Although social scientists debate the precise numbers, the divorce rate in the United States is currently believed to be in the forty to fifty percent range, meaning that nearly half of all marriages in this country end in divorce. Divorce is seldom an easy process. It is nearly always emotionally devastating not just for the married couple but also for their families and especially their children. Confronting this reality, one wonders what can be done to improve and strengthen marriage in our culture. Amazingly, the Rule of St. Benedict, written over 1,500 years ago as a guide for monastic life, offers some valuable insights into this problem.
The Benedictine Lifestyle
St. Benedict lived from approximately 480 to 547 in Italy and is credited with the founding of the Benedictine religious order and the building of the famous Benedictine monastery, Monte Cassino. He wrote his famous Rule late in his life as a statement of monastic principles and a guideline for life in a monastery.
Almost from the very beginning, laypeople were attracted to the Rule and sought to apply it to their own lives. These individuals are known as Benedictine “oblates.” These individuals live secular lives, while at the same time maintaining a formal attachment to a monastery where they have taken vows to: “…as my state of life permits, [seek] Stability of Heart, Fidelity to the Spirit of Monastic Life, and Obedience to the Will of God.” This lay aspect of the Benedictine order has grown over the years. Presently there are 25,000 oblates in fifty countries around the world, representing most Christian denominations. So, what are the basic principles of this way of life, and how might an understanding of them contribute to a strengthening of the institution of marriage?
There are three basic principles that lie at the heart of the Benedictine lifestyle. They are: stability, obedience, and conversatio morum (or what one might call ‘continual growth in the spiritual life’). In significant ways these three principles can contribute to a successful marriage.
In chapter one of the Rule, Benedict identifies four types of monks. The first are the cenobites, who “are based in a monastery and fulfill their service of the Lord under a rule and an abbot or abbess.” The second are anchorites or hermits. These individuals, according to Benedict, must be seasoned monks who have had full monastic training—and it is definitely not a lifestyle for novices. The third and fourth types of monks are the sarabaites and the gyrovagues. The sarabaites are monks who reject formal training and make up their own rules to govern themselves, and the gyrovagues are monks who wander from one monastery to another, again to pretty much satisfy their own personal needs. Benedict thinks the cenobites—those who remain in one monastery under the rule of an abbot or abbess—are the best because they remain in one place to work out their salvation, instead of wandering about seeking only to satisfy their own, self-perceived needs like the sarabaites and the gyrovagues.
For this purpose then, partners in a marriage surrender their wills to the will of the other, with the understanding that the final purpose of this surrender is to discover the will of God in their lives.
While it may seem odd to compare life in a monastery with the institution of marriage, the principle of stability is common to both lifestyles. Monks, like married couples, take vows committing themselves to their particular way of life, and (surprisingly) monks living in community experience many of the same problems as married couples. In some way the situation is actually more difficult for monks because they have not initially chosen the individuals they are living with the way married couples have. There are humorous—and sometimes rather poignant—stories of monks with radically different temperaments and outlooks on the world struggling to live together in the same community. One Benedictine writer recounts a case where two monks, one old and rather testy and the other younger and very sincere, have problems relating to each other. Every time the younger monk tries to engage the older monk in conversation, the older man rebuffs him, often rudely. Finally, the young monk persuades the old monk to sit down with him to see if they can’t find something they can agree on. After discussing a wide variety of topics, including “renewal in the Church, national politics [and] the music of Lawrence Welk,” they discover in the end that they have—as the writer puts it—“nothing in common except their humanity and their baptism in Jesus Christ.”
In marriage, the distance created between couples generally develops over time, but the similarities to monastic life remain. In both settings, stability in the vows they have taken require both monks and married couples to work within the context of the lifestyles they have chosen and not to be like the sarabaites and the gyrovagues that Benedict describes, who seek only their own short-term happiness.
Thus, monastic life and marriage both require long-term commitments that are not to be taken lightly. While it is true that some marriages should be ended—when there is abuse or infidelity, for example—going into a marriage with the idea that ‘if it doesn’t work we can always get a divorce’ (or some other such qualification) violates the commitment to stability that is crucial to any successful relationship. Underlying all of this, of course, is the love of God and of one another that exists as the source of stability and serves as its empowering force.
