Was St Benedict an Elitist?

St Benedict ends chapter 38 of his Rule, On the Reader for the Week, with the statement that the brethren are not to sing or read according to rank but according to the edification they give their hearers (RB 38.12). To some, this presents no difficulty. St Benedict had a sensitive ear and merely wished to ensure competence among those who perform some public office in choir or refectory. Others are more squeamish. We live in a world where we play down differences for fear of wounding others or stifling their talents. At the same time, we are aware that inequality is growing. Usually, we measure this in terms of inequalities of wealth or access to some perceived good such as nutrition or healthcare. The difficulty comes when we are confronted, as Benedict was, by inequalities of ability that are innate. For example, I am not much of a singer; my monastic ‘twin,’ who entered the monastery at the same time as I did, had a glorious voice which had been expertly trained. Only an idiot, or someone with a tin ear, would have preferred my singing to hers, and thankfully, as far as I am concerned, nobody did.

Not everyone would agree that that was a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly understandable situation. We still tend to assume that elitism of any kind is bad. I certainly agree that inequalities of wealth and power have a very dangerous side to them, and I reject completely the sense of entitlement many of the rich and powerful assume. There is nothing nastier than seeing someone treat others as rubbish. But I do question whether we sometimes condemn what we see as elitism because we lack the generosity to celebrate the giftedness of others. St Benedict was wise enough and kind enough to regard every monk in his community as infinitely precious to God, no matter what his shortcomings as an individual. But he didn’t allow that to interfere with a very sound judgement about an individual’s suitability for the task in hand. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us, monastic or not.

St Gertrude
if you are looking for a post on St Gertrude, try this: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/11/17/st-gertrude-the-catholic-church-and-women/

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Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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