St Benedict and Europe (Again)

Readers of this blog may think I have written more than enough about St Benedict and Europe already. I have had more than one go at expressing my thoughts about Brexit, and as I try very hard to keep iBenedictines free from party politics, it is difficult to say more without inviting the kind of one-dimensional comment that is the moderator’s nightmare. However, the events of the last few days have concentrated minds wonderfully. The spectacle of the government disintegrating before our eyes, the fact that Brexit negotiations are still stuck at a rudimentary stage, and the grave doubts many have about the wisdom of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the way in which it was presented to the public at the time of the EU referendum combine to make me think that there is still something to be said.

When Paul VI proclaimed St Benedict patron of Europe (a title he now enjoys with several others) he was acknowledging the unique role of the Benedictines in shaping the Christian culture of the West:

Messenger of peace, moulder of union, magister of civilization, and above all herald of the religion of Christ and founder of monastic life in the West: these are the proper titles of exaltation given to St Benedict, Abbot. At the fall of the crumbling Roman Empire, while some regions of Europe seemed to have fallen into darkness and others remained as yet devoid of civilization and spiritual values, he it was who, by constant and assiduous effort, brought to birth the dawn of a new era. It was principally he and his sons, who with the cross, the book and the plough, carried Christian progress to scattered peoples from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the plains of Poland (Cf. AAS 39 (1947), p. 453). With the cross; that is, with the law of Christ, he lent consistency and growth to the ordering of public and private life. To this end, it should be remembered that he taught humanity the primacy of divine worship through the ‘opus Dei’, i.e. through liturgical and ritual prayer. Thus it was that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture felt they constituted the one people of God; a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages.

He went on to draw an analogy with the formation and purpose of what we now know as the EU. Half a century later, the optimism looks a little naive. The bright dream of the future is no more — and it isn’t ‘Brussels red tape’ that has destroyed it but horrors like Srebrenica and the resurgence of a populism that preys on the weak and rejects the stranger. The antidote many have offered is a return to the past, to a time that never was save in our imagination, and the selective recreation of a Europe that has closed its eyes to what lies beyond its borders. (The Europe I speak of includes Britain.) Perhaps it is time for a reality check, using the same Rule of St Benedict that Paul VI saw as so creative.

First and foremost, the Rule of St Benedict is about seeking God and living in a manner pleasing to him. There are no half-measures, no indulgences, no small accommodations we can make to suit our whims and fancies. The Rule catches us at every turn and leads us back to the Gospel, to living with the eyes of God always upon us, our ears always alert for his voice. The human society regulated by St Benedict, the monastic community, has what we would call ‘democratic elements’, but it is not a democracy as we understand it today. It is inclusive by its very nature, but its inclusivity is far removed from what is usually meant by that term nowadays. It is uncompromising in its insistence on virtue, orthodoxy, hard work and plain living. In other words, it is a demanding Rule — not harsh, in the way that Celtic monasticism was harsh; not burdensome, in the way that many a later rule has been; but a Rule that gets to the heart of things and asks our all. It has been an important instrument for the creation of a Christian culture without which I dare to say Europe (again including Britain) has no future. Its influence goes very deep — so deep, in fact, that we are often unaware of the Christian origin of much that we take for granted.

It isn’t fashionable to assert that Europe is Christian or it is nothing. We would much rather talk about multicultural richness and diversity. As I understand it, multiculturalism means that every culture must be accorded equal value. To suggest otherwise is to be narrow-minded, bigoted or worse. Increasingly, I think the multicultural experiment in Europe has failed, not because we do not value the gifts that other cultures bring but because it has led to lazy thinking and acting. Government attempts to define ‘British values’ have been doomed to failure because they have no real centre, nothing to hold them together. It would be more profitable, perhaps, to think about Benedict’s teaching on hospitality. RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, is welcoming, but it is the welcome of people who have confidence both in what they offer and what they receive. Do we have such confidence, or are we desperately trying to find it? Are we simply reluctant to welcome others, afraid of them, or do we we lack a sense of ‘home’? It is worth thinking about that for a moment.

To welcome others to one’s home, one must first have a home, which means a sense of identity, a uniqueness we can share but not forego. Our home doesn’t need to be a fortress, but it does need to be somewhere we can relax, feel at ease, know our place. For me as an Englishwoman, a Catholic and a Benedictine, that sense of home is undoubtedly linked to my country, my Church and my sense of Europe as the natural expression of my cultural identity. I hope that doesn’t make me unappreciative or fearful of what lies outside or beyond. Without roots, the tree cannot flourish. I know I cannot, and what is true of the individual is also true of Europe. There are indeed many things of which Christian Europe should repent; many things that, even today, we do not see clearly enough to know whether they are as they should be or not; but if we give up on the ‘Christian’, what is left? Only a soulless concentration on wealth, which forces the weakest under, and a growing inequality untempered by conscience or ideas of altruism. Surely we can do better than that?

