The Challenge Of Our Moment
Those of us who rejoice in the Benedictine tradition see a great parallel between the age of Benedict and our own. His and ours are turning points in civilization. We, as he, are witnessing a change from one system and cultural context of life to another. Whether we name our moment as the post-modern age or as the dawning of an age of individualism spawning a new barbarism, parallels with the age of Benedict are striking.
Around him Benedict witnessed the decay and darkness of a society losing its way and rapidly losing its life as well. The Roman Empire that had been the foundation of human civilization for centuries was in decline and that classic age, which is still an inspiration in so many ways today, was then in a state of total collapse.
Our own world, while rejoicing in many technological and scientific advances, continues to rush somewhat headlong to embrace a philosophy that sanctions the termination of unwanted and inconvenient human life, exalts violence and a sexual indulgence that would probably bother, if not shock, some whom we have disdainfully called savages.
Saint Benedict understood that a new Christian civilization could be built in spite of the age of darkness. This would come about by seizing upon and living that fundamental principle of ora et labora, pray and work. He recognized that the spiritual reality we call God’s kingdom in our midst and what Augustine called the city of God would come to be only through the work of people and faith. He knew that without a constant personal communion with God nurtured by daily time in prayer, we will not have the life of God within us, the life which alone brings us to the full stature we are meant to enjoy.
Over a decade ago, these sentiments were expressed in the declaration of the council of European Bishops Conference as representatives of 24 episcopal conferences gathered with Pope John Paul II for ceremonies commemorating the 15th century of the birth of Saint Benedict. The bishops of Europe remind us that “the Christian faith tells us that human beings are created in the image of God, even if that image is sometimes disfigured by sin.” They go on to remind us “that Jesus Christ came to set free every man and woman and to place before them in a unique way the challenge of liberty: freedom for the whole reality of human life, spiritual and physical; freedom for the whole of humanity, even those left on the fringes of society and those robbed of their human heritage.”
The bishops state that “this image of humanity has influenced European culture in a very special way. It will always provide us with the fundamental basis on which to ground all human dignity.” What was said by John Paul II and the bishops of Europe about the old world is equally true of the new. Even our feeblest attempts to nurture human rights, human dignity and the future of humanity all take their inspiration from the gospel proclaimed in and through Christ’s Church.
As in every age, the truth today remains that prayer is our contact with God. And God’s kingdom will be nearer completion when all peoples and nations are filled with the life of God given to us in Christ. But it is equally true, as in past ages, that many in our world today seem to have forgotten that the fullness of our life does indeed come from God alone and the fullness of life can be communicated to us only if our lives are open to God.
So, too, is human labor truly the second important and constitutive element of human life. We hear so often today the concern that the work which so many people engage in bears little relevance to who they are both as human beings and as God’s people. So many today view their work simply as a necessary evil without which they could not live comfortably, so their labor is not an authentic and intentional contribution to the development of society or of God’s kingdom or even of themselves. Likewise, others in our day value work only for the wealth which it brings them. Too few in our age appreciate the creative and life-giving value of human labor which Benedict understood.
It is no secret then that what so many are longing for and seeking today is the renewing spirit which Benedict brought to the Europe of the Dark Ages “a spirit which has been kept alive since the time of this great saint by those who follow his Rule and way of life.” So many are seeking some sense of the spiritual in their lives and the principles which brought the world out of darkness and into an age formed by the gospel of Christ. It should be little surprise then that Saint Vincent, which continues this centuries-old commitment to the faith and to the service of pastoral ministry and higher education, is looked to by the Church and the communities of this region to provide active leadership in the renewal of our society.
In this post-modern age, an age that is often confused, an age that is tempted to undervalue faith and religion, prayer and human labor, an age that is described as slipping into the darkness, we today need as much as ever the light of Christ that was held high by Benedict in Europe and by Boniface Wimmer in these lands. We need to regain the vision based on the message and values of these great pastors whose zeal and labor truly altered history and brought nearer to completion the kingdom of God. We continue to need this community at Saint Vincent to bring the brilliant light of Christ to a world tempted to darkness, and to bring this troubled age beset by conflicting voices the faith and heritage of Christ alive in Benedict “a message which can truly renew once again our society and our civilization.”
Donald W. Wuerl
From Saint Vincent: A Benedictine Place; Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B., editor; Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1995