When your seven -year-old son is screaming and slapping what do you do? Do you wade in screaming and slapping? Do you come down heavy with threats and retaliation? Do you opt out — letting your wife deal with it? A sixth century monk has some wise answers to the everyday challenges of being a Christian father. Saint Benedict’s recommended form of discipline is isolation. Bad behavior means the family member doesn’t know how to behave in community. As a result he should be excluded from that community. So when I’m confronted by a seven-year-old holy horror I keep control myself, and isolate him. But in a spirit of conciliation and concern, once he is isolated I ask his mother or a brother or sister to go and cheer him up.
Saint Benedict’s rule was written over 1500 years ago to guide monks, but it is not a highbrow treatise on mystical prayer. Instead it’s a practical manual for a peaceful community. The Christian family is the essential Christian community, so you could say, the family is a kind of monastery. Just as Benedict had to teach his monks how to live in community, so we need guidelines for the Christian community of our families. Benedict’s wise and gentle rule points the way for our own peaceful and harmonious family life.
Seven Principles for a Peaceful Life
Its often joked that all a man wants out of his home is to have a peaceful life. This often means the man cops out and avoids all conflict. The Benedictine way to develop a peaceful home is to be pro-active and create peace in the home. Benedict lays down seven principles which can help most fathers build the peaceful and happy home they long for.
- First of all, each person in the family must be treated according to their particular needs. Christian equality doesn’t mean we all get the same thing. It means we all get what we need. Benedict says the abbot “must adapt and fit himself to all…one to be encouraged, another to be rebuked, another persuaded, each according to his own nature.” One child may need gentle encouragement; another may need a tough regime.
- Linked with this flexibility is Benedict’s second principle of good fathering. He says the abbot “must show the tough attitude of the master, and also the loving affection of a father.” The father must balance the toughness of the drill sergeant with the tenderness of a nurse. A wise father combines the strengths of both characters while leaving the faults behind.
- Thirdly, the abbot must lead by his actions as much as by his teaching. It is an awesome thought that, in the long run, children will do as we do, not as we say. Benedict reminds the abbot that he too lives according to the rule and must be seen to obey the principles he puts forward for others.
- This can only happen if the community lives in a constant spirit of forgiveness. This is the fourth principle. Benedict teaches the errant monk to come to the abbot instantly to ask forgiveness, and the abbot must forgive at the first request. Benedict reminds us that we must not “let the sun go down on our anger.” In a Christian home we cannot ignore conflicts, hoping that the problems will solve themselves. Instead, forgiveness must be a pro active force in the home. The Christian Dad has the responsibility to wade in, solve the problems and insist on mutual and real forgiveness, and if he is at fault, he too, must ask forgiveness.
- Benedict’s fifth principle for peace is obedience. Although he calls for a military-type obedience, Benedict wants us to take this principle deeper. The word “obedience” has its root in the meaning “to listen” and all through his rule Benedict encourages his monks to listen to God and to listen to one another. This sensitive listening and awareness of the needs of others lies at the heart of a peaceful community. In one of the final chapters of the rule Benedict encourages his monks to obey one another in love. An attitude of mutual service and attention in our families will help build good communication as well as confidence and natural good manners.
- The sixth principle is prayer. At the heart of Benedict’s wisdom is the assumption that the Christian family is a community of prayer. Benedict speaks clearly about the need for prayer to be natural and from the heart. “Indeed we must grasp that it is not by using many words that we shall get our prayers answered, but by purity of heart…Prayer therefore should be short and pure”. Benedict believes that the family that prays together stays together, and every family will be relieved to discover that Benedict says prayer is better short, sharp and sincere than long winded and showing off.
- The final principle for peace is stability or balance. The Benedictine monk takes a vow of stability. This means he stays in one monastery for life. Our marriages are for life, and this gives the Christian man and woman the opportunity for stability and peace. At the root of the call for stability is the realization that God is not elsewhere. God is to be found here and now, not there and then. He is found in the face of our wives and children. He is found in the terrible moments of family life as well as the wonderful moments. Stability makes us rooted and grounded in love, and the consequence is great peace and confidence.
The rule of Saint Benedict is a treasure chest of practical wisdom on living together and loving together. Benedict’s rule is not instantly accessible to everybody, but his principles are. Benedict helps us to cope with the reality of life just where we are, and that is why his wisdom remains as fresh today as it was the day it was written over one thousand five hundred years ago.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a former Anglican minister, ordained as a Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey. His book, Listen My Son is a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict for fathers. Check out his website and blog at dwightlongenecker.com.
Follow Fr. Longenecker on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/frlongenecker
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