Poem: A Benedictine Theory of Change

benedictine3In August I spent several days at a Benedictine community in Vermont. I was struck by how boldly “other” their monastic life is, and how it challenges our assumptions about what matters for change in this world. Yet I have to admit that after carefully watching their patient rhythms, I wondered, “Do they really think this is going to change the world? What is a Benedictine theory of change anyway?”

These days, similar to for-profit businesses, those in ministry and non-profit worlds are under increased pressure to show immediate and visible results through a viable “theory of change.” As one NGO explains,

“In its simplest form a theory of change can be stated as, ‘We believe that by doing X (action) it will achieve Y (progress towards peace, reducing poverty, etc.).’ For example… ‘If we generate jobs for unemployed youth, they will be less available to be recruited to violence.’”

With most theories of change comes this assumption: Deep long-term change in the world can be determined by human control. Such as the assumption in this time of political and social media warfare that change can be determined by more and more words, said with more and more outrage.

Which is why I was jolted by a very different vision of change I saw one morning at the monastery, as I happened to walk through the area where the brothers prepare before the multiple times of daily worship. On a bulletin board was an icon of Christ along with the words below at the beginning of the poem I wrote later that day. Amid the seemingly innocuous rhythms of their life, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate a Benedictine understanding of how to “make ourselves heard” in response to the problems which have a noisy stranglehold on this world.

A Benedictine Theory of Change

“Let us know
that we shall make ourselves heard,
not with many words,
but with purity of heart
and tears of compunction.”
Rule of Benedict, Chapter 20, written 516 A.D.

Dawn at the monastery:
Why do the pillows and blankets sit abandoned so soon?
All the brothers are in a circle in the chapel,
Singing in praise.

Why do the guitars sit still on the wall?
All the brothers have their hands in the soil,
Tending the gardens.

Why does the wheelbarrow sit still by the garden?
All the brothers sit in the refectory in silence,
Eating and listening to a reading.

Why is the stillness broken?
All the brothers are surrounded by worshippers in the barn,
Prophesying about overcoming walls and borders.

Why do the bibles sit still back in the barn?
All the brothers are walking the grounds,
Conversing and laughing with their guests.

Why is everything, everywhere, all silenced now?
All the brothers lie on their pillows sleeping,
Trusting that Divine love still, always, tills the world.

Where, for each of them this day, and how,
Was that grand battle of the centuries waged?
With wrath, envy, pride, principalities and powers?

Weston Priory, Vermont, August 2019


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  1. December 4, 2019
    Chris, I’ve looked forward to replying since you posted this arresting, provocative, and beautiful poetic work in October. The temptation is strong to use many words in reply; but I will try – and hopefully not fail – to use a few only!

    The first trans-local peace movement was initiated by Benedictine abbeys associated with the Abbey of Cluny in the 9th-10th Century A.D. The Cluniac reform movement was immersed with the conviction that intentional participation in the reformation of the world rather than passively abiding in its violence and decay was essential to the Christian calling (Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, Harold J. Berman, Harvard 1983; pp 88-94, 107-108, 109-118). The world was changed.

    That this could have taken place and still be pursued in Benedictine terms at the Weston Priory reflects the underlying reality of ourselves as persons created in the image of God. We are all agents engaged in action; where “action” refers to a unity of movement and knowledge to realize an intention. The future is thus determined for better and for worse by our actions and God’s actions as persons in relation to one another (see John Macmurray, “The Self as Agent” and “Persons in Relation” for much more on this).

    If one’s prevailing theory of change regards the object of change as a thing “Y” to be achieved rather than persons to be engaged in relation to one another and God, then perhaps the change enterprise will miss both the change which is intended and the work of God in the process. And wouldn’t the result in that case be warfare and outrage – a world in decay? In Christ, we believe there is a better way.

    That the work of the brothers in the Weston Priory is action by which the grand battle of the centuries is waged thus seems indisputable. Exactly how it does so apparently isn’t the knowledge that is essential to the form of their action or its effectiveness!

    Continuing in warmest regards,

    1. Wow Greg thanks for this deep reflection inspired by my poem. I didn’t know about the centuries-long Benedectine tradition of a “peace movement.” For me, your key thought is a paradigm shift to seeing the essence of change as in relation to one another and God, that is, transformed relationships. Well, now we are pursuing prose rather than poetry! So I will leave it there, for the poem to be interpreted in many ways.

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