St Benedict and Creation

Anselm Grün OSB

The American Dominicans make a distinction between Creation spirituality and Redemption spirituality. Redemption spirituality stresses fault, sin, and Redemption by Jesus Christ. Creation comes before Redemption. It is God's first gift to mankind. Creation spirituality is marked especially by gratitude for God's beauty which shines through creation. Measuring Benedictine spirituality against these two types of spirituality, it seems to me that it inclines more to the spirituality of Creation. Benedict talks less about fault and sin, and more about the daily round of community life, in which the order of Creation is reflected. Benedict is preoccupied with careful handling of creation and praise of the Creator, who has given us this marvellous world for us to take care of it.

1. Praise of the Creator.

In ch.16, Benedict reveals his theology of prayer in a short phrase, Let us, at those hours, give praise to our Creator for his just judgements (RB 16:5). The choral prayer is, therefore, principally a matter of praising God as our Creator. In praise we are wholly intent on the one whom we are praising. The monk forgets himself in his praise. Dazzled, he contemplates the beauty of the creation which God spreads out before him. It is when the monk forgets himself in praising God that he attains to his own true self. 'For the Old Testament, praise is the most characteristic form of human existence. To praise and to cease to praise: these actions are as different as life and death' (Gerhard von Rad). It is of man's very essence to raise his eyes to something, to admire and venerate it. Without praise man shrivels; he sees no further than his own self and his needs.

In praising the Creator, the monk learns that he is essentially a creature, who has received and continues to receive his existence from the hand of the Creator. God did not create creation light years ago, he continually maintains it in existence. God is constantly in the very act of creating. The beauty of creation is reflected in the beauty of the liturgy. The beauty of creation evokes the beauty of chant, that it may be worthily praised. The Greeks expressed this close relationship between creation and poetry and music in the word poiesis, which means at the same time creation and poetry. The poems called psalms and the hymns with which we praise God were created by artists captivated by the beauty of God. For the Greeks, artists had to be full of God in order to create (enthousiasmos = to be in God).

When I praise God the Creator each day in psalms and hymns, I see the world in a new way. I am not stopped short by evironmental scandals or by strife between men. Contemplation of creation instils in me the assurance that God, who created the whole world, sustains us also - 'warts and all'. Praising God induces within me a fundamentally optimistic attitude. I trust God, the Creator, who is continually recreating our human community. He fills us with his Spirit of creativity so that we can transform the world according to his creative will.

2. The Careful Use of Creation.

One who praises Creation will use it carefully. For Benedict, we meet the Creator in the things of every day. This is especially clear in the well known phrase from the chapter on the cellarer: Let him look on all the utensils and goods of the monastery as on the sacred vessels of the altar (RB 31:10). Benedict abolishes the distinction between sacred and profane. For him, all creation reflects the glory of God. We meet God in all things. In the liturgy we learn to have a new relationship with things. We see all things as God's creation, full of his Spirit, and to be handled with care.

Benedictine stability is a help towards the careful use of things. As the monks remain in one place, they assume responsibility for it. They want to preserve and keep this place in such a way that future generations will be glad to live there as well. Ever-increasing mobility is a feature of our world. This is seen, not just in the volume of traffic, but also in the tendency to keep changing production sites. Whenever a place is abandoned, a ruin is left behind. Benedictines remain stable in one place, not just to produce, but to live there in community. That is why an attractive place is needed, where one can live and work. All excessive exploitation which would diminish the quality of life is ruled out. The monastery is not just a work space: it is also a place of rest. This means that resources must be conserved and administered in a viable fashion. Centuries later, only monks will feel at home in their monastery and its environs.

Benedict repeatedly asks for care in the use of things. The abbot shall entrust to brothers in whose manner of life he has confidence the possessions of the monastery, such as tools, clothing, or whatever else. To each of these he shall assign, as he judges useful, the various articles to be kept (custodire) and accounted for (RB 32:1), and, If anyone treats the possessions of the monastery in a slovenly or negligent fashion, he shall be corrected (RB 32:4). There is an important word here, in relation to things, but also in regard to oneself and one's time. This is custodire. It means to pay attention, to watch over, to take account of. Benedict requires this vigilance in the use of the tongue, of the eyes, and of things. The whole of the chapter on humility can be read as an apprenticeship in care and vigilance. The monk must wake up, recognise God's presence everywhere, and react in an appropriate way to the loving nearness of God, in the way he acts, thinks, and speaks, in his whole being.

