Saint Benedict (born ca. 480, died ca. 540) studied the wisdom of his monastic forebears and added to it the fruits of his own experience. Even today we read the lives and sayings of the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt, who were the pioneers of the monastic life and distilled its essential points. To their wisdom Saint Benedict added what he had learned about following Christ in community with others, strengthening the individual pursuit of God with the support of other Christians on the same quest.
Inspired and directed by the teachings of the ancient monastic traditions, Saint Benedict's Rule for Monks is the accumulated and consolidated wisdom from centuries of men and women seeking perfection in God. The Rule of Saint Benedict guides the lives of monks: teaching stability of self and community, setting a model of holy life, and serves as a tool for spiritual growth.
The result was Benedict's Rule for Monks, a uniquely balanced charter for monastic living that eventually became the standard rule for monks and nuns in Europe and beyond. Its details have been interpreted and applied in many different ways, but its broader and deeper themes unite Benedictines across time and space.
A Benedictine monk lives in a monastery with other monks; praying, working, and pursuing hobbies and interest together, all as a continuous pursuit of God. The call to the monastic life entails seeking God in, and fully being part of, a larger community which is in turn part of a 1,500 year Catholic spiritual tradition.
Benedictine candidates join this tradition for three months, living the monastic life to the fullest of their ability, learning from the discipline, growing in their spirituality, and advancing their discernment of God's call to holiness. Upon joining the novitiate, they are clothed in the monastic habit, and begin an intensive one-year period of formation into the monastic way of life.
A part of this ancient Catholic Spiritual Tradition, Saint John's Abbey is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery established over a hundred and sixty years ago on some 3,000 acres in Central Minnesota. With 130 monks we are one of the larger Benedictine communities in the world. Here at Saint John's we are known for education, liturgy, ecumenism, spirituality and environmental stewardship, as well as leadership in numerous ministries and professions.
As Benedictine monks, we approach prayer in a distinctive, monastic way. We pray the Psalms, those ancient, iron-age poems given to the Church by the people of Israel, at regular times each day. We come together to do this "work of God" and it is the glue that holds our community life together. We celebrate the Eucharist each day, and with special festivity on Sunday. All of our prayer flows to and from the Sunday Eucharist, recognizing both spiritually and theologically that Christian monastic life would not make any sense without the resurrection of Jesus.
The Psalms are a rich repository of human religious experience, at times pleading, cursing, hoping, despairing, grieving, resting, rejoicing, praising, always from a position of profound trust in the saving power of God. Over the centuries, praying monks quickly learned that some of the Psalms were better suited to the morning, some for the evening, and some for midday. They noted that some of them were keyed to the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus. So our prayer as monks is largely biblical and liturgical, ever responsive to the rhythm of the day and season.
Throughout his novitiate year, a monk must give account of his prayer time: he must attend, dressed in habit, all community prayer, often times serving as acolyte or assisting the sacristan, or some other task in service of the community prayer life, all of which is overseen by the astute eye of the novice master. In the work of community prayer, the novice joins in a unified voice and service of God. He sees his brothers at their best, he sees them tired, frustrated, growing, joyful, and truly as his brothers: in this community, and in the quest for God.
This time of strict spiritual discipline (and oversight) may be difficult and exhausting, trying and redefining his understanding of prayer, but through it all, he truly becomes a monk, seeing newly again and again the vital role monastics serve in the Church: praying. Praying for our pastors and parishes, our teachers and students, our leaders, the over one billions faithful, the many billions on earth struggling with life, belief, sickness, loss, and loneliness; praying for the souls of the dead, praying for enlightenment and wisdom, peace, and communion; praying for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Images from The Saint John's Bible, a masterwork illumination of Holy Scripture in the monastic tradition
Among the oldest of Christian spiritual practices, a careful, prayerful reading of scripture underlies the Benedictine spiritual practice. An art simple enough for anyone to practice, and subtle and sublime as to fulfill and entire life. The principles learned here, extend to help discover and reveal God's call and presence in visual arts (Visio Divina), audible arts, and the natural world.
