A Delinquent Dog

There are some people who regard their dogs as spiritual directors. Even though I am English, I think that is going rather far — not because I do not honour Bro Duncan but because, as readers of this blog are aware, I am a little sceptical about spiritual directors in general, believing that the needful gift is rare. Bro Duncan does very well as a watchdog for the community and fulfils the role of porter admirably, greeting everyone and being especially attentive to the very old and very young, with whom he has a special affinity. (Not surprising given that his own joints are beginning to creak, and standing just 15 inches high at the shoulder, his world view has always been that of a little child). He is a very companionable dog, very gentlemanly and discreet. At least, I thought he was.

Recently he spent a day in kennels getting a haircut and returned home a different dog. He looked better, he smelled better, but his behaviour! For the first time in his life he decided that the visitors’ sofa was exactly what he needed for chilling out (he is not allowed on furniture); instead of pleading with kohl-rimmed eyes for a share of the visitors’ biscuits or dancing on his hind legs with supplicating front paws, he attempted to intercept the movement from plate to mouth; worst of all, he looked very smug about his antics.

It is clear we have a delinquent dog on our hands and are like the parents of teenagers, wondering what will happen next and asking ourselves where have we gone wrong. For once, the Rule of St Benedict is scarcely a help. However, I know we must be patient with our errant brother because there is one lesson that, spiritual director or no, he has always taught us: everyone is his very best friend. I can’t help wondering whether, if we human beings made fewer distinctions and treated everyone as, potentially at least, our very best friend, the world would be a kinder and more pleasant place.

(Note: if you are old enough to enjoy a little silliness, Bro Duncan has his own Twitter account, @BroDuncanPBGV.)

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Reading the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

The chapters of the Rule we are reading at present (often called the Liturgical Code of the Rule of St Benedict) might seem unpromising material on which to meditate —  rather like the less digestible sections of the Book of Numbers. They are, however, an important part of the whole. Take away Benedict’s prescriptions for the common prayer of the community, and you take away something essential for understanding what monastic life is all about. It is a quest for God, lived in community and worked out through the small detail of life. As Benedictines, we don’t do great things for God. We are, if truth be told, bumblers along the way of perfection. The constant return to choir and the prayer of the community as a whole bears us up, helps us over the difficult places, and will eventually, please God, lead us to the ‘heights of wisdom and virtue’ of which St Benedict speaks. Being reminded again and again how simple, straightforward and scriptural our prayer in community should be is a great encouragement. ‘Bumbling along with Benedict’ may not sound very challenging, but it certainly challenges me.

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A Sense of Humour and the Fourth Degree

Today we read RB 7. 35 to 43: St Benedict’s Fourth Degree of Humility. The more I read this passage, the more I see in it. Humility, joy, patience, perseverance, generosity, obedience, these are all necessary for a monastic quality of living, whether we be monks and nuns or trying to live as Benedictine oblates or associates outside the cloister. There is just one thing missing from the text: a sense of humour.

The gentle jokes of the cloister (like the one in yesterday’s blog post) are a good way of relieving the tension of a fraught situation, making those who feel awkward a little more at home and helping everyone through moments of trial or difficulty. The trouble is, of course, that not everyone will see the joke. That is why the jokes must be gentle, not undermining anyone or making them feel small. It takes time to learn how to laugh at oneself, but it is a skill worth mastering. A sense of humour can contribute a great deal to community life, and when it is used in the right way can be genuinely edifying. Benedict urges the cellarer, when he has nothing else to give, to give a good word. There are times when just a smile or a little joke may be even better.

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Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.

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