Dwight Longenecker
Home Page

Introduction to the Book: Listen My Son

by Dwight Longenecker

The Challenge of Fatherhood

When St Benedict says, '
Listen my son to the advice of a loving father' he calls us into an intimate child-parent relationship. The need to be nurtured and guided through life doesn't cease when we reach the magic age of eighteen. In every stage of life we need the wisdom, concern and love of a father figure. If we are fathers ourselves, the need for a mentor is even greater. We cannot be good fathers if we do not have a good father in our own life.

Jesus taught us to call God '
father' and this teaching flowed from his own intimate relationship with God the father. Jesus called God 'Abba' or 'papa'. With such an intimate term he reveals the tenderness and strength which should exist between fathers and children, and between us and our heavenly father. In recent years the concept of fatherhood has lost its attraction, and some people view fathers as the source of every ill in society. Of course many have suffered at the hands of poor fathers. Many have also suffered from inadequate mothering. But the failure of some fathers does not negate the need for positive, potent and compassionate fatherhood. Indeed bad fathering makes the need for good fathers even more acute. The foundation of successful fathering is a living relationship with God the Father. It is only from a dynamic spiritual relationship with him that human fathers can hope to do their very best for their children.

This primary relationship with God the Father can be nurtured and developed through the spiritual fathers we find within the family of the church. In a spiritual director or wise confessor God gives us a spiritual father to help us on our journey. Like St Joseph, our spiritual director adopts us as his own. He protects and provides for us until we reach maturity. St Benedict has been a spiritual father for countless men and women for well over fifteen hundred years. Through his little rule generations of monks, nuns and lay people have heard the voice of a wise and loving father who wishes to guide them to perfection.

A guide for fathers is vital today since fatherhood has been so neglected. Christian fathers especially need resources to foster their paternal role. Many men in our society are confused and bewildered by a whole array of contradictory expectations. Short-term contracts, performance-related pay and high pressure competition pushes fatherhood into second place. On the one hand, the '
new man' is expected to be the perfect father and husband, while the voices of those who may have been injured by bad fathering often portray all fathers as domineering villains.

Quick divorce and re-marriage, along with the financial attraction of co-habitation, and a mentality which separates sexuality from procreation encourage many men to avoid marriage and fatherhood altogether, or to walk out on the family once the stresses of real family life begin to develop. The younger generation of men can hardly be blamed. Many young men are themselves the product of broken homes, where in most cases it was the father who was the absent parent. Without a father it is impossible for them to be fathers.

However, within this grim scenario there is cause for great hope. Fatherhood may be neglected and despised, but there are signs of a swing back. In all sorts of low-key ways men are returning to the priority of parenting. In larger enterprises which cross cultural and religious boundaries men are being encouraged to take their domestic responsibilities seriously; to return to their families and to take up the challenge of compassionate leadership within the home. Men who have been excluded from their homes and children by harsh divorce laws are fighting back for the rights of fathers. Through marriage guidance, counselling and self-help programmes thousands of men are learning new ways of relating to their wives and families, and finding renewal in the heart of their homes. In addition, an increasing number of firms are recognizing the need for paternity leave, shorter hours and proper responses to family requirements; recognizing that a man who is fulfilled at home is a better and more productive worker. Many men who work for impersonal multinational firms are discovering that it is within family life that they have true identity, and there they discover a sense of belonging and a true vocation.

This return to fatherhood should not be seen as an attempt to turn the clock back. If an old patriarchy has died it is so that a better view of fatherhood can be resurrected. The new fatherhood is not a return to an antiquated patriarchy in which the man is king and the woman a mere chattel. Instead the new father is caring, involved and fully integrated into the life of the family. The new father relates with his wife on equal terms. There is a new interdependence and complementary self-giving which recognizes the advances in women's self-understanding as well as the demands of modern society. If the mother has had a more formative role on children in recent years, then the new father is now sharing that function in full partnership with her. If she shares the bread-winning, then he shares in the child-care. The new father is there not as the king, but as the servant-king. In fact, while this approach to fatherhood seems new, it is there in the Scriptural pattern for marriage, and St Benedict points to it in his chapter on mutual obedience. The new fatherhood does not expect obedience or respect by right, but earns respect and obedience by self-sacrifice and compassionate leadership.

