We are in a free agent culture. 40 or 50 years ago a person might have worked for one company, making a career and commitment to one business. Now workers change jobs every few years. Rarely does a person stay in one town her or his whole now. I’m a living example, having lived in five states, that we live in a mobile culture, not tied to any one place or community. It’s true in church life, too, with people bouncing between churches. I rarely find someone who is born, married, and buried in one church. I see more who live a free-agent church faith, never committing to one community but instead participating without commitment in a church (or churches) and moving on when the inevitable conflict comes or another opportunity arises.
Benedict wouldn’t understand our free agent existence. For Benedict’s Rule stability is an essential, and a monk makes a commitment to one place and one community of monks. As I mentioned many months ago, he doesn’t have any use for gyrovagues, monks who move from monastery to monastery. In chapter 66, when Benedict gives instructions for the Porter of the monastery, he says the porter should be a “sensible old man” who will watch the door of the place, greeting any visitors and monitoring what might come and go through the doors of the community. He recommends an older man for this position at the door because an older man’s age “keeps him from roaming about.” Benedict doesn’t see any value in roaming for their work as monks. Instead, he recommends having everything the monks need within the monastic enclosure so “there will be no need for the monks to roam outside, because this is not at all good for their souls.”
Benedict sounds incredibly restrictive to our free-agent-friendly ears. We resist boundaries thinking them only binding and constraining. For Benedict boundaries are freeing, allowing the monks to focus on knowing God alone. This isn’t how most think today, but Benedict knows something here. Benedict knows without boundaries we don’t really grow. A married couple lives within the boundaries of one relationship, saying no to other relationships and opportunities, because there’s more good in loving one person deeply than hopping from shallow relationship to shallow relationship. A Christian, when living within the boundaries of one church, grows into deeper faith because commitment to one place forces him or her to work through the inevitable difficulties that cause us to grow, rather than running from them to the next place.
We’re more likely, in our American impulse to move on and sing “Don’t fence me in,” thinking the fences restrict us. Benedict knows, though, only with some boundaries do we truly grow.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict