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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Polemics and the Art of Being Christian Online

St Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, is one of my heroes. I love his reverence for the Incarnation, his pastoral concern, his interest in monasticism, the fact that the ancient Churches of both East and West regard him as a great saint. I even love even his rather fiery temper, though I do not think I would have liked to have been on the receiving end of some of his tongue-lashings.

Today there are many who seem to think they are heir to Athanasius in their zeal for purity of doctrine and observance but who quite often overlook two important points. First, Athanasius was a learned man and spoke and wrote from a deep store of theological knowledge and understanding. Second, he was a saint and consciously strove to put into practise the teachings of Christ. I have never been attracted to polemics myself but if I were, I think those two points would give me pause. It is very easy to assume we are right, that we have the answers others are searching for, but it is just possible we are mistaken, that we don’t know enough, or don’t understand as well as we think we do. As to leading holy lives, filled with faith, hope and charity, would it not be presumptuous to claim that?

One of the problems with the blogospshere at the moment, and perhaps even more the corner of Twitter that I inhabit, is that there is too much shrieking going on. Too many people are attacking others without really examining whether they are right to do so. We may want to see ourselves as champions of truth, but very often that desire is all about us and not about truth at all. I’m particularly saddened when I see Catholics attacking one another in virulent terms over supposed lapses in orthodox belief and practice.* Not so long ago I was myself attacked, in no uncertain terms, by someone regarded by many (though not, I have to confess, by me) as a champion of orthodoxy. Even though I did my best to point out where and how the misconception could have arisen, there was no apology, only another sneer. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and reminded me forcibly of something we need to remember every time we go online. We will never argue anyone into belief in God; we can only try to show something of God’s holiness and love and pray that he will draw others to himself. That doesn’t mean that we allow errors to go uncorrected or fail to stand up for what we believe; it does mean that we don’t mistake love of a fight for love of the truth. Putting someone down isn’t the best way of raising them up, is it?

Truth matters; and it is precisely because truth matters that I think we should be reverent and charitable in our attempts to defend and spread the truth we have been privileged to know, especially online where it is more difficult to convey nuance or relax tension. That is part of the art of being a Christian online. It is also, unless I’m very much mistaken, part of the secret of successful polemics, too.

*We all have a duty to try to put right whatever may be wrong, but the way in which we do that is important. It is particularly important that we make sure of our facts otherwise we may be guilty of grave injustice.

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Irritable Nun Syndrome and St Athanasius

Yesterday I made a joke on Twitter. (I often make jokes and have the pleasure of seeing them descend to earth with all the delicacy of a lead balloon, but bear with me.) Irritable Nun Syndrome is a condition I have sometimes diagnosed in myself when tired or oppressed by the adolescent feeling that others just don’t understand. The lapidary sentence that distills a lifetime of thought and learning being taken a little too literally; the gracious nod in the direction of someone truly great being completely missed; the gentle irony mistaken for something much worse. You know the kind of thing. All terribly humbling, but annoying too.

I was chuntering along these lines when I realised that in St Athanasius I, and all sufferers from Irritable Nun Syndrome, have a wonderful ally. Not because we can compare ourselves in any way to such a great saint but because, as the dauntless champion of the Incarnation with a passionate concern for the integrity of Catholic belief, Athanasius was one of the most awkward men who have ever lived. He bristles, he burns, and he pays the price in exile and obloquy. At heart, I think he was something of a monk.

All monks and nuns are, to some degree, awkward people. We are free, as few other people are free, to follow the logic of our conversion to Christ. That freedom confers a great responsibility on us. There will undoubtedly be times when we wish to shirk it or shrink it to something we feel we can ‘manage’, but as St Benedict reminds us in the opening words of the Rule, we have stripped ourselves of self-will to fight for the true King, Christ our Lord, with the strong and glorious weapons of obedience. Athanasius was throughout his life a man of unwavering fidelity to the obedience he had vowed. May he pray for us all.

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