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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Values Worth Defending?

In recent days politicians of every stripe have appealed to our western democratic values and urged that they are worth defending in the light of violent onslaughts by Islamist extremists. At one level, that sounds eminently reasonable. I, for one, would not want to live in a society where failure to observe the puritanical code imposed by its de facto rulers could lead to flogging, mutilation, stoning or decapitation. But I am not sure that I am absolutely convinced by that appeal to ‘western values,’ either. As a Catholic, I’m always going to question some of the prevalent western assumptions about abortion or the morality of capital punishment, for example, not to mention having some very different ideas about poverty and riches. Yesterday’s debate in the Lords about Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill left me wondering whether Lady Campbell’s eloquent explanation of how illness affects judgement would be matched against Lord Cashman’s equally eloquent account of how he had wished to die alongside his partner of thirty-one years. The emotional charge of both was compelling, but also, for me, highlighted the way in which we are losing a common ground for our morality and our decision-making. We actually don’t agree on what constitutes our core western values.

If you think that last statement too sweeping, run through some of the things you would identify with being western and democratic and ask yourself whether there is still general agreement on what they are and on what limits, if any, should be, or are, imposed and by whom. We do not agree on life-death issues, sexual morality, the legitimacy or otherwise of nuclear weapons, the duty of helping the less fortunate, and so on and so forth. Even the idea of free speech, which has been so much discussed of late, proves on examination to be more nuanced than some would have us believe. No one is entirely free to say whatever he/she likes (though it often seems  they are) because we have laws governing slander and libel. The problem comes when an individual or a group refuses to accept the law and situates itself outside the common legal framework of the land. That seems to me to be happening more and more. I also wonder whether we are tending to appeal to transient emotions in much of our decision-making rather than trying to weigh pros and cons as fairly as possible. It is a piquant and sometimes discouraging mix.

This morning I find myself encouraged by two things. First, Pope Francis has been speaking clearly and plainly in the Philippines about many of the things we are arguing about in the west. He has come out on the side of the angels rather than the bankers and the religious bullies that often dominate our conversation. Secondly, the story of St Antony, whose feast we keep today, reminds me of the perennial creativity of Christianity in the face of opposition and darkness. Antony heard the gospel imperative to go and sell all he had and follow Christ. He did so, and gave the Church both the monastic and the eremitical way of life. A thousand years later St Francis heard the same gospel and gave the Church a new love of the poor Christ and a new way of following him. These are not western democratic values, although the Church has played an important role over the centuries in shaping western civilisation. What we can take from them is, I suggest, the same in each instance. We do not need to defend our values, but we do need to live them.

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The Inner Desert

For many Benedictines the feast of St Antony is bitter-sweet. On the one hand there is the immense pull of the desert, the desire to live ‘alone with the Alone’; on the other, there is the recognition that St Benedict’s ambivalence about hermits is fully justified — especially in our own case. The eremitical vocation is rare and very far from being what many assume it is. Few can live it generously and well. The rest of us have to admit the gulf between what we would like to be and what we actually are. We are inspired by the one but wisely held in check by the reality of the other.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony can be read at many levels. One element often passed over by modern readers are the battles between Antony and the demons. Some smile over this evidence of ancient credulity; others explain it away with reference to psychology; comparatively few make the effort to understand its place in the narrative of the saint’s life or the spiritual life generally.

It is true, I think, that anyone who seriously attempts to pray will, sooner or later, encounter evil. How this manifests itself differs, but one predictable element is the way in which evil tries to draw an individual away from prayer and virtuous living and, ultimately, from God. Again and again, Athanasius insists upon Antony’s constancy and the cheerful serenity with which he met every attack upon him. He persevered in the discipline of the monastic way and eventually attained a freedom and joy that everyone remarked upon. Little by little, he was transformed by grace.

I think there is something here for all of us. There are books and blogs without number which will tell you that prayer is a great adventure and the Christian life a wonderful progression from glory to glory. That is true up to a point, but most of our lives are anything but glorious, and prayer, if we are honest, is often a hard slog. That time on our knees might be better spent doing something more obviously useful, mightn’t it? My own answer would be a resounding ‘no’. I can think of no greater tragedy than to have spent our lives avoiding God by filling our days with activity which allowed him no space.

The image of the desert is important in scripture and in the life of Antony. Most of us can resonate with the sense of bleakness and isolation it conjures up, also perhaps its beauty and variety. We know that the desert is a privileged place of meeting between God and mankind. Few of us will ever live in a real desert, but each of us has an inner desert, somewhere unknown to any but ourselves, where our deepest struggles take place. It is where we await the coming of grace, and, just like Antony, we must persevere if we are to experience grace in all its fullness. For most of us that will be the work not of a single day or year but of a lifetime. That is why we Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, promising to live each day as a monk or nun should live, in continual conversion to the Lord.

 

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St Antony and the Eremitical Vocation

St Antony’s feast-day baulks larger in the monastic calendar than it does in most others because we look upon him as a monastic prototype. His life-story is fascinating and complex — an instance of multi-layered hagiography, to be approached with an eye for detail and an ear for what is unspoken — but it is as a hermit that he is chiefly remembered: a man who went into the desert to be alone with God.

This is a day when we pray for all hermits and thank God for their strange and beautiful vocation. A strange vocation I call it, because it is very rare and very unsettling (or should be) to those who have not received an eremitical call; beautiful, because to live with and for God alone is a gift to be marvelled at.

Benedict was not very keen on hermits, despite, or perhaps because of, his own experience. I have known two genuine hermits with some degree of familiarity: one was a nun, the other is a priest. Both loved people and got on easily with them. Their vocation was not a turning away from others but an engagement with them at a far, far deeper level than any ordinary activity could have made them. I’d dare to say their prayer was, and is, one of the pillars upholding the world.

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