Already the new year is beginning to look a little frayed about the edges. The hopes expressed beforehand, that this would be the year when we became more united, more peaceful, have already been destroyed by a hail of bullets in an Istanbul nightclub and countless other acts of violence around the world. Yet we persist in our optimism. We are determined that this year things should be better. We will make a new beginning.
The trouble is, there isn’t much to back up our desire to make a new beginning. For most people in the West, the new year is devoid of religious significance.* There is no collective act of repentance, no rituals to affirm a determination to change, nothing to support our efforts to be more united, more peaceful. For a Benedictine, however, there is the Rule of St Benedict which, together with the gospel and the liturgy, acts as a constant encouragement to try.
Yesterday we began reading though the Rule again from the beginning.** We shall read it through in its entirety three times in the course of the year, and no matter how familiar the words, we shall find ourselves being confronted by much that is new and sometimes difficult. Yesterday we were urged to strip ourselves of self-will, to listen and to follow — things most of us are reluctant to do, especially in a society that exalts selfhood in all its manifestations. Today we are told to wake up, pay heed, get going. It is the spiritual equivalent of a ruthless exercise programme, and it is intended to make us more aware of God, ourselves and other people.
Is there anything a lay person can take from this? I am not a believer in making complicated rules of life for oneself or in trying to be so ‘spiritual’ one neglects to be human. To pray as best one can, to work as best one can: that is already much. There is, however, one idea all of us can try this year which may sound ridiculously simple but which, like Naaman’s washing in the Jordan, may yield unexpected benefits. It has to do with awareness, something the Rule is very keen on.
How often do we see people shut themselves away from others (and sometimes themselves) by playing with their phones or plugging in their earpohones? How about deliberately choosing to wait five minutes before immersing ourselves in our virtual worlds and letting the real world, the one we can’t control, take precedence? We may notice things we had forgotten existed; we may have an opportunity to share a smile or exchange a greeting with someone who really needs that moment of human interaction and kindness. We may even meet Christ ‘lovely in limbs not his’. That, surely, would be a new beginning worth making.
*We haven’t always begun the secular new year on 1 January (it used to be 25 March, feast of the Annunciation). 1 January is the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, but comparatively few celebrate it as such.
**If you want to listen to the Rule of St Benedict, read day by day as it is in the monastery, you can do so on the desktop version of our web site here. Flash needed as I have yet to replace the player with a HTML5 version.