The Art of Listening in the Benedictine Wisdom Tradition
Professor Peter A. Huff, Ph.D.
Chair Spiritual Division, Global Listening Centre.
Director of the Center for Benedictine Values,
Professor of Religious Studies at
Benedictine University in Chicago. US
The world’s sacred library reveals to us the great diversity of tongues with which humanity’s spiritual experience has spoken and continues to speak. The imperative mood is distinctly present, issuing commands and highlighting duties, but so are other forms of expression. Arguably narrative dominates— with epic mythmaking that enraptures but rarely pauses to explain or moralize. Dialogues, typically between culture heroes and deities or gurus and novices, are also quite conspicuous. The interrogative is especially noticeable, too. The unanswered questions of seers from ages past haunt us today no matter what our philosophical loyalties or inclinations might be.
Despite their trust in the power of words to unite the human spirit with its ultimate ground, virtually all the world’s spiritual classics remind us that speaking, even in this broad array of modalities, is only one dimension of the communication that advances communion between the soul and its source. Listening, they say, is another. Along with professing and declaring and worshipping and wondering, listening has garnered profound respect among those most proficient in the dynamics of the spiritual life. It is an honored path to all that is good, true, and beautiful. It is also an effective way to pursue self-discovery and cultivate meaningful community. A survey of history’s notable prophets and mystics offers remarkable portraits of spiritual adventurers who have not only leveraged gifts of inspired and inspiring speech but also mastered the sacred art of listening.
One illustration comes from the heritage of wisdom associated with the figure in late antiquity known as Saint Benedict. The small volume called the Rule of Saint Benedict is widely known in the international Christian community and for a millennium and a half has served as a cardinal text in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Long associated with the monastic impulse, so fundamental to early and medieval Christian spirituality, Benedict’s Rule has also fired the imagination of devotees and the spiritually curious in realms far beyond the cloister. Today, Benedict’s Rule occupies a niche in the emerging interfaith canon that attracts contemporary readers from countless points on the spectrum of belief and unbelief.
Benedict places listening at the core of his understanding of the human spiritual quest. In fact, “Listen” (Obsculta in the original Latin) is the very first word in his Rule. “Listen,” he says, “with the ear of your heart” (RB Prologue)1 . This emphasis on deep listening flows through the entirety of his work and functions as a unifying device for his reflections on a life devoted to contemplation, simplicity, and community. Springing from the unique circumstances of his time and place, Benedict’s vision of the spiritual importance of listening sparked a revolution in Christian experience and has stimulated reform movements throughout Christian history ever since. In our twentyfirst-century world, characterized by endless and often pointless and even heartless chatter, his insights into generous and disciplined listening have special and potentially universal relevance. It was Benedict’s singular genius to perceive the link between deep listening and a communal life marked by radical hospitality.
Benedict’s Life, Rule, and Legacy
Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547 CE) lived in an era of social upheaval not unlike our own. The fall of Rome, long in the making due to aggressive colonization, over -militarization, and at least a dozen other reasons, was a historical and existential fact by the time of his birth. Violent conflict especially scarred his native Italian province of Umbria. Trade declined, poverty soared, corruption flourished, and liberal learning all but disintegrated.
The Christianity Benedict knew was particularly volatile. Once targeted as a dangerous sect, it paid for social privilege, before and after the empire’s collapse, by betraying its founder’s renunciation of sword and crown. Its creed was just gaining traction, its scriptures only recently consolidated, and its sacramental system in flux. Church leaders, inheriting the power and even attire of Caesar, attacked other Christians for variations in belief. Christians clashed with practitioners of older religions in the marketplace of ideas and in the streets, while also appropriating huge swaths of the pagan traditions they sought to abolish. Anti-Judaism, a fixture of Christian myth since apostolic days, spilled over into brutal actuality. And, in the mysterious way ideas imitate wind and water, currents of gnostic speculation eroded boundaries between allegedly unchanging traditions.
What we know of Benedict’s life in these turbulent times comes mainly from the bishop of Rome called Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). In his Dialogues, Gregory narrates numerous stories about Benedict, many of which blend history and legend into hagiography. We learn of Benedict’s scanty education in Rome and his disenchantment with the worldly church he encountered in the former imperial capital. A century and a half before Benedict, as Constantine rebranded Christianity as Rome’s favored faith, a handful of hardy souls fled the cities of the realm to reclaim the original rigor of Christian discipleship in the wilds of Asia Minor and North Africa. Sometimes called the desert fathers and mothers, they rejected the regal Christ, created in the image of the emperor, and boldly forged lives of protest imitating the Jesus of the Gospels, whose celibacy, poverty, homelessness, pacifism, and indiscriminate love charted a new way of countercultural freedom. According to Gregory, Benedict joined this exodus to the outback, lived for years as a hermit, and, after attracting many followers, organized monastic communities throughout Italy based on the wisdom he gained in solitary meditation.
