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Richard Oliver, O.S.B.

The Bible

When Saint Benedict quotes from the Old Testament, his citations come primarily from the Book of Psalms, the monastic prayer book. Secondarily, his choices come-about equally-from either the Book of Proverbs or the Book of Sirach.

For most of the summer at Saint John's, we have been reading the Book of Sirach at Evening Prayer. Considering for a long time the theme of "Family" that was approved by the Board last January for the ABA Convention in 2006, I was struck by the following verses from the third chapter of Sirach:

1 Children, pay heed to a father's right; do so that you may live.

2 For the LORD sets a father in honor over his children;
    a mother's authority he confirms over her sons.
3 He who honors his father atones for sins;
4 he stores up riches who reveres his mother
6 He who reveres his father will live a long life;
    he obeys the LORD who brings comfort to his mother.
7 He who fears the LORD honors his father, and serves his parents as rulers.

12 My child, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives.
13 For kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
     it will serve as a sin offering-it will take lasting root.1

Not long after reacting to that moving passage, however, the following gospel verses from the third chapter of Mark were read at Morning Prayer:

31 His mother and his brothers arrived.
     Standing outside they sent word to him and called him.
32 A crowd seated around him told him, "Your mother and your brothers
     (and your sisters) are outside asking for you."
33 But he said to them in reply, "Who are my mother and (my) brothers?"
34 And looking around at those seated in the circle he said,
     "Here are my mother and my brothers.
35 (For) whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

The passage from Mark and the saying of the Lord in the Gospel of Matthew, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10:37) have both received and require detailed exegesis. Since I am not trained to do so, however, I will spare you the attempt. We can say with assurance, however, that "the New Testament sends conflicting messages about sex, marriage and family."2

A Scripture scholar, well aware of the difficulties, was asked by a local parish to talk about the state of the family and marriage in the New Testament. He submitted a talk with the provocative title, "God Doesn't Like Families." The administrators changed the title to "Godlike Families."3

The Monastics of the Desert

The Desert Fathers and Mothers are less ambivalent than Scripture in their teaching about family. A reading at Office from Evagrius Ponticus on "Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life" alerted me to the disconnection between Sirach's recommendation of sin-forgiving filial piety and the cautionary injunction that became a commonplace of early monastic literature:

Do not get caught up in concern for your parents or affection for your relatives; on the contrary, avoid meeting them frequently, in case they rob you of the stillness you have in your cell and involve you in their own affairs. "Let the dead bury their dead," says the Lord, "but come, follow me."

Rule of Benedict

In his Rule for Monasteries, Saint Benedict speaks only obliquely about family. He adopts, however, the cautionary stance of Evagrius. He changes the phrase "honor your father and mother" found in the Rule of the Master to make the eighth tool for good works read "You must honor everyone" (RB 4.8; 1 Pt 2:17).4 Father Terrence Kardong comments on the change as an indication of how RB is generally unsympathetic to family ties.5

The rather sternly worded injunction to monks away from the monastery for a short time about not accepting food even if "begged to do so" seems more severe than necessary (RB 51). Father Terrence opines that "it could be that this is an oblique reference to contact with family, for who else would beg so insistently? Unquestionably, family ties were much more powerful in those times and only broken with great difficulty. Hence they were not to be casually reestablished."6

Benedict mentions parents specifically in chapter 54 when he forbids, with a similarly severe penalty, accepting letters or gifts.

In no circumstances is a monk allowed, unless the abbot says he may, to exchange letters, blessed tokens or small gifts of any kind, with his parents or anyone else, or with a fellow monk. He must not presume to accept gifts sent him even by his parents without previously telling the abbot. (RB 54.1-2)

Father Terrence's commentary is enlightening about the expectations of families in the sixth century:

. . . the issue is poverty and the breaking off of contact with family and world. In fact, ancient families were much more powerful in their hold on members than is usual today; the struggle to detach a monk from his parents and attach him to his new community was a serious problem. [André] Borias notes that although Benedict seems to take a hard line in this chapter, he in fact allows visits from family, while the Master does not. Even though Benedict's emphasis seems to be on abbatial rights, it is really directed to prevent the encroachment of the family on the monk's allegiance to the community.7

Chapter 59, dealing with the offering of child oblates, is too problematic for discussion here, but it points dramatically to the wide divergence of understanding between our time and the time of Saint Benedict concerning family and childhood.

The final oblique reference to family in the Rule that I would like to mention is found in chapter 72 where the monks are enjoined to show "their abbot, unfeigned and humble love" (RB 72.10). This passage highlights the difference between the Rule of the Master and Benedict's Rule. It is hard to imagine any monastic loving the fear-inspiring superior envisioned by the Master.