The second core principle of the Benedictine lifestyle is obedience. Once again, the monastic meaning of this term, which involves (as stated above) fulfilling one’s “service of the Lord under a rule and an abbot or abbess,” seems quite different from the situation one finds in a marriage. But several points of similarity exist. First, the fact that in the monastic relationship between monk and his or her superior, the superior serves as the representative of God and the underlying goal of this relationship is, in fact, obedience to the will of God. In chapter two of the Rule, Benedict makes this point with great seriousness, stating, “that the abbot or abbess should never teach anything nor make any arrangement nor give any order which is against the teaching of the Lord. Far from it, everything he or she commands or teaches should be like a leaven of the holiness that comes from God infused into the minds of their disciples.”
So who, in the marital relationship, serves in this role? The answer is, both. In a later chapter of the Rule (seventy-one) Benedict states that, “Obedience is of such value that it should be shown not only to the superior but all members of the community should be obedient to each other in the sure knowledge that this way of obedience is the one that will take them straight to God.” He then goes on to distinguish this form of obedience from the obedience a monk owes to his or her abbot or abbess, but it is this ‘obedience to each other’ that best characterizes the form of obedience found in the married state. In the end, following the will of God serves as the ultimate goal of both monastic obedience and obedience in marriage. For this purpose then, partners in a marriage surrender their wills to the will of the other, with the understanding that the final purpose of this surrender is to discover the will of God in their lives. In marriage this entails listening to each other and jointly discerning the direction to be taken when major decisions or problems arise. It is a subtle process, and it does not exist automatically in a marriage. It needs to be cultivated over time, and this practice of ‘obedience to each other’ is one way of giving expression to it.
Finally, there is the principle of conversatio morum, or what can be called ‘continual growth in the spiritual life.’ Neither stability nor obedience has as its purpose stultifying or extinguishing spiritual growth, and conversatio morum then stands as the third pillar of Benedictine spirituality. As one commentator on the Rule puts it: stability “implies perseverance,” obedience “recognizes the need for guidance,” and conversatio morum represents the “core element of monastic commitment”—attaining “the Kingdom of God… [and] purity of heart.”
Just as for Benedict humility stands as perhaps the greatest monastic virtue, so in a similar manner it is crucial in a marriage as well.
This can be seen in both a secular and a religious sense in marriage. Just as the principles of stability and obedience do not exist to stultify or extinguish spiritual growth in a monastery, so they should not exist for that purpose in a marriage either. A vitalized marriage implies the growth of both partners—both in their lives generally and in their relationship with God—and stability and obedience serve to create the environment in which this growth, or conversatio morum, takes place. Often one hears couples that have gone through a divorce say, ‘in the end we just grew apart’ or ‘there were other things that I wanted to accomplish in my life.’ If one has the commitment to stability in the marriage relationship and the willingness to truly listen to each other’s needs, symbolized by the concept of ‘obedience to each other,’ growth can and should take place for both participants in a marriage.
In addition to this triad of stability-obedience-conversatio morum, the Rule of St. Benedict contains numerous other insights that can be applied to the married state. Among these is his famous chapter seven, dealing with the subject of humility. It is here that Benedict sets forth his famous ladder analogy, based on Jacob’s dream in the book of Genesis. In this connection he writes:
On that ladder angels of God were shown to [Jacob] going up and down in a constant exchange between heaven and earth. It is just such an exchange that we need to establish in our own lives, but with this difference for us: our proud attempts at upward climbing will really bring us down, whereas to step downwards in humility is the way to lift our spirits up towards God.
Just as for Benedict humility stands as perhaps the greatest monastic virtue, so in a similar manner it is crucial in a marriage as well. Nothing is more destructive in a marriage relationship than arrogance or a sense of superiority on the part of one marriage partner for the other—or even worse, a ‘battle of egos’ between the two partners.
So these are just a few ways that the principles set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict, written over 1,500 years ago as a guide for monastic life, can offer valuable insights into the crisis of marriage currently taking place in our culture.