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How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community

How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community


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The Rule of St. Benedict arose from an era when a great civilization was threatened by violence, economic forces that favored the wealthy, political leaders that lacked the trust of the public, and rampant xenophobia. Similar to the anxieties and frustrations of the 6th century, we are living in a time where societies need to stress community over competition, consensus over conflict, simplicity over self gain, and silence over the constant chatter and distractions of our lives.

In How to Live, Judith Valente explores the key elements of the rule and clearly demonstrates how incorporating this ancient wisdom can change the quality and texture of our lives offering a way forward from the divisions gripping our country. These fresh and profound explorations are inspiring and thoughtful, and will motivate readers to live a meaningful life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571747983
Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2018
Series: N/A
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 289,351
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Judith Valente is an award-winning journalist, poet, and essayist and has won two Edward R. Murrow Awards for her broadcast work in 2015. She has also been a finalist twice for the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Judith is the senior correspondent at WGLT Radio, a National Public Radio station. She contributes reports from the Midwest to USA Today, National Catholic Reporter, and U.S. Catholic. Previously, she was a contributing correspondent for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS-TV, a Midwest correspondent for America, and a reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. She splits her time between Normal and Chicago, IL. Visit her at

Joan Chittister is the author of The Rule of Benedict.

Marty is a professor emeritus at The University of Chicago and one of the leading theologians and historians of the 20th century.

Read an Excerpt



On Beginning

Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?


This is a book about living. Not about surviving, but living a balanced, meaningful, and attentive life. It is like a traveler's trunk that contains all the wisdom I wish I had acquired earlier in my life and seek now to pass on.

I can't take credit for originating these ideas. They come from the mind of a teacher who lived more than fifteen hundred years ago. He originally wrote his guide, or Rule, for people living in a monastic community. Monasteries might seem like an unlikely source of wisdom for those of us living in the age of Instagram. And yet, this slender text has proved indispensable to people throughout the centuries seeking to live a saner, more peaceful life outside of a monastery. For me — a working journalist, an often overburdened professional, and a modern married woman — it has been a constant companion, never far from my work desk or nightstand.

The Rule of St. Benedict emerged from an era when a great civilization was under threat from violent outside forces. The economy favored the wealthy. Social norms were changing, and political leaders lacked the public's trust. Many blamed their anxiety on government, foreigners, or those of a different religion or race. Sound like the nightly news? Welcome to Rome in the 6th century.

St. Benedict was not a priest or a religious official. He was, however, a leader — a young man disillusioned with the conflict, greed, injustice, and lack of compassion he saw around him. He believed the gospels offered a wiser, more consequential way to live. He called himself and his followers "monks," from the Greek monos, meaning one. It signaled they had one goal, to seek God and forge a new kind of society with single-minded devotion. The society Benedict and his monks constructed rested firmly on counter-cultural pillars.

Buffeted by war, Benedict didn't amass an army. He sought to build community. Instead of the false security of personal wealth, he endorsed the freedom of simplicity. His solution to daily threats of violence was to counsel his monks to sleep without their knives. To cope with the chaos around him, he embraced silence. He said: Replace grumbling with a sense of gratitude. Start each day with praise. Seek the common good and your own well-being will follow.

Community. Simplicity. Humility. Hospitality. Gratitude. Praise. These are the pillars of Benedictine spirituality. These are the things that matter. This is perhaps what we've forgotten.

Often it feels as though a genie of discord has escaped into the very air we breathe, liberating us to be our worst selves. We just have to read the news. A group of young men convene near the US White House, chanting "Heil victory, Heil our people," and raise the fisted Nazi salute. African-American middle school students are greeted with shouts of "Go back to Africa." Strangers pull off the head scarves of Muslim women out shopping. Gay men hear taunts of "faggot" in the street. White supremacists bearing guns, clubs, and torches march in the center of American cities.

The Rule of St. Benedict invites an alternative vision. It is summed up in a single line from one of the shortest chapters in The Rule: "The Good Zeal of Monastics." Try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body or behavior. This is the good St. Benedict says we are called to model. He asks us to nurture it zealously, with fervent love.

One of the most critically acclaimed fantasy films in recent years was a piece of science fiction called The Arrival. It is the story of beings from outer space who arrive on earth, igniting a wildfire of fear across the planet. Their language is unlike anything spoken or written, and it includes a unique perception of time. An expert linguist is tapped to initiate contact. If she cannot draw out the visitors' true intentions, the nations of the world will pool their weaponry and launch an all-out assault.

To show her own peaceful motives, the linguist enters the spacecraft, and at considerable risk to herself, removes her biohazard suit. She approaches the strange, multi-limbed creatures with palms open and outstretched. Her body language demonstrates she isn't there to attack. Slowly, by immersing herself in the aliens' language, she uncovers their purpose. Earth escapes an interplanetary disaster, not by superior weaponry or even acts of daring, but by bravely communicating with those we don't at first understand. Success through empathy. In many ways, the film mirrors the parallel society the Benedictine Rule calls us to forge. One where the ability to listen, to communicate, and ultimately to understand delivers us from self-destruction.

