Of Abbots, Obedientiaries and Children in the Rule of St Benedict – part 1

Many have commented on the recent IICSA report into the abuse scandals at Ampleforth and Downside (I did so myself, see here). Without in any way wishing to contradict or dissent from their main conclusions, I have been struck by the way in which a few have identified the Rule of St Benedict as itself part of the problem. I think that is based on a misconception. Far from being part of the problem, the Rule, if properly followed, should be part of the solution. Obviously, I write as a nun, with no connection with schools, but the Rule has long been one of my areas of academic study and I have tried to live according to its precepts for nearly forty years; so I hope what I write will have some substance to it. To try to make it more digestible, I am dividing this post into at least two parts.

The authority of the abbot according to the Rule
Absolutely fundamental to any discussion of the Rule is Benedict’s conception of the role of the abbot and his authority. Some secular commentators have likened this to the authority of God the Father. Nowhere does the Rule do that. In every instance where abbatial authority is mentioned, in the two chapters specifically devoted to the abbot, RB 2 and RB 64, and at sundry other points, it is always likened to that of Christ. In saying, for example, that the abbot ‘is believed to represent Christ in the monastery’ (RB 2.2), Benedict is expressing an important truth: authority is to be exercised as service, and only insofar as it is service, is it genuine. Chapter 2 goes on to warn the abbot that he must not ‘teach, ordain or command anything contrary to the law of the Lord’ (RB 2.4); that both his teaching and the obedience of his disciples will come under God’s scrutiny, and that he will be answerable for the faults of all (RB 2.4–7). Again and again, the abbot is exhorted to set a good example (RB 2.13) or bear the consequences. In his relations with the community, the abbot is urged to be scrupulously fair and concerned for everyone’s welfare (cf RB  2.16, 22). He is to check evil-doing, never turning a blind eye to the sins of offenders (RB 2.26); and he is not to let concern for worldly things interfere with his concern for the salvation of souls (RB 2. 33–38). As if that were not enough, Benedict reminds the abbot that he will be judged by God on the way in which he has exercised his trust (RB 2. 6,7; RB 2.38, 39). If only every superior lived up to Benedict’s ideal!

RB 64 introduces some significant qualifications. For example, in discussing the election of the abbot, Benedict acknowledges that communities may sometimes wish to choose someone who winks at its vices (RB 64. 3). In such cases, Benedict explicitly enjoins the ‘local bishop and neighbouring abbots or Christians’ to intervene (RB 64. 4,5). For the rest, he lays down the kind of conduct the abbot should follow and the personal qualities he must cultivate, mindful always of the examination he will one day face (RB 64. 7–22). It is not a programme for the faint-hearted.

Moreover, I think it is worth noting that the abbot’s authority is by no means absolute. There is the chapter to which all are summoned and even the most junior are to be allowed their say (RB 3. 3). It is the abbot’s responsibility to make the final decision, but he is warned that he must ‘do all things in the fear of God and observance of the Rule, knowing that he will certainly have to render an account of all his judgements to God, the most just of judges’ (RB 3. 11). For their part, the monks are warned not to contend impudently with the abbot inside the monastery and not at all outside (RB 3. 8). Clearly, there can be abuses on either side and, over the centuries, RB 3 has been cited by both abbots and communities as justification for doing what they are explicitly told they should not do, ‘follow the will of their own heart’ (RB 3. 7), but where there is goodwill and a desire to grow in holiness, these checks and balances enable the community to flourish.

The abbot’s authority in practice
I have probably said enough to give you an idea of what the abbot should be. The problem comes with its realisation. Most Benedictines will have encountered superiors/communities who do not live up to the ideal. There are indeed abbots/abbesses who regard any questioning of their decisions as a failure in obedience; communities that are lax in observance or too comfortable for their own good. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictinism, and it is easy to slip into. That said, I still think there is nothing in Benedict’s portrayal of the abbot or the kind of service he demands from him that could be said to be a fundamental weakness or structural/systemic failure. Once again, however, I want to add a few qualifications.

The monastery Benedict is writing about is a monastery without an external apostolate in the form of parishes. It is a monastery with children, which is not always the case nowadays, and one where all the community live together in one place, as nuns still usually do but monks not always. It is also likely to have been fairly small. Benedict is credited with having established twelve communities of twelve monks each — probably the number needed to ensure that all practical needs could be met from within the community. That is an important difference between the monastery of the sixth century and that of the twenty-first. Even in monasteries of monks leading a more or less cloistered life, those in priest’s orders may be absent for pastoral reasons, retreat-giving, studies, etc. There may therefore be less obvious cohesion and the abbot may not always know his monks as well as his sixth-century counterpart. But that is not the fault of the Rule. It is the fault, if that is the right word, of how it may be lived today.

