A Simple Rule for Modern Life: 1,500 years of enduring wisdom

The Western Roman Empire had been in slow decline for decades, but began to rapidly disintegrate during the first half of the sixth century.  Emperors were weak, local factions fought each other for power and land, Goths from northern and eastern Europe began to migrate en masse into every part of the empire, including the Italian peninsula.  It was a time of civil and military disorder.  The bishop of Rome, not yet called pope, did what he could to provide moral authority and leadership with not a lot of success.  In the midst of it was Benedict of Nursia who understood that if humanity was to flourish it needed an ordered life that made adequate room for all essential needs.  Only then could harmony, learning, and exploration of new ways gain solid footing.

Unable to change Rome he did something with a small group of monks, founding a monastery on top of the hill called Monte Casino. Living together under his rule of life they were called the Benedictines. The Rule of Benedict was short and to the point.  An ordered life required enough time for sleep, a good eight hours, prayer and reflection, study, work, leisure, and eating.  Who could have imagined that an obscure monk from the early sixth century would come up with a rule of life that has endured for over 1,500 years?  Adapted in various ways it has guided religious orders of every kind, but more important it is a solid foundation for the daily lives of all humanity.

Kindle, Apple Books and book stores sell self help books almost as fast as they can get them to market.  Daily papers and magazines are replete with self helping advice columns.  Radio, television and the internet smother all with more.  The worthwhile is mixed with the absurd and harmful, and each has its avid consumers.

None, not one, surpasses the enduring wisdom of the Rule of Benedict that with adaptions for modern secular life remains a rule for the good life at home, work, and leisure.

  1. Get the sleep you d, eight hours for most.

II. Get the food you need at regular times – not more than you need.

III.Do your work diligently.  Avoid long hours and projects you cannot give the attention they need within the time allowed.

IV. Dedicate time in the morning, noon, afternoon and at bedtime for prayer, reflection, and mental health breaks.

V. Dedicate time each day for study, relaxation, or for developing a new skill.

VI. Be a person of courageous integrity, following God in Christ Jesus in the way of love as best you can.

VII.Take no pride in possessions, knowing they are only temporarily in your care.

Benedict would no doubt blanche at this bowdlerized adaptation of the rule, but I think if offers a simple, doable way of  a happy secular life in the 21st century, that avoids fads and magical cure-alls.  No. doubt there will be obstacles and constraints.  Corporations and other organizations often have little regard for the need employees have for a balanced life if they are to be fully productive.  Family and social conditions my not be favorable.  Follow Christ and do the best you can.

Faustian Bargains in Today’s America

Stories of Faust come in many versions and forms.  In each one, the hero sold his soul to the devil in return for nearly unlimited success in all his endeavors.  Predictably, his life of success brought neither happiness nor the sense of a purposeful, well lived life. 

I don’t believe the devil is wandering around offering to buy souls in return for success, but I do think the seductive power of that image exists.  At a heavy cost, evil tempts and seduces some to surrender themselves and their moral values in an effort to achieve material signs of success for themselves.  Succeed or not, they do material and emotional damage to those around them, the organizations and institutions they serve, and the legacy they leave behind.

We’re familiar with the Faustian story because it is the theme of every western movie and dime novel where a land grabbing rancher sacrifices everything to take over the town, steal all the land, and dictatorially rule his neighbors.  It never ends well for him. In different forms, it is a story acted out in every place and part of society. Frequently the subject of novels and film, it is most visible in real life when it’s made public in positions of power at top levels of business and government – examples of which have bombarded us for the past decade. Kevin McCarthy’s cowardly surrender of everything he could surrender to become a cypher of a Speaker is only the most recent example. Matt Gaetz is reported to have said he finally voted for McCarthy because, like Faust’s devil, he couldn’t think of anything else to ask from McCarthy. This will not end well for most of the trumpian aficionados who have done and will continue to do considerable damage to the nation and its people. What is performed on the national stage and obsessed over by cable news is present aslo in states and cities, small towns and families.  The scale may be different but it’s the same thing in essence with the same proportional results.

