In an earlier post on Becket and Conscience, I voiced my ambivalence about St Thomas Becket. I have no doubt of his sanctity, but I am less assured of the rightness of his opinions on the hot topics of his day. It is a situation we find repeated in every generation. We do the best we can to live honourable and upright lives, making our decisions on such evidence as we have. Unless we are extraordinarily self-assured, we are aware that we never have perfect knowledge, never have perfect insight. There is, however, something we can cling to in the midst of our confusion and doubt, and that is God’s ability to deal with it all. The Incarnation reminds us that God hasn’t let sin and death have the upper hand. He never will. Ultimately, all will be made perfect. It may just take a while.
I love chapter 63 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Community Order, which we begin re-reading today. Everything it says about the mutually-respectful relations which should exist between older and younger community members, the little courtesies of the cloister it spells out in such affectionate detail, the carefully-nuanced explanation it gives of the abbot’s role, all breathe an atmosphere of beauty and calm I find immensely attractive. The only trouble is, I don’t think I have ever experienced such a community, or not for very long. That is the problem with all ideals. Most of the time they are something we aim at rather than achieve.
Having said that, I wonder whether sometimes we ignore what is right under our noses because we are too perfectionist. The lengths to which Benedict goes to ensure monks or nuns should live at peace with one another, no matter what their differences of age or background, and the expectations he has of abbot and community are something I have known at first-hand without perhaps sufficiently understanding that ‘good enough’ is truly good enough. The fact that none of it has ever been quite perfect is perhaps the best guarantee that it has been real. Only cults, or groups which have much of the cult about them, manage to present a flawless picture. It is how we cope with imperfection — disagreements in community, unintentional slights or louche behaviour — that shows how genuinely loving and united we are.
Benedict provides us with a few guidelines and ways of ritualising some potentially tricky situations, but that is all. For the rest, he reminds us of Romans 12.10 and leaves us to make the best we can of it. During Lent I heard a phrase which has stuck in my mind. Benedict himself was too dignified a man to use the language of the soundbite, but this one is worth treasuring for what it says about community relations:
Remember that the toes you tread on today are the feet you will be called on to wash tomorrow.
I think that applies outside monasteries, too, don’t you?
Last year, when I wrote about today’s antiphon, O Rex Gentium, at some length (see here), I concentrated on the idea of God’s authority, which is so different from our usual experience. Today, however, I’d like to focus on what the antiphon says about wholeness.
Most of us would probably admit that we are broken in some way, discordant, at odds with both ourself and others to a greater or lesser extent. Most of the time we bumble along quite happily and only really register that something is amiss when we see the fruits of that inner discordance: a row with someone perhaps, or a sudden feeling of flatness and weariness in the midst of what ‘ought’ to be unalloyed happiness. It can be distressing. Of course we have to live with imperfection, in ourselves as much as in others, but we do not like it. I think the antiphon’s insistence on our fragility — mere vessels of clay that we are — and on God’s strength — the corner-stone of our lives — is a powerful reminder that the wholeness we seek comes to us as a gift. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation.
Today, as we pray for the coming of the King of the nations, the corner-stone who has made both Jew and gentile one, let us pray that whatever in us is broken or out of tune may be restored to wholeness through his mercy. And may the mercy shown to us teach us to be merciful to others.