At the beginning of a 2-year Spiritual Direction Practicum, I was asked to select a “spiritual giant” to walk with during our time. This would be someone I would reflect on, whose words and teachings I would immerse myself in, making connections to our classwork and my life. I immediately decided I needed a ‘modern’ woman. I assumed I would need someone as current as possible if I was going to incorporate them in to my life and find relevance in their teachings. I started looking, and considering. But what I did not imagine, was that my spiritual giant had already chosen me, if I’m being honest, a couple of years before. So, I like to say that my spiritual giant chose me, and to this day Saint Benedict and I are walking through life together.
Saint Benedict is neither modern nor a woman. Born in Italy in 480,Benedict is believed to have been born to a well-off family, and had a twin sister named Scholastica. He grew up and was educated in a time of much political chaos and ended up seeking solitude in the mountains of Subiaco. His time of solitude and simplicity paved the way for the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino, which, along with his ‘Rule’ became the foundation of the monastic tradition. My first personal connection to Saint Benedict may have been in his escape to solitude, leaving chaos and retreating to nature.
As an introvert with high sensitivity, sometimes the noise and clatter of the world can be overwhelming. Political rhetoric can be grating-and I too appreciate times of silence and solitude. I experienced my first silent retreat several years ago, 4 days in total silence except an hour each day with a spiritual director. It was the first time I have achieved total silence. I often tell people, silencing my mouth was no problem, but silencing my mind–that was difficult. It actually took a couple of days to stop the natural ‘scrolling’ of my brain, searching for a to-do list, or things to accomplish. I found myself wondering how long it took Saint Benedict to reach this true silence. True, he did not have the electronic connections that we have today, but the unrest of his time was real, and he sought silence–true silence.
The next way I found myself connecting personally to this wise and ancient man was the very first word of his ‘Rule,’ which is “Listen.” This one word opened up a world to me. And while I did read on, and have fallen in love with so many of his words, this word was the first. Coming off his time in solitude, listening well to God and to those who might come close to him,he learned the value of listening. He knew the need to escape distraction and chaos to be able to do this well. And this one word would set the tone for the type of monastic community he wanted to create. I too find myself in awe of how difficult listening well actually is. How easily I am distracted by external forces (my phone, my computer, a beep or ding) or internal (planning out my response, thinking about dinner). How challenging it is to truly be present in a society that values business, accomplishment and motion.
Saint Benedict knew that what he would share in The Rule was important to the community, and he set the tone by asking his brothers to listen. Not distractedly, but to settle, clear their minds and listen. An amazing model for this kind of listening is Jesus. If we search scripture, we never see reference to Jesus ignoring someone who wanted his ear, or exhaling with annoyance when someone interrupted his plans, or half listening while he planned the words he would share at the next gathering. What we do see, is Him stopping, turning to face the person, perhaps bending low. He models how to listen. If we take it a step further, Jesus also models to whom we are to listen. Again, searching scripture, we do not see Him listening only to people who look like him, or belong to his same “social class.” In a time today full of hurry and busy, noise and rhetoric, the result is people feeling unheard. In a time today when certain groups of people are ignored because of the color of their skin or the place of their birth, people are feeling unloved. Listening well makes people not only feel heard, but loved.
One of the ways that I practice silence during lent is through centering prayer, which for me involves spending 20 minutes a day alone with Jesus. I often describe centering prayer to my students and spiritual directees in this way: “Imagine a friend or family member that you are so comfortable with that you can sit shoulder to shoulder with them on the couch without needing to fill the space with words. Now imagine that person is Jesus and that is what centering prayer is.” It is a time of silence, where no words are needed. By practicing this discipline my heart becomes attuned to the still small voice in my daily life, to the nudging. It truly is centering. I find that not only do I become more aware of the movements of the spirit in my life after practicing centering prayer, but I am also a better listener to those in my community. More present. More connected. My soul rests. My pace slows. My heart and my hands open. Sitting in silence is truly counter cultural, actually “different from the world’s way,” but so important in my life both during lent and throughout the year.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to a migrant shelter in Juarez, Mexico and heard the stories of two asylum seekers from South America. Both of them shared tales of unimaginable horror at the hands of their home countries. And more unimaginable horror followed in the journey north. Both of them shared unwavering faith like nothing I have ever heard. One young woman said, “I have faith that God will reunite me with my mom (who has been in the US for 20 years).” One said, “I believe God will continue to protect me.” In the face of trauma and horror, their faith remained strong. And because I took the time to listen, mine was strengthened as well. When asked what message these two faithful people wanted us to share with our friends and family in the US, they said, “listen to the stories, hear us.”
When visiting a non-profit in Athens, Greece last spring a woman working with refugees told us, “these women have stories, but no one to listen to them.” Again, a call to listen. To set aside rhetoric and distraction and truly listen well. This might involve stepping outside of your comfort zone or striking up a conversation with someone who looks different from you while waiting in line at the market-but truly listen well. This is counter cultural, slowing down to listen well is not how our fast paced world operates. But, Saint Benedict knew that, and in Chapter 4 of his Rule, “The tools for good works,” he says, “your way of acting should be different from the world’s way.” (RB 4:20) He continues by saying, “never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.” (RB: 25-26).
We are called to step outside of the world’s way, to follow the example set by Jesus by listening well and listening to all. I love the phrase, “hollow greeting of peace,” and have spent a good deal of time considering what that means. Is it a quick greeting as we pass? Is it not even stopping to hear the answer to the question, “how are you?” If we don’t stop and listen well, how will we even know if this person needs love? Who might we be turning away that we don’t even realize it? This consideration holds true when thinking about all of our neighbors, the ones we are called to love well, such as our immigrant neighbor. I was recently told that 85% of immigrants have never been in an American’s home. Our neighbor struggling with mental health issues that may not be visible from the surface. The neighbor who does not look like us deserves to be listened to, as well.
The list goes on and on,but the message from my ancient companion is as true today as it was in the early 500’s. Saint Benedict walks with me in my town, at my coffee shop, at my market reminding me to listen. Nudging me to live apart from the world’s way-to put away my phone, to be present. Urging me to never give a hollow greeting of peace lest I might miss giving love to someone who needs it more than anything today.
Saint Benedict chose me to walk with and he is teaching me how to live and love, how to follow Jesus more than I ever imagined.
Anna Bonnema: is an open-armed Catholic, a lover of words and nature, fueled by tea, lattes, and dog snuggles. She is a wife to a man with a contagious laugh, a mom to amazing teenage triplets, an introvert, and always up for gathering around the table or around the fire, or small celebrations and glitter. You can find her on Instagram at @annabonnema.