A Bucket List for a Benedictine

Once upon a time, when we were trying to fundraise for a permanent home, we were advised to read the Mail Online because it covers all the news other online newspapers don’t deign to notice. This includes an almost daily ‘cancer story,’ which often contains a bucket-list of things the cancer sufferer would like to achieve or experience before he or she dies. Personally, I haven’t much time for these. I’m just hoping I’ll have time to tidy my sock drawer, get the accounts in order and burn all the rubbish before I go to meet my Creator.* But it is worth thinking about. What would a Benedictine hope to achieve or experience before dying?

I think first on the list would come the desire to have found, not merely sought, God in prayer, in community, in obedience to the superior. My well-known scepticism about some modern movements that call themselves Benedictine stems from the fact that they seem to short-circuit the process of seeking: they don’t demand that lifelong gift of the entire self that I’d say was essential to the monastic quest for God. Those of us who are Benedictines know that we need the kind of focus and discipline monasticism gives or we’d either give up or make accommodations that, inch by inch, would lead us away from God. We need to stick at this God-seeking of ours. Patience and perseverance in the quest are what matters, and the hope that one day we shall glimpse him of whom our heart has spoken.

Second on my bucket-list would come the desire to have shared the joy and peace of the cloister with others. It is not an easy joy or a facile peace. The crown of thorns that surrounds our motto, pax, has a two-fold nature: it is both the means of attaining what lies within, and a protection for what is attained. There never is, in this life, a moment when the guard can drop or we can say the struggle is at an end, pace St Benedict in RB 7.67. But we are curiously apt to try to keep good things to ourselves, so sharing, learning to be generous, is also a lifelong requirement.

Third I think I would put the desire to have enriched, in however small a degree, the lives of those with whom we may have no direct connection. The scholarship of the Benedictines, the music, the beautiful buildings, the concern for liturgy, they are all part and parcel of the wider vision I think monks and nuns have always had. What we do individually is insignificant; what we do as a community, as a fraterna acies, is much more than we can ever think or dream. Cassian once remarked that anyone who removed even a little dust from the oratory would not go unrewarded. I like to think that those of us who have not ourselves been anything very wonderful but have enabled others to achieve something will not go unrewarded, either.

So, three things in my bucket-list, which is itself very Benedictine (St Benedict’s Rule is full of three-fold patterns); three things for me to aim at personally, three things for the community and our oblates to aim at, too. And if you think they are difficult of achievement, just remember what St Benedict advises: ‘Where our nature is powerless, let us ask the Lord to supply the help of his grace.’ (RB Prologue 47)

*I wouldn’t mind having paid off the bank loan for the house, either; but it’s tidying the sock drawer that weighs on my mind.

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St Gertrude

Our monastic calendar is out of step with much of the rest of the world, for we keep the feast of St Gertrude today rather than on 16 November. I tremble at the thought of writing about her as a friend, for you know where that got me when I wrote about St Martin, but for those who like their sanctity a little on the dry side, she was a great mystic, with a warm devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ, especially in his Passion and in the Eucharist, and had a tender love of Our Lady. That she is a patron of the West Indies and of cats is by the bye. (I’m not sure why cats should need a patron saint: can anyone tell me?)

That dessicated Gertrude does not greatly interest me. The child of five who entered the local monastery at Helfta, received an excellent education, became a nun and ended as a saint interests me enormously. She was an amazing woman, just as her abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborn, with whom she is often confused, was an amazing woman. Unlike Bede, whose life she uncannily echoes in some respects, Gertrude’s intellectual interests were mainly literary and philosophical to begin with. Only after a profound conversion experience did she turn her talents to the study of scripture and theology. She is proof positive that the cloister can produce people of great stature.

As is the way with many nuns’ writings, most of Gertrude’s have been lost. We have only the Herald of God’s Loving Kindness, written in conjunction with other members of the community (formerly known as the Life and Revelations of St Gertrude), and the Spiritual Exercises. They are not to everyone’s taste, but through them runs a deep love of the Lord, a quiet steadfastness of purpose and a very Benedictine sense of the importance of the liturgy. She reminds us that whatever gifts we may have been given are meant for the building up of the whole Church, that nothing is wasted which is placed at God’s service.

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St Benet Biscop

St Benet Biscop
St Benet Biscop

This little miniature of St Benet Biscop shows him holding a church. A typical medieval motif, you might think; except that this church is not one of the monastic churches he built in Northumbria but is meant to represent St Peter’s in Rome. Benet is an early example of the strong link between the English Church and the papacy. Even today, we have an annual Peter Pence collection which traces its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times and is a mark of England’s special regard for the successor of St Peter.

Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible is a production of the Jarrow scriptorium (it actually lacks the Book of Baruch, but that is a mere bagatelle compared with what it does contain).

It is not this, however, that made him a saint. Contemporaries remarked on his patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is honoured as having admitted the genius of Benedict of Nursia. There was something recognizably English about Benet in both his ability and his piety.

Bede’s description of Benet should inspire us all. He describes him as being “full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.” Many of our Catholic “opinion makers”, bloggers and the like, seem to have forgotten that in their eagerness to score points off one another or advance their own view of what others should do. St Benet Biscop’s example should encourage us to lay aside all sniping and carping to practise the good zeal which alone builds up.

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