Everyone Needs a Rule: The Sermon on the Mount, Pietism, and The Rule of St. Benedict
For almost 35 years I have been a member of the same Covenant church—Trinity Covenant in Salem, Oregon. My three children were baptized there, my daughter was married there, the funerals for both of my wife’s parents were held there. In my files I have over a hundred sermons that I’ve preached there and dozens of adult classes that I’ve taught. Trinity has been my spiritual home through good times and bad. It has nurtured me, challenged me, frustrated me, and above all else been one of God’s primary tools for making me into who I am today.
For slightly more than 35 years I have also been involved with a Benedictine monastic community at Mt. Angel Abbey, just a few miles away. There sixty-plus monks faithfully observe The Rule of St. Benedict, while also running a retreat house, seminary, brewery, coffee shop, bookstore, and a number of cultural events for the broader community. Some of my church friends find my connection to the abbey to be somewhat odd, since there are obviously wide gaps in theology and polity between these two traditions. I never try to minimize that reality.
For the better part of four decades, God has powerfully used Mt. Angel in my life. There have been times of crisis where I’ve gone on silent retreat to simply pray and listen to God, and without fail he has always met me there. Gradually I developed friendships with many of the monks and learned to appreciate their own individual journeys. Over time the usual Catholic-versus-Protestant stereotype proved to be unhelpful. I’ve learned that theology alone does not define us; there are deeper issues of faith and practice that really tell the tale.
Several important streams in my life recently began to converge. In the fall of 2015 I taught a 12-week class at Trinity on the Sermon on the Mount. I had been reflecting on the sermon for many years and had developed this conviction that its message had often been ignored or dumbed-down. As always, the feedback from those in the class helped to sharpen my own understanding. But then in 2016, a large Baptist church in town invited me to teach the same class there. The interaction helped clarify my understanding even more. Later that year an Episcopal church in Salem also invited me to teach the same class during Epiphany and Lent in 2017. Once again, I was amazed at the impact the Sermon on the Mount had on people.
During this period, the abbot at Mt. Angel conducted a four-day retreat during which he lectured three times a day on The Rule of St. Benedict. Abbot Jeremy Driscoll happens to be a world-class scholar and one of the most profound Christians I’ve known. I had heard him preach and teach for many years. In studying Benedict’s Rule with him I suddenly heard echoes not only from the Sermon on the Mount, but also key themes that run through Pietism and the Covenant tradition as a whole. These
themes are often lost in the religious swirl of contemporary Christianity.
To begin with, both The Rule of St. Benedict and the Pietist movement arose in times of tremendous social and spiritual turmoil. The last Roman emperor was deposed by German invaders in the year 476 and Benedict was born in 480. For the next century, both state and church languished while whole populations were devastated, economies collapsed, and social structures disappeared. Benedict’s efforts to develop a monastic way of life was, in part, an effort to revive a spirituality that could survive this chaos and renew the church.
Pietism arose at the end of over a century of devastating religious and political conflicts in Europe. From 1517 to 1648 there is a trail of blood that flows through virtually every country on the European continent. The Thirty Years War alone (1618-48), left an estimated eight million dead. Philipp Jakob Spener, often considered the father of Pietism, was born in 1635 and grew up amidst a culture where doctrinal orthodoxy had become the defining badge of true faith. This orthodoxy often left the actual shape of people’s lives untouched. Like Benedict’s Rule, Spener’s Pia Desideria offered a practical and specific proposal for how to renew the church by ensuring that participants were being personally shaped by the message of Christ.
Both of these traditions reflect a profound similarity to Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 5-7, better known as the “Sermon on the Mount” — a similarity that is often overlooked. It has been said by many writers that the sermon is possibly the most well-known of all Jesus’ teachings, and yet it’s the least understood and consequently the least obeyed. The Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, well-known analogies like the lilies of the field and the house build on sand are all found here. The Sermon on the Mount also contains an alarming number of sayings we quickly hurry over—to hate is to murder, to lust is to commit adultery, to love your enemy is to be like God.
This sermon requires careful reading and a real effort to grasp. Yet ironically, what we receive in return is Jesus at his most practical and helpful. After giving us a multifaceted description of true disciples (the Beatitudes), and their place in the world (salt and light), we are then given six examples of a disciple’s moral compass and how our outward behavior is actually shaped by who we are on the inside. This is followed by three examples of how our devotion to God should express itself, with the largest amount space given to the centrality of prayer. This in turn is followed by how to deal with all the stresses and distractions of life. Finally, we are instructed in our attitude towards others and God’s promise to provide us with the wisdom we need for any and every situation. The sermon concludes with four very sobering warnings (false roads, false prophets, false assumptions, and false foundations). The grand sweep of the Sermon on the Mount is amazing. There is a hard-headed realism and candor that speaks to where we really live.
So what do Benedict’s Rule and Pietism specifically share in common with the Sermon on the Mount? First, they both recognize that the church is only as healthy as its individual members, and its members are only healthy when they live together in intentional communities of care and accountability. In many churches today, correct theology, efficient organization, and attractive programs can easily mask a disconnect between what we believe and how we live. It is only in genuine, spiritual community that we can begin the journey of growing into Christ, what Benedict calls “God’s school” and Spener calls ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the church”) or “conventicles.”
While most Catholic orders take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with Benedict this was transformed into three basic vows of “stability, obedience, and the conversion of life.” This literally means committing oneself to living in the same community, sharing the same resources, abiding by the same expectations, being mutually accountable to the same people.
Likewise for Spener, a healthy spirituality required coming together regularly in small groups with the explicit intention of seeking to help each other to grow into Christ through a study of scripture, mutual accountability, and prayer. This notion that Christians grow best in close community is almost an alien concept in today’s fiercely independent, individualistic, do-it-yourself religious world. What is more, when Benedictines talk about the balanced life, they usually refer to “work, study, and prayer.” Or sometimes they even simplify things further by using an old Latin phrase, Ora et labora—pray and work. Indeed, the Rule makes every day of their lives built around regular times of prayer, reading, and labor of one kind or another. While their routine is very structured, it actually creates space for the Holy Spirit to do his mysterious work.
The same was true for Pietists like Spener. Three of his six proposals for renewal of the church focused on a devotional study of scripture, obedience to what we are learning, and a form of preaching that nurtured that growth (as opposed to polemical or ornamental preaching). In many ways he was reclaiming what Benedictines for centuries have called lectio divina — reading scripture with the explicit purpose of listening to God and drawing nearer to him in both faith and practice. For both traditions the “end-game” for all religious practice was this “conversion of life,” to obey what one was learning so that our life might more and more reflect Christ himself.
So where does this leave me, someone with a foot in both traditions? It leaves me with the realization that I too need a “rule,” and that God has given me a wonderful form of it in the Sermon on the Mount. I realize there are many other teachings of Jesus in scripture that are equally important, but when it comes to my need for a daily, practical, and deeply spiritual guide for living, there is nothing that comes close to it.