One further point occurs to me, possibly only tangentially related to the abuse scandals. The Instruction Cor Orans is not very sympathetic to small communities of nuns, confusing autonomy and viability, and setting minimum numbers for their continued existence, yet St Benedict seems to have regarded small communities as being the most appropriate setting for the living of the Rule. Could it be that those who think the Rule is a problem have got it the wrong way round, i.e. it is not merely our personal failures, but also our institutional failure to remain small that is at least a contributory factor in some of the dreadful sexual abuse cases recently made public — and for abuses of authority in some other contexts? It is worth thinking about, although I don’t think there is any clear answer. There are large, fervent communities, with good abbots/abbesses. But I’d want to argue that they are so because of the Rule not in despite of it.

To be continued on Saturday, D.V. — I’m off for a PET scan and sarcoma clinic on Friday.

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Back to the Beginning (Again)

Already the new year is beginning to look a little frayed about the edges. The hopes expressed beforehand, that this would be the year when we became more united, more peaceful, have already been destroyed by a hail of bullets in an Istanbul nightclub and countless other acts of violence around the world. Yet we persist in our optimism. We are determined that this year things should be better. We will make a new beginning.

The trouble is, there isn’t much to back up our desire to make a new beginning. For most people in the West, the new year is devoid of religious significance.* There is no collective act of repentance, no rituals to affirm a determination to change, nothing to support our efforts to be more united, more peaceful. For a Benedictine, however, there is the Rule of St Benedict which, together with the gospel and the liturgy, acts as a constant encouragement to try.

Yesterday we began reading though the Rule again from the beginning.** We shall read it through in its entirety three times in the course of the year, and no matter how familiar the words, we shall find ourselves being confronted by much that is new and sometimes difficult. Yesterday we were urged to strip ourselves of self-will, to listen and to follow — things most of us are reluctant to do, especially in a society that exalts selfhood in all its manifestations. Today we are told to wake up, pay heed, get going. It is the spiritual equivalent of a ruthless exercise programme, and it is intended to make us more aware of God, ourselves and other people.

Is there anything a lay person can take from this? I am not a believer in making complicated rules of life for oneself or in trying to be so ‘spiritual’ one neglects to be human. To pray as best one can, to work as best one can: that is already much. There is, however, one idea all of us can try this year which may sound ridiculously simple but which, like Naaman’s washing in the Jordan, may yield unexpected benefits. It has to do with awareness, something the Rule is very keen on.

How often do we see people shut themselves away from others (and sometimes themselves) by playing with their phones or plugging in their earpohones? How about deliberately choosing to wait five minutes before immersing ourselves in our virtual worlds and letting the real world, the one we can’t control, take precedence? We may notice things we had forgotten existed; we may have an opportunity to share a smile or exchange a greeting with someone who really needs that moment of human interaction and kindness. We may even meet Christ ‘lovely in limbs not his’. That, surely, would be a new beginning worth making.

*We haven’t always begun the secular new year on 1 January (it used to be 25 March, feast of the Annunciation). 1 January is the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, but comparatively few celebrate it as such.

**If you want to listen to the Rule of St Benedict, read day by day as it is in the monastery, you can do so on the desktop version of our web site here. Flash needed as I have yet to replace the player with a HTML5 version.

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On Re-Reading the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict

Today we begin the second reading of the Rule of St Benedict that occurs during the course of the year. I like the fact that it co-incides with the feast of St Athanasius, about whom I have written extensively in the past (see here or here, for example), because it was his Life of Antony that was to prove so powerful in drawing people to the monastic way of life, and his treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God that  can be said to inform much of Benedict’s sense of our journeying back to the Father by way of Christ.

One thing that becomes clearer as each year passes is how beautifully Christocentric the Rule is. Today’s passage of the Prologue focuses on the ‘true King, Christ our Lord’ for whom we must fight with ‘the strong and glorious weapons of obedience’. Many people see obedience as a kind of weakness. We all want to be leaders. The idea of listening to another, acting on another’s instructions, is just a teeny bit . . . limp. So, we pick and choose. We will obey in this, but not in that. The vow of obedience may oblige us to obey in all that is not sin, but that still leaves quite a lot of scope for  half-hearted or nominal obedience. (‘O tepidity, I do abhor thee! ‘— Fr Baker) The idea of fighting for Christ with our obedience is an alien notion, because to fight means to risk being wounded, defeated even, and who wants that?

