The Holy Abbots of Cluny

The feast of the holy abbots of Cluny rarely excites the imagination of anyone outside the cloister. A few liturgists may perhaps refer to them in passing, those who know something of the story of Abelard and Heloise will probably smile at the mention of Peter the Venerable, but, by and large, they are all ‘long ago and far away’. Even my attempt to sketch a pen-portrait of four of them on Twitter this morning may have confused or bored as many as it enlightened. The trouble is, we are not very good at integrating history into our everyday lives or seeing the relevance of the past to the present. Instead of seeking to understand or explain the cruelties and injustices of Black Slavery, for example, we prefer to do away with any of its relics, from statues to church monuments, because that lets us off the hook of really engaging  with the subject. We all know slavery of any kind is wrong, so we don’t have to bother with why it is wrong. Unfortunately, that weakens our ability to judge other matters where decisions about rightness and wrongness are not so clear-cut. We forget that the argument is part of the answer, and the way in which we conduct that argument is an intrinsic part of working the answer itself out.

The abbots we commemorate today — Odo, Maiolus, Odilo, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — were not weak men, far from it, but we do not think of them as controversialists. St Odo, for instance, was particularly severe on the use of rough or judgemental language by his monks. I do not imagine, for example, that he would have endorsed the current trend among some Catholics to impugn the faith of public figures like Pope Francis or President Biden on the basis of their own understanding of Catholicism. He knew — as we are often reluctant to admit — that judgement in such matters is God’s business unless we have been given explicit authority, and even then, there are all kinds of caveats to be observed. It is no accident, I suppose, that his devotion to Our Lady was to Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Peter the Venerable became involved in many of the hot topics of his day, but he was a patient man, who knew that finding out what another thought or considered true was essential to opening up a dialogue with them. That, I suspect, is why he had the Quran translated into Latin rather than assuming he already knew what Muslims believed and taught. 

You notice how careful I have been in my use of verbs: imagine, suspect, think, suppose. That is because no matter how well we may think we know the people of the past, to attribute ideas and sentiments to them is a risky business. We may have good grounds for thinking as we do, but we do not have certainty. That applies as much to the present as to the past, though most of us forget that when we use social media!

One of the things that has always attracted me to Cluny is precisely that element of not knowing everything, of being ready to let God be God in all things, while still being firm and clear about the values we hold. By a happy co-incidence, today we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the kind of person the abbot should be, RB 2. May I suggest it has something to teach us all? Something the holy abbots of Cluny grasped very well.

N.B. If this post is not to your taste, you will find at least five more on the holy abbots of Cluny in this blog.

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Patriotism is not Enough

The solemnity of St George tends to bring out much that is good, a little that is bad, and, if I am honest, a certain amount of silliness as well, among the English. Leaving aside those learned discussions about the origins of the dragon-slaying legend, the displacement of St Edmund as patron saint of the English, and the feast for the eyes that St George-themed paintings and sculpture have produced over the years, what are we left with? For some there is only that red and white flag showing our tribal allegiance, prominently displayed at football matches or on the number plates of cars. For others, there is the annual St George’s Day Dinner, with sentimental speeches pledging fidelity to ‘our own dear Queen, God bless her!’ and a selective recall of history that is both enchanting and infuriating. For many more, the day brings with it either an embarrassed indifference or a sober assessment of England’s role in the world and what are regarded as typically English characteristics. Perhaps we could spend a moment or two looking at these latter.

English Qualities: Myth and Reality

Everyone knows that the most characteristic quality of the Englishman or woman in every age is emotional reserve. Along with that goes a highly-developed sense of duty, honesty and sense of fair play. We pride ourselves on our sense of humour, but not enough to make fools of ourselves learning another language. We just speak English more loudly. We can safely assert that the English are not very imaginative but we do make good administrators. We are entirely clueless about the Arts, depressingly bad cooks, and kinder to animals than to our children. Bluff and gruff, that’s us. Only, it ain’t absolutely true.

Merrie England was not all myth, and in the sixteenth century Erasmus paints a very different picture of England from the one we have now. He didn’t think much of our beer(!), but the cheese was better than that in Basle and he found the English habit of kissing one another on every possible occasion utterly delightful. Everyone sang or played an instrument, and, at least in the circles in which he moved, there was an ease with languages, especially Latin, that made communication easy. Then, I suppose, the rot set in. The English became a little more dour, more intent on empire-building and the martial qualities that go with conquest and administration. By the time we get to the Victorians, the myth becomes reality.

