Editor’s Note: This is the first of a trilogy of articles on cultivating interior and exterior peace, inspired by St. Benedict’s Rule and Christopher Derrick’s The Rule of Peace.
The art of living requires the knowledge of not only being at home in one’s own household and family but also being at home in the world.
No one desires to be lost in the forest where all paths look alike, lost in a society where no one is a familiar friend, or lost in the universe where vast space and stark loneliness give the impression that man is nothing, an insignificant atom, a mere “feather in the wind” or “a dot made by a fine pencil” to use Montaigne’s phrases.
In his essay “On Repentance” Montaigne bemoans the fact that his entire life lies in fickle Fortune’s hands and makes him feel like a hapless victim: “I have committed some serious and grievous errors in my life, not for lack of good judgement but for lack of good fortune.”
To feel lost, to imagine oneself nothing, to feel homeless, or to feel powerless at the hands of Fortune robs a person of peace.
The Genius of Benedictine Wisdom
The rule of St. Benedict, on the other hand, teaches this art of living that needs a feeling of belonging and stability to experience a sense of place in the world.
Christopher Derrick’s The Rule of Peace explains the genius of Benedictine wisdom on the art of living. To be at home in the world, a human being, first, needs to be at home with his environment, his neighbor, and himself.
He explains the meaning of “the rule of peace” learned from the rule of St. Benedict as fourfold:
- “peace, first of all, with our non-human environment, with Nature;
- next, peace with our neighbors, with other men as we meet them,
- peace with our immeasurably difficult selves;
- and finally and most decisively, peace with the ground of our being, peace with God.”
A sense of peace with the environment of Nature, St. Benedict teaches, is the art of living with simplicity and moderation—the opposite of the consumerist mentality ruled by the acquisition of more and more unnecessary possessions that result in burdens of debt facilitated by credit-card loans.
To always feel oppressed by debt produces an enormous weight of care, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness at the thought of a lifetime of work without freedom from interest payments.
To live at peace in one’s environment also obligates a person to cooperate with Mother Nature’s laws—the atmosphere that encompasses all human beings from birth to death as they watch the sun rise and set each day.
To reject one’s male or female nature as an “artificial construct,” to refuse to be fertile and multiply in marriage because of anxiety about population control or because of environmentalist ideology that equates human beings with pollutants breeds a sense of alienation—as if man and woman have no God-given purpose in life and as if God does not care for his creation with His Divine Providence.
A Commitment to Stability
In Blessed Cardinal Newman’s words in Meditations, “I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.”
To reject the calling of marriage as an “optional extra,” to choose childlessness for the sake of environmentalism, or to be indoctrinated by political ideology rather than be in tune with Nature alienates a person from Being, that which is.
To be at home in one’s environment also entails an appreciation for stability and a rejection of what Derrick calls “a neurotic addiction to mobility, to transportation, to the fret and turmoil of always being on the move from here to there.”
This commitment to stability, a special aspect of the Benedictine charism, engenders rootedness and familiarity; it cultivates a network of familial and social relationships that make a person’s life full of the kindness of the human touch and abundant with friendship.
While constant mobility and available transportation make travel and commuting a customary modern way of life for work and school, this trend does not contribute to peace or a sense of belonging to a particular place.
To be in the midst of traffic several hours in the course of a week, to come and go daily amid strangers or foreigners to whom one has no relationship, and to experience life as a transient makes a person feel like a wanderer without a home. The hours spent in close-knit relationships suffer.
This problem Derrick identifies as “the highway society,” a way of life he calls “the neurotic twitch and scurry of endless and largely pointless movement which characterizes our present world.”
St. Benedict sensed a danger explained in The Imitation of Christ: “Those who go much abroad seldom grow in sanctity.”
A corollary of this teaching follows: those who are constantly absent from home and family seldom grow in charity, love of neighbor, or the bond of love. A home gradually assumes the nature of a changeable experience instead of a grounded reality.
Incessant mobility compromises family life, bonds of friendship, and the sense of belonging to a special place.
A More Human Way of Life
Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter (2004) especially captures the importance of a sense of place as a vital element in a person’s happiness and feeling of peace in belonging to a world that resembles home.
As Hannah explains, the people in the farming community of Port William, Kentucky, “aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They are someplace.”
The drive of upward mobility, the movement to the top of the corporate ladder, and the restlessness of perpetual change for more prestige, wealth, or power conflict with a more humane way of life. Hannah reflects,
“Most people now are looking for ‘a better place,’ which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. . . . And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it, and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.”
She questions the theory of education that instills the idea of learning as a stepping stone to prosperity and social mobility. She summarizes this trend with a common-sense observation: “The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are . . . but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have to move on.”
This type of thinking and living does not enrich the human spirit.
Hannah Coulter recovers an ancient wisdom about the art of living found in the teaching of St. Benedict.
A person lives in a place that only he but no one else occupies at the time. To belong to a place like a home or the land provides a sense of rootedness, belonging, and identification that individualizes each person and rescues him from the faceless crowd or “herd man.”
One person can achieve great good and bless many lives by this sense of attachment to a place of natural beauty, humble work, familiar people, and the joy of work as a labor of love.
A person’s sense of home and peace depends on the investment of his time and the commitment to a vocation that serves others and contributes to the common good.
Benedict’s monastic ideal provides great wisdom for a happy human life as well as a noble religious ideal.