Laughter in the Cloister

It’s Saturday, you’re short of time, and St Benedict has just a few words to say to you today: ‘The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written: “The fool raises his voice in laughter.”‘ You are probably thinking, ‘He can’t be serious. Life without laughter would be miserable,’ and you’d be right. To understand this short section of the Rule, you need to understand the kind of laughter Benedict is talking about, the resonances in the scripture he quotes (Sirach 21.20) and the oblique reference to the Institutes of Cassian, IV.39.10.

We think of laughter as a simple, joyous expression of amusement or delight. There is nothing nasty about it. Such laughter is not condemned by Benedict. A sense of humour is, as I indicated a few days ago, a great blessing in monastic life, and I am quite convinced that there are deliberate touches of humour in the Rule. The laughter Benedict rejects is, first, the laughter of disbelief, such as Sara laughed when she was told that she would conceive in her old age. It is, secondly, the laughter associated with scurilitas, a word for which we have no exact equivalent in modern English, the laughter associated with obscenity and cruelty.

In scripture the fool is one who lacks knowledge of God and is morally adrift, who does not believe God and goes wrong because of his disbelief. Benedict doesn’t want fools in his monastery. He doesn’t want obscenity or cruelty, either; and he knows that what begins as a good, clean joke can, on occasion, lead to something less innocent, destructive of both the individual and community. So, he is telling us this morning to be aware of the pitfalls, to use humour in the right way, that it may be a blessing not a curse.

It is precisely this thoughtful, considered approach to everyday things that makes the Rule of Benedict a useful guide to living a Christian life. Laugh on, but let it be with a laughter you are not ashamed of before God.

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Mindfulness of God

The section of the Rule that we read today, RB 7. 10 to 18, is a key text, not merely for Benedictines but for all Christians. To understand why Benedict links mindfulness of God with humility we must take a step back and consider the story of Adam and Eve. It was forgetting God that allowed pride to to take hold in their hearts, distort their vision and lead them into sin. It’s exactly the same with us. When we forget God, we are apt to sin because our vision becomes crooked and self looms too large. Consciousness of God makes us see ourselves as we are, and humility is, in essence, truthfulness. To be truthful about ourselves means there can be no room for pride.

For some, the idea that God is always watching them is disconcerting. I myself find it encouraging. To know that nothing escapes his notice, that the very hairs of one’s head have been numbered, that even when I sin his love continues to enfold me, is to know that God is indeed a loving and compassionate God. Maybe our problem is not so much mindfulness as fear. We forget God because we are afraid of so great a love. Put like that, isn’t it rather silly of us?

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Seventh Anniversary

Today is the seventh anniversary of the monastery’s foundation. It is a day for giving thanks, for looking back and looking forward. We are grateful to our benefactors, living and dead; we are grateful for our Oblates, Associates and Friends, our online community and those waiting patiently to enter the novitiate. Above all, we thank God who has never ceased to look after us, sometimes prodding us to follow paths we might have preferred to ignore, at other times holding us back from the profoundest folly. But we are very far from being complacent. A monastery is never a ‘finished work’, it is always in process of becoming.

It is helpful to consider what St Benedict says about the monastery in his Rule. Most of his text is concerned with the way in which the monks live: how they are to order their worship, how they are to dress, what they are to eat and drink, how they are to organize themselves, the disciplines they should observe. Of the monastery itself he says only that it should, if possible, contain within it everything necessary for monastic life — so that the monks have no excuse for wandering outside. There are clearly designated areas for eating and sleeping and an oratory ‘which should be what it says it is, and nothing else be done or kept there’. In other words, what Benedict calls variously the monastery (monasterium) or house of God (domus Dei) isn’t meant to be a place of privation but somewhere where the focus is clearly on God and the things of God. Everything about it should help both inmates and visitors to concentrate on him — everything.

Many of the things you might expect to find in a long-established monastery simply don’t exist here at Hendred, but that focus on God and the things of God should be evident to all or what right have we to exist? This morning at Mass the community will renew its vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience. As we do so, we shall be affirming our small and insignificant part in that long tradition of monastic living, of ‘preferring nothing to the love of Christ’. May he grant us the grace of perseverance.

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