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St. Benedict: A guide for the new "dark ages"
JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette StaffA group gathers recently at St. Vincent Healthcare for a teleconference featuring the newly installed Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The conference was focused on the rule of St. Benedict and its application to modern life.

What does a monk, born at the fall of the Roman Empire, have to teach Americans 15 centuries later?

"To find the extraordinary in the ordinary," says Julie Verzuh.

Verzuh has had a lifelong acquaintance of St. Benedict of Nursia and his monastic followers, male and female.

The Rule of St. Benedict is a blueprint for "balance in life," she says.

Verzuh was among 20 women who recently attended a teleconference in Billings on Benedictine Spirituality in the Contemporary World. Conducted by Trinity Institute of the Cathedral of The Trinity on Wall Street in Manhattan, the conference featured four speakers, including the newly installed Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The speakers addressed the premise of using the Rule of St. Benedict as the guide for living a holy life in the secular world.

That The Rule is for everyone was the message coming forth vigorously from Williams and Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, Kathleen Norris, a poet-writer, and Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman.

"It is a lifelong struggle, Chittister said. "But it is the refiner's fire that shows us where holiness is."

"It is the prosaic in St. Benedict, the conventional, common life that provides the stability of the community," Williams said. That community extends beyond the monastery to the whole world.

Williams referred several times to the fourth chapter of The Rule which contains a list of 74 commandments by which to live in peace with oneself and the community at large.

Benedict of Nursia was born in 480 to a family of Roman nobility. Studying in Rome, he was appalled by the decadence and destruction that accompanied the demise of the final Roman emperor and ascent of the barbarian tribes. He retreated to a cave near Subiaco to escape the pagan armies, the Church torn by schism, people suffering from war and public morals at their nadir.

Retreating to the mountains for three years, Benedict attracted disciples who asked him to lead them. His followers became numerous and he eventually built the grand monastery of Monte Cassino where he lived out his life refining his rule. Monte Cassino was destroyed in World War II but was reconstructed. The bodies of Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica were retrieved from the rubble and reburied.

The Rule is noted for its moderation - "nothing harsh, nothing burdensome," yet an exact blueprint for behavior on the path to God. It has 73 short chapters.

The fourth chapter lists the tools for working in God's workshop, commended Williams.

Chittister in her presentation excoriated the materialism and militarism of the United States in which "Power is the drug of choice and the little people are ground up."

It was Benedict, a single person who set the moral standards in the darkest period 1,500 years ago that created a link between heaven and earth, she said.

"Benedictine spiritualism brought us back from the edge before," Chittister said. "It can do so again if it is internalized and expressed in community.

"To see God in the other," she said.

Diane Young found Chittister "amazing."

"She really laid it out," Young said. "To bring God forward no matter the risk. I want to make that my focus. It applies to any Christian."

From Boston, Young is of the Lutheran tradition. She is in Billings working with the Montana Association of Churches as a Jesuit volunteer.

She came to Montana after spending 20 years as a librarian. "I wanted to go somewhere where no one would know me," she said.

She said she knows nothing about The Rule, and will probably not read it, trying instead to live a life of prayer and action

Verzuh, a painter, grew up in Minnesota, near Collegeville and St. John's Abbey. She attended the women's college St. Benedict's next door, which was staffed by Benedictine nuns.

"They gave us a sense of faith, a tenacious faith that you can't give up," she said. The Rule and St. Benedict are about every day actions; things that remind me of the presence of God."

For Diane Larson and Zoe Kilbourne, both Benedictine oblates, The Rule is an overlay for everyday life.

Oblates, after a year of study and discernment, take a vow to pray daily and observe The Rule as far as possible in their daily lives. The obligate themselves to a specific Benedictine monastery. Larson and Kilbourne are oblates of Mount Angel Abbey near Salem, Ore.

Kilbourne, a retired nursing instructor, said "It was a scary world in the Sixth century. We need again to concentrate on the needs of the smaller community and work out from that."

She said the re-enforcement of daily prayer of the psalms "brings peace to the heart."

Larson said she had "reached a point in my life where what I did didn't matter. I sterilize surgical instruments. That is not God's work."

A closer examination of The Rule, especially Chapter Four, brought the realization that it was an outline for her job as a supervisor, Larson said.

"It is do unto others and how to live," she said. "And the importance of the spirituality is that throughout life it should not be divided into secular or spiritual, but is a whole. It has reassured me of the importance of world."

The teleconference was sponsored by the Montana Association of Churches and St. Vincent Healthcare. Video tapes of the four speeches are available at the library of the Mansfield Health Education Center at St. Vincent.

The speeches can also be accessed on the Web at Computer systems must have sound and a fast modem or broadband.