|Dwight Longenecker on How 6th-Century Wisdom Can Be Used Today
CHIPPENHAM, England, 18 AUG. 2004 (ZENIT)
A Benedictine oblate and
father of four has discovered how to relate the guidelines of St. Benedict
to his domestic church.
Dwight Longenecker, an American-born author and broadcaster who has lived
in England for more than 20 years, penned his application of the Rule of
St. Benedict to family life in his book, "Listen My Son: St. Benedict for
He shared with ZENIT how the wisdom of the father of religious life can
help modern dads humbly guide their families and provide loving
Q: Briefly, what are the main tenets of the Rule of St. Benedict?
Longenecker: St. Benedict's rule is a simple but profound set of
guidelines for community life in sixth-century Italy. At the heart of the
rule are the three Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and conversion
But in a sense, the spirit of the rule is the most important thing. St.
Benedict's rule has survived because he had a deep understanding of human
psychology, he tempered discipline with compassion and he saw the
spiritual quest as a joyful pursuit of God within the structures of
ordinary life. It is this joyous delight in everyday spirituality that
makes the rule come alive for so many.
Q: What inspired you to apply the rule to parenting, particularly
Longenecker: As a Benedictine oblate I have studied the rule and tried to
live by its spirit for some time. When I married and we were blessed with
children, the simple principles of living together under God's love that
St. Benedict taught seemed right for family life.
I was struck by the opening words of the rule: "Listen my Son ... turn you
ear to the advice of a loving Father." When I sat down and read the rule
through the eyes of a natural father I saw how so many of the principles
and guidelines offered good advice for families.
The advice for families is excellent because of the inner dynamic of the
rule. St. Benedict was not writing a great and lofty treatise on prayer or
spirituality. He was writing a practical rule for ordinary people to live
together. He expected them to work hard, read hard and pray hard. His rule
therefore applies to family life because it is about the grace-full blend
of prayer, work and living together.
Q: What aspects the Rule of St. Benedict relate the best to parenting?
Longenecker: St. Benedict has sections on the discipline of monks, which
help us to reconsider the need for loving discipline in the home.
His guidelines on prayer help us to structure a simple but effective
prayer life for families, and his practical advice on living together in
peace and with open communications help families to work together on the
difficult lessons of love.
Most importantly, I wished for the Benedictine spirit to come through my
commentary on the rule. St. Benedict's ideal is that each member of the
community be valued and loved unconditionally.
Discipline is always for the good of the person being disciplined
for the comfort of the abbot or even for the good of the community. Every
member of the community is expected to obey and serve one another in love,
not simply obey the abbot in a militaristic fashion.
These principles establish the home as the primary Christian community;
therefore, it becomes the primary building block of a larger Christian
community and a Christian culture of love.
Q: What particular challenges do fathers face in guiding their families?
Longenecker: Fatherhood is under threat today. The forces of feminism,
homosexuality and secularism attack patriarchy, but truth will always
triumph. Children need fathers.
Of course there are many bad fathers who have done great damage, but we
rarely hear that there are also many bad mothers who have done great
damage to children.
Blaming others does no good. The response to bad fathers is not to get rid
of all fathers, but to encourage good fathering. There is a longing in all
of our hearts for strong, loving and spiritual father figures.
Men today need to take their fathering role seriously. If they do not have
good father-figure role models themselves, then they need to get some.
They should not be ashamed to join men's groups that nurture and
strengthen their masculinity
this masculinity needs to be fully Christ-like.
It needs to be strong, but not be ashamed to have a tender heart. If men
can get themselves sorted out, then they will in turn help their sons and
daughters to be strong, pure and noble children of God.
Q: How is being a father of children similar to being an abbot
like St. Benedict
Longenecker: The word "abbot" comes from the same root as the word Jesus
used for God
— "abba." Abbot therefore means "father," and the relationship
between the abbot and his monks from the very beginning of the rule is
essentially that of a father to his sons. The similarities to natural
fathering run through almost every page of the rule.
It is interesting that the relationship between abbot and novice monk
grows through the rule in a very subtle manner.
At first, the novice is expected to obey the abbot instantly and without
question. Later, the relationship matures so that the instant obedience is
tempered with proper questioning and a sense that the monks should be just
as obedient to each other.
This reflects the relationship of the father to his children as they
mature and become more responsible. The relationship flowers into one of
confidence and mutual love.
It may be controversial to say so, but the relationship between father and
child is also crucial to our relationship with God. Like it or not, our
human psychology is arranged in such a manner that our picture of
"father"' invariably becomes our picture of God.
If fathering is faulty, our theology will be faulty. If fathering is
excellent, we will have
individuals and a society
excellent image of God.
Q: According to St. Benedict, what kind of man should an abbot
a father —
be? What sort of a community should he strive to create in his home?
Longenecker: There is a long chapter at the beginning of the rule on what
sort of man the abbot should be, and point by point it can be applied to
the sort of man a Christian father should be.
Essentially, the abbot is a strong, loving, mature man who is clothed in
the grace of Christ. He considers his responsibilities and authority as
from God, and is therefore humbled and bears the authority with great awe
never lording it over others, but treating each one of his charges with
tenderness and total attention. The Christian home is "ruled" by the
father, but in a spirit of total self-giving and loving attention for the
needs of all.
This is a very high ideal, but it is a beautiful one, and one that we
should not apologize for simply because some fathers have abused it. St.
therefore the Christian father in the home
should call constantly on God for help and realize that he relies on grace
to sustain him at all times.
Furthermore, when we fail to reach the ideal we need to be humble enough
to ask forgiveness both from God and from our wives and children.
This is very important because children need to know that their fathers
are not only fallible, but able to recognize their own frailty and ask
forgiveness for their failings. If children see their father ask
forgiveness they will not mind when they are asked to exercise the same
Q: Are there any guidelines in the rule that parents should not try to
apply to their children?
Longenecker: St. Benedict allows for young monks to be beaten severely if
necessary, and many modern parents might cringe at this.
They would also find his demands for instant and unquestioning obedience
to be harsh. But the overall spirit of St. Benedict's rule is that he
demands "nothing harsh
There are also some specific rules that don't apply to modern family life
because they have to do with only monastic life or simply because they
were written for Italians in the sixth century. St. Benedict tells his
monks, for instance, not to sleep with their swords on, and gives them
specific dietary and clothing rules.
I have tried to get behind the specific rules to understand St. Benedict's
motivations; once we do that, we can see the reasons for the specific
rules and apply them as necessary in the modern world.
Q: How else do you think St. Benedict's rule can be applied to modern life
by ordinary lay people?
Longenecker: The other Benedictine book I have written is called "St.
Benedict and St. Thérèse
Little Rule and the Little Way."
In this book I've drawn the principles from Benedictine spirituality and
seen the parallels in the life and teachings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
The connections are remarkable. One saint is like the grand old man of
religious life while the other is the little child.
Both saints saw God at work within the ordinary events of everyday life,
and it is this underlying principle that really enlivens the rule of St.
For both St. Benedict and St. Thérèse, "God is not elsewhere." They
believe God is present in the joys and sorrows of our everyday lives, and
the spiritual quest is the quest to see God's mighty hand in all his works
especially in the little things of life.