Doing the Impossible

Doing the impossible comes naturally to Benedictines: we have a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to it, RB 68. Anyone able to fulfil its requirements is undoubtedly guilty of heroic virtue. First, the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when one sees its impossibility (RB 68.1). Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can one raise an objection, and even then, one can’t just blurt out the objection, one has to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to one’s superior (RB 68.3). Any form of argumentativeness is ruled out, and if the superior declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

I think this short chapter of the Rule which we read today gives the lie to those who think that there is anything ‘moderate’ about RB. We are asked to transcend our normal way of acting, to strive for an obedience which truly reflects the obedience of Christ. Heroic virtue, as I indicated, is never popular. It can be uncomfortable to others, challenging their attitudes and expectations, but note the characteristic note of  humility and love with which Benedict concludes his chapter. That is the key to understanding what it is all about: allowing Christ to act in and through us.

Doing the impossible is not an ascetic feat, an attempt to be superhuman, it is rather an acknowledgement that God can do so much more than we could ever think or dream, and au fond, all that we do is done in love or it is worthless. I think I’d like to be guilty of that, wouldn’t you?

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 4

Today we come to Benedict’s ‘last word’ on Lent, but it isn’t in the chapter he devotes to Lent itself (RB 49) it’s in the one before, On Daily Manual Labour (RB 48):

During the days of Lent, they should devote themselves to reading from the morning until the end of the third hour; and from then until the tenth hour they should do the work assigned to them. In these days of Lent they should each receive a book from the library, to be read straight through in its entirety. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.

Aha, you may think, she has already commented on that in an earlier post, A Book for Lent. Indeed I have, but here I want to draw your attention to some other aspects of this text.

Prayerful reading, lectio divina, is the characteristic activity of the monk. In a sense, it guarantees that we shall be in touch with God and he with us. When we pray or work we can go wrong; we can be so full of ourselves that we chase after our own ideas and end up making a mess of things. Not so when we listen to God. We may not ‘meet God’ in our work or prayer, but we can be quite sure we shall meet him in our reading because scripture is the word he has spoken definitively to the Church.

So, Lent without reading of this kind is a nonsense. Moreover, you notice where Benedict places his teaching on Lenten reading? In his chapter on work. Lectio divina doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it; and Benedict expects us to devote a sizeable chunk of time to doing so.

Why is that important? The emphasis on reading scripture is a reminder of what I call the ‘slow down and shut up’ approach to the spiritual life. Lent is a time for focusing, so we read one book, not zillions of them, and we read slowly, allowing God to speak to our hearts. We have to keep in mind that Benedict’s way of reading was different from ours. We skim, speed read, forget most of what we have just read. Benedict, by contrast, expected his monks to commit to memory much of what they read so that they had a rich inner library to which to return again and again in the course of the day. That is not a bad idea for us in the twenty-first century, when we are bombarded from dawn till dusk with all kinds of information clamouring for our attention.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional practices of Lent but they all rest upon the supposition that we are familiar with the Word of God. In his insistence on the importance of reading, Benedict reminds us that even if the more ‘active’ side of Lent is impossible, we can be attuned to what God wants of us through our practice of lectio divina. Our word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word obaudire, meaning to listen carefully, listen hard. He knows well enough that anyone who truly listens to God will enter into a dialogue of love and union with him that is beyond all words and all doing. He will enter into the silence of God himself.

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Monastic Obedience

Today we read just a single verse of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7.34:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient unto death.’ (The scriptural reference is to Philippians 2.8)

The lay reader often passes over this with a vague sense that it is all right for monks and nuns but hardly applicable to life in general. Those who have tried to make sense of it in a lay context generally end up talking about the mutual obedience of marriage or the multiple levels of authority and obedience in the workplace. All well and good, but I think we touch here one of the reasons why I am hesitant about some aspects of ‘lay monasticism’, as it is sometimes called, because it does not have, cannot have, the same radical obedience at its heart.

For a Benedictine, obedience is of value insofar as, and in the measure that, it incorporates us into Christ. We obey ‘for the love of God’, ‘imitating the Lord’, and the obedience we give allows of no reservation, no holding back: ‘in ALL obedience’ means exactly what it appears to mean. Only sin is excepted (which includes folly, as my Junior Mistress pertinently remarked). The obedience, moreover, is given to a fallible human being, not to some saint or sage (unless one happens to live under a saint or a sage). It is incarnated and worked out in the dailiness of our lives.

We none of us know what will be asked of us when we vow this obedience, but it is there, shaping every moment of every day from our first entry into monastic life until the hour of our death. We surrender our freedom in order to attain a greater freedom in Christ. This paradox of monastic obedience is not easily explained. It has to be lived as one of those ‘small fidelities’ I alluded to in an earlier post. That is why our old monks and nuns are so precious. They show us what a lifetime of obedience can achieve: the formation of Christ in them, their hope of glory.

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Obedience, Ordinariate and Beatification

I should like to say something about the Ordinariate, though that is to invite another brow-bashing, and something about the beatification of John Paul II, though others may well have said it better, but today is the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, disciples of St Benedict, and I cannot pass them by, though I hope to discover a link between all three. Bear with me.

In Book II of the Dialogues, St Gregory presents Maurus and Placid as types of the perfect disciple, the obedience of the one complementing the innocence of the other. Both were offered to St Benedict as child oblates, to be brought up in monastic life. One story tells how Placid fell into a lake and was carried away by the current. Benedict became aware of the impending tragedy and ordered Maurus to save his fellow monk. In obedience to his abbot’s command, therefore, Maurus walked upon the water as though upon dry ground and dragged Placid to the shore. Benedict attributed the miraculous rescue to his disciple’s obedience, Maurus to his abbot’s holiness.

As any medievalist worth her salt will tell you, this little story is charged with meaning. It shows us a kind of trinity of listening. Benedict was praying when he learned of his disciple’s distress. It was how he became aware of the danger Placid was in and why he was able to act, in obedience to the voice of the Spirit. Maurus had no such supernatural aid, but he obeyed the voice of his abbot, in whom he saw the person of Christ commanding him (cfr RB 5). Placid, plucked from the water, said he saw the abbot’s cowl about him, bearing him up so that he could be saved: the good of obedience flowing back to him from whom it issued.

So how does this link up with either the beatification of John Paul II or the Ordinariate? Let’s take the pope first. In life, John Paul II bore the proudest of all earthly titles, Servant of the Servants of God. What is a servant if not one who obeys, who listens attentively? The Servant of the Servants of God must listen through a clamour of human voices to what he hopes and trusts is the voice of God. In death John Paul has become simply the Servant of God. No human voice can now disturb the clarity of his hearing. That is why we can invoke his prayers with confidence that they will be heard.

And the Ordinariate? Today three former bishops of the Church of England are to be ordained as Catholic priests. The way in which this is being presented in the media as an act of disaffection or, worse, defection, is disturbing. No one can really know the heart of another. Colophon has said many a time that to act for a negative reason is to act for no reason at all. Now iBenedictines echoes that stream of thought. There is only one reason for being a Catholic, for being ordained: because one believes heart and soul that it is the right thing to do, that nothing and no one matters as much as that voice of the Lord urging and insisting, “This is the way. Follow it!” Anything less will not do.

Let us pray today for all Benedictines, for all who are being ordained and for all who find obedience a struggle, which is to say every man-jack (or woman-jill) of us.

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