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.

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