St Benedict, the Panama Papers and Us

St Benedict
St Benedict

Today we celebrate the transferred feast of St Benedict, his Transitus or Passing — what earlier generations would have called his birthday into heaven. Quaint? Irrelevant? I don’t think so. St Benedict was a man of his times, the sixth century, and was familiar with many of the things we wearily take for granted nowadays: weak and sometimes corrupt government, terrorism (in the form of barbarian incursions), moral confusion, a kind of organized selfishness which multiplied divisions in society, and a growing distance from the literary and artistic culture of earlier times. His solution was intensely personal but was to have enormous consequences for the Church and, indeed, the whole of the West. He became a monk. Not only that, he wrote a Rule which is mercifully short but also extremely demanding. I do not think he would have been surprised by the revelations of the Panama Papers but I do think he might have been disappointed by our reaction to them.

St Benedict’s life was built on a simple principle: that Christ is all in all. The way to follow Christ is to live in community, under a rule and an abbot, and practise humility, self-restraint and patience. Gossip is sinful, at best a form of self-indulgence, to be shunned along with everything else that is not profitable to the soul. But Benedict’s is no other-worldly spirituality. The monk cannot lose himself in a cosy round of choir duties or sacristy matters. He is to work; he is to read; and he is to be hospitable. That means that the monk’s silence and retirement are constantly being invaded by a very awkward reality. Work demands effort and often involves failure; reading means getting to grips with ideas one may not find congenial; and guests? Well, guests are community writ large, the most demanding and difficult of all, for they are to be welcomed tamquam Christus, as though Christ, and they have the unfortunate habit of behaving in very un-Christlike ways at times. It is here that the monk discovers what his vows of stability, obedience and conversatio morum really mean and begins to understand why patience is his way of sharing in the passion of Christ.

In the rush to condemn anyone and everyone who ever did business with Mossak-Fonseca not only do we risk confusing what is legal with what is illegal, we also run the danger of allowing a perfectly legitimate distaste for tax avoidance by the very rich to impair our regard for justice itself. Investigations are already under way in many countries and we must prepare ourselves for some very unsavoury revelations, but I think we would do well to take to heart St Benedict’s embracing of patience in difficult and trying circumstances. We have had a shock to the system, undoubtedly; but gloating isn’t a very pleasant trait, and it doesn’t often lead to impartial judgements. Benedict was always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to his wayward brethren, only resorting to excommunication or dismissal as a last resort. I think that was one of the things that made him great. It also, not surprisingly, made him a saint.