St Antony had to fight the demons who assailed him, and Athanasius leaves us in no doubt what a struggle he had. We have to fight our own demons, and they can be anything from greed to laziness. St Benedict talks of our stripping ourselves of the self-will which encumbers us, weighs us down, holds us back. It can be painful; it makes us vulnerable in ways we never dreamed possible; but it is necessary because it makes us free — free to fight, free to follow. The bright hope of following Christ to glory is held out to us at the very beginning of our monastic life. The tragedy is, we can turn back on the way without necessarily abandoning the cloister. We can refuse to listen, refuse to obey.

Let us pray today for all monks, nuns, oblates and others who find inspiration in the Rule of St Benedict, that the hard labour of obedience may bring us back to the Father, no matter how many siren voices may tempt us astray.

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St Benedict Was Not A Liberal

St Benedict
With rather alarming frequency, someone will say to me, ‘I like St Benedict. He is so moderate.’ I like St Benedict, too, but I often wonder about the ‘moderate’ bit. Very often my enthusiast will go on to say things like, ‘He never asks too much. He is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature. He’s really quite liberal’. I agree that he is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature, but I reserve judgement about the ‘moderate’ nature of what he asks of his monks and nuns. As to his being the sixth-century equivalent of a North Oxford liberal (sorry, Oxford), there I disagree profoundly. Whatever else he was, St Benedict wasn’t a liberal. But he wasn’t a conservative, either, and to try to view him in those terms is fundamentally to misunderstand who he was and what he was about.

Let’s start with what I will readily concede. St Benedict was indeed a kind and, in sixth-century terms, very gentle man. He was concerned about the mealtimes of both the old and the young, not wanting them to suffer unduly from the monastic timetable. He knew the sick might be neglected if the authority of the Rule didn’t provide for them. He wanted everyone to be at peace and knew that, as superior, he might not be everyone’s first choice as confidante, so he provided for senpectae, old and wise brethren, whose special duty was to support the wavering. He advised the abbot to be very careful and restrained when he had to punish anyone, lest he break the vessel by rubbing too hard to remove the rust. He was also a modest man, ready to listen to the criticisms of a visiting monk and to accept a re-ordering of the way in which the psalms are said ‘if anyone has a better arrangement.’ But St Benedict was also completely and utterly given to the search for God in the monastery and there are other passages of the Rule that need thinking about.

Take, for example, the pattern of threes that we find throughout and the frequent references to the Gloria Patri. These are not to be ignored. Arianism was still a worry in sixth-century Italy, and Benedict was insisting on doctrinal orthodoxy in his community. It shows, too, in his choice of reading matter before Compline or in the texts that he advises for growth in monastic life. There is nothing wish-washy about this side of St Benedict. Nor is there anything very ‘liberal’ in his views on obedience or humility, if by liberal one means easy-going. It isn’t so much that the devil is in the detail as the real monk. Benedict never calls anyone who has fallen short of the ideal a monk; he either has no name — quisquis, anyone — or is simply frater, brother. Being a monk is, for St Benedict, a long and hard pursuit. The novice master is specifically warned to tell the novice about all the hardships through which we make our way to God. If that were not enough, Benedict spells out, time and time again, that half-measures won’t do. We must prefer nothing to the love of Christ, cultivate the good zeal of chapter 72 ‘with the most ardent love’ and press on to the end for which we look.

Today is the Solemnity of St Benedict, Patron of Europe. It is also known as the Translatio or Translation of the Relics (as distinct from the Transitus or Death, kept on 21 March, which is for us the ‘big’ feast of St Benedict). It is a good day for thinking about the way in which we ourselves live. Are we apt to make allowances for ourselves that perhaps we ought not to make, mistaking the infinite love and mercy of God for the kind of permissiveness I’ve been writing about? God forgives, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily approves. St Benedict has a lot to say about living virtuously that is applicable outside the monastic context. It takes less than an hour to read through the Rule. It would be a good way to celebrate his feast, and to pray for Europe.

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The Third Degree (of Humility)

The third degree or step of humility is deceptively short and simple:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’
Tertius humilitatis gradus est ut quis pro pro Dei Amore oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicat apostolus: Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.  (RB 7. 34)

Does this mean the superior is to obeyed to the letter, no matter how silly or outrageous his demand? No, it is much more difficult than that. Religious superiors are to be obeyed in all that is not sin, and our obedience is to be modelled on that of Christ himself, which means that every gift of mind and heart must be brought to bear in understanding, interpreting and sometimes perhaps even refusing, what is asked. Looked at in this way, mechanical or ‘blind’ obedience can prove to be no obedience at all because it fails in the essential element, which is to listen for the voice of God in what is commanded.

