The Ordinary Way of Benedict
It does not take parents very long to realize that they teach their children not so much by what they say as by who they are. Their presence, their choices, their lives, their being speak to their children in the deepest way. The same can be said of true educators, whose teaching reaches beyond technical expertise. One year into the papacy of Benedict XVI, I realize that I am learning something about my life as a Catholic Christian from the way Benedict is living his life as pope. I note the influence of three of Benedict’s choices on my own.
"What’s in a name?" muses Shakespeare. A great deal. Naming is one of the first human decisions we encounter in the biblical narratives, as Adam names the living world around him (Gen 2:19-20). Parents usually take great care in the naming of their children, choosing a hero (religious or secular) or a revered grandparent. At the time of confirmation a young person chooses a saint’s name, a distinctively personal act. So when Joseph Ratzinger, newly elected as pope, announced that he would be known to the church and the world as Benedict XVI, I, like many of my colleagues, did some quick research. An early assumption was that his choice was to connect him explicitly with Pope Benedict XV, who was known for his dedication to world peace and to the works of charity. The previous 14 Benedicts had among their number several popes who are best left buried in the dusty pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica. When Benedict XVI himself cleared up the matter with references to St. Benedict, founder of Western monasticism, things began to fall into place for me. OurBenedict was associating himself with the Rule of Saint Benedict, that brief, simple, brilliant template for living a balanced life in community.
Years ago with a household full of young children, trying to be a responsible citizen of society and church, wondering how I could find space for study and intellectual searching, I was introduced to the Rule. Eventually I wrote a book about its application to family life: about intimacy and solitude, prayer and play, work and study, authority and hospitality. I called this application The Ordinary Way because it seemed so full of common sense, so doable, since the content is the stuff of everyday life. Parents, for example, have to exercise authority for the good of all, but how it is done is critical. There is a different quality when all the members of the family are consulted, even the youngest, about decisions that affect all. That is what the Rule directs the abbot to do. And finding ways to incorporate solitude and prayer into the busyness of family proved to be a lifeline.
But households change. Children grow up, a spouse dies and professional responsibilities fill up one’s time. Some habits from an earlier time perdure, it is true, but the balance embedded in the Rule can subtly, imperceptibly fade. The 21st-century Pope Benedict’s choice of a name, however, has brought the wisdom of this timeless document to the forefront of my consciousness once more. Work alone is not what St. Benedict had in mind; a centered life requires more. And so again the Rule is reminding me of what balance looks like.
Mozart, Order and Perfection
Benedict XVI is also teaching me some needed lessons through the intervention of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Since 2006 is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, and in pursuit of a more balanced life, I began to practice with some regularity the few piano sonatas I have learned along the way. But I soon ran into a problem. The sonatas are long, very long. I judged Mozart needlessly repetitious, so I devised a method of getting to the end in a reasonable piece of time. Play the first repetition or part of it, and then skip to the next movement. My goal was to get to the end of the sonata, no matter what. Then I read about Pope Benedict’s piano routine. At the end of the day he has a glass of Orangina and plays Mozart for a half hour. This apparently is part of his own rule, an organizing principle perhaps.
As I thought about this I had a flashback to those earlier years with a full household and how at 5 p.m. I played a Mozart record while entering into the dinner preparation mode. I once asked my husband why he thought I did that, and his response was simple and true: order. Mozart brought order into my life. Was I now upsetting Mozart’s order? I began to think about reading a play aloud and deliberately not reading what the author wrote. I wouldn’t do that. But here I was skipping over sections of a sonata, not stopping to consider what was being lost. I was pretty sure the pope would not do that, but then again I was sure he is a lot more skillful than I. Then came this interior dialogue.
Wouldn’t you like to play one measure perfectly, or nearly so? Maybe.
I’m sure Benedict stops to correct. Everybody makes mistakes. Hmmm.
Why not spend a half hour on a page, or part of a page? I’m impatient.
That’s the point.