St Benedict has many quotable sentences in his Rule, and to those of us who know the text by heart, they tend to come unbidden at various moments of the day. One that often comes to mind is RB 4.74, Et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare, Never to despair of God’s mercy. Whatever the difficulties we face, however great the chaos that threatens us, there is not merely the hope but the fact of God’s mercy. It may not come to us in the way we are expecting, but come it most certainly will. We must be ready to receive it.


Thanking St Benedict, Patron of Europe

Today we celebrate the second feast of St Benedict, the Translatio or Translation of the Relics, and pay special attention to his role as patron of Europe. It is easy to see why. The so-called Benedictine centuries saw the formation of Europe as we know it, with the preservation of much Classical culture being the work of monks and nuns. But if celebrating St Benedict were simply an exercise in celebrating the past, I think we would be guilty of something he himself would have censured. For St Benedict, as for every Benedictine, an intensely personal quest for Christ was joined to a profound sense of the importance of community, of the value of the present moment and the necessity of choosing between good and evil. It was never a celebration of the past as such, but a building on the past as a way into the future. We do not always see the choices before us in the stark terms the Rule suggests, but Benedict is insistent on the life or death consequences of the choices we make. He warns, he advises, but above all he encourages us to advance in virtue so that we may love God and the brethren with a pure and undivided heart.

Today we can look at the world around us, especially Europe, and be dismayed by the divisions we see. We can lament the disintegration of much that is familiar, deplore the weakening of the values that went into the construction of Europe over many centuries and indulge in a little unprofitable nostalgia But if we are to be true to St Benedict, we must be prepared to start again. Every day we begin anew the buiilding of the city of God. The shape, the form, the material elements will vary; but the task remains the same. St Benedict’s great gift to the world was that of looking forwards, not backwards, of holding nothing dearer to him than Christ. One can say he had such a lively sense of the Church’s Tradition that he knew it would carry him where he had never been before, and he was not afraid.

Today, we thank God for St Benedict and for the wisdom and inspiration that has come down to us from him and his followers in every age and place. We ask for a share in his courage and vision and, above all, his determination to prefer nothing to the love of Christ. May that guide us in the way we are meant to go.


St Benedict, Patron of Europe

Benedictines don’t do things by halves; so we have two feasts of St Benedict, the Transitus or memorial of his death, celebrated on 21 March, and the Translatio or translation of his relics, celebrated today. When Paul VI proclaimed him first patron of Europe in 1964, he especially lauded the contribution made by St Benedict and his Benedictine sons and daughters to the unity of Europe (see here). Half a century later, how does that look?

The first thing to remark is that today is also chosen as the day to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War, when approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces amid the break-up of Yugoslavia. Most of the Serbs were, nominally at least, Christians. The dark shame of that massacre is a dreadful contrast to the bright achievement of St Benedict and a warning that one has only to scratch the civilized man to discover the barbarian beneath.

We might also remark that Paul VI’s enthusiasm for European unity and what we now call the E.U. (European Union) looks more than a little naive. With Greece trembling on the brink, Britain wanting to re-negotiate terms, France and Germany acting like schoolmasters dealing with rowdy schoolboys, and a huge number of Brussels bureaucrats loved by nobody, the whole project seems much shakier than originally envisaged.

When Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, back in 1981, that

if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St Benedict. (After Virtue: emphasis mine)

his words were seized upon and manipulated to mean virtually anything the commentator wanted them to mean as people speculated what a ‘very different St Benedict’ might be like. For some, the answer was a ‘new monasticism’ which to someone formed in the ‘old monasticism’ of classical Benedictinism could seem very far removed from what St Benedict had in mind. For others, it was a drive towards a greater political union of Europe, analogous to the old Holy Roman Empire in which the Rule of St Benedict, along with the monasteries following it, had played such an important role. What we all seem to have missed, however, is the obvious: St Benedict’s concerns were other-worldly. His Rule is only incidentally about how to organize a human community. His principal concern is to lead people to God. To do that he establishes a rule of life, quite detailed in many of its provisions, but all with the aim of enabling the individual to grow in holiness and closeness to God, to become the worker cleansed of vice and sin, of which he writes so eloquently in chapter 7 of his Rule. (cf RB 7.70)

How does that measure up today? For myself, I’d say that we never had more need of the monastic quest for God; for perseverance in prayer; and for the kind of creative scholarship and activity that a dedicated life of prayer and service can produce. But I’d go further. If we speak of institutions, the one European unity that has subsisted throughout the centuries is the unity of the Catholic Church. That in itself should make us think. It may not be popular to say so, but without the Christian religious basis of Europe — a basis St Benedict did much to strengthen — we are surely in danger of reverting to barbarism. And the world has enough barbarians already.