That doesn’t mean obedience is negotiable. We vow it, and we know that one day we shall have to give an account of ourselves to the most just of Judges. The motivation Benedict gives for obedience, here and elsewhere, is significant: love of God. We are not primarily concerned with the smooth running of an organization nor with mortification of our own wills. It is love that prompts us to submit to a superior; love that makes us listen for the voice of God in his commands; and love that makes us weigh whether our compliance should be given instantly and unhesitatingly, or whether we should, at the right time and in the right way, put to our superior the reasons why we think an order may be beyond us or not in the best interests of the community (cf RB 3, 68).

Far from freeing us from personal responsibility, obedience, as conceived of by St Benedict, places on us a very direct and personal responsibility to act maturely and wisely. We are called upon to co-operate with the superior in the service of the community. We are reminded that our obedience unites us with Christ; and just as his obedience led him to suffering and death, so ours may lead us where we would rather not go. We must hold nothing back; and because that is impossible to us by nature, we must pray that it may be given to us by grace.

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Feasts, Fasts and Fasting Diets

The rhythm of feasts and fasts is so central to the Church’s year and her understanding of the spiritual life that it may be worth gathering together a few thoughts on the subject. At the outset, we ought to distinguish between fasting in the traditional Christian sense and the popular ‘fasting diet’.

At its simplest, fasting means going without food and drink in order to remind ourselves of our creatureliness and enable us to focus on God more clearly. One might say that it has nothing to with us, but everything to do with God; and the fast of Jesus in the desert is the model for all our own fasting. The Lenten fast makes this very clear. The current discipline of the Church prescribes that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we should limit ourselves to one meal and two collations (snacks). This is both a penance (denying ourselves some good thing to show sorrow for our sins and ask grace for amendment in the future) and a preparation for what is to come. In the monastery, of course, the fasts are more frequent and more rigorous (for example, we fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted) but the intention is the same. We seek the spiritual freedom that will enable us to follow the Lord more closely. Our fasting is meant to help us forget ourselves and our own comfort so that we are more open to God and others. The money we save is given to the poor. Any physical and psychological benefits are incidental. We might say that fasting as the Church understands it is essentially altruistic. The ‘fasting diet’ by contrast is primarily concerned with the health benefits for the dieter and, as a practice, has no larger end in view (though the individual may well have other motives for dieting in this way.)

When we come to feasts, the difference between Christian practice and secular custom becomes even more marked. The liturgical calendar highlights different occasions that throw light on our understanding of the central tenets of our faith. Sometimes, these seem to put us at odds, or at least out of step, with the people around us. During Christmastide, for example, we are still celebrating when others have taken down their Christmas decorations because it is Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day itself, which opens the way of salvation to gentile Christians. The greatest feast of all, that of Easter, is ushered in by a fast so that we feel in our own bodies the movement from darkness to light, but it is a feast that has very little razzmatazz surrounding it. The great mystery of the Eucharist is a feast in which we share by means of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine transformed into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.

As we approach the last few days of the Christmas season and the thought of Lent begins to appear on the horizon, perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on the nature of feasts and fasts and the way we ourselves live them. The Rule of St Benedict is written around the feast of Easter. Everything is referred to that, and the joy and spiritual gladness that should accompany our every action should ensure our lives have a continual Lenten quality. As our American friends would say, go figure.

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Benedict, Beowulf and the Voice in the Wilderness

The famous opening ‘Hwaet’ of Beowulf and the ‘Obsculta’ of the Rule of St Benedict have much in common, if Dr George Walkden is to be believed (see http://ind.pn/18jQ2AE). Both were drawing attention to what they had to say, but not in an aggressive ‘Oi, you’ fashion, but rather in a dignified, measured manner, equally suited to poetry and religion. I think Isaiah is doing something of the same in the lyrical passage we read today (Isaiah 40.1-11).

When we are most deeply moved, we don’t use exclamation marks (known to printers as ‘shrieks’, with good reason). We are quieter, more thoughtful, often overwhelmed by the import of what we are thinking or feeling. The voice crying in the wilderness is simultaneously the voice of God and the voice of his disciple, the prophet. It is John the Baptist preparing us for the coming of the Word; and when the Word has been spoken, there is no need of further speech.

This would be a good day to read quietly through those lines of Isaiah and allow them to sink into us. In silence we await the Word.

