St Benedict and Europe (Again)

Readers of this blog may think I have written more than enough about St Benedict and Europe already. I have had more than one go at expressing my thoughts about Brexit, and as I try very hard to keep iBenedictines free from party politics, it is difficult to say more without inviting the kind of one-dimensional comment that is the moderator’s nightmare. However, the events of the last few days have concentrated minds wonderfully. The spectacle of the government disintegrating before our eyes, the fact that Brexit negotiations are still stuck at a rudimentary stage, and the grave doubts many have about the wisdom of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the way in which it was presented to the public at the time of the EU referendum combine to make me think that there is still something to be said.

When Paul VI proclaimed St Benedict patron of Europe (a title he now enjoys with several others) he was acknowledging the unique role of the Benedictines in shaping the Christian culture of the West:

Messenger of peace, moulder of union, magister of civilization, and above all herald of the religion of Christ and founder of monastic life in the West: these are the proper titles of exaltation given to St Benedict, Abbot. At the fall of the crumbling Roman Empire, while some regions of Europe seemed to have fallen into darkness and others remained as yet devoid of civilization and spiritual values, he it was who, by constant and assiduous effort, brought to birth the dawn of a new era. It was principally he and his sons, who with the cross, the book and the plough, carried Christian progress to scattered peoples from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the plains of Poland (Cf. AAS 39 (1947), p. 453). With the cross; that is, with the law of Christ, he lent consistency and growth to the ordering of public and private life. To this end, it should be remembered that he taught humanity the primacy of divine worship through the ‘opus Dei’, i.e. through liturgical and ritual prayer. Thus it was that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture felt they constituted the one people of God; a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages.

He went on to draw an analogy with the formation and purpose of what we now know as the EU. Half a century later, the optimism looks a little naive. The bright dream of the future is no more — and it isn’t ‘Brussels red tape’ that has destroyed it but horrors like Srebrenica and the resurgence of a populism that preys on the weak and rejects the stranger. The antidote many have offered is a return to the past, to a time that never was save in our imagination, and the selective recreation of a Europe that has closed its eyes to what lies beyond its borders. (The Europe I speak of includes Britain.) Perhaps it is time for a reality check, using the same Rule of St Benedict that Paul VI saw as so creative.

First and foremost, the Rule of St Benedict is about seeking God and living in a manner pleasing to him. There are no half-measures, no indulgences, no small accommodations we can make to suit our whims and fancies. The Rule catches us at every turn and leads us back to the Gospel, to living with the eyes of God always upon us, our ears always alert for his voice. The human society regulated by St Benedict, the monastic community, has what we would call ‘democratic elements’, but it is not a democracy as we understand it today. It is inclusive by its very nature, but its inclusivity is far removed from what is usually meant by that term nowadays. It is uncompromising in its insistence on virtue, orthodoxy, hard work and plain living. In other words, it is a demanding Rule — not harsh, in the way that Celtic monasticism was harsh; not burdensome, in the way that many a later rule has been; but a Rule that gets to the heart of things and asks our all. It has been an important instrument for the creation of a Christian culture without which I dare to say Europe (again including Britain) has no future. Its influence goes very deep — so deep, in fact, that we are often unaware of the Christian origin of much that we take for granted.

It isn’t fashionable to assert that Europe is Christian or it is nothing. We would much rather talk about multicultural richness and diversity. As I understand it, multiculturalism means that every culture must be accorded equal value. To suggest otherwise is to be narrow-minded, bigoted or worse. Increasingly, I think the multicultural experiment in Europe has failed, not because we do not value the gifts that other cultures bring but because it has led to lazy thinking and acting. Government attempts to define ‘British values’ have been doomed to failure because they have no real centre, nothing to hold them together. It would be more profitable, perhaps, to think about Benedict’s teaching on hospitality. RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, is welcoming, but it is the welcome of people who have confidence both in what they offer and what they receive. Do we have such confidence, or are we desperately trying to find it? Are we simply reluctant to welcome others, afraid of them, or do we we lack a sense of ‘home’? It is worth thinking about that for a moment.

