Rule of St. Benedict: Balance

One of the overarching themes of the Rule is balance.  St. Benedict lays down a life that is balanced between prayer, labor, and rest.  By comparison to earlier rules, which overwhelmingly emphasized prayer both mental and physical, St. Benedict may be considered lax.  But this golden mean approach to life–spiritual and otherwise–triumphed as the primary mode of monasticism in Europe.

Ironically one of the reasons it triumphed is that is was productive.  St. Benedict did not disdain manual labor as fit for slaves, as Roman culture did at his time.  He expected the monks themselves to do the chores and cook the food, dig the ditches and mend the fences, and whatever all else was required for the monastery to survive.  In the process, they accidentally created Europe as we know it.

I say ironically because our current society has the opposite problem: we dramatically overvalue labor and productivity.  Today when the Rule teaches balance in life it is reigning in our zeal for labor and insisting that we need more time to pray and rest.  For us, the primary instruction of the Rule is slow down.

Hence one of the overarching lessons of the Rule is a typically Aristotelian one: a rule is given both to limit our excesses and to spur us on in our deficiencies.  Level the mountains and fill in the valleys; make straight the way to happiness.  Each individual will come to the Rule with his or her own faults and failings; the Rule helps each to achieve balance.  And most adults in our 21st century America need to be told to chill out and stop valuing human life as a means of production.

But I teach at a school where the Rule is given for children.  How do I teach balance to them?  This is a lot trickier.

At any college prep school inside the DMV, the Beltway Bubble, kids work way too much.  Their lives are scripted to an absurd degree so that they can take their parents’ places as hyper-efficient drones some day.  The expectations of more, more, more reach into everything: more extra-curriculars, more team sports, more internships, more fine arts, more AP classes, more down time and rest time, more STEM, more literacy, more college acceptances.

As a teacher I have to reflect seriously on how much I contribute to this problem.  Do I really need to cover that many topics in a semester?  I am fortunate not to be a slave to external assessments like AP scores, which gives me a unique liberty in this regard.  Any AP Biology teacher will just shrug and say, “Yeah, I really do.”  But do I?

Here’s a concern: if every teacher in my school bucked the Rat Race Pyramid Scheme System of Oppression and assigned 20% less work this semester, what would change for the boys?  Will giving them less to do actually help this balance problem?

This is not a “kids are lazy” screed, but let’s pause on that idea for a moment.  Most teenage boys really are pretty lazy and do need to be taught the value of work.  They are approaching the Rule’s instruction on balance from the “under” side on this front.  But that’s not to say that most boys don’t work, just that they identify work with blegh and not-work with fun, and dream of a world where they have the fun not-work.  Many will dutifully march on with the blegh, hoping to one day be done with it all and get to the fun.  That’s not the balance that St. Benedict is talking about.

But back to my hypothetical across-the-board reduction in school work.  What changes for the boys?  Are they suddenly going to spend that time in prayer and virtuous friendships?  Are they going to finally get around to going to the gym and working out, or start trying to perform at the improv club?

They are notoriously bad at structuring their own time, and they are notoriously bad at long-term thinking (the two being intimately related).  A boy left with two extra hours of unstructured time will…heck, if they just fell asleep and woke up for school the next day, that would be an improvement over their current lives.  But they won’t.  They’ll fill that time with waste: video games, television, sitting around saying “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?” to each other.

The education they need is how to live life.  Part of that is work.  What can I be doing differently to help them get there?

The cruelty of the situation is that by overloading them with work, we reinforce their desire to waste time.  When I’ve finally hit my limit, I want to BE LEFT ALONE!!  As an adult who has learned a thing or two–the hard way–about this, I know that binging on video games is not going to recharge me or make me happy.  But a kid?  Hah!

This is a particularly challenging reflection for me since my approach to education–for high school students, that is, not my middle school guys–can best be described as Darwinian.  I set challenges for my students that attempt to destroy them; if they survive they can move on to the next level.  Ain’t no teaching like self-teaching.  I don’t assign a lot of homework but I assign difficult tasks that could easily become time-sinks for kids (here, check out St. Anselm’s argument for the existence of God…explain it to me on Monday).

It’s tempting to think that boys just need more work thrown at them.  They will figure out what they have to do and what they can get away with on their own.  But then there is this neat part of the rule, wherein monks who feel overburdened with tasks should discuss it with the abbot for a possible resolution (which could, needless to say, be “suck it up”).  So what can I do as an educator to walk my kids through that process?


Thank my faculty retreat Monday for this unplanned, journal-style meditation on the Rule!


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