Our individual prayer is also rooted in the Scriptures. From the earliest days of monastic life, monks have immersed themselves in the language, images, and narrative of the Bible. In the daily practice of lectio divina, reading a short passage of Scripture, pondering its meaning, and praying in and through the text, we continually rediscover the purpose and meaning for our lives and God's work in them. One of the great gifts of the monastic tradition is that we read Scripture continuously, that is, we don't jump around from one passage to another, from one book to another. Rather, we read and pray the Scriptures continuously, always in context.
Novice and junior monks are taught lectio divina by the Abbot, the formation director, and their senior monks. For such a such a simple but subtle and profound practice, no one lesson is sufficient. Every exploration into the Word of God, into the ancient teachings of the monastic masters of old, may open new and deeper understanding of God's call to holiness.
Another powerful practice from the monastic tradition is centering prayer. Many times individuals find their prayer stymied and unfruitful because they conceive of it as human beings "talking to God." Centering prayer rebalances this equation because in this practice we simply sit in silence, in the presence of God, and let the Holy Spirit "work on us." Initially, because we are not speaking, our minds rush around, grabbing at everything. But with practice, we learn to let go of the mind's activity and to be in silence before God, who, as Saint Benedict teaches, is everywhere.
For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead
For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead
Monks work. They understand work as a normal, creative expression of being alive as a human being. They do everything from pastoring to teaching, administrating, repairing and maintaining the monastery, and growing food for the table. Saint Benedict instructs his monks that they should not complain if they have to "do the harvest," thereby ensuring that later generations of monks would respect all honest labor.
A young monk, as with many of the lay faithful, may dream of an austere life of constant prayer: praying the psalms, the rosary, litanies, and devotions all with no thought to work and the concerns of daily life; a life finally committed to God, and the attainment of holiness. But to what end? Scripture tells us the "faith without works dead." Novice and junior monks are trained and guided into living their faith in good works. What is leaned and gained in prayer, is expressed and realized in the community work, and the good it serves in the Church.
The motto of the Benedictines is "Worship and Work." The conjunction "and" is extremely important because we are always struggling to maintain the balance between the two, between prayer and work. If we tip in either direction, we will surely be less than optimal in our search for union with God. Too much time in prayer can easily turn into a self-serving narcissism that is unaware of the needs of others. Too much work can easily lead one to rationalize being absent from community prayer, Eucharist, holy reading, and the life of the community. Prayer and work, in balance, are a sound-bite that expresses a distinctive element of Benedictine monastic spirituality.
Benedictines often use the motto "Ora et Labora" to summarize Saint Benedict's monastic way of life. Meaning "prayer and work," together, intertwined, alternating back and forth every day from morning to night. The unity of prayer and work is a particular balance that sets Benedictines apart from other religious.
Importantly, Saint Benedict considers the community's prayer a kind of work in and of itself, a work so important that he calls it the Opus Dei, or the "Work of God." He devotes multiple chapters to it in his Rule, describing with great care how it is to be carried out each day.
While Benedict did not invent the idea of praying in common, he took what Christians were already doing both in their homes and in their churches, and gave order to it to fit monastic need. There is evidence that it was an early Christian custom to pray, either privately or communally, at certain times of the day. Originally, the two major prayer times were the morning, commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord and blessing the coming day, and then in the evening to give thanks for the blessings that the day has brought. Later, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, and night came to be added, especially in religious communities, dedicating every part of the day to the praise of the Creator. Because of this hallowing of time, we call this prayer form the Liturgy of the Hours.
At Saint John's we gather for Morning Prayer (7:00 a.m.), Mid-Day Prayer (noon), and Evening Prayer (7:00 p.m.), as well as daily Eucharist (5:00 p.m.). The schedule is the same every weekday and is adjusted somewhat on weekends (see Vocation Guest's Schedule).
At the core of the Liturgy of the Hours are the Psalms. The Psalms are 150 prayers, central to the prayer life of the Jewish people, collected into one book of the Old Testament. Originally attributed to King David, we know now that David was not the author of the entire collection, though some psalms are attributed directly to him, such as psalm 23, as a "Song of David." The early Christians, many of whom were Jewish and accustomed to praying the Psalter (the book of Psalms), saw Christ prefigured there. Thus, Christ became the Good Shepherd, the Passover Lamb slaughtered to redeem His people, Christ who led his followers through the Exodus from death to life by His death on the Cross, and His Resurrection to new life.
As a vocation guest, when you pray with the monastic community, you will join the newer members of the community in the front of the monastic choir, with the senior members filling in the choir stalls behind you. One of the monks sitting near you will help you feel comfortable and become proficient using the prayer books. After the first day, you likely will be very comfortable navigating the Liturgy of the Hours at Saint John's.
Learning to pray with the monks also includes learning the slow and deliberate pace followed in both spoken and chanted psalms at Saint John's. Prayer is nothing to rush through or to treat as a chore to get out of the way. The monastic tradition of slow pacing, and periods of silence between psalms, readings, and hymns allows for reflection and patient listening to God. It may seem awkward, or even difficult to sit in quiet meditation. This challenge to patience and listening is only overcome with prayerful practice and persistence, but will quickly become intuitive and natural even to private prayer.
Prayer is at the center of Benedictine life. Understood as “the work of God,” lectio divina and the liturgy of the hours are among the first concerns of monastic life. As a common calling, prayer brings the differences and various pursuits of a community together with a common role and identity as monks. Prayer is a comfort in times of distress, a resource when in need, a selfless sharing and outpouring in times of success and joy. Prayer is so fully a part of the “ins and outs” monastic life, that it establishes the pattern and rhythm of the day through the dynamic interchange of worship and work. We come together each day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and celebrate the Eucharist, but lectio divina, though usually a private practice, is also fundamental to the Benedictine life of prayer, and is essential to living and growing in Benedictine identity and spirituality.
“Lectio divina” translates to “divine reading,” meaning a prayerful reading of Scripture, but also the writings of the Saints and Tradition. Though often referred to in the Latin, and so may unfortunately strike some as distant or foreign, the practice is really very common, even if the practitioner does not realize they are praying in the lectio divinafashion. Active and fundamental to the whole of the 2,000 years of Christian Tradition and inherited from the Jewish reverence of Scripture, lectio divina is an open, hopeful and faithful trust and listening to God revealed in the Old and New Testaments, as well as the Spirit-filled writings and instructions of the Church. In short, every time you take a moment from your day to read from the Bible in faith, hope and love, you are practicing lectio divina.
A habitual, or even infrequent, resource to Scripture in lectio divina is a trustworthy spiritual practice, even without instruction. However, committing yourself to lectio divina can be challenging, and as a private spiritual practice, an exclusion of conversation and guidance within the Church community can lead to misunderstandings and isolation. As a 2,000 year-old Christian prayer, many words of advice and methods have been developed and inherited throughout the Church Tradition for the purpose of helping establish this practice as a perpetual and reliable part of life and spirituality. In addition to instruction in lectio divina, we recommend spiritual direction or group lectio divina as well.
One comprehensive introduction we favor and recommend is Accepting the Embrace of God:The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B., from Saint Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo, California.
The key elements of the Rule are expressed in the vows we profess as monks.
FIRST, we promise stability in this community. Meaning, that we promise to cast our lot with these people, in this place, doing what they do. For over 160 years in Minnesota, and over 1,500 years since Saint Benedict, monks have committed to their community, to their monastery, their home. While we may travel, we return. While we may spend time in solitude, retreat, and sabbatical, our community is there, still praying, still working. The oldest members of the community are here with the newest, each offering their own wisdom and insight, brother helping brother, in conversion to love of God.
