Saint Benedict: God is in the details

(Fr. Cyprian)

There are two stories about the life of St. Benedict that are recorded in the Dialogues of St. Gregory that I heard Fr. Jeremy Driscoll speak about recently. I was already familiar with one of them, but the other, if I ever knew, I didn’t remember at all. So I want to give credit where credit is due, though please don’t blame him for my own quirky insight into them. Both of them come near the end of Benedict’s life. The first one is about a Goth named Zalla (who Gregory tells us was also an Arian heretic) who was trying to extort money out of a poor farmer. In order to escape with his life, the farmer tells Zalla the Goth that he has left all his money with the abbot Benedict. So Zalla ties him up and while he rides on a horse forces the farmer walk to the monastery. When they get to the monastery, Benedict is “sitting alone in front of the entrance reading” and Zalla “glared at him with eyes full of hate and shouted harshly, ‘Get up? Do you hear? Get up and give back the money this man left with you!’” Then, Gregory says, Benedict looked up from his reading and, as he glanced at Zalla, he noticed the farmer with his hands bound together. And the moment Benedict catches sight of the cord that held the farmer’s hands, it miraculously fell to the ground. Zalla fell trembling to his knees and bends his neck at Benedict’s feet, begging for his prayers. Benedict stays cool still; without rising from his place, Benedict calls for his monks and has them take Zalla inside for some food and drink. After that “he urged him to give up his heartless cruelty.”

The other story is more familiar, and is especially appropriate today as we celebrate Benedict’s transitus: (Gregory actually mentions it twice, once here in the life of Benedict and another time in Dialogue 4). This is right after his twin sister Scholastica has died, and both times Gregory mentions it, it is in connection with the death of Germanus the bishop of Capua.

In the dead of the night he suddenly beheld a flood of light shining down from above, more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away… According to his own description, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light.

I think the two of those stories go together. In the first story Fr. Jeremy said we could safely assume that Benedict is reading Scripture, doing his lectio divina there at the entrance to the monastery. What I find notable about it is this: you might think that monastic withdrawal and utter concentration on one’s interior prayer life might make us oblivious to what is going on around us, your brother right next to you let alone what’s going on in another part of the world. But no, Benedict looks up, calmly, peacefully, and he sees his neighbor in need, in captivity, and his very glance liberates him. And I suppose he could have worked another kind of cruel miracle on the Goth as well––made his britches fall down or made him break out in leprosy––but instead he invites him in for some refreshments. Looking up from Scripture, his sight, his voice, his very presence is a peaceful liberating word for the suffering world.

And that leads me to the second story. This is right at the end of Benedict’s life. Just before this, Gregory has told us that Benedict had watched his sister’s soul leave her body and enter the court of heaven; and right after this he “saw the soul of Germanus … being carried by angels up to heaven in a ball of fire.” In a sense we are seeing Benedict preparing for his own death, and so perhaps in some way this is a culminating vision of his whole life’s journey, we could call it a unitive vision. He is seeing with God’s eyes, “the whole world… in a single ray of light.” Again, I think the same thing applies: the unitive vision does not blind him to the soul of his friend (nor the soul of his sister) becoming part of the light.

There’s a great scene in the movie of the life of Dogen, the 13th century patriarch of Japanese Zen Buddhism. He has just come back from years studying Zen in China under a master and has achieved enlightenment. And the first scene we see upon his arrival back in Japan is of him squatting by the side of the river digging up weeds in a garden. And one of his young students scolds him for doing such menial work. But Dogen explains that this is what the life is about. He goes on to write this detailed book of rules for the cook of the monastery, partially because it was a cook who had led him to his master, but also because the details were important to him, not just about the kitchen, but about the whole ordering of the life, to provide an environment that both reflected and led to this sense of mindfulness that leads to the unitive experience. The unitive vision hasn’t kept him from the details. The Buddhist tradition is especially brilliant with this, how to keep both the unitive vision and the awareness of everything down to the minutest detail at the same time. And I think there is a lot of that going on in Benedict.

We have the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Often perhaps in the spiritual life, there is also the opposite problem: we’re good at seeing the whole forest but somehow we miss the individual trees. We see the big picture but can’t always connect that to concrete actions. This is not Benedict’s problem: he sees the whole forest and he sees the individual trees too. Immersed in Scripture, he looks up and sees an individual suffering soul, and immediately Scripture is alive, living and active, like a two-edged sword, lifting up the poor and casting the mighty from their thrones. Every rule seems to be mitigated by some sweetness of charity for the real human being in front of us; everything is tempered by humility, even the abbot is told over and over again to listen to the community; obedience is softened by love; authority is softened by care for the youg, the old, the sick, the excommunicated. For Benedict the vision and the sense of the unitive has not kept him from the details, as a matter of fact, as our Fr. Robert used to love to say, “God is in the details.” And so all the tools of the monastery must be treated as vessels for the altar,[1] and anyone who fails to keep the things belonging to the monastery clean or treats them carelessly should be reproved,[2] or if you break or lose something you should come before the abbot[3]––Why? ‘Cuz God is in the details. And the opposite is true too, the details don’t keep him from the unitive vision. Even when he is talking about the discipline of psalmody in Chapter 19, he opens the chapter with this little pearl that could slip by unnoticed: We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.[4] I don’t get the impression that Benedict ever loses sight of the big picture in the Rule, the reason we’re doing all this––, the perfect love that casts out all fear,[5] so that our hearts will overflow with joy and delight.[6] I’m not sure which one it is, that he is granted the unitive vision precisely because he has attended to the details, or he attends to the details because he has had an experience of the unitive vision. In some way, it doesn’t matter––that’s the whole point: God and the details of our life are “not two.”

That’s what I am learning still about monastic life, the classic “both/and”: that the broad vision leads us to the individual and that the individual leads us to the broader vision; that the unitive experience leads us to the details and that the details lead us to the unitive vision. That love of God leads me to love of my brother, my sister, my neighbor, and that that love that we cultivate in community leads us to and in fact is a foretaste of heaven. That nothing gets left behind… that the divine presence is everywhere.


[1] RB 31:10

[2] RB 32:4

[3] RB 46:2

[4] RB 19:1

[5] RB 7:67 (1 Jn 4:18)

[6] RB Pro. 49

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