As Long as Men are Mortal and God Merciful: RB 27 and St Winefride’s Well

Today is the feast of St Winefride. No one who has been to her shrine at Holywell can have failed to have been moved by the experience. Hopkins, as always, expresses the ‘moist and musical’ nature of the ever-bubbling spring in words of limpid clarity and beauty:

As long as men are mortal and God merciful,
So long to this sweet spot, this leafy lean-over,
This Dry Dene, now no longer dry nor dumb, but moist and musical
With the uproll and the downcarol of day and night delivering
Water, which keeps thy name, (for not in róck wrítten,
But in pale water, frail water, wild rash and reeling water,
That will not wear a print, that will not stain a pen,
Thy venerable record, virgin, is recorded).
Here to this holy well shall pilgrimages be,
And not from purple Wales only nor from elmy England,
But from beyond seas, Erin, France and Flanders, everywhere,
Pilgrims, still pilgrims, móre pílgrims, still more poor pilgrims.
. . .
What sights shall be when some that swung, wretches, on crutches
Their crutches shall cast from them, on heels of air departing,
Or they go rich as roseleaves hence that loathsome cáme hither!
Not now to náme even
Those dearer, more divine boons whose haven the heart is.
. . .
As sure as what is most sure, sure as that spring primroses
Shall new-dapple next year, sure as to-morrow morning,
Amongst come-back-again things, thíngs with a revival, things with a recovery,
Thy name . . . .

‘As long as men are mortal and God merciful’: that phrase surely encapsulates what we find in chapter 27 of the Rule of St Benedict which we read today: How the Abbot Must Have Special Care for the Excommunicated. Benedict’s starting-point is the obvious fact that we all go astray; that we are all, in some measure, disordered, sick. We may, effectively, have become excommunicated, no longer sharing fully in the life of the community. Benedict’s remedy is simple, though not easy: love, mercy and prayer (RB 27.3–4). Where one might expect an emphasis on what the errant brother must do to reintegrate himself, we find instead insistence on what the abbot and senpectae must do to win him back, to effect a change of heart that allows him to take up his place once more. It is worth thinking about that. The individual may be at odds with the community, but it is for the community, in the first instance, to try to put things right. It also tells us something important about leadership in community and the role of the abbot. Even if the other monks don’t understand or disapprove, the abbot is to do everything he can to support the faltering brother and heal his sickness of mind or spirit, just as Jesus did (RB 27.8).

That presupposes two things: that the abbot is himself a man of prayer, humble in his office, and that he is filled with love and compassion, a love and compassion he is to try to inspire in his fellow monks. Like the Good Shepherd, he is to go after the straying sheep and — a telling addition to the gospel account — bring him back to the flock ‘on his own sacred shoulders’ (RB 27.9). That doesn’t mean that we can behave how we like and everyone else must just put up with it. Chapter 28 will deal with that in no uncertain terms. I think, rather, that it means we need to reflect more deeply on what it is we are about, whether we are in the position of the excommunicated or those trying to win the excommunicated back. If we are among the latter, we often need to change our attitudes to those who fall short of the community ideal. We tend to be quick to judge, quick to condemn. Benedict had too much self-knowledge and too much experience of community to fall into that trap. He knows we can’t change other people; we can only hope to change ourselves. In setting mercy above judgement (RB 64.10), the abbot is not to be blind to faults but must work tirelessly to ensure that the community remains intact, that no one is lost (RB 27.5). That is slightly different from how we often view things. X or Y must conform to the majority view. We are right; they are wrong; and they must bear the consequences if they persist in error.

Which brings me back to St Winefride and the quiet beauty of her well, where the waters stir as they stirred in the pools of Bethseda and Siloam. So many of the things that divide us as individuals or families, communities or Churches, turn out, in the end, to be a sickness of mind or spirit in need of healing rather than censure or condemnation. We all know how much hurt and confusion is caused by our failures to understand, our unwillingness to re-examine certainties that have sustained us in the past, above all, our refusal to love or be loved. Whenever I go to Holywell and gaze into the bubbling waters of the spring, I pray unashamedly for a resolution of all the conflicts that divide us, for the grace to understand and to be generous. For the truth is, we are all, in some measure, excommunicates; and all, in some measure, called to restore the excommunicate to communion.