St Benedict, Father of Western Monasticism

St Benedict
St Benedict

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Transitus, or ‘birthday into heaven’ of St Benedict, father of Western monasticism, fittingly occurs during Lent. He insisted that monastic life should always have ‘a Lenten quality’ — a purity and intensity of focus we find hard to sustain but which should be very marked during this holy season. Those who have never attempted to live according to his Rule are apt to praise its moderation and restraint. Those who have ventured to live by it, and know the depth of their own failure, are in no doubt about the hugeness of his demands. We are asked to prefer nothing whatever to Christ. To do that for a single day, a single hour, would be a great triumph of grace over nature. Happily, Benedict knows our weakness. In the end, all is grace, all is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our business is simply to trust and to go on, neither growing weary nor giving up. Perseverance isn’t a showy virtue, but it is a very Benedictine one.

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Dying to Self and Unassuming Holiness

Most of us will have heard, at some time or other, uplifting little talks about the importance of dying to self in order to follow Christ. Today the Church celebrates someone who did just that, and so completely that he remains a somewhat shadowy figure: St Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus, patron of the dying and pattern of unassuming holiness. In the Middle Ages he was often treated as a figure of fun, but from the seventeenth century onwards his greatness has been more generally recognized. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph was a man of dreams and singular purity of life whose mission was to hear and obey the word of God and to protect the family entrusted to his care. His kind of holiness is one we can all aspire to. It is the holiness of everyday life, of family and work, and lets us see being a ‘background person’ for what it truly is: a way of allowing Christ to take centre stage so that he may be all in all.

I think there is a close connection between Joseph’s role as a father and his role as patron of the dying. Fatherhood isn’t easy, nor is dying. Joseph had to lay aside all his own dreams of happiness when he accepted the role God had marked out for him. He taught Jesus how to be a man; how to conduct himself in the company of others; how to be tender towards women and children; how to stand up for what was right in the face of opposition; and ultimately, how to die. When Jesus hung upon the Cross and turned to his heavenly Father, it was with the honesty and trust he had learned from Joseph. He did not hide his pain, nor did he seek a way out. He surrendered his life as, many years earlier, Joseph had surrendered his, that the Father’s will might be done. We have much to thank Joseph for, and much to learn from him, too.

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