A Monastery without Walls: Exploring Benedictine Spirituality

November 17, 2020

By Fr. Benet Phillips, OSB

In the October 2020 edition of Hilltop Headlines, we introduced the feature, “A Monastery without Walls” as a way to bring Benedictine life and spirituality to those who don’t live in monasteries. Bruce Davis reminds us, “The calling is in each of us. Our lives are only different in form, not in substance. We need at least one foot or one hand into something sacred! Life must have purpose and real joy. The monastery without walls for each of us may look different but every monastery of the heart has much in common.”

This month I would like to introduce the first Benedictine hallmark and foundational element of the Benedictine wisdom tradition: Love.

Relationships are at the core of Benedict’s teaching. He was concerned about the monk’s relationship to God, his relationship to his abbot and brothers as well as the monk’s relationship to himself – his self-understanding. Love for Benedict is not some soft, sentimental or romantic notion, quite the contrary. Benedict admonished the monk to “come to that perfect love which casts our fear” (Rule of Benedict, Chapter 7:67). I must admit that most of the time, I am content with a “good enough” love let alone a perfect love. The type of love that Benedict describes is the glue that keeps the community together. Benedict writes, “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life” (RB72:7-12).

This is beautiful indeed and a wonderful ideal for which to strive, but this is balanced by Benedict’s realism, pragmatism and his knowledge of human nature. He know how easy it is to convince ourselves of just about anything including our motives. Benedict knows at time times the monk will fail to ground his life in love. Selfishness, pride, or self-centeredness can and will creep in and take hold of the monk’s heart. Knowing that this can happen, Benedict demands that in the end, love for the wayward brother must be reaffirmed--not punishment, not shame, not avoidance, but love.

I’ve seen this type of love lived among my married siblings and friends. The love of the honeymoon lasts only as long as each spouse willing to go the extra mile for the other without looking back or counting the cost. Saint Aelred, a twelfth- century Benedictine Cistercian, writes that true love and true friendship are born of the desire to keep the other’s soul in “highest esteem”. True love calls for a great deal of generosity and self-forgetfulness.

When we are at our best selves, there is a deep and profound joy that touches each of us at the core of our being. When we can love as Christ loves, completely, selflessly, totally, we are given a glimpse of the life of beatitude. This is a moment of grace. How do we respond?

Whether we live in a monastery or not we called to love. Pope Francis calls us to create systems that support a culture of encounter as a common goal, encouraging people to be fearless in the ways they look beyond themselves to the needs of others.

Questions for reflection

  • What do the ‘great commandments’ of Jesus, to love God and to love neighbor, mean in practice for the way you live?
  • What you think are the underlying principles Benedict uses in dealing with human faults and failings? How might we apply them today?
  • Do you think creating a culture of encounter is possible? Why or why not?


Raise up, O Lord, in our Church, the Spirit which animated our holy father Benedict, so that, filled with that same Spirit we may strive to love what he loved, and to practice what he taught. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen