A homily in honor of St. Benedict

July 9, 2017


Jenny Estill offered this reflection on St. Benedict at the 5PM mass, as a frame for our weekly shared homily. We transferred the Feast of Benedict to the 5PM mass on Sunday, July 9, 2017.


Today’s passage from Proverbs, with its focus on listening for the knowledge of God, could serve as a poetic introduction to the genre of wisdom literature, to which the Rule of Benedict belongs. The Rule written, of course, by St. Benedict of Nursia, whose feast we celebrate today, and about whom I know a lot more than I did last weekend. In the introduction to setting of the Rule, Joan Chittister offers the following thoughts on the genre:


“Wisdom literature takes as its subject matter the meaning and manner of achieving the well-lived life. It deals with the spiritual, the ascetic, and the nature of virtue. Its concerns lie in the meaning of holiness and the fundaments of happiness.”


I savor that phrase: the meaning of holiness and the fundaments of happiness. “Fundament” is a rich, deep, steady word; it sounds like roots and cornerstones even before you know its meaning, or its derivation from the Latin “fundare”--“to found.” In contrast, the syllables of “holiness” float; they are full of air, and light and breath. The phrase puts me in mind of the deep, stable roots that support a tree’s bulk so that its branches can wave, dance, and stretch skywards.


The authors of Proverbs seem to be urging us to stretch our own branches skyward in our search for wisdom, for holiness. We are to cry out for insight, to raise our voices for understanding, to seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures. These are thirsty, yearning verbs, and they convey the urgency of our need, as humans, to make meaning and to grapple with the unknown, the invisible, the eternal.


But a tree can only wave its tallest branches if its roots are deeply sunk in the earth. It lives simultaneously in these two worlds, and so do we. St. Benedict’s Rule offers a guide for tending our roots--for cultivating and maintaining a life that allows our souls to reach for holiness. This “well-lived life” is balanced, rooted in tradition, fully aware of and full of compassion for the sorrows and temptations of daily life, and shared with others in community. It is also a life in which our faith informs how we conduct ourselves even in the most mundane situations.


Thus, in Chittister’s daily devotional setting of the Rule, this weekend’s passages are about the qualifications and duties of the monastic cellarer. Here is my favorite piece of St. Benedict’s advice for monastic cellarers:


“The cellarer should not annoy the members. If anyone happens to make an unreasonable demand, the cellarer should not reject that person with disdain and cause distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.”


Words to live by, and indeed applicable to anyone charged with the stewardship of common resources or the leadership of others--even today. St. Benedict’s writing is full of such simple, compassionate advice for living together and following God’s will in everyday tasks. It is perhaps just this simplicity that has ensured the Rule’s longevity in the Western tradition.


But I think it can be harder for us to see the boundaries of our own cellars today, in a world which keeps us daily, hourly, constantly informed of horrors and injustices beyond our control but still connected to our lives. It is terribly easy for me to get so overwhelmed by the news from far-flung places that I cannot muster the energy to do what I can for those in my immediate vicinity. I wonder whether I can do better at seeing, tending, and then, perhaps, expanding the walls of my cellar, at sending my roots out farther into the world.


And I wonder where you’ve felt yourself to be in your own cellar--in a place or with people you felt called and equipped to serve. And I wonder if there are times when you’ve felt that your roots were sunk deep or your branches were especially wavy--where you felt yourself able to experience holiness because of your steady foundation.


I invite your wonderings on these words, our readings, or anything else that moves you today.

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