Post-Reformation religious congregations, organized for apostolic service, are also less likely to legislate that their superiors be lovable. Although Father Terrence is aware of the familial nature of the Benedictine abbot, he warns that "it is not helpful to impose concepts from the biological family on the monastic 'family.'"8

Benedictines and Family Life

The brief overview above of biblical and monastic sources highlights a few problems, contradictions and conflicts concerning family and a monastic's theoretical relationship to it. Benedictines, however, are practical people. I would like to continue by cursorily mentioning some aspects of monastic/familial relationships that might serve as topics for consideration when the Academy convenes in 2006 from the 10th to the 13th of August at Benedictine University, Lisle, Illinois, hosted by the monks of St. Procopius Abbey. I solicit your feedback and your suggestions of topics and speakers.


A pressing and chronic concern for all monastic communities is vocations. Once upon a time, parents of four to a dozen children might have enthusiastically fostered the aspirations of one or the other of their offspring who expressed interest in a vocation to the priesthood, monastic or religious life. Today's parents of one or two children might have a different reaction.

The institution of marriage itself is, "at best, in flux and, at worst, in crisis. In the last three decades, the percentage of adults who chose never to marry has risen. Nearly half of recent marriages are ending in divorce."9 The very definition of marriage is so hotly debated today that some believe only a Constitutional amendment will settle the question to their satisfaction.

Patrick Tobin, speaking at the British Headmasters' Conference in 1998 said that "family breakdown created more discipline problems in schools than anything else, including drug-taking and the misuse of alcohol."10 If families are the seedbeds of vocations, we really are in trouble.

Monasticism and Family Life

Since their mid-nineteenth-century arrival in the empty prairies and remote farmlands of North America, Benedictines have been actively engaged in helping families survive and prosper. Shortly after the founding of the American Benedictine Academy in 1947, Father Edgar Schmiedeler, O.S.B., was writing articles in the American Benedictine Review with such titles as "Candles in the Home," "The Benedictine Family Analogy," "The Family in a Revolutionary World," "The Family Life Bureau," and "World Unity through the World's Families."11 From 1950 until 1975 the ABR was published under the aegis of the ABA.

Even earlier Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B., welcomed titles suitable for family consumption to be published in the "Popular Liturgical Library." The four series of the Library included authors such as Lambert Beaudoin (1929), Paul C. Bussard (1937), William Busch (1930), Ildefons Herwegen (1931), Donald Attwater (1929) and Johannes Pinsk (1931).12

More recently David Robinson, a Presbyterian, wrote and had published to acclaim his book The Family Cloister: Benedictine Wisdom for the Home (New York: Crossroad 2000). This title belongs to a family of similar books by contemporary authors that include Esther de Waal, Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister, Brian C. Taylor, Anthony Marett-Crosby, Lonnie Collins Pratt and Daniel Holman. Possibly related is the recent spate of cookbooks written by monastic authors both here and abroad-a separate genre of monastic literature for families.

The Benedictine Family

Next month it is possible that the Congress of Abbots will approve a closer alliance between the Benedictine Confederation and the newly constituted Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum (CIB), the international network of all Benedictine women's communities. Although the monasteries of men and women Benedictines have endured juridical separation, the fact of Brother/Sister monasteries that have cooperated for generations in the apostolate suggests a close, familial relation. Somewhere Columba Stewart suggests it is more accurate to think of the Order of Saint Benedict as a federation of tribes than as a family, but popular usage recognizes the notion of the Benedictine Family.

Monasteries develop like families; youngsters grow up, depart and establish households of their own. Sometimes there are irreconcilable breaks in the family such as the historical disruption between the Trappists and the Common Cistercians and between the Cistercians and the Benedictines. Some branches of the family wither and die. Whatever happened to the Gilbertines, the Celestines, the Maurists and the Bursfeld Union?

Model for Monastics

Father Terrence warned above about associating the monastic family with the biological family. Nevertheless, elements of "Family Systems Theory," birth order, for example, have influenced the self-understanding of individual monastics.13 What does it mean when a fifty-year-old monk needs permission to stay out overnight? In the biological family, young women grow up, leave home and create families of their own. In a monastery, the "children" never grow up in that way, and they are subject to the Father or Mother of the house for life. Men's development is a new area of study that will no doubt have its effect on male monastics for good or ill. Many families are dysfunctional. Can monasteries also become dysfunctional? Can monasteries make room for the children of dysfunctional families?

Relationship to Family

The anchorites in the inhospitable wastes of Upper Egypt were not likely to be bothered much by their families. Nowadays, however, a phone call or e-mail can bring family members into one's cell. What responsibility does a monastic have to one's widowed mother enfeebled with Alzheimer's disease or the widower father immobilized by a fractured hip? How does a professed Sister react when her sister-in-law turns to her as the only possible ally in arranging an intervention on account of her brother's alcoholism?

