St. Benedict’s Rule to Cultivate Love: “Let the Members Serve One Another”
There’s no place to reflect on service like a bathroom being cleaned.
Chapter thirty-five of the Rule of St. Benedict begins, “Let the members serve one another.” What follows in the chapter is a requirement for every person in the order to take turns in a role that, according to Benedict, uniquely cultivates love for the other – the role of kitchen service. These weekly servers prepared and served meals, washed laundry, and washed the feet of each of the other members.
In requiring every member of the order to serve in this role, Benedict establishes a practice of developing “love against the grain,” as the writers of the former Meditatio London House put it, through acts that are hard not only because of the physical labor they require, but because the emotional and spiritual work of being in such a position of humility is a challenge for the human heart. It is a challenge that fosters love and that does so, in my experience, through constant encounters with the human tendency towards self-centeredness, chiefly one’s own.
Between my sophomore and junior year in college, I decided I wanted to spend the summer enjoying the retreat of the woods and lake at my school’s camp in northern Wisconsin, but I absolutely did not want to be a camp counselor. I applied and was hired as one of the summer housekeepers, packed my bags, and boarded the coach bus outside my dorm, ready for summer. As my view transitioned from suburban housing developments to evergreen forests, I anticipated the tan and the relationships I would develop over the next few months, but I could not have anticipated the “practical depthing of love” (Meditatio London House) that I would encounter while cleaning bathroom stalls, floors, and messes made by preteens on their way from swim time to lunch.
Thankfully, my manager for the summer did anticipate this encounter. He understood that it was his role to prepare the team of housekeepers not only to dust, mop, and scrub the dining hall, bath houses, recreation centers, and conference housing every week but also to navigate the condition of our hearts as we did so. He taught us to pay attention to moments where we were tempted to choose bitterness over love for those we served. Let me tell you, when those you are serving tend to respond to your presence with frustration or simply not acknowledge you at all, the decision between responding with love or bitterness becomes as tangible as turning left or right. If you’ve experienced this before, you know this to be true.
In those moments you encounter not only the choice to love others or resent them, but also the choice to love or resent yourself. In the span of 30 seconds, the exclamation of “The bathroom is closed again!” prompts the rush of awareness of the other person’s ungratefulness, the need for patience, your own strong desire for recognition and gratitude (which is perhaps the real reason the other person seems ungrateful), the log in your own eye, and the general brokenness and darkness of everyone in the situation thinking primarily of themselves. No wonder Benedict instructed those beginning their week of service to pray, “Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me” (Psalm 70:1).
And yet, when guided by a wise mentor who brings this confrontation into the open, teaches you to experience it without fear or shame, and brings it to the Lord, a new revelation of Truth can be found. We bathed our summer of labor in prayer, carving out time before each full day to pray for each other. We fiercely protected each other’s days off to create space for rest. What might have turned into a summer of begrudging work and deepening resentment became a daily discipline in loving, just as Benedict intended for the kitchen servers in the Benedictine order.
As the summer wore on and we scrubbed mud off the epoxy floor of the bath house again and again, I felt a deepening in my heart which to this day, almost a decade later, I work to cultivate—and it is hard work. In a culture of self-help habits and self-actualization mantras, we rarely hear, “Wash each other’s dirt to find the real you!” but this is what God’s upside-down Kingdom says. The God who is Love modeled a human life of humble service and tells His followers to love each other and to wash each other’s feet (John 13).
The Better Samaritan blog is produced by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, a research institute which specializes in resilience and spiritual fortitude. To learn more and apply for a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership, visit our website.
Claire (Stewart) Brosius is a writer, strategist, climber, and avid Star Wars fan. She currently serves as the senior manager of strategic initiatives at HOPE International, where she leads strategy design and management. Claire holds a B.A. in philosophy from Wheaton College (IL). She lives in Columbus, OH.