Question – so what is the difference between a Faustian bargain and more virtuous ambition to succeed and do well in Iife, achieving happiness if not total success, whatever success means?

It helps to understand happiness.  To be happy is to possess a feeling of satisfied contentment about one’s life lived well insofar as one is able.  Overall happiness does not rule out disappointment and tragedy, nor does it keep score counting wins and losses. It does strive for constant improvement but not perfection.  It values lifelong learning in whatever way learning works for each person. To the extent one is able, it is a feeling of comfortable ease in the presence of others from any standing or class, with expressing neither superiority nor deference, but always respect.

To achieve the success of happiness is to apply one’s talents and knowledge to the best of one’s abilities at whatever task. Competition is more about competing with one’s self than others.  If and when one achieves the top rung of the ladder of success, it will not be because others were stepped on or sabotaged along the way.  It will be because, through one’s respect for them, others were lifted and guided to their own achievements.

This kind of happiness and success are characteristics of the leadership needed at every level of society, and most especially in and at the highest level of government and corporate America.

The Compression of Time and Space on Society

Throughout history technology has compressed time and space.  It was a slow but steady process that leaped into hyperdrive in the last hundred years.  The world has suddenly become a much smaller place with things and people far away now near and present.  Counter-intuitively, it’s also made the world a much larger place with more to explore and experience than ever before.

Every improvement in communication technology has made the sharing of information easier, quicker and available to more people.  Every improvement in transportation technology has brought distant places closer and easier to get to.  The people and cultures of the earth are no longer complete strangers to one another.  They can no longer be divided into Greeks and barbarians, civilized and savage.  It is more obvious now than it once was that we are interdependent and that the welfare of each cannot be made certain unless the welfare of all is enabled.

It should be clear that for you and me to flourish, for our nation to flourish, the earth itself and all the people on it must also flourish.  Otherwise we will self destruct, maybe not now, but soon enough.  It should be clear, but it isn’t.  The unfettered glow of instantaneous world-wide information has become a garbage dump of the good, bad, toxic and irrelevant.  The ability to travel anywhere on earth in one day or less provides little opportunity for adjustment and reflection.  Massive migrations of people from one place to a better place used to each be confined to a predictable region, now it’s a globally integrated phenomena that will eventually redistribute skin colors and cultures in uncomfortable ways.

In our nation it’s caused large numbers of people to retreat from the compressed larger world into an even more compressed smaller world they hope will provide sanctuary from unwanted predatory change.  Recent years have seen the rise of would be leaders whose lust for power and position is their driving ambition.  They promote themselves as the only ones who can build the desired sanctuary.  They can’t but it is easily sold.  Their worldview is oddly the smallest and most compressed of all.  Their sole purpose is to get and keep power for the duration of their lives with no genuine concern for the consequences it will have on others now and in the future.  Dictators of one kind or another are the most obvious examples, but they exist at every level of society and commerce.

Two examples come to mind.  “The Villages” in Florida are reputed to be a community designed and built as a sanctuary from the larger world and all its troubles for those who an afford it, mostly white, mostly far right wing in their politics.  It is a tiny world of like minded people somewhat oblivious to the reality that the food they eat, water they drink, and all the services that support them come from outsiders whose own welfare is essential to the continued existence of the private world of Villagers.

The other example is Kevin McCarthy.  Politicians have big egos or they wouldn’t run for public office, and yet higher office is a seductive temptation, with most also having a vision of how their service can help make for a better world for them and their constituents.  On the other hand, it appears that McCarthy’s sole ambition is to possess the position and power of Speaker.  That’s it. There isn’t anything else.  He has shown he is willing to adopt whatever ideological facade will help him become Speaker.  His tiny world consists only of 218 votes.  The well being of the nation and the world is of no interest or consequence.  So it appears.  As it is, it looks like he will be blocked by other Representatives who also live in tiny worlds of their own and have no intention of letting an opportunistic outsider like Kevin get what he wants.

