Last summer I reread the Rule of St. Benedict straight through in one sitting. What began as an act of discipline quickly became a delight. I noticed several parallels — previously overlooked — between the mission of Benedict’s monastic community and that of the seminary. This seemed timely in light of ongoing discussions about exactly what a theological school is.
One model sees a seminary as a denominational institution that teaches future pastors what their faith tradition expects of them. Another model sees the seminary as a professional school where students earn the credentials to practice ministry. A third model sees the seminary as a graduate school that builds research skills. All three models require students to be educated and formed in churchly, professional, and academic ways.
But a fourth model exists — one that lays the cornerstone for great theological schools and universities. This model is grounded in the understanding that personal formation as Christians is essential to all knowledge we acquire and tasks we undertake. This is the model that dominated St. Benedict’s experience.
Benedict envisioned a community composed of people who learn to live the life God calls them to live and do the work God calls them to do. “Therefore,” he writes, “we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service.” His Rule sets its sights on the ends and purposes of such a school. He writes:
If you hear [God’s call to follow] and your answer is, ‘I do,’ God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim. Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers, and even before you ask me, I will say to you: I am here.
Benedict provides tools for living together and penalties for not living up to his community’s covenant, with restoration ever the goal. He offers principles of governance, placing value on a democratic approach, though reserving certain decisions for particular offices and bodies. Scripture provides the motivation for every regulation, from obedience to the abbot to the unconditional welcoming of guests to the monastery.
Community members are to place “the work of God” (daily prayer and worship) above other duties. They are to live together in humility, love as Christ loved, follow the Golden Rule, refrain from judging others, and reject pride. He describes the community as a workshop, where virtues are practiced until they become habitual.
As I read the Rule, I recalled an incident from my early years as a seminary dean. I was leading the faculty in self-reflection before we embarked on curriculum revision. We polled a large group of church professionals and laity on how the school could better serve the church and society. One question — “What do you value most in a church leader?” — resulted in a fascinating finding. Lay persons overwhelmingly said that they valued “humility.”
“How does a seminary teach humility?” someone asked when I presented our findings. Perhaps Benedict supplies the best answer: “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.”
Let’s construct a life together in seminary that provides the formation of character, wisdom, and Christian faith so that those who graduate from our schools will be persons from whom and beside whom and among whom God’s people will want to learn, worship, and live.
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