Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review of Chittister's Rule of Benedict

A couple weeks ago, I took a week-long intensive course on Benedictine spirituality at Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Maryville, MO. Below is a review of one of the books I read for the class.

Joshua Paul Smith. Review of Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York City: Crossroad Publishing, 2010).

“Spiritual, Not Religious”           
This week, National Public Radio aired a series of stories that shared a common theme: the disconcerting discovery that a growing number of American youth have ceased to identify with any particular organized religion. According to one recent study, as much as thirty percent of Americans under the age of thirty have severed ties with the religious traditions of their youth.[1] Meanwhile, on another—possibly not altogether unrelated—note, Drew Smith of reported this week on the plummeting rate of “religious literacy” in the United States, lamenting the findings of a 2010 Pew Forum report that suggests a growing unfamiliarity with even the most basic tenets of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and other world religions.[2] Though—as the adage goes—correlation does not necessarily prove causation, it appears that young people are leaving churches, synagogues, and mosques by the thousands, and yet are not altogether certain of exactly what they are fleeing. Fewer and fewer members of Generation Y are finding depth and meaning in the established religions of their childhood, opting instead for a vaguely self-centered amalgam of pious mysticism that touts “Spiritual, not religious,” as its motto. What could a fifteen-hundred-year-old document such as the Rule of Saint Benedict possibly have to offer a culture consumed with the task of “keeping up with the Joneses,” preparing for “planned obsolescence,” and steeped in the notion that “my faith,” if such a thing exists, is a deeply and uniquely personal perspective and is not to be shared? It is precisely this question that Joan Chittister is concerned with answering in her laudable book, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century.
Structure and Content           
This devotional-style examination of the early sixth century Rule of Saint Benedict is a chapter-by-chapter commentary on the ancient text, providing theological insights for a cynical generation that often appears to consider “theology” a four-letter word. Throughout the book, the author attempts to both introduce the reader to the Rule and to clarify for a postmodern audience those passages that our current cultural context might deem difficult, if not downright contemptible. The purpose of the book, therefore, is twofold: 1) Chittister seeks to revive popular interest in an ancient text within a culture that has “lost its religion”; and 2) the author serves as a postmodern apologist for Benedict’s grand vision, polishing the rough edges and constructing a theological and rhetorical bridge that spans the divide between the ascetic lifestyle of the sixth-century Benedictine monastic and our own 21st-century individualistic and capitalistic milieu. Divided into short, 2-3 page segments, each chapter is easily digestible—the reader will not strain herself rummaging around through the annals of systematic theology here—and might possibly even be ideal for inclusion in one’s own spiritual discipline as a modified lectio divina. This makes the book exceptional for personal or, as I prefer, small group devotional use. The very organizational structure of the book is indicative of the Benedictine mindset: Take your time. There is no rush. Do not “bite off more than you can chew.” Do your work prayerfully, and do it well.
Critical Analysis
A Spirituality for the 21st Century shares many traits in common with the Rule itself. Like Benedict’s insightful masterpiece, Chittister supplements her own theological meditations with the wisdom of the ages. However, in addition to citing Christian scripture (which remains absolutely central to the Rule), Chittister also draws inspiration from the vast and diverse array of other traditions, as well, including the Tao Te Ching, the targumim and midrashim, the apocryphal sayings of the early Christian desert monastic mothers and fathers (Apophthegmata), and others. The roots of religious monasticism run deep, with a long history outside the Christian Church. By employing these other ancient sources of wisdom, Chittister widens Benedict’s audience and draws distinct attention to the adaptability and universality of his rule. There is a little something of Benedict’s vision in every ancient culture—the striving toward personal and communal integrity, the recognition of practical insight in the mystical and the yearning for the divine. The Rule itself is, after all, not a piece of historical nonfiction nor an enlightened hagiography, but rather a fine example of wisdom literature and contextualized theology.
Chittister paints her commentary in broad theological and sociological strokes to make the most of the Rule’s practical application. This at times involves a bit of theological gymnastics, but the author repeatedly and assuredly sticks the landing. Difficult passages (such as Benedict’s ideas about physical discipline and excommunication), and what appear to be overly tedious passages, (like Benedict’s careful measuring of the hours with a rigid prayer schedule) are provided with enough spiritual grounding to make them not only understandable, but also relatable. In so doing, the author breaks down many assumptions brought to the table by a 21st-century audience and leaves room for a considerate reading to be constructed in their place.
The spiritual life according to Benedict, Chittister insists, revolves around a distinct core of intentionality in all things. To a 21st-century generation of superficial pop culture, this may seem surprising, if not downright counterintuitive. However, the great power of the book lies in its recognition that all people from all generations—monastic or otherwise—share in many of the same struggles that fundamentally define what it means to be human. Chittister’s assertion is that the Rule has a definite applicable message that transcends time and culture to speak to the yearnings of the heart itself. We have all experienced exasperation in a difficult job or frustration with fellow parishioners; we can all benefit from the self-disciplines of silence, humility, and continence. It is only by intentionally pursuing the virtues of the monastic life (whether inside or outside the cloister) that we begin to surrender to the will of God. The recognition of this essential commonality in the human experience reveals the genius of Chittister’s book.