England Today: Values and Virtues

Today, I think very few would claim that the English are emotionally reserved, although there remains an awkwardness about the kind of display of personal emotion we see in Prince Harry. To speak of duty is to invite derision. There are serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of some holding public office, and the uncomfortable feeling that we can no longer count on anyone’s word being their bond. Administration is not our forte, if it ever was, and although we can claim to be more imaginative than allowed in the past, we are just as mono-glottal, inward-looking and dull as ever we were. Is there any hope for us then, as a nation and as individuals?

I think there is. English love of country never descends into nationalism, ‘my country right or wrong,’ except among the eccentric. Despite what I see as the tragedy of Brexit, we are still open to collaboration with others and appreciate their good points. Even after the current Government’s cut in the aid budget, we continue to be one of the most generous providers of help to other countries, both as a state and as individuals. Our cooking has improved but so too has our awareness of the need to share what we have with the hungry. We’re still not good at languages, but we remain kind to animals and we are becoming kinder to our children.

The qualities I have singled out are not obviously Christian virtues but they contain within them some important Christian values. Thinking of Erasmus, though, and his remarks about music-making and kissing, maybe one quality we largely lack nowadays is joyfulness. Easter is the season of joy, and alleluia is its song. Let us not stop at patriotism but ring out our joy to the Lord.

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April Sunshine, April Tears

Yesterday people all over the world watched or listened to the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, many rushed to tell others how good or bad it was, or gave their opinion of this or that aspect of the arrangements and those taking part in it. For most, however, I suspect it was the picture of the Queen, dressed in black and sitting alone, that provided the most powerful image and drew sympathy from even the stoniest of hearts: a widow mourning her husband of 73 years, in public and within the constraints of strict protocol. None of us knows what she was thinking or the emotions she experienced as the service progressed. We know about our own grief, but the feelings of others are often difficult to read. Some need the warmth of a tangible human presence; others prefer space and solitude.

I think myself there was a kind of counterpoint between the queen’s sorrow and the duke’s slightly subversive humour, especially when the naval call to action stations sounded, a mixture of April sunshine and April tears, if you like. Every funeral in Eastertide must have elements of both. The joy of the resurrection does not diminish the pain of loss and death, nor does the spiritual eliminate the human. All are brought together as we sing our grateful ‘Alleluia’.

Image
The image of the Queen at Windsor to which I refer may be subject to copyright but can be viewed by following this link:

https://images.app.goo.gl/6vZcRHhSUb4m3oQ26

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Ears Have Walls: a problem for Tweeting Brides of Christ?

I wonder how many people will read ‘walls have ears’ rather than ‘ears have walls’? I wonder, too, how many will know the source of the quotation. It comes from graffiti seen in Paris in 1968, that year of endless radical questioning. To me it expresses very neatly a common problem. We tend to see and hear what we expect. St Benedict’s opening to his Rule, Obsculta, ‘Listen carefully,’ not only shows awareness of this tendency but also offers an immediate corrective. We are to pay attention, think, allow ourselves to be shaped and stretched by what we encounter, but how difficult most of us find that. We prefer our comfort zone — most of us, anyway.

A Religious Life Thread on Twitter

Yesterday there was a Twitter thread on religious life, more specifically the use of Bridal imagery in relation to religious women. It was not easy to follow because some who joined late responded to tweets that had been sent much earlier, while others introduced ideas/themes that, though fascinating and enriching in themselves, were secondary to the matter in hand. 

The thread began because @CarmelNunsGB noticed a poll by a non-religious asking the question ‘Are nuns and religious sisters married?’ The wording of the question suggested unfamiliarity with traditional language yet at the same time invited reflection on the meaning and purpose of such language. It evoked a wide-ranging response from the #NunsofTwitter and others.

