After lately delivering a lecture to my students on the benefits of staying close to your parents, close to your teachers, and not having the kind of hobbies and habits which must be protected by lies, a group of young men asked me, in essence, “How then shall we live?” and they really meant it.
Of course, such a question might be answered in many ways. I might have directed them to read their Bibles more often or to pray more often or to talk less, but I am in the regular habit of encouraging students in such things, and I sensed that the young men needed an uncommon answer.
So I said, “Teachers need young men around a school whom they can depend on for very basic things. Teachers need young men who are strong and unflappable— young men who, without complaint, help teachers with all the countless little tasks which must be accomplished around the school on a weekly basis. Chairs need to be moved, tables repositioned, stages constructed, food distributed. Some young men have to be prodded and cajoled into helping with this kind of mundane work. However, what teachers need is for older students who, upon hearing there is a need for laborers, quickly say, ‘No problem. We can do that,’ and then get to work and corral other students to work, as well. In the history of our school, the greatest students for this kind of work and spirit were Seth and Landon. You might remember them. I never heard them complain. They were always the most likely to ask a teacher if any help was needed, and the hastiest to volunteer as soon as need was expressed. It would not be too much to say that every school needs young men like that around. Moving chairs and setting up tables may not seem like glorious work, and this is because anyone can do it, but the ease of the work does not make uncomplaining laborers any easier to come by.”
I wouldn’t say that “No problem” fellows are rare (my school has a healthy stock of them this year), but there is no guarantee that a school will always have a few enrolled. The kind of “No problem” fellow most capable of heavy lifting and directing traffic typically wears his status as senior more like a cassock than a merit badge. Seth and Landon were also very good friends, and thus they encouraged one another in good works; Seth was possessed by an anxious, but winning energy which made him both tremendously productive and well-loved by younger students, and Landon was the most even-keeled, well-tempered student I have ever taught. Kemp and Payton, Malone and Stockton. Two students were never better suited to friendship. I could not fail to think of both students in the last several weeks as I was teaching the rule of St. Benedict.
There is quite simply no single item in the rule of St. Benedict which is that difficult to follow. Benedict is remembered well over a thousand years after his death, and yet the rule he prescribed for his followers was ultimately quite simple. At no point in the rule does one encounter anything like, “Be on fire for God,” or, “Fall in love deeply with Jesus Christ,” or anything else which is frankly impossible. Rather, all the rules are quite straight forward. Say your prayers. Don’t talk a lot. Sing to God. Don’t eat too much or sleep too much. And yet, the combined value of the rules is sufficient to set a man on fire. Each item in the rule is easy, but the whole rule is much greater than the sum of its parts. The man reading the rule of St. Benedict for the first time might be bored and disappointed by how mundane it is. After hearing stories of monks levitating, raising the dead, feeding the masses, and walking on water, Benedict seems to require very little. But he does not promise little.
However, the rule of St. Benedict is also reminiscent of the rule which Elisha imposed upon Naaman for healing. Suffering from leprosy, Naaman hears rumor of an Israelite who can cure diseases, and so he sends for help among Yahweh’s people. The rule he is given in return is disappointingly common. “Bathe seven times in the River Jordan.” Naaman despairs of how common the rule is, skeptical that any cure so easy could actually work. Nonetheless, one of his servants chastises him. What did you want? A difficult and terrible convalescence? You were not asked to sacrifice your only son. You’re getting off easy. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. By the same token, in The Great Divorce, heaven is full of splendid, radiant queens who seem as though they must have been martyrs on earth, but turn out to have simply been faithful wives who washed the dishes with a smile.
I am not suggesting that a school merely needs a few additional (and younger) custodians around. If I have said nothing of brilliance, yet, it is only because I believe wisdom and lucid intellection usually come to those who are unafraid to do what is normal, typical, and common over and over. “Daily bread” only comes by daily prayer. Students might be skeptical to hear it, but what most teachers need is not some young Stanley Hauerwas or Peter Kreeft in the front row. What teachers need, rather, are students who will not despair of the daily work of education, who do the reading, write neatly enough, and who participate in the life of the school with an enthusiastic, but predictable spirit of humble commitment. Such young men reaffirm for teachers that Western Civilization is not dead yet, and that traditional masculine virtues have not wholly faded from this Earth. The combined effect of willing volunteerism, happy obedience, and a stable mood is more than sufficient to anchor the student body while the teachers do whatever it is they do.