Dom Roberto Ferrari, a forty-something Italian monk who is completing his doctorate in spirituality, lives at our Curia Sant’Ambrogio here in Rome. Ferrari has published a number of books, and most recently, one on the relationship between State and Religion in Italy, co-authored with a friend of his from Naples, Professor Emilio Fina, a psychiatrist and professor of criminology. The new book by Ferrari and Fina, entitled, “Stato e Religione: Tra Legge e Dottrina” (State and Religion: Between Law and Doctrine), had a formal introduction and presentation in Rome on October 18th. At that gathering I gave a short paper in Italian on the place of the Rule of Saint Benedict in contemporary society outside of the cloister.
About sixty people, friends and others, young and not-so-young, came to the book presentation in a hall of the Roman Senate here in Rome. The gathering lasted about two hours. Other speakers included the current head of “Rai Vaticano,” Vatican television. We also listened to a former member of the Italian Parliament and to a Carmelite priest-professor of Theology from the Pontifical University of Naples, and a professor of Penal Law from Naples. The authors of the book, Dom Roberto Ferrari and Professor Emilio Fina, also spoke to those assembled.
What follows is the English-version of my text from the October 18th book presentation:
Coming from a country, the United States, where the separation of Church and State is fairly rigorously upheld, I am still getting used to realities in Italy, where I have lived for the last two years here in Rome. For example, the guarantee of an Italian police-escort for religious processions, Catholic or otherwise, is hard to imagine in the United States. The regular presence of secular public figures, such as mayors or city representatives, at special Masses in Italy, is also something very rare in my country. I am impressed that the Italian Church and State, despite histories of conflict or at least disagreement, regularly interact with each other.
As a Benedictine monk for the past forty-seven years, I am keenly aware of the importance of the “Rule for Monasteries” that Saint Benedict wrote in Italy around the year 500 AD, which has had such a profound mark on European and Western Civilization in general. The Benedictine Rule is much more than a document for organizing life within the walls of a monastery.
Besides being fundamentally a “religious” text, written for monks and nuns, the Rule of Saint Benedict is today known also for being a practical tool for people outside the cloister, who seek to live in harmony with others, to make the most of the present, and to hand on to future generations wisdom about leadership, discipleship and community life. Like other important western documents, such as the Magna Carta and the United States Constitution, that are part of the foundation of Western Civilization, the Rule of Saint Benedict is a recognized proposal for organized living and maintaining an organization, and in so doing, promoting peace, something everyone presumably longs for.
In recent years a number of books have appeared in English that consider the Rule of Saint Benedict from a perspective other than religious. One is called, “Saint Benedict’s Rule for Business Success,” by Quentin Skrabec, Jr., and published by Purdue University Press in 2002. The author is a professor of business and manufacturing management. Another book is entitled, “Doing Business With Benedict: The Rule of Saint Benedict and Business Management, A Conversation” by Kit Dolland, published by Continuum Publishing, also in 2002.
What can the Rule of Saint Benedict or his monks today possibly teach others about living and working in the “real world,” when people might be asking if monks and nuns are very out-of-date and romantic leftovers of the long-past medieval world? In fact many today are finding the Rule an aid in improving professional life, and also finding it useful for offering insights about life in general. The questions being asked by those who do a conscious and serious study of the Rule of Benedict include some of the following: am I making a life or simply making a living? What is the meaning of relationships in my family and in the work place? How do I and others cope with success and failure?
The sixth century Rule of Saint Benedict offers numerous principles applicable today in the reality of life and work in the modern world. In their need to be self-reflective and reflect as well on important resources, such as their employees, business people are finding help in examining the Rule of Saint Benedict more closely. Benedictine thought and experience can assist in the task of living and working at close range with others and the inevitable realities of work relationships, leadership, customer care, welcoming newcomers and the challenges that change and death present.
Despite the twenty-first century being far removed from Benedict and his Rule, there are constant connections, from the down-to-earth guidelines in the Rule about the qualities which the leaders of the community must strive for, to the admonitions about the members of the community being people who constantly listen, respect and forgive each other, to the matter of the proper treatment of the material things that are part of every life.
In the Benedictine scheme, the entire community “owns the monastery,” as there is no private property, but what the monastery has is at the disposal of those who live there. Some have called this “communism at its best,” when there is real concern for all who live in the monastery. Such an approach is applicable as well in family life and the work place. Hoarding, hiding and holding back are simply not the ideals, and in fact to be avoided at all costs, for the peace and prosperity of the whole group.
In the monastery, so in the work place, the routine of life and its mundane aspects, what can be called the “ordinary,” cannot be avoided. Seeing in the ordinary more than the simple movement of the hands of the clock is an important matter not to be neglected. The everyday duties are not simply to keep others from being angry when essentials are neglected, but in fact are moments of real service and care for those in the family, work place or community. Paying close attention to the ordinary tasks can thus be a crucial feature for promoting peace and living in love with others.
Four basic principles of the Rule of Saint Benedict that are tools for life and business are these:
First, all successful endeavors in the field of business or family or intentional community need to have a strong foundation. This implies some amount of stability, obedience and a willingness to change. This concept is embodied in the Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life. The origin of the word “obedience,” is “to listen,” something every parent, business professional and monastic leader must cultivate. The “staff” in a business, the members of a family, monks in a monastery, must all be good “listeners,” for the promotion of harmony, growth and joy in life. There also needs to be continuity (stability) and openness to change (conversion) for common endeavors to be a success.
Second, people are the most important part of any business, family or community. People of varied gifts, personalities and ages make up the work place, family and community. They become a team with “give and take” as an essential feature. Both tenderness and discipline are required from leaders, and those who are followers or workers must be open to correction, be responsible and consistent in performance. The Benedictine Rule is clear about these matters as well.
Third, what we have is on loan. We must be good stewards of all that we have: the land, the resources at our disposal, our bodies and material goods. Exploitation of any of these creates imbalance and ultimately unhappiness and failure. Saint Benedict takes up this theme in various places in his Rule.
Fourth, transformation of self will transform the place of life and work. Personal development is crucial in life. Necessary rest, work, reading and exercise all add to life and help create balanced personalities. When balance is present, the tendency to excel increases and creates something that is attractive to others, who wish to “be on board” for the same goals.
Benedictine monks have so far survived for 1,500 years! The Benedictine ideal is immensely adaptable to changing cultures, climates and circumstances. The above four principles and others have never gone out of fashion for monks, and in the best scenarios, are assiduously sought after. The same principles are valid for monks today as well as for those in the work place and family setting.