To welcome others to one’s home, one must first have a home, which means a sense of identity, a uniqueness we can share but not forego. Our home doesn’t need to be a fortress, but it does need to be somewhere we can relax, feel at ease, know our place. For me as an Englishwoman, a Catholic and a Benedictine, that sense of home is undoubtedly linked to my country, my Church and my sense of Europe as the natural expression of my cultural identity. I hope that doesn’t make me unappreciative or fearful of what lies outside or beyond. Without roots, the tree cannot flourish. I know I cannot, and what is true of the individual is also true of Europe. There are indeed many things of which Christian Europe should repent; many things that, even today, we do not see clearly enough to know whether they are as they should be or not; but if we give up on the ‘Christian’, what is left? Only a soulless concentration on wealth, which forces the weakest under, and a growing inequality untempered by conscience or ideas of altruism. Surely we can do better than that?

St Benedict has many quotable sentences in his Rule, and to those of us who know the text by heart, they tend to come unbidden at various moments of the day. One that often comes to mind is RB 4.74, Et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare, Never to despair of God’s mercy. Whatever the difficulties we face, however great the chaos that threatens us, there is not merely the hope but the fact of God’s mercy. It may not come to us in the way we are expecting, but come it most certainly will. We must be ready to receive it.


Monastic Prophets

The one thing we all know about prophets is that they tend to be unpopular, especially among their own. Unfortunately, it does not follow that if we are unpopular we are prophets, though many have made that mistake. After the Second Vatican Council, it became common to talk about the ‘prophetic witness’ of monasticism and much of my early monastic life seems to have been spent listening to men in sandals speaking eloquently about the renunciations we undertake, the sacred space of the monastery buildings, and the unique communion we enjoy as members of a monastic community. Even at the time, part of me was registering something not quite right about it all. Dom David Knowles, of happy memory, combined real scholarship and exquisite prose with cheerful acknowledgement of the fact that he inserted a ‘purple page’ among every three or four that he wrote. He knew that words have power to move us, quite independent of the facts or opinions they express. He was, in some ways, a ‘failed’ monastic prophet himself, who had urged a simpler and purer way of life on his own community and been rejected. That rejection, and Dom David’s reaction to it, led to many years of estrangement and, I suspect, a profound loneliness out of which he created something immensely valuable, the prophetic witness he was meant to give, not the one he thought he was to give. I find it helpful to remember that when thinking about monastic prophets in general, but can we go a little deeper? How can monasticism be prophetic?

That mythical being, the average layperson, has a few preconceptions about monasticism. There is the romanticism of the habit, the gothic grandeur of the buildings, and the quaintness of much of the life — monks gliding along endless cloisters, singing beautifully in clouds of incense, and making us grin with their little foibles, their beer and wine-making and the honey from their bees. It is all deliciously other-worldly. When they speak to us of God, we listen, because they are the experts — and we can screen out anything we do not particularly want to hear. The nuns have a slightly harder time of it, because we like them to be hidden (except when we want access or photos on Instagram, of course) and we expect them to be demure and docile and good at listening to us. The problem comes when the monk or nun challenges this cosy view of things and asks some searching questions of the community or of society at large; when, in fact, they do the work of the prophet, seeking to bring us back to our senses and to God. In a way, we expect that of monks, at least of some monks, but of nuns not so much. So, the first problem we face is: are we listening, and are we listening to the right people, the genuine prophets, or only to those who say what we want to hear?

This can get quite complicated when we think about the way in which the Church has become split over ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’. We bandy words about and claim that our party is the ‘right’ one, usually because it is more numerous. A couple of years ago, when Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, I wrote a short post on how to judge a monastery (see here). I expressed some doubts about using numbers as the sole, or even the main, criterion of authenticity or viability, in more secular terms, success. It seemed to me then, and even more now that Cor Orans has given definite form and scope to the Constitution, that looking only at the numbers is akin to applying the prosperity gospel to monastic life. The more you have, the more God has blessed you. That doesn’t seem very prophetic to me and begs the question, what is it that the Church has a right to demand from those of us who live the monastic life? How can we be prophets for our times?