Villagers and McCarthys have always existed, large and small.  Destruction, violence and societal collapse are always the result.  It didn’t matter as much when time and space had not been so compressed, but it does now.  I don’t know what the solution is.  The Putins and Bolsonaros of the world will never go away.  We all live in bubbles of one kind or another.  We all have boundaries that create barriers to infringement on our time and space. My hope is that enough of us will more fully understand the importance of our interrelationships and decencies, more fully value the welfare of Mother Earth, all her creatures and resources. We live together on a little blue marble hurtling through space.  We can destroy each other, but the little blue marble will continue on without us, grateful for our absence. 

© Steven E. Woolley

John and the Jews: a serious problem for the church

The press continues to report on the rise of antisemitism in the U.S.  Trump’s notorious Mar-a-Lago dinner, for example, is among many reported cases.  It’s an outbreak visible in places large and small throughout the country.  Sadly, growing public awareness of the cancerous evil coincides with the time in the church year between Christmas and Easter when the Gospel of John is woven into Sunday readings.  Reaching a crescendo during Holy Week with blistering condemnations of Jews for failing to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah and for their engineering his crucifixion by the Romans.

It can’t be dismissed with a shrug  and a few cautionary  remarks in the middle of sermons.  John is perhaps the most favorite gospel of many Christians because it abounds in loving, reassuring passages such as the familiar football stadium banner, “For God so loved the World.” Jesus is most clearly understood as the Son of God in John.  He knows every thought and is the master of every situation, including his own arrest.  At the same time, John displays his human exhaustion, hunger, anger, and humor better than the other gospels.  How can John not be the beloved gospel attributed to the beloved disciple?  

It is a narrative about an observant Jewish messiah followed by Jewish disciples, with occasional forays into gentile territory to extend his gifts of healing and salvation. It’s hard to understand then why the narrative is also filled with condemnations of the Jews referring to them simply as ‘the Jews.”  It’s language which inspired twenty centuries of “Christians” to persecute, oppress, burn and murder Jews.  The violence was sometimes at its worst during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday.  From 1290 to 1472, Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land detoured to slaughter Jews they encountered.  The entire Jewish population of England was deported in 1290. To where? Anywhere not in Britain. Resettlement in Britain was informal and not officially tolerated until 1650. In the meantime, Jews in Eastern Europe were subject to periodic pogroms right through the 20th century.  Fifteenth century Spanish Jews were in mortal danger every day and often forced to convert by threats and through torture.  Oddly, Jews could usually find relative safety in Muslim territories. The holocaust of WWII that exterminated 6,000,000 Jews and others was so horrible we were positive the era of Jewish persecution had finally come to an end.  It didn’t.  It is here today in our own country. It is part and parcel of our long history of brutal discrimination against nearly everyone who cannot claim some sort of Anglo Saxon heritage.

It is the shame of the church, and the shame of every person who waves the banner of Christ.  It isn’t behind us.  It’s the greatest shame of nations led, at least figuratively, under the banner of Christ.  More than any other institution the church has a holy, moral obligation to do something, but what?

A good start would be by confronting John head on, especially during Lent and Holy Week.

Trying to explain context in readings from John is an option.  I’ve done that, but it always felt like an evasion that had little impact on what people in the pews heard in the readings to confirm their prejudices.  Another is to substitute “temple leaders” for the word Jews.  It’s closer to the truth, but it also evades the obvious problem of the words right there in the printed text.  One might eliminate  reading anything anti Jewish in John, but that also seems like evasion.   Some brutally honest adult Christian education can do wonders for those who attend and pay attention, but how many would that be? There are too many ‘buts’ in all these possibilities.

What we probably need is a combination of each.  Leave John out of Holy Week.  Present sermons with explanations that separate political manipulation in Jerusalem from the ordinary daily lives of the people. Conduct Christian education programs that address the problem directly, including the history it generated.  Boldly publish condemnations of anti semitism in every available way.  Teach Christians the fundamentals of Judaism.  Offer a morning or evening workshop from the Jewish prayer book, with obvious adaptations. 

Is it really necessary?  I think it is and that it will help in other areas where racism and other prejudices govern too much of every day life.   Failing to act when anti semitism is on the rise is to allow anti semites to feed on Holy Scripture.  It  encourages other voices claiming to be Christian to misrepresent the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  This is the year to act.

© Steven E. Woolley