"Who will dwell in your tent, O God? Who will find rest in your holy mountain? (Ps 15:1) ..." "Those who walk without blemish and are just in all dealings; who speak truth from the heart and have not practiced deceit; who have not wronged another in any way, nor listened to slander against a neighbor." (Ps 15:2–3)


The Benedictine Rule is as much a text for the spiritual beginner as it is for the spiritually mature. Some have described it as a guidepost. I like to think of it as a railing I can grab onto to steady myself when I encounter a dark, uncertain path. My own journey toward The Rule was hardly a direct route. A friend who is a Presbyterian minister recommended the text to me at a time when I had just moved back to the US from Europe and was embarking on a new phase of my writing career. He thought it might satisfy some of the spiritual unrest I was experiencing over whether I was doing enough with my life.

I thought it contained some lovely and thought-provoking passages. Listen with the ear of the heart ... Day by day, remind yourself you are going to die. Hour by hour, keep careful watch over all you do ... Your way of acting must be different from the world's way. There was also enough in the text that was strange and puzzling to prompt me to set it aside for nearly a decade. It wasn't until I saw The Rule lived in the daily context of a contemporary Benedictine monastery that I realized: here was the path I had been seeking.

Atchison, Kansas, is a city I had never thought about, much less visited, before I received an invitation to give a talk on Touching the Sacred through Poetry at the retreat center of Mount St. Scholastica, one of Atchison's two Benedictine monasteries. The offer came at a pivotal time for me, both professionally and personally. I had been married only two years. While my marriage was a blessing, I struggled as a second wife to forge a relationship with my two adult stepdaughters.

My first book, Twenty Poems to Nourish the Soul, had just come out, and that was another gift. But it, too, came with stresses. I began receiving requests from across the country to lead poetry workshops and retreats on weekends, all the while working my day job at the time as a contributing correspondent for PBS-TV and Chicago Public Radio. I arrived at Mount St. Scholastica on a Saturday night exhausted — physically, mentally, and emotionally. In fact, I felt like a fraud. I wondered how I was going to stand in front of a retreat group the next morning and talk about nourishing the soul when I hadn't fed my own soul a decent meal in weeks.

The morning I was to give my talk, I sat alone in the monastery's oak-lined chapel. Sunlight streamed in through the chapel's distinctive blue stained glass windows. Silence saturated the room. I looked up at the window in front of me. There was St. Benedict with outstretched arms. Surrounding him were some words in Latin: omni tempore silentio debent studere. I reached back to the Latin I had studied in college and did a rough translation: at all times, cultivate silence.

Suddenly, the paradox I had been living was staring me the face. I had been running around the country talking and talking, trying to help other people live a more contemplative life, when my own life was missing moments of silence and solitude in which I could simply listen and be.

The Mount sisters seemed keepers of a kind of secret. They balanced work with leisure, laughter with silence, work with prayer. I discovered that everything they do — from the way they eat to how they wash dishes, speak to one another, care for their sick, pray in chapel, and go about their daily work — comes from St. Benedict's Rule. Though I didn't know it then, the line that had mesmerized me that morning in the chapel — omni tempore silentio debent studere — comes from The Rule. What these sisters had, I wanted. I arrived at Mount St. Scholastica a poetry expert of sorts. I left a student of The Rule.

"There are days that define your story beyond your life," the female linguist in The Arrival says at the beginning of the film. I felt that all of my past somehow had led me to this monastery on a hill and that the Benedictine Rule was reaching out to me from the ages.

Over the course of the next three years, I returned repeatedly to Mount St. Scholatica, mining The Rule for ways I could apply monastic values and practices to my daily life as a wife, stepmother, writer, and journalist. Benedict asks a pointed question in the book's prologue: Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days? I wanted to shout, "Yes. Me. Here. Now!"

What, dear brothers and sisters, is more delightful than this voice of the Holy One calling to us. See how God's love shows us the way to life.


To delve deeply into The Rule is to discover just how astutely Benedict was writing in the 6th century. Recent discoveries about how the brain works buttress ideas he espoused before neuroscience was even a word. Paul Zak is an economist and brain researcher who has studied the effect on the human psyche of a powerful hormone called oxytocin. This is the chemical released in lovemaking, in women who have just given birth, as well as in people who have just acted in some way that benefits others. Zak calls oxytocin "the morale molecule."

Using a variety of research experiments, Zak found that those who give usually end up receiving in return. One person's generosity can even increase the oxytocin levels in another. In other words, human beings appear hardwired for community. We prosper most when we extend trust and receive it in return. The economic models we learn in MBA programs would have us believe the opposite — that self-interest is the fundamental human motivator. Zak, by contrast, found that trusting and exhibiting generous behavior leads to reciprocal generosity and trust.

"The most important factor in determining whether or not a society does well or is impoverished," Zak concluded, "is not natural resources, education, quality health care, or even the work ethic of its people. What matters most in determining outcomes is actually trustworthiness — a moral consideration."

