All Benedictine Saints

On 13 November we celebrate the feast of All Benedictine Saints (i.e. all those who don’t have a day to themselves, so to say) and host our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. There is special joy today because our Canadian oblate, Margaret, will be making her oblation by video conference, in which oblates from other parts of the world will be joining. So why am I sitting at the computer in a distracted frame of mind? It is partly because today’s ‘to do’ list already looks impossible and I am not always optimistic first thing in the morning; it is partly because it is cold and dark and neither is conducive to high spirits; but mainly it is because the thought of holiness is sometimes more daunting than encouraging. Other people become saints; I/we don’t.

Regarding holiness as something ‘other’, attainable only by a special few, is, of course, a snare and delusion. It is also completely unBenedictine. The Rule of St Benedict isn’t meant for supermen or superwomen. It doesn’t prescribe any esoteric practices or extreme ascetical feats. Instead, it asks the monk or nun to live a life of daily fidelity to small things which are actually great things: to living in community under rule and abbot; to prayer, work, service, hospitality; absolute renunciation of personal ownership; an obedience as entire as it is intelligent. In doing so, the Rule shows us a way of living the Gospel that will lead to holiness. The tragedy is that many of us stumble along the way, don’t quite make it, grow weary or give up. That is why Benedictines pray for perseverance; for the grace of daily fidelity. Please pray with and for us.

 

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Gifted or Great?

Many people mistake giftedness for greatness. The gifts of some are more spectacular than those of others, but they do not make the possessors great. To be gifted is to bear a responsibility; to be great is to have discharged that responsibility well and faithfully. Benedict’s cellarer (business manager) is entrusted with multitudinous responsibilities. ‘He is to have care of everything’ says the Rule (RB 31.3), spelling out the many duties that fall to his lot:

He should take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will have to account for them all on judgement day. All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels. He must let nothing be neglected. (RB 31. 9-11)

He is given a great deal of power, but his greatness will consist in one thing only: the faithful discharge of his office. That is why the qualities Benedict seeks are so profoundly revealing:

a wise person, of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful, but someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1-2)

In tomorrow’s section of the Rule, we shall find Benedict saying that ‘above all, he should possess humility.’ (RB 31.13)

Clearly, what we have here is a portrait of the ideal steward, one who is obedient to his abbot, doing all things ‘in accordance with the abbot’s instructions’ (RB 31.12), but bringing to his task every gift of heart, mind and soul with which he has been endowed in order to serve God and the community. Benedict knows he will be gifted, but in chapter 31 he asks the person who serves as cellarer to become great, to rise above every natural inclination that may lead him away from his duty or cause him to misuse the power entrusted to him.

I think we can see an analogy here with many different forms of service outside the monastery. It is always tempting to be a little self-seeking, to enjoy one’s progress up the ladder, so to say. Those who have taken the Rule to heart and wish to apply Benedict’s principles to their daily lives are confronted in this chapter with the Gospel ethic, and it may not make comfortable reading. We have been called and chosen to give glory to God by our lives; we have had gifts lavished upon us. How we use those gifts, how we live our lives, is what will make us great — or not.

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The Mirror of Love

Nostalgia is the most adult of emotions, and one of the trickiest to navigate. We can be inspired by the past or, more exactly, our version of the past, or we can be imprisoned by it. It can energize us or make us angry. Nostalgia is a kind of homesickness — and ‘home’, as we know, can be a good memory or a bad one, but it never lets us go. Our lives reflect the love and goodness we have experienced, or their opposite.

I wonder whether St Luke, whose feast we celebrate today and whose gospel has qualities we do not find in the other evangelists, had an unusually happy childhood. I have sometimes imagined him growing up among a host of sisters, indulged, teased and challenged by turns. Some of the interactions he records between Jesus and women have just that kind of friendly respect that men who are at ease with women display. His interest in Mary, too, suggests that he was fascinated by everything about Jesus and did not despise the family details.

Did St Luke grow up among girls? I don’t know, and my kind of speculation is historically inadmissable; but his gospel brings a warmth and humanity to the story of salvation that we need to remember. I am all for theology, liturgy, etc, etc; but we need to keep a lively sense of our home being not here but in heaven, from whence we await our Saviour, a Person, not an abstraction. We meet him every day in the faces of those we encounter. Do our faces mirror the love and respect Jesus has shown us? In other words, do we allow others to see Jesus clearly in us?

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Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.

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Patrick and Rowan: a tale of two bishops

I first met Rowan Williams when, as a youthful Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, he came to tea at the monastery and three of us spent the afternoon discussing the psalter with him. It was, if truth be told, a slightly sticky occasion and only really lost all trace of self-consciousness when we moved from small talk to theology and poetry. I suspect that for many of us who are not Anglicans (and possibly for many who are) it is that ease with monasticism, theology and poetry that we first think of when we think of the archbishop. All that he has done, or tried to do, for the Anglican Communion during his tenure of Canterbury, the difficulties he has faced, the obloquy he has endured, remind me of Paul VI, with whom I think he would have had an affinity. He has done an impossible job to the best of his ability, and those of us who are less able can only be grateful. As I said on Twitter yesterday, Canterbury’s loss is Cambridge’s gain; and I am already looking forward to the books he will be writing.

St Patrick was bishop in very different times, but, mutatis mutandis, the challenges he faced bear comparison with those faced by Archbishop Rowan. To proclaim the gospel loud and clear, to help others understand subtle points of theology, to question the values of society, to retain in the midst of busyness a monastic calm and focus (though not a monk himself), these sound very contemporary, rightly so. A bishop can never be ‘popular’ in the way that a singer or movie star can be popular: he must stand up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the cost to himself. In the case of Patrick, his steadfastness led to Ireland’s becoming a missionary centre of the Church for hundreds of years, no mean achievement for an ‘outsider’.

Britain owes much to Ireland; in the person of Patrick, Ireland owes much to Britain — a reminder that, from a Christian perspective, so many of our quarrels and disagreements are unnecessary. They generate heat, as family squabbles always do, but they do not always serve to advance the message of the gospel. Today, as we pray for all who look upon St Patrick as their patron, let us also pray for Archbishop Rowan and the world-wide Anglican Communion.

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St Paul and Silence

Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.

How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.

In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.

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Beatitude

The gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time is Matthew 5. 1-12, the Beatitudes. No matter how often we hear them (and it is important to hear them, not just scan the text with our eyes), the words fall into that unusual category of being both fulfilled yet still not quite fulfilled. We are blessed, but not eternally blessed. We have just enough of heaven now to long for what is to come.

Let us not forget that those who are poor in spirit can claim heaven now as well as hereafter; that the gentle have a right to the earth now as well as hereafter; and so on through the Beatitudes, no matter how often we fail to perceive what we have already been given.

The most challenging Beatitude of all is probably “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Purity of heart enables us to see as God sees, without the distortion of sin or pride. In that wonderful clarity we may hope to catch a glimpse, a reflection, of God himself, knowing that one day we shall see him as he is, perfect in beauty, the joy of all the living. That is why purity of heart is the great goal of monastic life, that for which all our observances are meant to prepare us, in the hope that one day we may enjoy the vision of God.

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