This kind of fatherhood is hard work, but it pays rich dividends. Not only is the man rewarded with loyal and loving children as he grows older, but he also enjoys a deepening and more profound relationship with his wife. In addition, his children go out into the world brimming with confidence and strength from his contribution.
Finally, it is easy to see the decay and confusion in modern life and to run for cover. The instinctive response of Christian parents may be to construct a family fortress against the wicked world. But while the home is a place of refuge, it is also a place of preparation and interaction with the wider world. Parents will best protect their children from the destructive forces in the world not by running away from them, but by equipping their children to engage with the world in a creative and dynamic way. In fact, there may be no more effective way to make the world a better place than for men and women to take their responsibility as parents seriously, and so contribute members of society who are responsible, compassionate and confident.

Christian parents help to redeem and transform the world by building a good home, for good homes are the building blocks of a solid, prosperous and peaceful society. When this calling to parenthood is linked with a strong Christian vision, the home, as Tertullian said, becomes the 'seminary of the human race', and the Christian father and mother find in their parental roles a path which leads to heaven.

The Christian family can be the place for the soul's training because it is, by its nature, a Christian community. A person may choose a convent or a monastery to join, but they cannot choose every monk they have to live with; neither can they choose every successive abbot or abbess to whom they must vow obedience. Likewise, we may choose our wives or husbands, but we can't choose all our in-laws and we certainly can't choose our children. They are given to us and we must learn to live with them in community. Since Jesus first called twelve men to live in intimate community with him, the Church has been a family, a community, a Kingdom of God. So it is with the natural family: we find within our own home all the necessary ingredients for progress in the Christian life.

St John has written, '
Those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.' So within the love of the Christian family the father can come to understand and dwell in all wisdom. Through his love with his wife, the two share in a union which is as intimate as the one Christ shares with his Church. Through their relationship with the children a three-way bond is nurtured which takes each family member into a love which reflects the Holy Trinity itself, for there Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in the perfect unity of the Divine Family. The ordinary Christian home is part of the God-given sacrament of marriage, and as in all sacraments it is a physical means of meeting the invisible God face to face.

This is a high ideal. It sounds mystical and sublime. But the reality often seems far from celestial. Being a parent is a gritty, realistic and demanding vocation. Our lives are rooted in the physical and emotional needs of small children. We need to be equipped for Christian fatherhood. There are many resources for spiritual growth, but not many which combine the practical demands of fatherhood with the aspirations of the spiritual journey. Some books are full of practical advice on parenting while others take us on a wonderful, but too other-worldly, journey of spirituality. Not many books combine practical advice with spiritual insight. The Rule of St Benedict, more than any other, combines the two into a fully incarnational guide to life.

The Life and Rule of St Benedict

The sixth-century Rule of St Benedict is a code written for the foundation and maintenance of a Christian monastery. It has been in use for the last fifteen hundred years as the basis for every Benedictine monastery and convent and for many other religious orders which are loosely Benedictine. Some scholars even credit Benedict and his Rule as the foundation of Western civilization, for there the basic guidelines of all community can be traced, and it was the monastic communities, following Benedict's inspiration, which kept human learning and civilization alive during the Dark Ages.

Benedict's Rule may have been written with sixth-century needs in mind, but it has stood the test of time because of Benedict's profound understanding of human psychology. Benedict understands that we need something to aspire towards, but we also need a realistic view of ourselves. We need to reach for the stars, but keep our feet on the ground. Like all works of genius, Benedict's Rule inspires and humbles us at the same time. He takes us to lofty heights, and yet his Rule is full of practical wisdom and principles of human relationship which can be applied to almost any situation where people live and work together. A serious reading of Benedict will enlighten and inspire not only our family life, but our relationships at work, in the parish, and in our wider community.

