Yesterday the kind person who drove me back from Oxford asked a serious question about the End Times. Are the ‘wars and rumours of wars’ that we see in Africa and the Middle East, the plagues or grave illnesses currently afflicting many (think Ebola, for example), a sign that we have reached the End Times, when there will be apostasy and error? My off-the-cuff answer was that I think every generation has, in some measure, to confront the End Times — when truth is attacked, and false gods and false values are substituted for the real thing. I have mentioned before my unease at the way in which, for instance, multiculturalism has been championed at the expense of really getting to grips with the religious values that underlie so many cultures, including the Christian basis of Western civilization. In every generation, we Christians have to confront our own failings both as individuals and as members of an institution, the Church. In every generation there has to be an attempt to return to the centre, to the Truth that sets us free; and that isn’t something we can put off until tomorrow. Christianity is an historical religion, with a definite past and a hoped-for future; but Christians live in the eternal present. Think about it.
For many Benedictines the 21 March feast of St Benedict is the big one. It occurs during Lent and is celebrated with a kind of spartan splendour which seems very apt for the father of western monasticism. The 11 July feast, by contrast, is a rather truncated affair (no I Vespers, for example) and overlaid by other concerns. When Paul VI declared St Benedict Patron of Europe, however, he touched upon something important: the role of Benedictine monasticism in giving shape to what we now call ‘Europe’.
It is scarcely possible to mention Europe nowadays without hearing a groan or mutterings about economic collapse; but Europe as an idea, as a political and cultural entity, as a source of both intellectual and material creativity, is not to be dismissed so summarily. What, I wonder, is the contribution that Benedictines make to the Europe of today? Medievalists tend to talk in terms of learning and literature, art and agriculture, acknowledging the diversity of monastic endeavours in the past. We cannot see the present so clearly, but I have a hunch that the monastic contribution is by no means spent. Maybe the large monasteries of the past, with their great estates and highly regulated way of life, will be seen no more, but it is the genius of St Benedict to be interpreted afresh in every generation. ‘Behold I am doing a new thing.’ These are exciting times in which to be a disciple of St Benedict.