The anniversary of the death of D. Gertrude More, about whom you can read in this blog (please do a search in the sidebar) or its predecessor (please follow this link) is as good a day as any for reflecting on our priorities. What are they?
God comes first, of course; but what do we mean by that? The whole of Benedictine life is ordered towards the search for God. Prayer, liturgy and observance, every detail from lectio divina to the ups and downs of community life, the clothes we wear and the buildings we live in, is meant to lead us closer to God. A splendid liturgy may give us wonderful feelings about God but they tend to disappear when faced with a mound of washing-up or half a dozen loos to clean. Yet singing the praises of God in choir and doing more mundane tasks outside are all part and parcel of monastic life. They are all equally part of our search for God, the only difference being that, although we may postpone, say, the washing-up for a while, nothing may come before prayer. Prayer is the search for God neat and undiluted, whether it be the common prayer of the Divine Office or the more private contemplative prayer of the individual.
There is a catch, however. Even St Benedict, who exhorts us to prefer nothing to the work of God, makes one very important exception. He tells us that care of the sick should come before everything else. Forests have been felled and gallons of ink expended in an effort to try to reconcile these two seeming contradictions. Personally, I don’t think there is a contradiction. St Benedict was a sensible man, with a sensible approach to the problems of everyday life. If someone is really sick, we honour God best by serving him/her rather than by abandoning them while we fulfil our alloted service in choir. The problem comes when we find endless tasks that are to be preferred to prayer; when we use people and things as an excuse for not praying; because then we are putting ourselves first, rather than God; and the tragedy is, we often misuse good things in this way.
Well-meaning people sometimes look around and note all the great problems in the world and ask what contemplatives are doing about them. They rarely stop for an answer. No one who seriously tries to pray can be indifferent to the sufferings of others, to the injustices many labour under, to the sheer horror of poverty, war and disease. Most will quietly do what they can. Monastic communities give money/help where they can, write letters, try to influence others for good, but the most powerful thing they can do is to intercede with God. If one doesn’t believe in God, or if one only half-believes in God, that won’t make much sense. Prayer for such people is essentially a waste of time — something to get through, the spiritual equivalent of a quick cup of coffee before the real work of the day begins. For a Benedictine, by contrast, it is life itself, our meaning , our purpose; and unlike that quick cup of coffee, it is something that carries us over from this life to the next.
D. Gertrude More was, at one level, an obscure seventeenth century nun whom history has overlooked in favour of her distinguished ancestor St Thomas More. Yet to those who know her she is at least as important as he. She never did anything very ‘important’; never held any major office in community or had any overt influence on the events of her day. But, when she died at the early age of twenty-eight, she was already accounted a saint — not the plaster-of-paris type of treacley sentimentality but the adamantine type of steely determination. She was funny; she was clever; as a novice she was outrageous; but she knew exactly what her priorities were. One day we may discover how much she achieved through her fidelity and generosity of spirit.