Today we celebrate the feast of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism. St. Benedict is most famous for organizing monks into a community, thus establishing the basic form in which all Western monks have lived ever since then. But St. Benedict originally wanted to be a solitary monk – i.e. a hermit – not someone who lived in community. It was only after other men followed him that he begin to establish an order for them to live in community.
That got me thinking about the difference between solitude and community, and which is the calling which leads us closer to God.
- On the one hand, many saints, such as St. Benedict and St. John of the Cross, craved solitude so that they could be alone with God – with no distractions and nothing to keep them from intimacy in prayer. Compare that to today’s culture which inundates us with noise and constant chatter, thus preventing us from entering into real meditation and contemplation.
- On the other hand, we are to be the one Body of Christ, a community which works and prays together in order to glorify God and be with him in heaven. Catholicism does not value the “lone ranger” who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps – it sees us as a united people who pray to “Our Father”, not “My Father”. Compare that with today’s culture which glorifies individualism and preaches the doctrine of self-sufficiency.
So which is it? Are we to strive for solitude or community? Each seem to have both their strengths and their dangers. I think the solution is found in communion, which is the proper integration and ordering of solitude and communion.
Communion always begins with our union with God. No human gathering can be a true union unless it is first based in union with God. This is why the saints craved solitude, because they wanted to strengthen their communion with God. This is also why the world screams so loudly today, to distract us from this communion with a flurry of the irrelevant.
From this union with God flows communion with our fellow men. A merely human group – such as the Elks club or a political party – might have a certain value, but ultimately it is meaningless without being based in our one common Father. Those who think that they can make it to heaven on their own are just kidding themselves. We need each other, but we can only help ourselves in proportion to our own communion with God.
This need for communion is universal across all vocations. The contemplative nun might spend eight hours in personal prayer a day, and a stay-at-home mom might only get in 30 minutes in a day, but they both need to base all their work on a deep and personal union – a communion – with God. Likewise, all of their dealings with others – whether it be other nuns, their children, or those in their parish – will only be fruitful and unitive if it is based on this communion with God.
God, in His great mercy, has given us a beautiful way to strengthen both types of communion – the Eucharist, which of course we call “communion.” In the Eucharist, we are personally and directly united to our Lord in the deepest way possible in this life. And in the Eucharist, we are also mystically united with our fellow brothers and sisters who receive this great sacrament. What a great gift God has given us!
No matter our vocation, let us pray for a deep communion with God which will then lead to a deep communion with others.
St. Benedict, pray for us!