St. Benedict Brings Balance to a Whirlwind World

COMMENTARY: Stability, obedience and conversion of life; prayer, work and study — St. Benedict stands as a beacon for us as we face the seeming chaos and crises of our day.

(photo: Fra Angelico/Public domain image)

We too often underestimate the “tornado times” we live in. The rapid pace of change, mobility and the impact of technology affect every aspect of our lives.

Trains, planes and automobiles have given us instant transportation to every part of the world. Communications technologies not only enable us to talk face-to-face with virtually anyone in the world at any time, but they also channel entertainment and information into our heads and hearts at breakneck speed.

Medical technologies have revolutionized our approach to human life, with artificial contraception and conception, extended lifespans and medical treatments that our grandparents could never have dreamed of.

All of this means that our modern 21st-century lives are lived in a kind of whirlwind. The political, economic, cultural, moral and spiritual environment has changed completely over the last 50 years, and the pace of change doesn’t look to be slowing down.

Where is a Catholic to turn to find the strength to weather the storm, tame the tornado and find the still, small voice in the midst of the tempest?

I suggest the ageless wisdom of St. Benedict, whose feast day is July 11. Benedict also lived in tumultuous times. The great Roman Empire was crumbling under the weight of decadence, economic decline and incursions of barbarians. The population had grown morally corrupt, the civilization was disintegrating, and there were huge insecurities in every aspect of life.

In the midst of it, Benedict established small communities of men and women dedicated to the threefold vows of stability, obedience and conversion of life.

These humble communities were places of refuge, peace and security in a troubled world. From a small start, they eventually provided the philosophy and manpower on which a new civilization of justice, compassion and spirituality could flourish. That Christian society then grew and became the most abundant, prosperous, peaceful, intelligent and artistic civilization the world has ever seen. What we know as Christendom was built on the simple building blocks of stability, obedience and conversion of life, which is the Benedictine way of life.

Stability meant the monks and nuns sought a rootedness right where they were, without instant mobility and change. Obedience meant they accepted a chain of command and a clear authority in their lives. Conversion of life meant that their whole lives were committed to being configured to Christ the Lord.

These three foundational vows were lived out with a commitment to three practical actions in their communal life: prayer, work and study. In our own lives, paying attention to the three Benedictine vows and the three Benedictine actions can help us to be stable and confident in our modern “whirlwind world.”

Stability means “God is not elsewhere.” For ordinary Catholics, stability means being rooted in Christ at one’s parish, at home and at work. Stability means finding God in the midst of parish life, and parish life, like life in the family and life in the monastery, is not always to our liking. To seek stability means we don’t go traipsing off to another parish whenever things don’t go our way. We stay put. We stay committed to this church family, and we seek to assist, help and learn, no matter where we are. Stability means being more concerned about local life — what affects us more directly — than the big concerns in the world. Stability is humble and hardworking.

The root of the word “obedience” is “to listen.” To obey means, first, to listen to the voice of the Lord in prayer and then to hear his word in the teachings of sacred Scripture and his holy Church. Once we have listened intently, not only with our heads, but with our hearts, then we are called to put the orders into action. We are called to get on with what God has called us to do — and to do so cheerfully. This also helps us to find a rock in these tornado times. Despite the upheavals and chaos, we know what we should be doing and we get on and do it.

“Conversion of life” not only means personal conformity of our lives to Christ’s, but also a transformation of our whole world. Our homes, our families, our parishes, our schools and our world all are to be transformed. This brings a dynamic and abundant life to our lives, as the Holy Spirit does his gentle, transformative work. Living the Gospel in our daily lives will review and transform each circumstance and place we find ourselves a part of.

The three Benedictine actions help us to establish this stability, obedience and conversion of life. Prayer is indispensable. Through prayer, our lives are rooted in God, and stability is achieved. Through prayer, we listen with our hearts, so we can respond in obedience. Through prayer, our whole being is transformed and restored to the image of Christ. The three vows are fulfilled, therefore, as we pursue the discipline and delight of prayer.

Reading or study involves the renewal of our mind. This includes the sacred Scriptures, but it also involves all kinds of good and holy learning. Every subject of study becomes a way for us to grow more rooted and stable. Every kind of learning aids us in obedience — for the more we know, the more we can obey intelligently, and in an informed way. Reading also brings conversion of life, as our minds and hearts are opened and refreshed.

Finally, work also fulfills the three vows. Good, solid hard work keeps our feet on the ground. And the person with his feet on the ground will become deeply rooted and stable in life. Work is obedience in action, and work aids the conversion of life because as we work we’re transforming our world for the better.

The wisdom of St. Benedict has endured the test of time because it was forged in tornado times. It has withstood the whirlwind through many ages of tumult and change, and so St. Benedict stands as a beacon for us as we face the seeming chaos and crises of our day.


Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.