Although it was written for monks, Benedict's Rule is not a piece of mystical writing as such. It doesn't give extravagant and obscure teaching on prayer and mysticism. The Rule is a practical document for everyday living. It is modest in its aim: indeed, Benedict himself calls it a '
little Rule for beginners'. The Rule is also modest in its composition. Benedict never claims complete originality. Christian monasticism began in Egypt in the middle of the fourth century, and Benedict has drawn from the literature of those first Egyptian monks - the Desert Fathers. He also relies on the Eastern Conferences of Cassian and on the contemporary Rule of the Master. But Benedict makes his own mark. Unlike the earlier writers, Benedict promotes a new balance. He tempers monastic austerities with a gentle tolerance of human weakness. He eschews extremism and builds a Rule which strives for heaven while understanding how bound we are to earth. For Benedict heaven and earth are not in conflict; as a master of incarnational spirituality he helps us see 'heaven in ordinary'. So every material possession is to be treated as a sacred vessel of the altar, and Christ is to be seen in the abbot, every brother, and every guest of the monastery.

Benedict the Man

Benedict's Rule speaks to our time because he also wrote in a century of social upheaval and uncertainty. In AD 410 - seventy years before he was born - Rome fell to the barbarian invasions, and by the middle of the sixth century Rome had been sacked for a second time and the Huns were ravaging northern Italy. The civil authority was in tatters; wars, violence and anarchy were raging and the Church too was torn in pieces by theological controversy over the nature of grace. In the midst of this turbulent time Benedict managed to construct a way of life which rode the storm like an ark in the raging flood.

Benedict was born around 480 into a noble family of Nursia. He was sent to Rome to study, but abandoned the city because of the decadence he saw there. He went to live the hermit's life in the hills near Subiaco where he was looked after by another solitary monk. Eventually he was invited to become the abbot of a nearby monastery, but after almost being poisoned by the rebellious monks he left. He finally settled with some brothers at Monte Cassino, where the reconstructed mother house of the Benedictine order still stands today. Some distance away his sister Scholastica had established a convent of nuns, and Benedict met with her once a year. Before his death Benedict's friend and confidant, Servandus, tells us how he was summoned to Benedict's cell one night. Benedict had got up in the night to pray and he saw a bright light come down from heaven. Encapsulated in that light was the entire created order '
as if gathered into a single ray of light'. This ultimate vision of the unity of all things is the gift which is given through the life of contemplation. Benedict's Rule is a way to run on the path towards that vision of unified love. So he calls us in his Prologue to 'run on the path of God's commandments with an inexpressible delight of love'.

The life of St Benedict was written by Pope St Gregory the Great. In his
Dialogues he records the death of St Benedict. He died on 21 March 547 in the oratory or chapel of the monastery. After receiving communion he stood with his hands raised in prayer, and died supported by his brothers. So in death he was surrounded by the community, making him a latter-day Moses whose arms were held up by Joshua and Aaron so the battle could be won. After his death, the monastery was destroyed by the invading Lombards and the traditions tell us that some monks took Benedict's remains, and those of his sister, to the Abbey of St Benoit-sur-Loire, where his relics remain today.

The Way of Benedict

In his opening Prologue Benedict calls us to make an act of the will - to take a decision to follow the path of God's commandments. After a section on different types of monks he turns to the traits of a good abbot. He goes on with a fairly traditional outline of the steps of obedience and humility, then goes on to deal with the mundane matters of running the monastery. He tells the monks how to conduct the services in chapel, how to be disciplined, how to treat the physical goods of the monastery and how to live together in peace. But woven through the whole Rule is an awareness that the rules are simply training exercises. They are designed to channel the monk's life into an inner freedom and holiness. Throughout the Rule the three Benedictine vows of Stability, Obedience and Conversion of Life provide a driving force.

Benedict sees spiritual maturity as something which is attained obliquely. Enlightenment cannot be attained on its own like the reward for some sort of esoteric quest. Like happiness, enlightenment is the product of a certain type of life. So enlightenment or spiritual wholeness is only accomplished through a lifetime of wholeness. The are bored or restless or think things will be better somewhere else. The Christian husband and father is forced into stability by his marriage vows and by the need to provide for his family. We can either rebel against these enforced '
enclosures' or we can see them as the crucible of monk's task is to develop the atmosphere and attitude of our own spiritual refinement. The constraints of family life spiritual wholeness. The monastery becomes a 'workshop' where spiritual accomplishment happens, and every rule is simply a contribution to the necessary atmosphere of wholeness. This wholeness consists of finding our proper place in the world and giving glory to God by living fully we also give up the constant search for new religious expewithin his order, or finding, as Dante said, 'Our peace in His will'. One of the ways to find this place of simplicity and wholeness is by pursuing stability of life.

