Was St Benedict an Elitist?

St Benedict ends chapter 38 of his Rule, On the Reader for the Week, with the statement that the brethren are not to sing or read according to rank but according to the edification they give their hearers (RB 38.12). To some, this presents no difficulty. St Benedict had a sensitive ear and merely wished to ensure competence among those who perform some public office in choir or refectory. Others are more squeamish. We live in a world where we play down differences for fear of wounding others or stifling their talents. At the same time, we are aware that inequality is growing. Usually, we measure this in terms of inequalities of wealth or access to some perceived good such as nutrition or healthcare. The difficulty comes when we are confronted, as Benedict was, by inequalities of ability that are innate. For example, I am not much of a singer; my monastic ‘twin,’ who entered the monastery at the same time as I did, had a glorious voice which had been expertly trained. Only an idiot, or someone with a tin ear, would have preferred my singing to hers, and thankfully, as far as I am concerned, nobody did.

Not everyone would agree that that was a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly understandable situation. We still tend to assume that elitism of any kind is bad. I certainly agree that inequalities of wealth and power have a very dangerous side to them, and I reject completely the sense of entitlement many of the rich and powerful assume. There is nothing nastier than seeing someone treat others as rubbish. But I do question whether we sometimes condemn what we see as elitism because we lack the generosity to celebrate the giftedness of others. St Benedict was wise enough and kind enough to regard every monk in his community as infinitely precious to God, no matter what his shortcomings as an individual. But he didn’t allow that to interfere with a very sound judgement about an individual’s suitability for the task in hand. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us, monastic or not.

St Gertrude
if you are looking for a post on St Gertrude, try this: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/11/17/st-gertrude-the-catholic-church-and-women/


Reader for the Week in the Age of the TV Dinner

Chapter 38 of the Rule of St Benedict, which we read today, is almost entirely concerned with reading at meals. For that reason, therefore, it is usually ignored by everyone who does not live in community, save for occasional reference to its concluding lines, which show that Benedict had both a sensitive ear and a keen eye for any kind of self-exaltation: ‘The brethren are not to read or sing according or rank but according to the edification they give their hearers.’ I wonder whether we can reclaim any of Benedict’s wisdom about the reader for the week in the age of the TV dinner?

First, there is his starting-point: reading is always to accompany the brethren’s meals and is to be regarded as a form of service, preceded by prayer and blessing. The reader must carry out his task conscientiously; the brethren must also play their part, listening attentively and not disturbing the silence by any untoward remark or unruliness, though the superior may say a few words of explanation or commentary. In short, the reading which accompanies the meal is a holy act, just as much as the actual eating and drinking. It is meant to nourish the spirit of the community as much as the food and drink nourishes their bodies.

I am not sure that watching TV or looking at one’s laptop is really an equivalent. It may be that the meal itself is a mere incidental: if one is just ‘fueling up’, a distraction may be welcome. It may be that one is multi-tasking, combining a recreational activity with eating, in which case neither has one’s full attention. It may be that the TV or the laptop assuages a feeling of loneliness or isolation: a sad comment on the fragmentation of family and society in the urban west. Does any of this matter? Am I just showing my age in my concern for the meal as sacramental, a less eloquent echo of Martin Buber’s exhortation to see the dining table as an altar?

What I think Benedict has noted is that eating/drinking and reading/listening are analogous acts, each given ritual form and significance — not just occasionally but every day of our lives. It is an important way in which to learn the holiness of the ordinary. The next few chapters of the Rule will show Benedict considering the measure of food and drink and the timing of meals, matters about which everyone is likely to have his own opinion and preference. In community, however, there must be agreement. Benedict is alerting us to more than we might think. Reading at meals may seem a small thing, but it is the detail of monastic life which illumines the whole.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail