Brexit and the Feast of St Peter’s Chair

Yesterday a Facebook friend asked what seems to me a pertinent question: as well as asking what a potential exit from the European Union might mean for Britian, shouldn’t we also ask what it might mean for the other countries of Europe? In other words, although we shall probably spend the next four months listening to arguments for and against continuing membership of the E.U., those arguments will, almost entirely, focus on the presumed benefits to Britain. Can we argue like that any more? Given the Scottish Nationalist Party’s emphatic preference for remaining in the E.U., can we even assume a coherent understanding of ‘British interests’?

The present cathedra of St Peter, enthroned in Bellini’s magnificent bronze structure, was the gift of Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne and himself Holy Roman Emperor. The feast itself pre-dates the gift and, while always having been seen as a feast of unity, is nevertheless not without controversy, the feast of St Peter’s Chair at Rome having been celebrated on 18 January, and the feast of St Peter’s Chair at Antioch having been celebrated on 22 February. Today we have but the one feast. Without trying to push the analogy too far, I think there is something there we can usefully ponder. I love my country but I am aware of belonging to something larger than the nation state. We no longer identify Europe with Christendom, but, as a Catholic, I certainly feel the pull of that older, larger world in which a common Latin culture both united and transcended individual kingdoms and principalities; and, just as in Charles the Bald’s day, when he and his brother, John, faced a Saracen threat, we are conscious of the threat posed by Wahabist violence to much that we hold dear.

The Brexit question is not a purely political or economic question. At its heart is a much deeper and more difficult question: how do we understand the world in which we live and our place in it? For those of us who pray, I suggest we have a lot of praying to do as well as thinking.

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St Benedict, Co-Patron of Europe

For many Benedictines the 21 March feast of St Benedict is the big one. It occurs during Lent and is celebrated with a kind of spartan splendour which seems very apt for the father of western monasticism. The 11 July feast, by contrast, is a rather truncated affair (no I Vespers, for example) and overlaid by other concerns. When Paul VI declared St Benedict Patron of Europe, however, he touched upon something important: the role of Benedictine monasticism in giving shape to what we now call ‘Europe’.

It is scarcely possible to mention Europe nowadays without hearing a groan or mutterings about economic collapse; but Europe as an idea, as a political and cultural entity, as a source of both intellectual and material creativity, is not to be dismissed so summarily. What, I wonder, is the contribution that Benedictines make to the Europe of today? Medievalists tend to talk in terms of learning and literature, art and agriculture, acknowledging the diversity of monastic endeavours in the past. We cannot see the present so clearly, but I have a hunch that the monastic contribution is by no means spent. Maybe the large monasteries of the past, with their great estates and highly regulated way of life, will be seen no more, but it is the genius of St Benedict to be interpreted afresh in every generation. ‘Behold I am doing a new thing.’ These are exciting times in which to be a disciple of St Benedict.

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Greece in Flames

Anyone who doubts the impact of Europe’s financial crisis on the lives of ordinary people has only to look at the images and stories coming from Greece. Soup kitchens, abandoned children, street violence, these are not what we expect from a European country in the twenty-first century. We have all grown up with the notion of social and economic progress. Life is supposed to get better and better, but the last few years have shown that life does not get better for everyone. There is fear of a general economic meltdown and all the social evils which flow from that.

What is the Church’s response? By and large, what it has always been: practical help, prayer, and lobbying of political interests. The Orthodox Church in Greece is apparently feeding 250,000 people a day and its orphanages are struggling to cope with the number of abandoned children. That is humane, but everyone knows that something more is needed to address the roots of the problem. Suddenly Germany is the object of hatred. Berlin is blamed for the Euro crisis and for the suffering of the Greek people. It seems the European economic union is fragmenting before our eyes. Can it be long before the political union also is under strain?

Exaggerated? Perhaps, but it is high time we started to think about the future in more than narrowly personal terms. A ‘devaluation’ in our standard of living is inevitable and it challenges us to think through the implications of being Christian and the values by which we live. Selflessness and a sense of common purpose are essential. I think John Donne’s Meditation XVII is as apt here, as we watch the death throes of our accustomed order, as when we lament the death of an individual:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee . . .

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St Benedict, Patron of Europe

One of my private heresies is that Benedict was an Englishman. The minor fact of his having been born in Italy at a time when the English did not exist is cheerfully brushed away. How could someone with such reserve, such dry humour, such administrative genius have been anything but English? Of course, even I have to admit that no one nation has a monopoly on these characteristics. I suppose it would be better to say he was a fin-de-siècle Roman, without any fin-de-siècle nastiness.

Europe is very much in Benedict’s debt. His sons and daughters have, over many centuries, prayed and worked and studied their way to holiness; and in the course of doing so, have changed the face of the continent. We think of them today as missionaries and scholars, teachers and people of prayer. Europe is in urgent need of re-evangelisation, and although many wonderful Orders and Congregation have arisen in the Church, there is still a need for Benedictines, perhaps today more than ever. What we bring to the Church is hard to define, but easily recognized when encountered.

After thirty years in monastic life, I think I am just beginning to understand what it is all about: what it means to be a contemplative and a missionary, to be a cloistered nun and someone who reaches out to others with the Word of Life. We have espoused the internet and associated technologies in the same way that our predecessors embraced the quill pen and the printing press, and for much the same reasons; but we know that without the persevering life of prayer, which is largely unseen and unnoticed, everything we do on the net would be pointless. If Europe ever becomes a Christian society, it will be because prayer allowed God full scope to work his miracle of conversion.

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