Brides of Christ and Nuptial Imagery

Some people were happy to think of themselves as Brides of Christ; others definitely weren’t. Some insisted on limiting application of nuptial imagery to the Church as a whole (cf St Paul); others found even that difficult. We touched on religious profession (Catholic and Anglican, of both nuns and religious sisters), marriage, the rite of Consecration of Virgins, the diaconate, the use of signs and symbols (e.g. rings), eschatology, and individual experience, with some valuable insights from an Orthodox perspective. I had to bow out of the discussion early because of other duties but not before I had posited a link between the rite of Consecration of Virgins and the diaconate. 

Taking the Subject Further

It would be good to take these topics further, especially as they relate to the post-pandemic Church, but some of them, e.g. discussion of the diaconate in relation to women and the nature of religious/monastic profession, presuppose a level of scholarship we do not all possess. In an ideal situation, I think a writer would need

  • A sense of period and historical development. The fourth century is not the same as the fourteenth, and the fourteenth is different again from the twenty-first. This sense of period is rarer than one might think.
  • Familiarity with the sources — historical, theological, liturgical — and the scriptures and legal forms on which they depend. That means hard work, knowledge of languages and intelligent interpretation. 
  • Theological literacy, and awareness of how the Western Tradition has evolved. 
  • Judgement. Probably the most difficult quality of all, but the most important. Not every shred of ‘evidence’ is equally valid but it isn’t always easy to recognize that.

I’d love to explore some of the questions the thread raised, but a very little reflection showed how ill-prepared I would be for such a task. But there is another reason, just as pertinent, which I think throws light on the nature of religious community and the kind of obligations we assume when we join one. My community asked me not to do so.

Post-Vatican II Reflection on Religious Life*

If I may be allowed a very broad generalisation, the best reflection on religious life* comes from religious themselves, those who actually try to live the values they profess. Much post-Vatican II commentary on religious life emanating from the Vatican itself has reflected an anthropology and sociology I, and others, find unconvincing. For women, in particular, the results have been disappointing; but it is not just women who have been affected. The concentration on clerical control and the reluctance to see women as fully participant in the life of the Church has had negative consequences for the Church as a whole. It is actually quite difficult to discuss some subjects openly and freely without attracting the kind of attention that chokes off such discussion because of its virulence. My community does not want me to give anyone grounds for misunderstanding — in other words, contributing to the negativity often encountered, especially online.

Discussing Hot Questions

I know the community is especially nervous about my discussing the diaconate. Since St John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, Catholics have been forbidden to discuss the ordination of women to the priesthood and many have taken that to include discussion of the diaconate as well. Some will recall the high price Lavinia Byrne paid for Women at the Altar (which she wrote before the Apostolic Letter was published). I regret to say that even today some people regard it as their duty to delate others to Rome for opinions they may or may not actually hold, but which the delator thinks they do and have expressed. Although such a drastic reaction to anything I might write is unlikely (the benefits of obscurity!), I do know how much time and energy can be taken up dealing with objections and criticisms, many of which are the consequence of sheer carelessness (on my part, or that of the reader) or misunderstanding. My community has a right to my time and energy, so, in this I must comply.

A Tension in Religious Life

My decision highlights a tension inherent in religious life, and in membership of the Church more generally. We all have a commitment to our communities whether they be little or large, religious or secular. That commitment may be experienced at times as a freedom, an energiser, at others as a restraint. It would be easy to make a show of bravado along the lines of ‘publish and be damned’ but it would be just bravado, and rather selfish bravado at that. We are called to build one another up, to hasten the coming of the Kingdom. That may mean questioning, challenging, refusing to be sidelined or silenced. It may also mean patience, not saying all one wishes, listening rather than adding to the clamour.

I believe some subjects do need to be discussed quite urgently or we are likely to see a further loss of members of the Church and of the religious communities that form part of her. As I said at the beginning, ears have walls. I hope someone with the necessary learning and love of the Church will break them down. It won’t be me, but I will be praying for them.

*The term ‘consecrated life’ is used nowadays, but the term ‘religious life’ will be more familiar to many readers.

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A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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An Ocean of Tears

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Yesterday we heard that UK deaths from COVID-19 had reached 100,000 +. Today we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day and remember the millions of Jews who died in the concentration camps and death camps of the Nazi era. What sadness, what an ocean of tears! Statistics have a way of appearing inhuman, yet we know that every figure represents a human person, an individual, infinitely loved by God, tenderly loved by family and friends, and we feel helpless in the face of so much suffering and anguish. It is good that we should. If we did not feel pain, would we ever know compassion? Would we ever try to make things better for others?

