by Laurie Ghigliotti
When Dan Madden was growing up, the Catholic Church looked to him a lot like a Benedictine monastery.
“I grew up in northwest Missouri near Conception Abbey, right in the shadow of the abbey,” said Madden. “I thought all priests were Benedictines until I went away to college.”
Now he knows better. As Madden’s vision of the church has broadened, however, his appreciation of the Benedictines has only deepened.
Madden is editor of Kansas Monks magazine, published by the monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison. He has translated his deepening appreciation into a new book, entitled “Incline the Ear of Your Heart: Listening to Saint Benedict’s Message of Peace.”
Sometimes, even when one is living in the shadow of an abbey — or perhaps especially then — it’s easy to overlook the tremendous impact the Benedictines have had on the larger church, on their local communities, or even on one’s self.
In his book, Madden explores the nature of monastic life, the Rule of St. Benedict, and the lessons laypeople can learn from Benedictine monastic life.
First, believes Madden, Benedictines do a lot of good work in the community. But often, it’s a unique kind of work.
“The most important thing they do is lift the world in prayer,” Madden said. “They’re very committed to this.”
Using his own poems and prayerful commentary — accompanied by the images of J.D. Benning, Abbot Barnabas Senecal and others — Madden shares with readers the rhythms of this work as an act of gratitude.
“The monks have done a lot for me over the years,” Madden said. “This was something to give back, a labor of love.”
Benning, art director for Kansas Monks, is the one who suggested the idea of a book to Madden, who had written a series of articles for the magazine, entitled “Why We Need Benedictines?” The articles, which focused on the vows of the monks, won a Catholic Press Association award for best feature in a religious order magazine.
Both men are happy with the way the book turned out.
“You can open the book to any page and come away with something from it,” Benning said.
Madden said that the reader can pick up the book again and again and find something new each time.
“I hope [readers] will understand what the Benedictine life is about,” Madden said. “You don’t have to be a Benedictine to gain something.”
The book, said Abbot Barnabas Senecal, not only features beautiful images of monastic life, but is unique in that it is written from a young layman’s per- spective.
“It’s like a human digest,” Abbot Barnabas said. “The book is about the monastic community, and the monastic community is like family.”
Much thought was put into every aspect of the book, but especially the title. “We chose the title because listening is important for the Rule [of St. Bene- dict] and humility is also important. Humility is the building block of Benedictine life,” Madden said. “If you want to understand, you have to stop and pay attention. That’s what J.D. did. He stopped and paid attention to the natural beauty, the artistic beauty, and the beauty of the people here [at the abbey].”
“With the book, people can stop and pay attention without even coming here,” Madden added. “It’s hard in this world to stop and pay attention.”
As he noted in his book: “It’s no coincidence that the first word in the Rule of Benedict is ‘Listen.’”
The Rule of St. Benedict provides hope for everyone.
“St. Benedict took a harsh way of life and made it more gentle,” said Madden. “Each day is another day, another chance to get it right. [The lessons of] monastic life are a comfort for backsliders,” he added. “If we screw up, we can start over again.
“The Benedictine life is to be treasured, and there is much to be gained from friendship with Benedictines. But even if you don’t go near a monastery for a long period of time… or ever, it is good to know that the monks or the Sisters who live there are going about their lives, gathering to lift the rest of us to God in prayer each day.”