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All Benedictine Saints

On 13 November we celebrate the feast of All Benedictine Saints (i.e. all those who don’t have a day to themselves, so to say) and host our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. There is special joy today because our Canadian oblate, Margaret, will be making her oblation by video conference, in which oblates from other parts of the world will be joining. So why am I sitting at the computer in a distracted frame of mind? It is partly because today’s ‘to do’ list already looks impossible and I am not always optimistic first thing in the morning; it is partly because it is cold and dark and neither is conducive to high spirits; but mainly it is because the thought of holiness is sometimes more daunting than encouraging. Other people become saints; I/we don’t.

Regarding holiness as something ‘other’, attainable only by a special few, is, of course, a snare and delusion. It is also completely unBenedictine. The Rule of St Benedict isn’t meant for supermen or superwomen. It doesn’t prescribe any esoteric practices or extreme ascetical feats. Instead, it asks the monk or nun to live a life of daily fidelity to small things which are actually great things: to living in community under rule and abbot; to prayer, work, service, hospitality; absolute renunciation of personal ownership; an obedience as entire as it is intelligent. In doing so, the Rule shows us a way of living the Gospel that will lead to holiness. The tragedy is that many of us stumble along the way, don’t quite make it, grow weary or give up. That is why Benedictines pray for perseverance; for the grace of daily fidelity. Please pray with and for us.

 

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St Jude and Lost Causes

St Jude is one of those saints Catholicism ‘does’ rather well. Although his identity is matter for conjecture (not his existence, his identity— see here, for example), he has been adopted as the patron saint of hopeless or lost causes. There is an old prayer which runs

O most holy apostle, Saint Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the Church honours and invokes you universally, as the patron of hopeless causes, and of things almost despaired of. Pray for me, who am so miserable. Make use, I implore you, of that particular privilege accorded to you, to bring visible and speedy help where help was almost despaired of. Come to my assistance in this great need, that I may receive the consolation and succour of heaven in all my necessities, tribulations, and sufferings, particularly (here make your request) and that I may praise God with you and all the elect throughout eternity. I promise you, O blessed Jude, to be ever mindful of this great favour, always to honour you as my special and powerful patron, and gratefully to encourage devotion to you. Amen.

That prayer expresses the comfortable familiarity Catholicism has with her saints; her honouring them first and foremost as servants and friends of Christ; her confidence that they will interest themselves in our affairs; and her conviction that nothing is too unimportant or ‘hopeless’ to be brought before God. St Benedict was well aware that impossible things can sometimes be asked of us (he devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to the subject), but devotion to St Jude takes that awareness one step further. In asking the prayers of St Jude, we acknowledge not only our creatureliness, but also our tendency to lose hope, to despair. St Benedict may exhort us, as the last and greatest of the tools of good works, never to despair of God’s mercy (RB 4.74), but St Jude is there for when we tremble on the brink of doing so. He is a good saint to have in our armoury of prayer.

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Social Media and Humility

The juxtaposition of the words ‘social media’ and ‘humility’ may strike you as incongruous, but earlier this week I was privileged to attend the Social Spaces: Sacred Spaces conference in York (a study day for Anglican clergy).  Subsequently, in the monastery we have been reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. I have therefore been mulling over some of the conference comments in the light of Benedict’s imperative, and I think it may be worth sharing my questions if not my conclusions.

To many, social media is just one long, self-indulgent exercise in self-advertisement; and I have to say, there are users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, I would probably not choose to meet in the flesh. You know the kind I mean. Those who are so busy collecting followers that they omit to say anything interesting themselves; those whose every posting has an element of Stalkie’s cry, ‘Hear me, hear me: I boast’. It is inevitable that any system that can be monitored by statistics (no matter how questionable some of those statistics may be) will attract those who are by nature competitive. Collecting ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is really no different from collecting cigarette cards, except for the involvement of the ego; and that’s where the trouble begins.

When social media ceases to be social, when its use becomes detached from friendship (‘social’ comes from the Latin socius, meaning ally, companion or friend), it becomes a parody of itself, and often a rather sickening one. Yes, social media is great for sharing, not only among people who, in some sense, know one another. One has only to think of its impact on events (e.g. Egyptian Revolution) or attitudes (e.g. sexism, trolling). Yes, social media is great for bringing together people who would never otherwise meet (hello, friends in Australia and Japan). But ultimately, it is what its users make of it. So, it can be used for good or bad; to build up or tear down; as a vehicle for pride or humility.

Benedict has several wise things to say about the uses and abuses of speech, but he makes the point that true humility is manifested in every aspect of our lives, in the interior attitudes of mind and heart as well as our more exterior behaviour. So, my question for today is: how do we manifest humility in our use of social media? This is another way of approaching the old conundrum about how we integrate our online and offline persona, but sometimes posing the question in a different way can highlight things we have hitherto ignored. Over to you!

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