Alternatives to the Family

In March 2004, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, told the 3rd World Congress of Families that "only in the family, based on matrimony, is there hope for the grandeur, dignity and future of humanity."14 That's quite a burden to lay on any institution. Do religious and monastic communities offer no hope for the future of humanity? Many women monastics live most of their lives apart from traditional monasteries, devoting their lives on mission to the needs of the apostolate. What quasi-familial community supports them? Intentional communities, once considered a phenomenon of the 1960s, continue to be founded, grow and develop. How do individuals and complete families relate to such structures? We have been privileged to have four members of the Community of Jesus15 participate in the convention this year. That ecumenical community includes professed, non-professed, married, single, laity and clergy. What can Benedictines learn from such diversity of membership?

Extended and Blended Families

The number of lay men and women willing to make a commitment to the Benedictine way of life continues to grow. The Abbot Primate is sponsoring the first World Congress of Oblates that will convene in Rome from the 19th to the 25th of September, 2005. His generous welcome recognizes the significance of a population that, at some monasteries, outnumbers the professed six to one. What is the role Oblates play in the life and development of the Benedictine Family? Can the Benedictine Order maintain its traditional identity and integrity?

It might be helpful answering such questions to look at a similar, but quite foreign, institution, the Sangha.16 The Sangha is one element of the Threefold Refuge of Buddhism: I take refuge in the Buddha (wisdom); I take refuge in the Dharma (teaching); I take refuge in the Sangha (community). Although Sangha is defined by some practicing Buddhists as the monastic community or one's immediate community, it can also signify all those on the path to enlightenment and, for others, even the whole world. What can we learn from such an expansive and widely inclusive notion?


In conclusion, dear Brothers and Sisters, I would like to invite all of you-and those members of your communities you invite to join the Academy-to participate in the next convention in Lisle, Illinois, from the 10th to 13th of August in 2006. The theme of the convention will be, not surprisingly at this point, "Family."



1 The translations used throughout are those of the New American Bible (Washington, DC: USCCB 2002) and RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB, et al. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press 1981).

2 "Marriage, Family and Divorce" (May 6, 2004), Speaking of Faith, Public Radio, broadcast transcript retrieved May 11, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

3 "Marriage, Family and Divorce."

4 See Mary Forman, O.S.B., "Benedict's Use of Scripture in the Rule: Introductory Understandings," American Benedictine Review 52 (2001) 329-32; Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B., Cherish Christ Above All: The Bible in the Rule of Benedict (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist 1996; reprinted St. Vincent's Archabbey).

5 Terrence G. Kardong, Benedict's Rule: A Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press 1996) source of the abbreviations for ancient and secondary works in this paper.

6 Kardong, Benedict's Rule 414.

7 Kardong, Benedict's Rule 437; see also André Borias, "Le moine et sa famille," Collectanea Cisterciensia 40 (1978) 212. Other monastic legislation on this issue is found in Basil, reg. 31, 98, 105; Pachomius, pr. 53, 106; vit. Pach. 28; Cassian, inst. 4.16.2; reg. or. 26; vit. patr. Jur. 172; Caesarius, reg. virg. 25, 43, 54 (G. Holzherr, Die Benediktus Regel [Einsiedeln] 387).

8 Kardong, Benedict's Rule 596.

9 "Marriage, Family and Divorce."

10 "Britain Head Attacks Government's Family Values," The Daily Telegraph (October 6, 1998).

11 American Benedictine Review 6.2 (1955) 168-70; 2.3 (1951) 307-34; 1.4 (1950) 503-12; 9.1 (1958) 41-57; 3.4 (1952) 354-65.

12 Saint John's Abbey, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.

13 "Dr. Murray Bowen of Georgetown University is the pioneer of family systems theory. . . . Family systems theory is a way of understanding present situations in terms of past relationships or family histories." From The Western Pennsylvania Family Center, retrieved August 6, 2004, from <>.

14 "Cardinal Alerts World Leaders on Loss of Family Values" (Rome: Zenit News Agency, March 30, 2004).

15 The ecumenical Community of Jesus, Orleans, Massachusetts, defines itself as "a Christian community in the Benedictine monastic tradition." Website: <>.

16 "Sangha: Sanskrit; a term for the Buddhist monastic community which has recently come to include the entire community of Buddhist practitioners; it is considered one of the three jewels of Buddhism (along with the Buddha and the Dharma)" from "Essential Dharma: A Buddhist Glossary," Mokurai's Temple, retrieved August 5, 2004, from <>.


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