St. Benedict and the Seven Dwarfs

I’ve been putting together the readings for the Benedictine Oblates meeting a week or so from now.  Looking over a variety of materials on the vow of obedience, I came across Br. David Steindl-Rast’s article Paths of Obedience: Fairy Tales and the Monk’s Way.   The article considers the stories of Snow White, and of Psyche, in terms of obedience. It’s deep, insightful, and thought-provoking.

It also included the most unusual analysis of the Seven Dwarfs I’d ever seen.  Br. David asks, “Try, playfully, to look at the setup of the Seven Dwarfs through Snow White’s eyes.  Does it look domestic or monastic? ”  He makes a good case for a monastic interpretation.

  • Their place “beyond seven mountains” suggests monastic seclusion
  • They are not a family but some kind of brotherhood
  • They share a common table and common dormitory
  • “All receive the same: there are seven little settings on the table, each with its own little plate, spoon, knife, fork, and cup; and when they come home each lights his own little lamp. “
  • Nonetheless, each thing is fitted to the individual – a short dwarf with a short bed – rather than some military uniformity.
  • They follow a strict schedule of work and leisure.
  • In the Disney version, they even chant while they work
  • They keep their home in a neat and orderly way, calling to mind St. Benedict’s admonition that “anyone who treats the monastery property in an untidy or careless way is to be taken to task.”

Br. David sees, not a monastic group following a rule, but the kind of peasant community that often lived near a monastery, picking up the most visible traits of monastic life and organizing their own life around them.  He says, “But to me the most amusing and convincing little detail is the subtle hint at the monks’ insistence (shall we call it a hang-up?) that the meals be on time. St. Benedict seems almost a bit fussy regarding the evening meal. Twice he repeats that “all must be finished while day-light lasts,” and every Snow White that ever worked in a monastic kitchen soon learned that when the dwarfs came home at night “the meal had better be ready,” as the story puts it – or else.”

It’s this kind of playful analysis, inserted into a profound and deep analysis, that make reading Br. David’s writing so much fun.  His exploration of the temptations that overcome Snow White (and Psyche) and their ultimate learning of the gifts and the freedom that come through obedience are well worth reading.

Paths of Obedience: Fairy Tales and the Monk’s Way, by Br. David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B.  Originally published in Parabola, Vol. V, August 1980 and republished as Chapter 10 of Common Sense Spirituality: The Essential Wisdom of David Steindl-Rast in 2008.

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