One of the reasons I began Train Yourself Ministry (TYM) was to create a space in my pastoral life to focus deeply on the sanctification side of faith (what might be called the ‘work out your own salvation’ side of faith.)
As a lifelong pastor and church-lover, I’m convinced that the larger Church desperately needs an infusion of spiritual discipline into its bloodstream, or we will not be ready for the fierce challenges that are coming our way (and are already here.)
Though all is of grace, the New Testament shows us repeatedly that grace compels a response. Grace blows open the door to a new way of life, then summons us to walk through it.
It’s with this in mind that I’ve found myself captivated by Rod Dreher’s book The Benediction Option. I’m a big underliner, and Rod won’t let me put down my pen. It’s a book filled with wisdom about how to follow Christ in a culture that is growing increasingly hostile to Christ.
Benedict was a sixth century monk who founded a movement of monasteries during a time of cultural decay when the Roman civilization was collapsing and what would replace it was yet unknown. The ascetic life of the monastery was built around a life of order, governed by “Rules”, and the Benedictine order is practiced to this day.
Dreher spent time in a Benedictine monastery, and wrote his book convinced that the modern Church needed to recover something of the Benedictine spirit to survive the cultural convulsions that are already shaking our world.
So much of what he observed of Benedictine practices echoes the same themes of freedom through discipline, and holiness through training, that resonate in my TYM work.
In an astounding chapter, “A Rule For Living”, Dreher summarizes how the Benedictine order revolves around the themes of order, prayer, work, asceticism, community, hospitality, and balance.
I’ll let his quotes, and the quotes of some of the monks he interviews, just speak for themselves. If you’re an underliner like me, print this article, get out your pen, and start highlighting the thoughts here that speak to your heart.
Training Through Grace
“Far from being a way of life for the strong and disciplined, Benedict’s Rule was for the ordinary and weak, to help them grow stronger in faith… Despite the very instructions found in the Rule, it’s not a checklist for legalism. The purpose of the rule is to free you.”
“You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let his grace heal us and change us.”
“A man who wants to get in shape and has read the best bodybuilding books will get nowhere unless he applies that knowledge in eating healthy food and working out daily. That takes sustained willpower. In time, if he’s faithful to the practices necessary to achieve his goal, the man will start to love eating well and exercising so much that he is not pushed toward doing so by willpower but rather drawn to it by love. He will have trained his heart to desire the good. So too with the spiritual life.”
“If a defining characteristic of the modern world is disorder, then the most fundamental act of resistance is to establish order…To order the world rightly as Christians requires regarding all things as pointing to Christ.”
“The order of the monastery produces not only humility but also spiritual resilience. In one sense, the Benedictine monks… are like a Marine Corps of the religious life, constantly training for spiritual warfare.
“[The radiance of our lives] is a fruit of deep and constant prayer…Strictly speaking, prayer is communication with privately, or in community, with God. More broadly, prayer is maintaining an unfailing awareness of the divine presence and doing all things with him in mind.”
“Seven times each day they gather around the altar of basilica to chant the appointed prayers for the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours…These consist of psalms, hymns, Scripture readings, and prayer. For the monks, prayer is not simply words they speak. Each monk spends several hours daily doing…a Benedictine method of Scripture study that involves reading a Scripture passage, meditating on it, praying about it, and finally contemplating its meaning for the soul. The idea is not to study the Bible as a scholar would but rather to encounter it as God speaking directly to an individual.”
“We sing when we pray, we stand, we sit, we bow, we kneels, we prostrate…The body is very much involved in prayer. It’s not just some kind of intellectual meditation.”
“Prayer is not so much about asking God for things as about simply being in his presence.”
“If we spend all our time in activity, even when that activity serves Christ, and neglect prayer and contemplation, we put our faith in danger. The 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan, a practicing Christian, once said that everyone he knew who lost his faith began by ceasing to pray. If we are to live rightly order Christian lives, then prayer must be the basis of everything we do.”
“The active life is [not] to be shunned. Rather, it should be integrated in a life ordered by prayer. Good work is a fruit of a healthy prayer life.”
“[Our] work must serve not ourselves but God and God alone…This is how we must approach our jobs: as opportunities to glorify God…Creation gives praise to God. We give praise to God through Creation, through the material world, and into our areas of work.”
“In days to come, circumstances will compel Christians…to rethink our relationship to our work. We will be shown the door in some cases because of our beliefs. In others, the doors will never open in the first place…Reorienting the way we conceive of work in a more God-centered, Benedictine way will help us make the right decision when we are put to the test in the workplace.”
“The day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. This is why asceticism – taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal – is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life.”
“Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning ‘training’…The monk knows the human heart and how its passions must be reined in through disciplined living. Asceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness common in our culture, which teaches us that satisfying our own desires is the key to the good life. The ascetic knows that true happiness can be found only by living in harmony with the will of God, and ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self.”
“A Christian who practices asceticism trains himself to say no to his desires and yes to God. This mentality has all but disappeared from the West in modern times period we have become a people oriented around comfort. We expect our religion to be comfortable. Suffering doesn’t make sense to us.”
“[Through fasting as an example] you’re strengthening your will… if I can’t handle not eating for a few hours, how can I expect to control my more spiritual passions, like anger, envy, and pride?”
“The Rule’s instructions concerning obedience are meant to foster mutual accountability. Everyone in the monastery depends on everyone else, and all decisions of importance must be made with others and consider their interests period to live in real community is to put the good of others ahead of our own desires, when doing so serves truth and righteousness.”
“Life in Christian community…is about building the kind of fellowship that every one of us needs to complete our individual pilgrimage.”
“When a man first comes to the monastery, the first thing he notices is everybody else’s quirks…But the longer you’re here, the more you begin to think: What’s wrong with me? You go deeper into yourself to learn your own strengths and weaknesses. And this leads you to acceptance of others.”
“God has distributed his graces in such a way that we really need each other. Certainly there’s the old man within me that craves individualism. But the more I live in community, the more I see you can’t have it and be faithful, or fully human… When the light in most people’s faces comes from the glow of the laptop, the smartphone, or the television screen, we are living in a dark age… We’ve never seen a dark age like this one.”
“According to the Rule, we must never turn away someone who needs our love. A church must be open to the world, to share the bounty of God’s love with those who lack it…The Rule commands that all those who present themselves as pilgrims and visitors to the monastery be received like Christ… Every day I think, ‘Christ is coming. I’m going to make this as pleasant for them as I can.’”
“Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world – to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life… Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. Too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. It’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance.”
The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines…But Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the good news, in Word and deed, with the world held captive by hatred and darkness.”
“The Benedictine life is rigorous, but if lived according to the Rule, it is also free from fundamentalism and extremism… If a community relaxes its discipline too much, it will dissolve. But if it is too rigid, it will make people crazy. If you want to judge a community, you need to see what their fruit is. Are they growing? Are they cheerful? Are they happy?”
As Dreher concludes this insightful chapter, he asks: “How do we take the Benedictine wisdom out of the monastery and apply it to the challenges of worldly life in the 21st century?…The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is.”
Dreher takes the rest of his book to answer that question, with chapters devoted to examining how Christians, drawing on the virtues of the Rule, should approach politics, churchlife, family, community, education, work, sexuality, and technology.
I anticipate that this will not be my first article about this book.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.