This sounds a good deal like the community Benedict sought to create, and the one he entrusts us to build today. He foresaw the dangers of radical self-interest of the kind that led to the economic meltdown of 2008 and to the Great Depression (as well as other economic crises before and since then), to practices like slavery and apartheid, and to so many of the world's wars. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself to the detriment of others. This Benedict counseled nearly two millennia before oxytocin was even discovered.

The Rule also has a message for those of us on call twenty-four seven, swirling in a maelstrom of email, texting, Twitter, and Snapchat. It beckons as a plea for balance. Benedict carved the monastic day into distinct periods for work, prayer, reading, leisure, and rest. He believed there is a time to work, and a time to stop work. As someone who has long suffered from a dual diagnosis of workaholic and overachieverism, The Rule showed me that it is possible to pause, to care for myself, and still be productive. With its focus on balance, The Rule helps orient my attention toward the sacred in the ordinary. It propels me to live every day.

In many ways, Benedict and his predecessors — the early monastics of the Egyptian desert — were among history's first psychologists. They understood that in order to live in community — or even as hermits — they would have to confront the emotional demons that haunt us all. They discovered ways to leaven our natural tendencies toward anger, self-absorption, greed, depression, unhealthy appetites, and obsessions. They did this not by repressing those tendencies, but by recognizing we are not our thoughts and we are not our feelings. We can redirect our thoughts and feelings into constructive actions. Doing this allows us to confront life's inevitable turbulence with equanimity. The emotional tools that The Rule lays out have been more valuable to me than any self-help book or therapy session.

The reflections in the pages that follow are my attempts to draw out the major themes of The Rule in practical takeaways that can lead to personal transformation. For many centuries, men and women who entered monasteries were expected to memorize The Rule in the same way they committed to memory the Psalms or traditional prayers. But as the Benedictine writer Mary Margaret Funk points out, The Rule is not something to be absorbed intellectually. It has to be lived. It has to take up residence in our inner life.

"Benedict's great insight," she writes in her memoir Out of the Depths, "was that the work of the monastery was not simply about men and women living apart from society in a community. The true work lay in how one developed the interior life."

The happy news is that this also applies to people who don't live in monasteries — people like you and me who are trying to nurture a family, succeed in a rapidly changing workplace, and grow old with a sense of purpose. The true monastic enclosure is the human heart.

While there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things, let us run and do now what will profit us forever.


Happily too, St. Benedict promises to demand of us nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. He reminds us we are always only beginners on the path to a deeper interior life. The spiritual journey is not a flight on a supersonic jet, but a slow steady trek, like hiking the Appalachian Trail or walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. "The spiritual life is this," a monastic elder from the Egyptian desert once said, "I rise and I fall. I rise and I fall."

I used to think of monastic life as a hopeless throwback to the past, a case of let the last monk or sister standing turn out the lights. Now I look upon it as a window to the future we desperately need in our society: one that stresses community over competition, consensus over conflict, simplicity over self-gain, and silence over the constant chatter and distractions of our lives. And so we begin.

Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?



On Paying Attention

Listen carefully my daughter, my son to my instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to report on a talk that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave to University of Illinois law students. It was not long after the sudden death of her colleague on the court, Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia often sparred with Sotomayor and the other judges of the court's so-called "progressive" wing. In one of his more colorful opinions, he accused opposing justices of engaging in the "jiggery-pokery" of devious behavior. He derided another majority opinion, of which Sotomayor was a part, as the equivalent of legal "applesauce."

For her part, Sotomayor described Scalia as "the brother I loved, and sometimes wanted to kill." How then, asked one of the law students, did the justices engage in these intense disagreements and still manage to collaborate? Sotomayor gave a very Benedictine answer. They listen to one another.

"You may not like what they're proposing, but that doesn't mean they're doing it from an evil motive," she said of her fellow jurists. Justices can passionately disagree, she said, "and still see the goodness in one another." She offered a recommendation for dealing with professional — and personal — divisions. Less talking, more listening.


Excerpted from "How to Live"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Judith Valente.
Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Foreword ix

1 Yearning for Life: On Beginning 1

2 Listen with the Ear of the Heart: On Paying Attention 11

3 Run with the Light: On Waking Up 21

4 Is There Life Before Death? On Living Fully 29

5 The Tools for Good Works: On Peaceful Living 37

6 Restraint of Speech: On Silence 45

7 "Have Patience with Me": On Humility 55

8 The Times for Saying Alleluia: On Prayer 67

9 Sleeping with Knives: On Trust 81

10 Linking Arms: On Community 87

11 Workaholism and Over-Achieverism: On Finding Balance 99

12 To Make Amends: On Forgiving 109

13 The Guests at Our Door: On Hospitality 119

14 Do I Need This Now? On Living Simply 133

15 Seeking the True Self: On Facing Our Faults 143

16 Summoning the Community for Counsel: On Building Consensus 151

17 The Care of Souls: To Be a Leader 159

18 Noting Is to Be Neglected: On Caring for What We Have 175

19 "Your Blessing, Please": On Living with Awe 183

10 A School for the Lord's Service: On Finding Meaning in Our Work 189

21 "I've Never Been Where I Am Not": On Contemplation 197

22 Always Beginning: On Conversatio Morum 203

Afterword 210

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