Monasticism, of course, is an international phenomenon. Ascetic and communal experiments in India, China, and the Middle East, reflecting the spiritual aspirations of Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Jewish, and Hellenistic seekers, predated Christian ventures by centuries. Benedict never claimed originality. His distinctive contribution was his Rule, especially its approach and tone.
The Rule of Saint Benedict sometimes disappoints modern readers who expect uplift on every page. It is a down-to-earth book. Its purpose is not to dish out heavenly wisdom but to organize for the spiritual life in the here and now, especially the here and now of a collective. In a prologue and seventy-three concise chapters, Benedict proposes a blueprint for a planned community geared toward spiritual progress. Recognizing that those engaged in spiritual quests are embodied beings, he devotes most of his attention to organizational design: decision-making, problemsolving, the division of labor, the responsibilities of leadership, and the routines and challenges of everyday life. In a sense, there is more sociology than theology in the Rule. Commentators have praised its level headedness, its moderation, and what twentieth-century monk Thomas Merton called its “spirit of humanism and of discretion.” 2 Ora et labora (pray and work), the motto of the Benedictine movement, expresses the appreciation for balance animating the document.
Since the sixth century, thousands of men and women have lived and worked in single-sex communities governed by Benedict’s Rule. Their network, the Order of Saint Benedict, is one of the oldest continuous communitarian movements in the world. Notable monks and nuns in the history of the order include the eighth century Bede, hailed as the “father of English history,” eleventh-century figures such as the philosopher Anselm and musicologist Guido of Arezzo, and the twelfth-century polymath Hildegard of Bingen. In more recent times, sociologist Virgil Michel, historian Cyprian Davis, and spiritual writer Joan Chittister have applied Benedictine principles to modern social problems. Lay people such as philosopher Jacques Maritain and social activist Dorothy Day have graced the rolls of Benedictine oblates, seeking to live according to the Rule in secular society.
Today, some 20,000 Benedictine monks and nuns contribute to scores of monasteries, schools, hospitals, retreat centers, and publishing houses around the world.3 Estimates put the number of Benedictine oblates at 25,000.4 The number of persons in other walks of life, inspired by the Benedictine charism but not bound by monastic vows, is impossible to calculate. Some speak of a “Benedict Option” in contrast to a life captive to capitalism.5 Others look for the advent of “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” as postmodern superpowers rise and fall.
Listening in the Rule
Everyone in the Benedictine sphere of influence knows the Rule of Saint Benedict and its conspicuous first word. Readers familiar with the Bible detect echoes of the Torah’s Shema, “Hear, O Israel. . .” (Deuteronomy 6:4), and Jesus’s repeated prophetic cry: “Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11:15).7 The call to pay attention, to eliminate distractions is a theme emphasized in the spiritual teaching of many religious traditions. Benedict, acutely conscious of the importance of vocation, responding to a divine summons, assigns this kind of life-changing listening the most privileged place imaginable in his message. The spiritual journey, he suggests, especially that of individuals committed to a life in common, cannot commence until focused and active listening sets the stage for everything else.
Despite his practical intentions in the Rule, Benedict permits himself the literary luxury of embellishing his admonition to listen with what we have to recognize as the book’s most memorable image: “the ear of your heart” (aurem cordis tui). This phrase, with no precedent in biblical tradition or early Christian literature, has enjoyed great distinction in the history of spiritual writing. Commentators note its curious double effect on those who encounter it. While enlightening us about the kind of listening essential for spiritual growth, it also directly engages us in that style of listening as we connect with the text. We practice listening, in other words, while we learn about listening. A thousand years before Ignatius of Loyola penned his Spiritual Exercises, Benedict composed a guide to the “spiritual craft” (RB 4:75) that in its own way initiates our deepest senses into training right from its opening line.
Our understanding of such intentional listening extends and expands as we observe Benedict addressing areas of monastic life where listening is most needed and most productive. He shows how mindful speech accompanies mindful listening. Speaking with the tongue of the heart, we might say, creates the condition for genuine listening. This means taking the spirit of the Rule (Regula in Latin) and carefully regulating our verbal exchanges with others. Jesus advocated an austere watchfulness of speech: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37). The New Testament writer James advised taming the tongue for the sake of justice and self-awareness (James 3:1-12). Benedict knows how irresponsible and ungracious speech can vitiate the life of a community and the inner life of an individual. He warns against gossip, vulgarity, and reckless laughter, all of which can breed cynicism and contempt. He even says there are times when good words would be better left unsaid. Mutual respect and the listening appropriate for a disciple depend on a general “esteem for silence” (RB 6:2).
First-time visitors to a Benedictine monastic community often remark on its atmosphere of peace and quiet. Some are even unnerved by the calm, like city dwellers kept awake by a dark country night. Seasoned observers, though, find all is not immobile and mute in monastic life. Sound pollution and white noise are absent, as are thoughtless forms of interpersonal interaction, but unhurried patterns of prayer and work— ranging from agriculture to creative art—constitute a natural and non-intrusive soundtrack for a style of living attentive to fellow humans, other animals, the rhythms of the planet, and our deepest thoughts.
The Rule’s chapters on prayer especially seek to foster a culture of listening. In a Benedictine context, prayer principally means group recitation of the psalms, the 150 ancient hymns inherited from the Hebrew Bible and included in the Christian canon. Seven times a day, the community gathers for the chanting of the psalms—the entire Psalter each week. Neither performance nor self-expression nor mechanical mumbling, chant transposes monasticism’s countercultural way into soundwaves. Through repetition and the “liturgical anonymity” that Merton and many others have found so liberating, it serves as a contemplative practice that awakens the ear of the heart.
Benedict’s approach to reading performs a similar function. The prominence of books and literacy in the Rule foreshadow the crucial role played by monasteries in the preservation of the ancient world’s classics and the founding of Europe’s first universities. In the monastic enclosures designed by Benedict, the library and scriptorium, where books are written and copied by hand, enjoy the same status as the chapel and oratory. It is especially relevant to remember that for Benedict, a beneficiary of ancient oral culture, reading means reading aloud. The act of reading, including reading alone, literally entails hearing the author’s words. Benedict mandates that a monk or nun should be selected to read a book audibly while the rest of the community eats their midday meal in silence. He also makes the practice of lectio divina a centerpiece of the community member’s daily schedule—that is, slow, alert reading that blurs the line between study and prayer, sharpens the skills of deliberate listening, and, as Esther de Waal observed, illuminates what we call learning “by heart.”
Benedict’s reflections on listening culminate in his thoughts about another feature of monastic architecture—not the chapel or library or any other internal space but the monastery gate connecting the inner with the outer. Commentators have long underscored the primacy of love in the Rule. The whole document is a continuous application of the biblical command to “love your neighbor as your-self” (Leviticus 19:18). It is also one of the earliest Christian attempts to institutionalize the command to “love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34)—a critical insight from ancient Israel not specifically quoted in the New Testament. In the moral climax of the Rule, Benedict fuses these commands into a single imperative best exercised at the threshold where monastery and world meet. “All guests,” he says, “are to be welcomed as Christ” (RB 53:1). Transcending pity, sympathy, and paternalistic toleration, this simple injunction to enact radical hospitality unites a concrete incarnation of unrestricted love with an idea still developing in the Christian mind during Benedict’s day—the concept of God’s incarnation in human form. Without encouraging theological debate, Benedict directs the monastic community, daily trained to listen with the ear of the heart, to attend, with all the senses, to the needs, stories, voices, and identities of the unexpected visitor, the “other,” whose dignity parallels Christ’s. The ultimate demonstration of a shared culture of listening, he concludes, is the way the community accepts the stranger.
Benedict of Nursia, known to history and piety as Saint Benedict, occupies that unique point where the interests of social imagination and spiritual aspiration intersect. He envisioned an alternative community whose members would know social and economic equality and whose transhistorical goal would be the fulfillment of each member’s spiritual vocation. His little book, the sole product of his literary talents, distinguished by its simple title and unforgettable first word, has inspired seekers of various sorts for centuries. Today, it is numbered among the world’s sacred classics, and its influence is registered in fields as various as education, medicine, business, the arts, and sport.
Perhaps because of his unscripted wilderness experience, Benedict learned lessons, known to few of his contemporaries, about the power of listening and its relationship to the fragile ties that bind body and soul, individual and community. The wisdom tradition that bears his name continues to speak to people, regardless of creed, especially those all too familiar with the desert regions of twenty-first-century life—individuals who long to hear more than the rattle and roar of heartless empires. According to Benedict, listening is the way to be fully human, alone and with others.
References: 1 The Rule of Saint Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982). Quotations from the Rule are cited as RB followed by chapter and verse numbers. 2Thomas Merton, The Silent Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), 60. 3 “A Brief History of the Benedictine Order,” International Benedictine Web Portal 4 Sister Priscilla Cohen, OSB, “Monks and Oblates: A Sacred Relationship,” 8 July 2020 5Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017). 6Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2 nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 263. 7Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version. 8Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1998), 419. 9Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 148