Nearly 1,500 years ago St. Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe, composed his famous Rule. It’s been the roadmap for his Benedictine monks and sisters ever since.

But Anthony and Donna Sunseri and their three daughters in Greensburg, Pa., are learning they also can apply the rule to family life — to great benefit.

The Sunseris embrace Benedict’s idea of structure in the way they gather for prayer in the morning, evening, before meals and for family Rosary.

“We’re always teaching the girls (ages 8, 6 and 3) the importance of prayer and set prayer times during the day, that rhythm of life Benedict talks about,” Donna says. “It fits in so beautifully with family life.”

In fact, because Benedict’s Rule is so universal, all lay people — married or single, young or old — can adapt it as a life guide to truly Christian spiritual growth.

With this year’s renewed attention on the saint, thanks to our Holy Father’s name, a good time to begin adapting the Rule might commence around Benedict’s feast on July 11.

In a nutshell, St. Benedict structures and balances each day with liturgical prayer, lectio divina (reading the Scriptures and Church Fathers) and work. He highlights the Eucharist, the sacraments, listening, obedience, silence, humility and stability. How?

“Benedict makes the Gospel concrete,” says Benedictine Mother Mary Anne Noll of St. Emma Monastery in Greensburg, Pa. She offered the Register suggestions on how lay people can benefit by St. Benedict’s Rule.

First, she points out, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “As the rule of St. Benedict says, nothing should take precedence over ‘the work of God,’ that is, solemn worship” (No. 347).

Next, everyone can take on Benedict’s great direction that joins together prayer and work: Ora et labora. His Christian insight — Laborare est orare (To work is to pray) — is intended for all followers of Jesus. This notion laid out a Christian countercultural direction in his society, which looked down on manual labor as being the stuff of slaves.

Mother Mary Anne explains the approach. “The way I do my job gives worth to what I do,” she says. “There’s nothing beneath my dignity.”

She speaks for everybody, from the custodian keeping the school tidy to the local convenience-store clerk ringing up a sale to the business executive managing his operation to the reporter filing a story.

Not to mention the mom picking up after the kids, the dad mowing the lawn and the children pitching in with the chores.

Done and offered in the right spirit, even menial tasks become a form of prayer.

The work makes manifest our love relationship with God, Mother Mary Anne continues. “I can sit in church all day thinking pious thoughts, but the work is making that manifest, whether in the way I keep my home and make things nice for my family, how I do my work at jobs outside, how I cut my grass, wash my dishes, or do greeting cards — everything in my life,” she says. “Nothing is detached from it.”

Christen Jones lives Benedict’s call to Ora et Labora as a hall director of 140 freshmen girls at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

“The two really become one in the sense that, when you dedicate every moment of your manual labor, whatever you do in daily life, and offer it to God, it becomes prayer,” she says. “I try to make it as conscious as possible throughout the day, striving always to offer everything to God and make my work for him.”

Of course, Benedictine spirituality isn’t all work and no formal prayer. Lay people may not be able to stop what they’re doing six times a day for the Liturgy of the Hours, as Benedictine monks and sisters do. But, reminds Mother Mary Anne, everybody needs the rhythm of prayer in their life.

Besides anchors like morning, evening and mealtime prayers, she suggests a morning and evening Psalm, or teaching children a different prayer each month, or doing one decade of the Rosary and talking about how it applies to family life. Folks who commute to work might listen to a taped spiritual talk to and from.

Then there’s spiritual reading. Mother Mary Anne explains that, for Benedict, the Scriptures and commentaries upon them provided more than a lifetime’s worth of reading material.

“We read for information that will give us power, to master a subject, to get a job,” she says of society’s attitude. “Benedict’s idea of lectio divina was coming face to face with Christ and letting Christ transform us. It was not reading for information but reading for transformation into Christ.”

Start with the Gospels, she counsels. Read a passage or verse, absorb it, think about how much God loves you. Consider what it says.

Use a religious video about the saints on the children’s level, or coloring books on the mysteries of the Rosary, the life of Christ, the Mass. Take a religious book to church for young children. Talk with them about those who “got it right” and got to be saints, those who should be our role models.

Finally, Mother Mary Anne says, community meals — or, for laypersons, family ones — are crucial to living out Benedictine discipleship of Christ.

She recommends that, at mealtime, all TVs and radios get turned off so real communications can take place. At dinner, ask what each did during the day.

Numerous recent studies have confirmed the importance of families eating together if kids are to avoid the moral pitfalls of adolescence.

Simple Things

Living Benedict’s Rule can make Christians a “sign of contradiction” in our anything-goes, anytime, culture.

“You can’t lead an active secular life. You have to pull back,” explains Donna Sunseri. Their TV doesn’t go on most of the time and, rather than playing the radio in the car, the family usually prays the Rosary.

“You have to keep the noise of the outside world out,” she adds before describing how the family applies the Rule’s counsel to silence.

“Do we ever know silence in our life?” asks Mother Mary Anne, citing the ubiquitous presence of headphones and iPods in public places. We need silence to listen with the ear of one’s heart, she says, as Benedict said to listen.

 “Sit in the backyard and enjoy an evening together,” she suggests. “Talk a walk around the park or in the woods. Plant in the garden.”

For the Sunseris, family vacations are oriented around God’s creation — such as Niagara Falls — rather than thrill-a-minute theme parks. “We try to enjoy the things God made,” she says. They always incorporate spirituality by visiting nearby shrines and churches.

“Benedict’s idea is to live in community — family living, married life,” points out Mother Mary Anne. “In community we’re stretched to become more patient, loving, understanding, looking out for the good of the other. St. Benedict says it’s by patience that we share in the suffering of Christ.”

He’s also big on obedience, humility, respectful speech and enjoying good things in moderation.

He purposely didn’t make the rule burdensome for monks or laypeople.

As 32-year-old Jones keeps learning: “The Rule is so simple and so practical in daily living.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.