I have often thought about my mother who, when I was young, paid a weekly visit to someone I’ll call Hedwig — a survivor of Nazi ‘experimentation’, who led a sad and lonely life, consumed by fear, all her possessions gathered into a few carrier bags. My mother wasn’t a ‘do-gooder’, nor was she motivated by religion or any ‘ism’. She knew what it was to grieve (she lost two brothers during World War II) and she knew that Hedwig grieved the loss of everyone and everything familiar to her, so she did what she could to reassure her that she was both loved and lovable. I hope her sympathy and interest made life a little better for Hedwig. I know it did for me. Go figure, as they say.

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Unconscious Narcissism

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of VJ Day, it would be tempting to recall veterans of the war in the East I knew in my youth, especially survivors of the Japanese prison camps, or some of the lovely Japanese friends I made at Cambridge, but to do so would be to give in to a kind of unconscious narcissism that has become more and more prevalent as social media have come to dominate much of our behaviour. We have become so accustomed to stating our own opinion, giving others the benefit of our advice, or simply turning every post or comment of others into a vehicle for self-advertisement that we no longer, or only rarely, recognize that we are doing so. What do I really know of the sufferings of those prisoners of war or those affected by the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Come to think of it, what do I really know of Japanese culture beyond what my friends have shown me? In both cases, my horror and delight are second-hand, mediated, appropriated.

There is nothing wrong in that, you may argue, but the purposes to which I put them may be. If today you or I are tempted to wade into a fight on Twitter or any other platform, maybe we should ask ourselves what we gain from it? Do we genuinely seek information, want to clarify a view, or contribute to a debate; or do we want to show off, voice our anger, scoop up some sympathy for ourselves under the guise of sympathy for another? When we have become the centre of our own universe, we often misjudge others — and our own motives. What I think we can all agree on as we look back on the tragedies of World War II is that they should never happen again. Let us pray that we may be selfless enough to ensure that they don’t.

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Transfiguration 2020

When the Cluniacs gave the Church the beautiful feast of the Transfiguration, they can have had no idea how it would come to be associated with both some of the blackest and potentially most luminous events in history. The dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima seventy-five years ago today has seared the memory of us all with its strange and terrible glare that brought darkness upon the world, a darkness we can never deny or undo. But go on a little. In 1981 Sir Tim Berners-Lee published the first page of what would become the world wide web, the potential of which is still unfolding. It is a light in the darkness, an example of human skill and visionary impulse which can be used for good not ill. Then we think of Lebanon and the misery brought about (apparently) by human greed and corruption and there are no words, only silence and tears and an inarticulate appeal to the mercy of God.

When Jesus climbed Mount Tabor and was transfigured in the presence of his disciples, he allowed them to glimpse his glory as God in his human flesh. Some scholars think the Transfiguration occurred at night. For me, that makes the disciples’ experience not only mysterious but compelling: an event so unexpected that it has to be remembered. The disciples were forced to remember it in every detail, made to recall their inadequate response (poor Peter, getting it wrong again!), puzzle over it, pray over it. I think that is why the Cluniacs developed a liturgy to celebrate the Transfiguration and why the Universal Church adopted it as a feast. The Transfiguration helps us take those things we don’t really understand and hand them over to God to deal with because he knows what he is doing even when we don’t. It allows us to see beyond our human limitations. It lets God into the human situation with an intensity and freedom we might otherwise try to prevent. In short, it means God is God here and now, no matter how much we try to thwart him.

Audio version

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St Augustine of Canterbury and the Gift of Piety

One of the paradoxes of monastic life is that we begin by knowing everything, and the closer we get to the end, the more we realise we know nothing at all. Yesterday a friend reminded me of something I had written a long time ago:

My novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper . . . . The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there. So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?

That was, if I may say so, the gift of piety at work — or at least its beginnings. Piety is the gift for which we pray today in our novena to the Holy Spirit and one which St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast this is, possessed in abundance. He didn’t want to come to Britain and dawdled on the way, but as soon as Gregory the Great told him to make haste, he did. He didn’t much like what he found when he arrived, but he toiled away diligently. Miracles followed, and when Gregory expressed disapproval, Augustine made sure that they were not bruited abroad. To this day, they remain unknown. In short, Augustine learned day by day what his mission was to be and did his best to fulfil it, becoming in the process a great saint, one who loved the Lord with all his heart and desired to please him in everything. That is truly piety at work.

