Listen, pay attention
The Rule of Saint Benedict was written by Benedict of Nursia (c.480–550) as a guide for Christian communal life. Reading it today in the 20th century, I am driven to reflect on my own spiritual life and Western society. The Rule begins with a call to listen and to pay attention: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” (BR, Prologue:1) As I read this chapter and think of the people in the monastery 1500 years ago seeking God, my desire to listen to God is intensified. As I apply the call to listen to God, it moves me in the direction of the purpose of God. As I listen to His voice, I learn to move by what He is saying, not by my feelings or circumstances. Listening to God helps me to walk in my true identity as a child of God on the earth, it gives me the ability to move as He moves, as the Word says, “as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).
Someone wrote that their most important life lesson was that ‘there is no substitute for paying attention’. It’s true in everything we do, for when someone explains something complicated, for when my children tell me something that is important to them, and for when God is speaking to me. I have learnt that God speaks to me in different ways – through other people, in my dreams, and through signs. Sometimes I wake up with a name of a person in my thoughts and find that when I call them, it is for a divine purpose – they need urgent help, or they are an answer to one of my prayers. When I don’t pay attention to these signs, I feel uncomfortable in my spirit. Sometimes I learn later that I missed something important.
A life dedicated to prayer
Regular prayer is central to Benedict’s way of life. In prayer I am free to express who I really am in relation to God. As I begin to pray, I feel how good God is and how sweet it is to be in His presence. I feel loved deeply, beyond words. The joy of the Lord in prayer becomes a happiness that fills my whole being – all my problems are forgotten and the joy of the Lord becomes my strength. Though I live in the world, I find a new address in His presence, a place of safety, a home for me to stay in. Whatever I am going through at the moment (and there are always trials and temptations in this life) hope for the future breaks into my spiritual man.
As Benedict knew, it is so important to have time for silence and solitude. When you are dealing with God, you must set aside quality time, every day, when nothing else takes away your attention. We need to be able to shut the world out. I find that when I pray in the house, I get distracted by the tasks and things around me. Our society is so busy with work and other pressures. There are lots of different ways people can get in touch with us, and expect us to respond straight away. There is no quiet time. The smartphones, gadgets and social media block us from spending time with God, from listening to His voice and studying His Word.
To shut my busy world out, my routine is now to pray outside every day, walking by the river. I think of how Benedict left his busy, successful world to live a life first in solitude, then in a community dedicated to seeking and serving God. As I go outside, I look at nature, the seasons changing and how God breathes upon me and gives me a new season of life. Praying outside gives me clarity in my spiritual life. As I shut out my own world, I open up to God’s world. When I walk along the river I listen closely, I hear the sound of the sound of the birds, trees, nature. My ears are opened and I desire an inner conversation with the Lord. I learn that in the silence, God speaks to me; I receive messages which I use in my sermons. As I open my mouth to respond, I find myself fully in conversation with the Lord. Sometimes I spend hours outside in prayer and worship, because in His presence it is as if time stops to exist.
Reciting and praying through the Psalms
Benedict wants his followers to recite and pray through all the Psalms each week. I too learn to use the Psalms as models of prayer. When I feel low, I pray through Psalm 103, using everything inside of me to bless God’s holy name, to remember all His benefits, and the marvellous things He has done. If I fall short of God’s glory, I call out for mercy as David in Psalm 51, asking God to change my heart, to cleanse me and to restore to me the joy of His salvation. When I am in trouble I open Psalm 46 and remind myself that God is very present in times of trouble.
A life of love and discipline
At first when reading the Rule we might find all the rules of the monks’ life complicated and controlling. But there is a high value in a life of discipline and fasting, to give up our own desires, our precious food or sleep, our time, to seek God, to set aside time each day to listen, pray and study the Word. Not in a digitalised, microwave style, but in dedication. It is about self-control, and making sure the world, which will vanish with all its desires, does not block us from drawing closer to God.
To grow spiritually, I need to be in an environment where I am tuned in to God’s voice. In a world which gets busier each day: this takes a life of love, discipline and sacrifice, the kind of life that Benedict points me to, which also is abundant, with fullness of joy.