Attentiveness is described by many spiritual writers today, notably by the Buddhists, as the specific mark of any genuine spirituality. Perhaps you know the nice Hassidic story about how one goes to a certain Rabbi, not to listen to his teaching, but just to see how he laces his shoes. In the care with which the Rabbi laces his shoes, it is clearly evident that this man is filled with the Spirit of God. Benedictine spirituality is, in a sense, earth-bound. It shows itself concretely in the use of things. There are lots of spiritual ideas going around nowadays, but they do not take shape concretely often enough; they remain invisible. For Benedict, the spirit of Jesus must become visible. It becomes visible in the relationships between monks and in their relationship with things. We know today, thanks to psychology, that the way we use tools, our computer, our choir books, our clothes, says something about our souls. A Swiss doctor maintains that brutality is always a sign of repressed sexuality. One is some-times horrified to observe how noisily monks clatter the dishes around when serving at table, or handle their choir books roughly. A person may say fine things about spirituality. If that does not come through concretely in the way I use things, it has no value. Spirituality should show. It should become incarnate on earth, and work on earth.

3. Man the Creator.

Benedict's Creation spirituality appears in his instructions to artisans. In latin, an artisan is artifex. He is really an artist, somebody who understands the art of how to create and organise. Benedict asks these artists to exercise their craft in all humility (RB 57:1). Humility, humilitas, means that the craftsman must exercise his art in relationship with the earth (humus). He must not take off from the ground, but simply use his skill. And he must not imagine that he is conferring something on the monastery. The minute he concentrates on the money earned by his works, his relationship to his activity changes. He ceases to create, seeing now only the financial aspect. The attitude required by Benedict of the artisan is still urgently necessary today. In many shops today, the quality of workmanship is no longer considered, but only how best to market a product. Commercial strategy has eclipsed quality. We no longer take pleasure in the beauty of an object: we merely wonder how to persuade people to buy our product. And so, people often feel cheated.

Benedict warns the craftsmen against such commercial strategies. If they sell something, the vice of greed must not insinuate itself. On the contrary, they should sell a little cheaper, so that in all things God may be glorified (RB 57:9). The purpose of creation is to glorify God. The magnificence of God should shine through in the beauty of artefacts. Because the gloria Dei is at stake in the works of craftsmen, I must not press it into contribution to extract as much money as possible from it. This would be a perversion of art, distorting the true meaning of things. The praise of God means that a work of art must not be mingled with selfish motives, such as the thirst for recognition and success. On the contrary, a work of art should refer back to God.

So that in all things God may be glorified. This has become a maxim of Benedictine life and spirituality. For St Benedict, the glory of God should shine through in all that we do, in the choral office, in our work, in our life together, in our relationship with things. The goal of our spiritual journey is to become ever more permeated by Christ. This way does not require us to abandon our gifts or our own work. It is a question, rather of investing our talents in such a way as to bear fruit for God. One can see in a person's work whether he puts himself in the central position, or whether he draws sustenance from the Holy Spirit and is open to the Spirit of Christ. A person who works, driven by ambition, is submerged in an atmosphere of aggression. In his work, he seeks to crush others and assert himself; he exudes hard-ness. One who works, refreshed by the inner spring of the Holy Spirit, can work long and hard without becoming exhausted. That inner spring is itself inexhaustible, because it is divine. He will be so communicative that all around him will find joy in his work.

Unfortunately, many Benedictine monasteries have not understood what Benedict meant by his Creation spirituality. They have not appreciated the creative aspect of work, subsuming work instead into a dubious theory of obedience. Instead of taking account of personal gifts, they have focussed exclusively on the mass of work to be done. They have worked a lot, but with poor results, because the creative dimension was missing.