In popular parlance, being pious is almost a term of abuse. We tend to think of limp, Lydia Languishes of virtue, living horribly circumscribed lives and disapproving of everyone else. The more classically-minded think of pius Aeneas with all his trickery and often distant relationship with truth. The Church, however, has always been clear what she means by piety. It is what one might call an instinctive love and reverence for God that makes us want to worship him and do his will. It makes us want to be reverent; makes us want to be pleasing to God. It does not come all at once but it can be cultivated and grow. Piety is one of those gifts that require us to co-operate with grace. Its effect on others can be huge. Just think what St Augustine did for Christ in this country. Just think what we can do, too, (even, I daresay, in a hen-coop).

Audio version

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How to be a Good Leader

St Benedict didn’t actually write anything with such a title, but his two chapters on the abbot provide some excellent guidelines — and not just for monastics. At a time when we are experiencing something of a crisis of leadership in the Western world, it’s good to think about what leadership is, how it acts in the service of others, the constraints under which it must operate and the co-operation it must have from those who are led if it is to achieve anything of value. The feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, about whom I have written often in the past, provides us with an opportunity to reflect anew on the relationship between authority and obedience, power and service; and by one of those neat co-incidences only heaven and the calendar can arrange, this morning we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot with its portrait of a wise and kindly leader whose daunting task it is to be ‘the representative of Christ in the monastery’. (RB 2.2)

Most people know that Cluny was the mother-house of what was, in effect, the first religious order in the Church, eventually numbering over 2,000 houses, including several in England. Many also know that there were so many monks at Cluny itself that they had to be divided into separate choirs, constantly singing the praises of God in a laus perennis. Inevitably, expansion created problems and by the time of the French Revolution, the Cluniacs were so identified with the Ancien Régime that they were ripe for suppression. If one goes to Cluny today one can see little of the abbey remains for most of it was demolished in 1810 and the stone carted away. It is not the buildings that made Cluny great, however, but the people.

Earlier, on Twitter, I tried to give something of the personalities and achievements of four of the abbots of Cluny. Listed in date order these are:

Maiolus was both librarian and cellarer (bursar) before becoming abbot of Cluny. He refused to become pope when Otto II wanted him to do so but concentrated on making his community observant and learned. #scholarship

Odilo was abbot of Cluny for 55 years. He was a peace-maker, introducing the notion of truce from Fridays to Mondays and in Advent and Lent. From 1028-1033 he had most of Cluny’s treasures melted down to relieve the poor. #generosity

Hugh was abbot of Cluny for 60 years, during which time the number of houses under him increased from c. 60 to c. 2000,., He was an influential mediator and papal diplomat but still took his regular turn as monastic cook. #humility

Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny for 25 years, argued against persecution of the Jewish people, defended Abelard, had the Quran translated into Latin so that Islam could be studied from its sources, and refused to have anything to do with the Second Crusade. #integrity

As expected, Peter the Venerable has attracted most attention because his concerns resonate with contemporary values, but I have a suspicion many monks and nuns will be more drawn to Hugh. Noreen Hunt paints an unforgettable picture of him cooking beans in the monastery kitchen, and kitchen duty or its equivalent tends to loom larger in our lives than international diplomacy or monastic empire building. I think that is a useful clue to the nature of genuine leadership. It is with those who are led. It shares our difficulties and aspirations even as it tries to guide us. In the case of the monastic leader, the path to be trodden is that of holiness and zeal. Benedict singles out for special care the teaching of the abbot and his responsibility for the way in which the community acts, or fails to act, on his words. It follows that his teaching must be clear, consistent and entirely in accordance with the gospel, marked with compassion, yes, but also firm about what is unacceptable.

That Cluny lasted so long and produced so many saints is testimony to the leadership and zeal of its abbots and the desire of the community to become holy or, as we might say today, the best it could. There were consequences for society in general, too, many of them helpful, like the efforts to reduce war and violence. I wonder how today’s secular leadership measures up to that in its service of the common good, its exercise of authority and its use of power. Ideas, anyone?

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