciple of Christ so she may be Christ to others. The authentic Christian does not necessarily have all of life’s questions answered, nor does she allow herself to be placed on a pedestal as a monument to “having her guff figured out.” The authentic Christian lets the Triune God’s love transfigure her, radiate through her quirks and foibles (even over years and decades), and patiently wait for grace to bring about healing. She may struggle with loving her neighbor who steals her newspaper, or tries to forgive her best friend for a decade-old betrayal, or laments over her repeated and failed attempts to balance a fondness for alcohol with her desire to live soberly, yet she consistently responds to God’s promptings in her life each day. She knows God loves her, though sin attempts to halt her daily growth in holiness.

If the door to Hell is indeed locked from the inside, then we must not let the Evil One discourage when we fall and sin. Living authentically does not mean living perfectly at all times; only God is perfect. We are called to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Matthew 5:48), yet we cannot deny that God meant for our human condition to grow and mature in holiness. Realizing that we sin makes us vulnerable, but our authenticity lies in reaching out to God and confessing our dependence on him. Just as it was for the Hebrews in the desert (cf. Ex) and for Saul after coming to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), our perfection is an ongoing journey where we may only catch a glimpse of the Promised Land (cf. Deut 34). When we acknowledge our vulnerabilities, we cry out to our God, asking him every day for his grace to shine through our authentic selves to give hope to a world that unconsciously begs to be loved.

The challenge for us in the Church today is that the world sees her as an outdated, hypocritical, and faceless social institution that enforces doctrine without an opportunity to dialogue. We must preach the truth that the Church is the earthly and personal manifestation of Jesus Christ, his Mystical Body. The Church cannot discard the teachings of Christ nor compromise with the culture—not at all. The Church, though, must cooperate with God, allowing his love to shine through us so we can be Christ to others. We must be open to dialogue about difficult teachings since this is where the work of Evangelization begins. To be able to evangelize, though, we ourselves must be authentic witnesses to the Word who calls us every day to begin again, despite our shortcomings and sins. We must replenish ourselves at the wellspring of the liturgy, welcoming others to come with us and share in the love poured forth freely for those who honestly seek and desire authentic communion.

However, we cannot rush into this sharing, though, since authenticity and holiness take time to cultivate. Living a liturgical life gives us ample opportunities to slowly grow in our identities as baptized members of Christ’s Mystical Body on earth, liturgical season after liturgical season. The liturgical life strengthens our vulnerabilities and encourages us to be freely authentic with God, our sisters and brothers, and ourselves. If you are discouraged, remember what our Lord tells us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Featured Image: Stories of Saint Benedict in Monte Oliveto Maggiore by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, c. 1502; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100. 


Br. Stanley Rother Wagner, OSB

Br. Stanley Rother Wagner, O.S.B. is a junior monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana, where he professed simple vows on January 20, 2018.

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