A reflection by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB, on the Benedictine’s call to practice some of the least popular virtues in our world’s culture
In Chapter 7 of his Rule, Saint Benedict tells us, “We must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw angels descending and ascending (Gen. 28:12). Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend” (Rule 7:6-9). It says our divine vocation. As some say, the monastic life is the life of the angels. It’s a bit hard on us because we have original sin hanging on us, but really it is like the life of the angels in that we have the ability to be undistracted in our praise of God. A married woman’s first duty is her husband and her family. We have given up things and that particular love, the pleasure of a family– all of those things we have given up because of the divine call. The divine vocation to praise God in a particular way. We have to remember it is a divine call. It’s not something we imagined up together and decided to do. It cannot possibly happen without God’s grace and His call.
I want to share with you this part about what happened after Jacob’s dream: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, ‘Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!’” (Gen. 28:16-17). God’s almighty power and His presence can be fearful, and we should remember who God is. We are not His equal. There should be some true fear of the Lord in our lives. When you really love someone, you fear to hurt them; you fear to do something against them. I think that is part of the fear of the Lord. We should fear to offend Him and to live against Him. We should fear to harm that relationship. This fear is appropriate because we know the consequences. This fear is the foundation of the dear virtue of humility. Humus: we are all made of the same dirt. There is not anybody who is made of something better – unless you’re not a human being. There is nothing that makes us greater, except what St. Benedict says: one can be more loved because of their obedience. This is, because of our nature, a tug of war, due to original sin. We carry within us the desire to be like God—to have all the knowledge, to be equal with Him. Obedience is the recognition and submission to someone being over you—to have someone over you and to have the right to ask of you great (and sometimes difficult) things, and for you to then have the duty to obey. This is our struggle in life, and why obedience is such a great virtue.
Saint Benedict was a wise man and he loved the Lord profoundly. His order continues to this day and it is the order that the mystics say will continue until the end of time. I believe this is because this order teaches man about Eden: the right relationship with God, the work and the prayer, the honor of God and the honor of one another. This is the work that we are showing to the world by our life and example—To teach them again how to communicate with God, how to love God, and how to act appropriately with our beloved Savior. Let’s think of this today: How much are you loving God in your life? May your goal be to love Him with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, and your whole body.
One of our Sisters shares an experience she had before entering our community which gave her a foretaste of her future life as a Benedictine nun, though she did not know it at the time:
I was finishing up a day’s work at the hospital when the word was passed around the nurse’s station: “Rachel is going to go home on hospice this week.” The news wasn’t surprising; Rachel, one of our dear patients in her late teens, had spent a lot of time on our floor over the last couple of years, and her medical condition had gotten much worse recently. After I completed my shift, I walked down the hall and knocked on Rachel’s door. I wasn’t in such a peppy mood myself that autumn. The gentleman I had been dating had unexpectedly broken up with me a few months before, and I found myself unable to leave behind the deep sadness I was still feeling. But that night I knew I had to say goodbye to Rachel and thank her for the gift she had been to me. As I sat on her bed, she told me how sad she was to be dying. I was sad with her.
As I drove home from work that night, I realized with a sudden insight that I was ALIVE, and I was filled with awe and gratitude at this awareness. By the time I stepped inside my house, I was so overwhelmed with joy at being alive that I began to write down all the things that made me grateful for my life. Memories and desires poured out almost faster that I could write them down. I was so overcome with joy for the gift of my own life that the sadness that had been oppressing me for the last few months was suddenly insignificant. I was alive!!!
My vocational call didn’t come until several years later, but the grace I received from Rachel that night was a foreshadowing of the grace I receive now in my vocation as a Benedictine nun. The immense gratitude for the gift of my life demands a response, and my response is the complete gift of my life back to my Creator in a sacrifice of praise! In fact, for me personally, this is not only one way, but the fullest way possible I can express my gratitude to God for creating me.
St. Benedict’s only goal is to seek God, so that we might begin now what will be brought to completion in heaven. Using the words of St. John, he urges his monks to “run while you have the light of life that the darkness of death may not overtake you” (Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue.13). No wonder St. Benedict directs even the most ordinary aspects of daily life so carefully. All those short moments together make up this great gift we have called LIFE, and there is no time to waste in complacency. I believe that the profound reverence and intentionality with which St. Benedict treats of those smallest choices reveals his deeply grateful heart.
The final verse of Psalm 150, which we sing at Lauds every Saturday and Feast day concludes, “Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord,” and I often note with gratitude that I am indeed still breathing, and I remember Rachel as we sing it. Thank you, Rachel, for bringing me into such a full life by your death! I pray that when I follow you into eternity someday, together in the heavenly kingdom we will praise the Lord forever.
A reflection on St. Benedict’s teaching to “bless those who curse you” (Rule 4.32) by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB
God looks upon us with loving kindness. He wants to bless us. Cursing is of the devil – it’s evil. And sometimes Evil uses us to harm each other. The important thing is to look beyond who is doing it and see who is influencing it. Thankfully, God’s blessing is far more powerful than a curse. So we hear from St. Benedict how to take care of curses: bless! Ask God’s goodness to be poured upon the one who curses you. Ask God to love them abundantly to the point where they are no longer able to do evil because they know how dearly loved they are. What a wonderful remedy. What a wonderful way to see things: to break curses with blessings. Whenever you’re having a difficulty with someone, and you can feel your blood pressure rising, just start asking God to bless them. It will be a challenge, but you’ll be on the right path.
St. Benedict challenges us to good to those who maybe don’t do good to us in return. It’s easy to love those who love you, but it’s a real test of your love when you do good to those who are difficult to love. Good. Do it. Give without expectation of receiving. Love without the expectation of being the most loved. When you feel as though you are the least loved, and yet you try to love everybody else as if they are the most loved, that is really hard work. Try it. You’ll go to bed exhausted. If you can do that, you’ve won. Because remember that we’re going to be judged based on what we’ve done to others, and not what they’ve done to us. And also remember those words of Jesus when He said, “Stop judging and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37), and just don’t judge anybody!
A reflection on the call to loving obedience by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB
We hear over and over in the Old Testament the words of the prophets calling the people to return to the Lord. It makes me think of our Holy Father St. Benedict—could he not be considered one of the great prophets as well?
In chapter five of the Rule we hear about St. Benedict’s teaching on obedience. It has a value and a power far beyond our little means, because it is united with Christ. It can be a golden tool in our lives if we allow it to be. If we think only of being “forced” to obey, we will not get very far. But if we think of being obedient because Christ was obedient, and to counter the fall in Eden, which happened out of disobedience, then we will be using the gift of obedience for the highest good. If we cherish Christ above all, cherish Him deeply, we will carry out all our duties as if we heard them from God Himself.
The Rule tells us that monks who truly practice obedience abandon their own concerns, leaving whatever they have in hand unfinished, in order to hearken to the signal for the Divine Office (Rule 43.1). If we don’t practice this form of obedience in the little things, we will be tempted to reason our way out of everything. It is love that impels us to pursue everlasting life and the narrow road, no longer living by our own judgment or giving in to our own appetites, but saying with Christ, “I came…not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38). Christ’s love working in us impels us to act as He did. Love alone will give us this grace.
And when we feel that we cannot handle the obedience being asked of us, we can look to Christ’s example on the Mount of Olives. He cries out to the Father for help, “Father, take this cup away from me,” but ultimately surrenders Himself with the words, “but not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).