On the physical level stability simply means the monk may not go travelling around. He is enclosed and bound to his particular community for life. But inner stability means we also give up the constant search for new religious experience and spiritual fulfilment on our own terms. Stability can best be described as that state of mind which is content in the present moment. Stability accepts what is given and finds God not '
out there' but 'in here'. Many of the rules Benedict established are to help the monk stay put happily. Benedict realizes that if a person cannot find God where he is then he will not find him anywhere, and the vow of stability forces the monk to face the reality that escape is not one of the options.

The emphasis on stability is vital in our personal lives and in our Christian homes. In a fast-changing world where mobility is taken for granted it is all too easy to move house, move church or move job simply because we can either be the chains that bind us or the force of stability which gives us true freedom. Stability reminds us that we may run away from others, but we cannot run away from ourselves.

Obedience is the second of the monk's vows. If the monk stays at home in his desire for stability, then he also does so within a local society based on obedience to a rightfully recognized authority. The monk commits himself to a relationship of obedience to his abbot. This is never obedience for its own sake. Instead, Benedict expects the monk to take a vow of obedience, because through constant obedience his self-will is broken and humility may begin to flower. Benedicts spends much time expounding the virtue of obedience because obedience counters the root sin of wilful pride and cuts to the base of that egotism which fosters all other sin. Once again, the humility which comes from obedience is not holiness itself, but it is the condition for holiness. The vow of stability and the vow of obedience both nurture humility, and with humility the ground is prepared for spiritual wholeness to grow.

If we take our marriage vows seriously then we too have the basis for a life of obedience. In our case obedience means being in a constant attitude of self-sacrificial service towards our wives and children. St Paul commands us: '
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loves the Church and gave himself for her.' The demands of family life demand a regular sacrifice of our will and our desire for the good of others. Benedict never pretends that obedience is easy. Of the three vows this is perhaps the most difficult one to attain on our own. But Benedict always reminds us to 'put our trust completely in the Lord'. Everything we do must be fuelled by his grace - but especially the desire to learn true obedience.

Finally, the Benedictine monk makes a vow of conversion of life. This does not mean he seeks some sort of '
conversion experience'. Instead the monk lives with the aim that his whole life, body, soul and spirit, will be converted into the likeness of Christ. Thomas Merton relates a story from the Desert Fathers which points to this total transformation: Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said he was doing the best he could to observe his holy rule of life, and what more should he do? 'The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, "Why not be totally changed into fire?"' Conversion of life means the Christian is brought to the point where he naturally says with Benedict that he 'prefers nothing to the love of Christ'. Every detail in the monk's life is subjugated to this one aim. However, this does not mean the monk is straining to convert himself. Instead, by following the Rule he simply aims to prepare the ground for this conversion, and to prepare himself to co-operate with that conversion which can only be accomplished by the grace of God.

One of the ways to prepare for and co-operate with this conversion is to develop a constant awareness of God's presence. Throughout the Rule Benedict reminds the monks to '
be awake', to 'be alert' and watchful for the Lord's presence. This watchful awareness of God is a humble state of dependence on the heavenly Father. To nurture this awareness of God is also to nurture humility because an awareness of God reveals our own frail condition. Awareness also leads to an attentiveness to our daily lives as 'sacraments of the present moment'. Awareness of God's presence becomes an awareness of his loving Spirit in all things and all people. Then as G.M. Hopkins has written, the whole 'world is charged with the glory of God'.

This is possible within our daily lives as it is within the ordinary existence in the monastery. As laymen we are called by virtue of our baptism to '
prefer nothing to the love of Christ'. We may not achieve our own conversion of life, but we can co-operate with God's grace and prepare the ground for that work which he is pleased to do within us. The demands of our marriage and family life are more than enough to lead us to that total conversion which God provides through Jesus Christ.

