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Because life itself is good...


The Rule of Benedict, on which the lives of countless religious women and men have been based for over 1500 years, was written by an Italian in sixth century Italy. I have always been secretly happy about that.

In that era, the commonplace image of a monk was still the recluse in a dry and barren desert. Benedict, however, created another kind of monasticism, of spirituality, of holiness. He presented the spiritual world with the concept of community as sanctifier, of family as a spiritual discipline. Rather than isolation from the components of life, his spirituality was about single-minded search for God, not singleness for its own sake.

To this day, Benedict wants those who follow his very moderate, very profound spiritual counsel to learn to live an ordinary life extraordinarily well. Chapter 40 of the Rule of Benedict, “On the Proper Amount of Drink,” demonstrates that core value with overwhelming simplicity. “We believe,” he writes, “that a hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each.” The hemina is an ancient liquid measure variously defined as between six and eight ounces.

Wine, the fruit of the vine, was basic to the Italian diet—and still is.

One thing that Italians understand better than many is that there is a difference between a spiritual life and an ascetical life. Lots of people are highly spiritual but not necessarily known for their asceticism or self-denial. St. Nicholas, the model of the modern Santa Claus, for instance, gave gifts to everyone. Jesus, too, was not averse to parties and moments of relaxation. He went to the marriage feast at Cana and multiplied the wine. He celebrated the Passover meal even at the brink of death. He used a good many dinner parties as images of life in his parables. He was criticized for it but ignored the religious pressure to suck the joy out of life. And so, you see, to this day, in Italy, there is always wine served at mealtimes. And it is served in monasteries as well as in public restaurants and at family meals.
There are simply some things in life that are meant to be enjoyed. There is something about joy, this monastic rule affirms, that is as holy as suffering can ever be. There is an asceticism that leads to sourness of attitudes, to negative judgments of normal and healthy things, as in, “You mean she’s going to take a day off when she could get paid for working overtime?!” Or better yet, “You mean that priests swim and sisters golf and religious communities do yoga?”
Genuinely holy people know that life is to be enjoyed as well as disciplined, happy as well as controlled, full of the juice of life as well as stripped of good times in the name of holiness. Why? Because joy is hardwired into the human condition. More, we are meant to be joyful because life itself is good and also to be enjoyed.

If truth were known, moderation is far more difficult to achieve and to follow than extremism in either direction.

       —from Grace-Filled Moments with Sister Joan, by Joan Chittister (Twenty Third Publications)