Since this dialogue, I have tried to be attentive to the continuing inner word. When I do this, I discover a level of satisfaction that doesn’t come from skipping through the music. The practicing itself is an entry into what St. Ignatius Loyola called savoring. It is being all there, uncorking the delectable in the music. It is being respectful of what Mozart meant.
So Benedict and Mozart, unknowingly, are teaching me something about life, about my life. They are pointing out my propensity to make excuses (the sonatas are too long), to be satisfied too often with less than excellence, to slide into inattention. But they are showing me a corrective as well. I do not have to do everything, like finish this sonata today. I can, however, do something as well as I can this day, some little thing in the spirit of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. One musical measure can be full of grace.
That Benedict chose to write about love in his first encyclical is completely in tune with the Rule, which is really about ways to grow in the love of Christ. Deus Caritas Est has given me much to mull over as I begin to realize how the particular love of my marriage, a marriage ended by death, is opening me to larger ways of loving. Much of that larger way I learned from my husband, whose commitment to social justice was located in philia. He saw real people behind the formulae and mortgages and governance needed for affordable housing. These so-called strangers were in some way his friends. So as I ponder the many faces of love, Benedict has shed some light on my own experience. I know firsthand that eros does not evaporate with the physical absence of one’s particular love. It continues to remind us of the joy of being alive within another reality, what seemed to me at first to be communio. Or is it agape? I don’t know. In any case Benedict writes that eros and agape can never be separated. I find that enormously consoling.
There has been some critique of Benedict’s treatment of social justice in Deus Caritas Est, particularly in terms of what is not there, with the unintended consequence of diverting believers’ energy from righting wrongs in our societal structures. (See, for example, Thomas J. Massaro, S.J., in America, 3/13.) I suppose that is a possibility. But when I look around my own community, Arlington, Va., an eight-minute drive to the White House, I see activist believers from many different churches who engage tirelessly with national issues as well as with concerns of our own urban village. Because of them Arlington has in place a living-wage law. The local government is responsive to affordable housing needs as an active partner with several nonprofit organizations. There is a free medical clinic one block from my home. Arlington has outreach workers to help with jobs and job training. Our citizens are watchful, caring and tireless.
Yet this major commitment to justice for all in our community and for creating governmental systems to address the problems is not enough. Every evening in my neighborhood park, the homeless of Arlington are fed from the back of a station wagon. A coalition of Christian churches enacts this work of mercy because, for whatever reasons, there are still people who remain on the streets. Across from that park is St. George’s Episcopal Church, where for 30 years a food pantry has operated. It is like a small grocery store. Five days a week, for two hours at midday, clients come for a supply of easily prepared food. I’ve been volunteering there once a month for the past year and a half. Last week I witnessed something new. A man collected his canned goods and then turned to my volunteer partner, who was standing by the door. He looked at us and said, I need something else. I need a blessing. Raima and I, two lay women (she a member of St. George’s and I a Catholic) paused. Then Raima asked him what kind of blessing he needed. I need courage and strength, he replied. Raima took his hands as two other clients stood perfectly still, sensing something different was at hand. I closed my eyes while prayer poured out of Raima for this imago Dei. He thanked her, he thanked me and quietly left, and we went on with our duties.
Raima and I talked about the blessing as we closed the pantry for the day. We noted that religious conversation rarely, if ever, occurs. She said she had never blessed anyone before. No matter. I witnessed that day caritas in action made possible by a humble openness to the Spirit. It reminded me that we all need blessings. I have a home, food, friends, meaningful work, a close and loving family, health. And yet, like that man, I too need something else. What might that be? Love is the lightand in the end the only light...that can give us the courage needed to keep living and working, writes Benedict (No. 39). Courage, indeed. I believe that. I also believe that St. Paul is dead right. Love never ends, and, as Benedict points out, it is all encompassing, from eros to agape.
Clearly what I am learning from Pope Benedict XVI is deeply personal. Yet the most personal encounters can and do move one from particular concrete experience to universal truth. It happens in poetry, in narrative theology and quintessentially in the Eucharist. And it happens in the witness of life, whether that be a pope’s life or that of a man without a home.