Failure and Benedictine Spirituality

Kids are starting to go back to school, COVID-19 rages on, racial tension is high, we, in the US, have an election coming up, and everything feels really bleak right now. There is a large amount of accompanying uncertainty and stress many of us are dealing with as it seems like the world is falling apart around our heads.

Well, that’s where St. Benedict, sixth century monk, found himself, too. The Western Roman Empire had done the unimaginable and fallen right around the time St. Benedict of Nursia is believed to have been born. He grew up in a world falling from order into chaos: riots and plague both rocked Constantinople (now Istanbul) during the years in was founding his first monastery, a volcanic eruption in the tropics caused massive climate change that led to famine, and the empire that had provided some level of stability to Western Europe was gone.

It is in that context that St. Benedict wrote his Rule of Life. That is also when we wrote my favorite quote of his. He tells us that when we face failure, “always we must begin again.” I find this is a brilliant saying for collecting myself when things seem in shambles, whether because of my own failures or someone else’s. Each word in this sentence does a lot of lifting for me.

Always. This is not a new phenomenon. Failure, loss, and encroaching chaos is a part of the human condition., but even if everything in a day goes perfectly according to plan the next day will start. We will find ourselves needing to begin again.

We. This is a corporate statement. To improve upon John Donne, “no person is an island”, and we are all in the process of working together and moving forward. Yes, even people who appear to be fighting against us with everything they have. They, too, are a part of the project. They, too, start every day fresh with a chance to begin again. Perhaps if we saw those with opposing views as a part of the overall project instead of enemies, we could find a way to listen to each other better.

Must. This isn’t a choice. This is a mandate. We must begin again. Our only other option is death (and if that option feels appealing to you, please, find help—you will be missed more than you know). Baring death, we will wake up tomorrow and find ourselves compelled, yet again, to begin.

Begin. Whether I’m thinking this during my morning prayer, reminding myself of this after I’ve made another mistake, reflecting after a personal tragedy, or I see something terrible in the news, I remind myself this can be a new beginning. This moment, now, is the start of life after that last moment passed. This is a new beginning. I find hope in that.

Again. There will be plenty of times for us to fail. We will not achieve perfection. This will happen over and over. As a person who was raised to be a perfectionist, this ancient thinker so easily assuming our failure and giving us the space to start over is very life giving for me. Of course, I’ll lose my temper or say something I’ll wish I could take back. I will do those things, but afterwards, I can collect myself and begin again.

So as the world continues to feel like it is falling to pieces around us, always we must begin again.

Grace and Peace to you all.

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