By N.J.A. Humphrey
The Feast of St. Benedict falls every year on the 11th of July, exactly a week after the 4th of July, our Independence Day. In some ways, one could make the case that these two commemorations stand for opposite values: Independence Day is about shaking off tyrannical authority, for self-determination, for freedom—or, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” St. Benedict, on the other hand, is the founder of western monasticism; his Rule stresses the absolute authority of an abbot over his monks, the dependence of the monk on his community, and the rootedness to be found in one place until death. In his Rule, we find the three Benedictine vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is all about freedom; Benedict’s Rule is all about service.
But do obedience, stability, and conversion of life necessarily stand in the way of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? In pondering this question, a phrase from Morning Prayer wafted into my mind: “whose service is perfect freedom.” I looked it up and found this collect:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Reading these words, I could imagine soldiers on both sides of the conflict in the Revolutionary War praying this collect before marching into battle. There is a militaristic ring to these words—“assaults,” “enemies,” “defense,” “adversaries,” “might.” And yet, this prayer is titled in our Prayerbook A Collect for Peace. I was reminded that the first battles of the War for American Independence were fought at Lexington and, ironically, a town called Concord.
I find this collect very challenging because the prayer is so realistic: even when we want peace, we will have enemies. Yet, even when our adversaries have power over us, if we trust in God, we do not have to fear that power. We can choose, instead, to serve God, in “whose service is perfect freedom,” and this is true whether we are at peace or at war, whether we are on the “right” side or the “wrong” side, a “winner” or a “loser” in the various battles we wage, or those that are waged against us. We do not need to participate in the violent counter-assaults and power-plays of life, if we find our freedom in serving the God who is the author of peace and lover of concord.
Ah, but where does any of this leave us with Independence Day and St. Benedict, with the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness versus the monastic values of obedience, stability, and conversion of life? We are left, I think, always in that creative tension between independence and interdependence. Responsible Christian discipleship and healthy Christian community depend upon these two things. The tension between independence and interdependence never fully resolves, but resolution isn’t the point. The point is for us to pursue true happiness, which is found in the service of God—and God is best served when we serve others, and allow others to serve us.
I had the privilege of living with some Benedictine Monks over a couple of summers in college and seminary, and I remember celebrating both the 4th of July and the 11th of July with thanksgiving and prayer. The monks who offered me hospitality knew what it meant to take responsibility for their own lives of faith and to rely on each other to sustain a community of faith that was both contemplative and active. It was at that monastery that I first began to discern the shape of my Christian vocation to priesthood, and I recall those days with gratitude and fondness.
This July, I am looking forward to celebrating both Independence Day and “Interdependence Day,” as I have come to think of the feast of St. Benedict, for each of us needs to be both independent and interdependent in order to grow into the full stature of Christ as we serve God and each other, and in that service, to pursue the kind of happiness that alone leads to perfect freedom.
The Rev. Nathan J. A. Humphrey is curate of St. Paul’s, K Street in Washington, D. C.. He writes on issues of ecclesiology at http://communioninconflict.blogspot.com.