In broadening the application of the rule to both accommodate a non-monastic, 21st-century worldview, Chittister occasionally loses sight of Benedict’s primary catalyst for living the obedient Christian life: community. After all, it is the cenobites—the communal monastics—that Benedict (perhaps a bit biased) proclaims “the best kind,” reserving judgment for those who seek personal piety outside the confines of community. However, it must be acknowledged that cenobitic monasticism is no longer a cultural regularity, and in seeking to adapt the deeply universal message of Benedict’s Rule, this assumption must be sacrificed. Nevertheless, Chittister for the most part recognizes the vital role human interaction plays in the development of a Benedictine spirituality.
Additionally, not all will appreciate the author’s theological approach to the Rule for personal application. Indeed, some may find that Chittister intermittently overreaches in her contextualization and that some of her illuminations sporadically end up a bit too closely resembling the stratagems of Christian self-help gurus like Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen. However, these faint whispers of twelve-step program theology are few and far between, and never so overpowering that the reader loses sight of the author’s primary message.
A Personal Appraisal
When I was very young, our small-town church hired a new pastor. This pastor was an extremely well-read seminary student, and inspired me to pursue theological studies throughout high school and college, eventually making my own way to seminary. Looking back on my path and recognizing my inherent curiosity of all things biblical and theological, I still often wonder why more people do not follow the call of God to seminary. My own journey was borne out of the sincere desire to follow God; much like the desire of the ancient monastics. Why then were there not millions of people making their way into higher Christian education instead of committing their lives to humdrum careers and normalcy? This assumption, I learned while reading Chittister’s commentary on the Rule, is an inherently arrogant one. In reality, Benedictine spirituality recognizes the vast number of divine callings each individual might experience. It is not the role of everyone to attend seminary and enter vocational ministry (wouldn’t the ministerial job market be terrible?). The role of each individual is simply to do what he or she is called to do. Whatever your vocation, Chittister suggests, perform your work wholeheartedly and with humble zeal. That is the Benedictine way. I am reminded of a speech that Dr. Martin Luther King gave to a group of junior high students shortly before his assassination in which he urged the children to perform their vocation with integrity: “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music…Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”[3] In this strange concept of vocation, the Rule attempts to find the revolutionary in the everyday, the divine in the mundane.
I felt that the most powerful section of Chittister’s book was her explication of Benedict’s chapter on humility. Several years ago, my wife Alyssa and I were struck by the powerful resurgence of the intentional Christian community movement that accompanied the publication of such popular books as Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution and Rutba House’s 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. The desperate need for a mending of broken relationships, both personal and ecumenical, and the desire to break the dominant cultural paradigm of individualistic consumerism inspired us to dream up an egalitarian intentional Christian community in which all would be welcome as both teachers and students. Our community would be based upon monastic principles of ora et labora, a rhythm of prayer and work, and a shared communal gift or trade (charism). We called our project Anavah House, from the Hebrew word for “humility.” Yet anavah is not simply meekness or modesty. Anavah is what makes Benedictine monastic spirituality function—it is the notion that everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to learn from everyone else. It is the very foundation of mutual submission and humble obedience—in a word, anavah is the mark of a committed monastic vow of stability.
While our plans for this community never actualized, the premise of Anavah House remains a guiding influence on our interpersonal relationships and our connection with the established Church. It is to anavah that Chittister is referring when she explains, “When we know our place in the universe, we can afford to value the place of others. We need them, in fact, to make up what is wanting in us” (p.95). And yet the recognition of this virtue is scarce, both in the Church and in the secular Western world alike. Chittister is most certainly correct in referring to humility as “the lost virtue of our era” (p.99) that must be recaptured if we are to live out the Benedictine vision of the Reign of God.
Conclusion: Outside the Cloister
In a time when secular individualism is considered normative and the holy writings of our collective past are deemed crusty and outdated, Chittister offers a fresh commentary on an ancient monastic text, reminding us of the roles humility, compassion, and obedience play in nurturing a genuine spirituality. Furthermore, the Rule speaks to the absolutely essential role played by human community—which Chittister herself defines as “the universal obligation to live fully ourselves and to live well with others” (p.153)—in the ongoing conversion of the Christian life.  In A Spirituality for the 21st Century we find a sincere attempt to meet a generation grown weary of organized religion, a generation of “spiritual, not religious” gyrovagues, and strike up a much-needed dialogue upon the common ground of stability, community, and compassion. The Rule is not just for monks. The Rule is for all who seek an ordered life, and a genuine relationship with the divine. A Benedictine spirituality, says Chittister, “is a way of life…that makes the humdrum holy and the daily the stuff of high happiness. It is a way of living that leads us to pursue life to its fullest” (p.302). The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century is a fantastic study aid to help us along in that very pursuit.

[1] More Young People Are Moving Away From Religion, But Why? NPR, January 15, 2013, “NPR Special Series,” (accessed January 16, 2013).
[2] Drew Smith, “3 Ways to Improve Your Religious Literacy,”, January 17, 2013. (accessed January 17, 2013).
[3] “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement. (accessed January 18, 2013).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great review. It was now been added to my Wishlist.