The answer I gave in my earlier post is still the one I would give today — holiness  is the first and most important witness any of us can give — but I think I would want to expand on that a little. There is a great deal in our lives that is truly counter-cultural, and though I love the habit we wear as a sign of our continuity with the Benedictines of the past, and have no scruples about the pursuit of beauty in our liturgy or our buildings, I regard these things as secondary. It is doing the work of the monk that matters; and the work of the monk is largely prayer, silence, chastity, obedience, community and learning. There are several items there that are definitely not popular. Take the romantic gloss off a lifelong commitment to single chastity and you will find many a monk or nun who has experienced a great loneliness even in the midst of community. Obedience is wonderful, until it breaks your heart; and that commitment to prayer, day in, day out, can lead to many a secret battle with one’s own demons, not to mention Brother X or Sister Y, who are impossible. However, it is learning that I should like to dwell on for a moment.

We are often told that the first monks and nuns eschewed learning, not so the Benedictines. Reading slowly, carefully, consistently, always listening for the voice of the Lord, is characteristic of lectio divina, but it is also characteristic of the scholar’s search for truth and the learned person’s quest for understanding. Many people today seem to have lost interest in truth and understanding because it requires effort and because it may confront us with ideas we’d rather not consider or make us give up positions we have long held or find comfortable. It unsettles us, and most of us do not like being unsettled. Enter the Benedictines! We are not preachers or teachers, but we are men and women of prayer and reflection. We may say little, but that little should always be seasoned with salt. It should come from a full mind as well as a full heart. Benedictines have always engaged with the culture of the times and I believe it is even more important that we do so now, when the whole idea of a specifically Christian culture is under siege from all sides.

When historians of the future look back on the twenty-first century, it may be in the monasteries that they will find the prophetic flame, that witness to the transcendence of God and the importance of holiness that we attempt to articulate in our words and, even more, in our deeds. It will never make us popular, and experience suggests that there will be more failures than successes, but, as they say in Spain, ‘Vale la pena.’ It’s worth the bother, because our salvation, and the salvation of the whole world, is at stake.*

* I am here expressing the orthodox Catholic view that, although our Saviour has redeemed us, we each of us have free will, and free will allows us either to accept or reject the salvation offered us.


Digital Technologies and Christian Culture

I have been thinking about the way in which digital technologies are changing not just the expression but also the content of what we religious types put online. Here at the monastery we are contemplating some major changes to our web sites, use of social media, etc. One of the things that has struck me is how word (and Word) centred our practice is. Our main web site, like those of many Christian organizations, contains pages of text: information, reflection, explanation, the fruit of our thinking about monastic life and trying to express it in words.

Thinking, words, these are the traditional elements of Christian culture, requiring silence, time and the discipline of logic for effect. But the online world thrives on immediacy, brevity, the interplay of image and sound, action and reaction. I think we can truthfully say that we have tried to take the monastery into that world. The challenge we now face is how to engage more deeply, to be true to our Christian heritage yet at the same time interpret anew the truth by which we live. That raises all kinds of questions about authority and trustworthiness. It goes beyond language, touching on psychology and social attitudes that are not of the Church’s making.

There is no shortage of opinion about these matters. Resources of various kinds abound, with excellent work being done by CODEC and @xiannewmedia, for example. But ultimately, what we do online proceeds from our lives offline, from the prayer, lectio divina and common life of the community. I am not sure what we shall produce over the next few months but I have a hunch that it may be very different from anything we have attempted so far — not because the technology on offer makes new things possible, but because the world which has developed that technology requires a new approach.

As always, I’d love to know what you think.