One who works creatively finds pleasure in his work and infuses existence with this pleasure. If the brothers or the sisters work in simple obedience, because the superior has enjoined it, the pleasure of work is lost. Soon this has results for the economic situation of the monastery. Such is the creative interaction of Benedictine spirituality on economic problems.

4. Living according to the rhythm of Creation.

A special characteristic of Benedictine spirituality is that everything is to be done with measure. This applies, not just to food, prayer, fraternal relations; it holds good as well for time itself. As well as mensura, the correct measure, there is a healthy and necessary rhythm in the life of a monk.. His time should be rhythmic, balanced, and harmonious. This rhythm which monks choose is the rhythm of nature. A doctor, Gerhard Vescovi has discovered that the Benedictine day corresponds to man's biological rhythm. Only when he follows his interior rhythm does a man live in a healthy way.

Benedict orders his day according to the Roman hours (hora = hour). For the Greeks, the hours are goddesses who accompany the year and produce growth and fruition. The hours ensure the regular return of times of flowering and maturity. They provide for mankind harmony and balance, order and peace. Horaios, which means hour, also means for the Greeks beautiful. Something that happens at the right moment is beautiful and good. In the prayer of the hours, the monk yields to the rhythm of the day and gives to each hour its particular accent. This can be seen, for instance, in the hymns for the various hours. Each hour has its own identity. Vigils is the time for watching. Lauds recalls the resurrection of Jesus, lighting up our darkness like the rising sun. Terce recalls the sending of the Holy Spirit, Sext the erection of the Cross, None the death of Jesus. Vespers glorifies Christ, the interior light which is never extinguished in our hearts. With Compline, we end the day and place it in the hands of God the Creator.

Our physical and mental health depends on our vital harmony with the biological and cosmic rhythm. Medical research has shown that men living in harmony with a healthy daily, weekly, and annual rhythm are in better health than others. This rhythm gives them identity and integrity. Another consequence is social harmony. Benedict knew that instinctively. A life adapted to the rhythm of the universe is good for man. It gives him homeland and security and enfolds him in the grand rhythm of all living things.

Conclusion

The Benedictine spirituality of Creation is an optimistic spirituality. It is a spirituality which cares about our world, which assumes responsibility for the world and works on it in the spirit of Jesus. It is, first and foremost, a question of life, which God offers us. The monk must serve life in all its manifestations, life in nature and the life of men. When he employs himself or uses things with care, when he respects the rhythm of the living, he becomes himself truly alive. The act of living is the sign of an authentic spirituality. Jesus is, for Luke the Evangelist, archegos tes zoes, the life principle. Only the one who has life in him has understood Jesus.

I know a certain number of people who embark on a spiritual path to avoid life. Life, with its aggressive and sexual drives, seems to them too dangerous and too unpredictable for them to trust themselves to it. They enclose their existence in a strict discipline. They fulfil their religious duties, without, however, becoming any more alive. For them, it is more a matter of having a rampart against life. But this is not the path of Jesus nor of St Benedict. Benedict invites us to step out on the path of life. That is how we will find God and our true selves. We connect with the original and undistorted image in which God made us.

One description of the life to which the Benedictine spirituality of creation would hope to lead us is: the expanded heart. According as we progress in our religious life and in faith, the heart expands, and we run in the way of God's commandments, in the indescribable sweetness of love (RB, Prol. 49). The tight little heart is full of fear. The narrow heart often overflows with anger and rage. It is like a too small saucepan in which water boils and overflows immediately. In an expanded heart, anger, intemperance, bitterness, and fear vanish. The expanded heart is open to the beauty of creation. It is open to humanity. An expanded heart does not moralise. It does not draw up fretful little rules or imprison itself in the narrowness of external prescriptions. The expanded heart is the criterion of an authentic spirituality. In the present state of the Church, this is very necessary. The expanded heart of the monk invites all to seek God together, to praise the Creator whose beauty permeates all creation.

Fr Anselm Grün is a monk of Münsterschwarzach Abbey, Germany; he was professed in 1965. His latest work, Images of Jesus, is published by Continuum