SECOND, we promise conversion according to a monastic manner of life, which translates just two Latin words, conversatio morum. They mean something like "getting on with being a Christian." In a monastery, this requires simplicity of life and communal ownership of property, as well as living one's sexuality appropriately. For monks, that means celibate chastity. It also includes the other practices that the monastic tradition has shown to be needed for spiritual growth: gathering for common prayer several times a day, including a celebration of the Eucharist; reading and praying over the Bible, a practice we call lectio divina, or "sacred reading;" joining with one another at table to share food, edifying reading, and conversation; working to serve the church and to provide material support for our community and its various projects.
THIRD, we promise obedience. Obedience flows in many directions in a Benedictine monastery, for "obedience" literally means "listening," paying attention to the varied ways that Christ calls us into a deeper relationship with him and each other. As Benedictines, we obey—we pay attention to—our Abbot, the principal teacher in our monastery. We obey each other, for there is always something to learn from the example of our brothers in the community, and from the men and women we meet daily in our work. Ultimately, obedience means being accountable to someone other than ourselves—not just to God, but to the flesh and blood people we live with every day. In them, too, we meet Christ.
Commitment—living as a Christian—paying attention and being accountable: Saint Benedict's common sense speaks to many who live other forms of Christian life. As a starting point, think about how each of those Benedictine themes is expressed in your own life, and where you see a need for growth. With the Lord's help, and the support of others, may you grow deeper in union with Christ.
Novitiate and Juniorate formation continues the time of vocation discernment. In formation (the period between candidacy and final vows), the monk is introduced to monasticism and the monastic way of life, with all of its challenges and opportunities. As Saint Benedict says, "Let him examine whether the novice is truly seeking God, and whether he is zealous for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials. Let the novice be told all the hard and rugged ways by which the journey to God is made." -RB 58
Monks in formation enter the Saint John's University undergraduate and graduate programs to study theology, church history, human sexuality, history of monasticism, liturgy, liturgical music, the Psalms, and the Rule of Saint Benedict, in addition to many other optional subjects. If interested in the possibility of priesthood studies, with permission from the Abbot and monastic community, monks may be in coursework as early as their second year of juniorate.
Formational education extends beyond an academic study of theology however. The Rule of Benedict serves as a primary text and guide to daily life and spiritual practice. Following lectures on the Rule of Saint Benedict and monasticism led by leading scholars, as well as lessons on the practice and perfection of the monastic life taught by the Abbot and senior monks, novice and junior monks live and practice the lessons received each day through the Benedictine commitment to work, prayer and community.
Within the monastic rhythm of work and prayer, within the challenges, support and corrections of the community, the true tests and fruits of monasticism are revealed.
It is one thing to learn and respect the Benedictine values, and it is another thing to live out and strive for perfection of these values. As our Father Benedict teaches in the Prologue to the Rule, "…we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. […] For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love." The monastic vocation invites men, inspired by these values, to test their calling and commitment under the guidance of an experienced community of brothers in Christ. Monasticism invites men to push the limits of their Christian identity, and to enter into a discipleship founded in an ancient tradition offering unique possibilities within the Christian community.
Historically, Benedictine abbeys around the world have founded high schools, colleges and universities, with the sponsoring monastic community members serving as staff, teachers and administration. Such a long tradition arguably lends itself to what has become almost a natural pursuit of higher education within nearly all Benedictine communities. Hosting the Saint John's Preparatory School, Saint John's University, the graduate School of Theology·Seminary, the Liturgical Press, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, and the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, the Saint John’s Abbey campus is steeped in intellectual and professional education, pursuit and accomplishment.
Since opening Minnesota's first Catholic institution of higher education in 1857, Saint John's has ministered to the Church and local community as educators. With the inauguration of the Seminary on the Rothkopp farm, Saint John's has lead the intellectual, spiritual and professional formation and education of local Minnesotans, as well as scholars and religious from across American and around the world. Saint John's monks need not be scholars, but the environment of respect and support for higher learning encourages the continued education of many of our community and forms one of the leading traits of a Saint John's monk.
After solemn profession, monks at Saint John’s often attend other universities to pursue professional training or an advanced degrees. Further education is not required for every member of the community, but if a brother so chooses, and receives permission from the Abbot, the community will support the pursuit of professional development as an extension of their shared monastic vocation.