How to Use This Book

The Rule of St Benedict has been followed by monks and nuns for the last fifteen hundred years. Increasingly the Rule is also being used by laypeople. As a guide for Christian fathers it is indispensable. The Rule is intended for abbots in the monastery, and the word '
abbot' is based on the Aramaic abba which Christ himself uses for God the, Father. As such the Rule instructs abbots how to run the monastery, and the wisdom of the Rule is easily applied to the abba - or father within the Christian home. Benedict's tender compassion for his charges reflects the love we fee1 for our children. His shrewd understanding of human nature resonates with our own experience, both as children and fathers. So Benedict offers some wise advice about discipline, but he is also forever warm-hearted and I compassionate. Benedict helps weak fathers to be stronger and challenges strict fathers to be more gentle. Benedict never compromises the high ideals, but he also never forces anyone to assume a burden which may be too heavy.

This commentary is specially designed for busy Christian fathers. But while the focus is on the father's role, the emphasis is on the whole family. As Benedict's Rule is a guide both for abbots and for the whole community, so this is a book to be shared: indeed nothing would be better than for husbands and wives to read it together. While it seeks to support fathers, and doesn't mention the mother's role very much, this is not to pretend that her role is negligible - only that this book discusses the work of both parents by focusing on the father. It assumes an underlying unity between husband and wife and that both father and mother are working together as '
one body' for the welfare and proper training of the children. In that respect most of what is written here applies to both parents.

Benedict's Rule
(The Rule of St Benedict, translated by Abbot Parry OSB published by Gracewing, Leominster, 1997) is broken down into daily readings which spread the whole Rule over four months. This is the breakdown which is used in most monasteries and convents, so as the reader goes through the Rule three times in one year he reads in solidarity with the monks and nuns. Along with each daily reading is a short meditation which applies the Rule to Christian family life. Part of the Benedictine monk's life consists of lectio divina, or inspirational reading. The Christian father, if he is to take his vocation seriously, needs to have some regular spiritual input as well. A short portion of the Benedictine Rule combined with a practical meditation helps to draw out the spiritual significance of the Rule and apply Benedict's wisdom to the needs of modern family life.

Benedict's Rule is also imbued with Scripture, especially the Psalms. Benedict doesn't use Scripture to provide proof texts for his argument. Instead Benedict worships with Scripture, meditates on Scripture and prays with Scripture. The words of the Scriptures are written on Benedict's heart, and so within the Rule he quotes Scripture in bits and pieces, making passing reference to passages which his hearers would know well. We are not as familiar with Scripture as they were, so Scripture references are provided within the text of the commentary for further reference and meditation. The reader who wishes to push further into Benedict's wisdom will do well to read this commentary with the Scriptures close at hand. It may do to simply pick out one Scripture reference for the day and read it along with its whole context. This will weave Scripture reading into Benedict's Rule in a way which will not only improve the reader's Bible knowledge, but will also help him apply the living Scriptures to his daily life in a dynamic way.

Finally, this book is not meant to be an easy or a quick read. The tradition of
lectio divina is that of prayerful, slow and meditative reading. So each day's text from the Rule, the meditation and the Scripture references are meant to key a somewhat longer time of meditation and contemplation. In a busy life it may not be possible to take more than a few lines. There is nothing wrong with that as long as those few thoughts are taken with the reader through the day. Since a slow and meditative reading is recommended it should also follow that one read through is not enough. It should be read through at least three times in one full year. The monks read the Rule over and over again. It wouldn't hurt us to do the same.

This book may also be the start for more laymen and women to follow the Benedictine way in their own homes To follow the way most fully it is a good idea to establish contact with a monastery or convent close to home. Most religious houses are pleased to welcome men and women for retreats and will guide newcomers to this tradition. In addition there is the opportunity to become an oblate of a Benedictine convent or monastery. An oblate is similar to a third order Franciscan: they maintain a close link witi the religious house, supporting the monks or nuns in their vocation and drawing strength from the friendship and support which the monastery has to offer. Thus together the religious celibate and the married layman complement one another's calling as they run together on the '
path of God's commandments with an inexpressible delight of love'.

Copyright © Dwight Longenecker 1999

The above introduction from the book: Listen, My Son - St Benedict for Fathers by Dwight Longenecker is reproduced with permision.

ISBN 0 85244 463 X

Published by

This version: 8th July 2001


Dwight Longenecker
Home Page