"God is our home but many of us have strayed from our native land. The venerable authors of these Spiritual Classics are expert guides–may we follow their directions home."–Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The Vintage Spiritual Classics present the testimony of writers across the centuries who have pondered the mysterious ways, unfathomable mercies, and deep consolations afforded by God to those who call upon Him from out of the depths of their lives. These writers are our companions, even our champions, in a common effort to discern the meaning of God in personal experience.
The questions, discussion topics, and background information that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of the six works that make up the first series in Vintage Spiritual Classics. We hope they will provide you with a variety of ways of thinking and talking about these ancient and important texts.
We offer this word about the act of reading these spiritual classics. From the very earliest accounts of monastic practice–dating back to the fourth century–it is evident that a form of reading called lectio divina ("divine" or "spiritual" reading) was essential to any deliberate spiritual life. This kind of reading is quite different from that of scanning a text for useful facts and bits of information, or advancing along an exciting plot line to a climax in the action. It is, rather, a meditative approach, by which the reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of every phrase and passage. There are four steps in lectio divina: first, to read, next to meditate, then to rest in the sense of God’s nearness, and, ultimately, to resolve to govern one’s actions in the light of new understanding. This kind of reading is itself an act of prayer. And, indeed, it is in prayer that God manifests His Presence to us.
St. Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, set down what quickly became the most famous and enduring guide for those in search of spiritual fulfillment through life in community. Though still consulted by monks, priests, and nuns today, The Rule of St. Benedict
has always been perceived as having broad application beyond convent or monastery walls. Beautifully woven together with apposite quotations from the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, its message for a world seemingly in desperate quest of radical autonomy is clear: without love of neighbor and diminishing of self, the search for God will be fruitless.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The explicit purpose of Benedict’s Rule was to teach monks and their superiors how to live the monastic life. Today, nonmonastic readers approach the Rule in order to think about changing their lives. How does such a guidebook compare to bestselling books of counsel like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way or Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? How would you compare the underlying assumptions of today’s self-help culture with those of Benedict’s philosophy?
2. Benedict places great emphasis on the importance of silence and solitude as well as the importance of the community setting. How do you understand the importance of silence and solitude? How do we learn to become comfortable with silence, and with being more thoughtful and sparing in our use of words? How does Benedict suggest we go about trying to hear the word of God in silence?
3. Norvene Vest has written, “The key to Benedictine spirituality lies in the word ‘ordinary.’ Benedict insists that no moment is too small for nearness to God. Life in Christ does not necessarily involve something dramatic or heroic. It may simply engage the everyday stuff of my life–.Whatever my present circumstances, Christ will meet me there.”1 She also points out that Benedict’s emphasis is not so much on renunciation, as an attentiveness to what we are given. Is there a sense of relief in the realization that God doesn’t require the impossible? If you have read The Desert Fathers, how does this concept of the “ordinary” compare to their approach to the spiritual life?
4. What roles do prayer, communal praise (through the singing of the psalms), manual work, and holy reading play in Benedict’s approach to God? How, living outside a monastic setting, might you begin to integrate the various parts of the Benedictine way? How might the order and discipline of monastic life be adapted to a busy, worldly, secular life? Notice that we are told, “It is called a rule because it regulates the lives of those who obey it” [p. 7]; does bringing a deliberate sense of order to the ordinary tasks of each day free the mind to contemplate the things of the spirit?
5. Benedict exhorts his readers to “Live in fear of judgment day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire” [p. 13]. The concept of hell is more foreign, less visceral and immediate, to those of us who live in a secular society than it was for Christians in Benedict’s time. What is your idea of hell? Has the concept of hell in today’s world been replaced simply by a fear of death? What is your notion of a punishment that is an incentive to change one’s life?
6. What is your response to Benedict’s instructions on “The Tools for Good Works”? Notice that much of Benedict’s counsel is taken directly from the Gospels and Epistles. What is the Benedictine approach to the opposition between the flesh and the spirit? How important is the concept of physical discipline? How do you interpret Benedict’s statement on behavior: “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else” [p. 12]?
Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity
; T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
; The Epistles of Saint Paul
; Edward Gibbon, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
; The Gospels
; Sue Halpern, Migrations to Solitude
; Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step
, Living Buddha
, Living Christ
; Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are
; Thomas Merton, The Seven-Storey Mountain
; Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul
; Norvene Vest, No Moment Too Small: Rhythms of Silence, Prayer, and Holy Reading
; Clifton Waters (trans.), The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works