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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St Benedict, Father of Western Monasticism

St Benedict
St Benedict

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Transitus, or ‘birthday into heaven’ of St Benedict, father of Western monasticism, fittingly occurs during Lent. He insisted that monastic life should always have ‘a Lenten quality’ — a purity and intensity of focus we find hard to sustain but which should be very marked during this holy season. Those who have never attempted to live according to his Rule are apt to praise its moderation and restraint. Those who have ventured to live by it, and know the depth of their own failure, are in no doubt about the hugeness of his demands. We are asked to prefer nothing whatever to Christ. To do that for a single day, a single hour, would be a great triumph of grace over nature. Happily, Benedict knows our weakness. In the end, all is grace, all is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our business is simply to trust and to go on, neither growing weary nor giving up. Perseverance isn’t a showy virtue, but it is a very Benedictine one.

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Mindfulness: the First Step of Humility

Three times every year we re-read RB 7, St Benedict’s sustained treatment of humility, and it never fails to strike me that the first quality he singles out is mindfulness — keeping the fear of God before one’s eyes at all times and never forgetting it; constantly keeping in mind all that God has commanded . . . recollecting that one is always seen by God in heaven . . . always saying in one’s heart, and so on and so forth (RB 7. 10–18). In Benedict’s monastery, there is neither opportunity nor excuse for forgetfulness. God is always and everywhere present, and that is the ground of our humility.

It certainly makes sense to me that constant awareness of God would preclude any pride or vanity, but isn’t it rather a strain to be always thinking of God and godly things, a little forced? I think that may be one reason why the Rule provides a whole way of life in which God is always at the centre. Everything in the monastery, from its layout to its contents, is intended to reinforce this awareness of God, but naturally and without effort. Already in this first degree or step of humility Benedict is looking towards the twelfth, when the monk or nun will ‘begin to observe without struggle, as though naturally and from habit, all those things which earlier he did not observe without dread.’ (RB 7. 68) Tellingly, the motivation he gives for this new way of acting is ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue.’ (RB7. 69) That is the goal of mindfulness, of humility in all its forms, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit. (RB7. 70)

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The Blessing of Sleep

One of the incidental blessings of my recent surgery has been the ability to sleep ‘normally’ again. After two years of disturbed nights, I appreciate how easily we are affected by aches and pains — and what a pain we are to others when we don’t sleep well!

You can find recommendations a-plenty for how to get to sleep and ensure your sleep is sound, but along with the milky drinks and the regular routines advocated by the sleep specialists, there is one conspicuous absence: the need for a quiet conscience. I don’t mean by that an innocent conscience. Few of us are fortunate enough to live wholly unblemished lives; but although we all sin, we don’t have to let sin define us. We have it in our power to repent, to change, to try to put things right. When St Benedict gives as a tool of good works ‘make peace with your opponent before sunset’ (RB 4.70), he is merely putting into concrete form something he alludes to many times in the Rule: never nurse a grudge, never allow your conscience to become accustomed to thoughts of revenge, see where your desire leads and check it if it is leading you astray.

The old practice of ‘examination of conscience’ before bedtime is a helpful way of reviewing the day’s events. It enables us to give thanks as well as repent of wrongdoing. It can also help organize our discordant and jangling impulses into a programme for tomorrow, when we will try to live more truthfully, lovingly, etc.

Despite years of research we still do not know all sleep’s secrets. Perhaps the most elusive is the way in which sleep fashions our future. We know that the wear and tear on our bodies is repaired during sleep; we also know the psychological benefits of a good night’s sleep and the way in which problems are often resolved without our consciously thinking them through; but what of the spiritual benefits of sleep? Sleep is the one time when we can’t put up any barriers to God, when there are no obstacles to the working of grace. You may not be a monk or nun, but before you go to sleep tonight, try making your own that lovely saying of the Desert Fathers, ‘the monastic cell is like Easter Night: it sees Christ rising’, and quieten heart and mind in readiness.

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The Last Day of the Year

It may be perverse of me, but I think the last day of the year is just as important as the first. It is a time for giving thanks for blessings received, asking forgiveness for wrongs committed, forgiving those who have wronged us, and asking grace for the future. Already, even before January, the month that looks both ways, begins, we are aware of needing to make decisions about both past and future. We cannot reject the past, but we can allow it to be redeemed. We cannot determine the future, but we can allow it to be permeated with the love and mercy of God.

In the monastery on the last day of the calendar year, we read chapter 73 of the Rule of St Benedict and are reminded that the Rule itself is only a beginning of holiness, a first step towards the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue described by St Benedict. For me, it will be the 96th time I have heard that chapter read in community. I can look back and see how often I have failed to live up to its demands. I can look forward in hope to trying to live it better in 2014; but most of all, I can decide, here and now, to try to live today as it should be lived because ‘today’ is all we ever really know. So, for me, no New Year resolutions as such, only a renewed sense of purpose about what I am called to be and do. I think (hope?) that is probably enough. It is certainly the best I can do.

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St Benedict, Patron of Europe

On this feastday (the lesser of the two in the Benedictine calendar) my mind always turns, not to Benedict himself, but to his Anglo-Saxon disciples. St Boniface, St Leoba of Wimborne and Tauberbischofsheim, that great crowd of Anglo-Saxon missionaries who crossed the sea to evangelize Frisia and the Germanic peoples, are, in an important sense, creators of the Europe we know today. With their reverence for Romanitas, their zeal, their friendship, they were true heirs of Benedict. They didn’t monasticize Europe, but they certainly laid the foundations of its Christian identity. We are in danger of losing that today. Europe is very far from being Christian in any sense, and we see the effects of that everywhere.

I shall be asking the prayers of our holy father Benedict to reinvigorate European monasticism — both streams, the male and the female — in the hope that we Benedictines can contribute something worthwhile to the new evangelisation. Perhaps you would join me in that prayer.

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The Transitus of St Benedict

Today we celebrate the feast of St Benedict’s Transitus, his passing from this world to the next, with the sober joy characteristic of all Benedictine festivities, especially during Lent. The account Gregory the Great gives of his death in Book II of The Dialogues is strangely moving, despite all the typology he manages to cram into it. Benedict becomes the new Moses, not only law-giver but intercessor, the friend of God and, like him, ‘the humblest man alive’.

The analogy with Moses was one medieval writers loved to play with, and one can see why. What, perhaps, we modern Benedictines tend to forget is that what is true of Benedict ought, in some sense, to be true of us, too. There should be in every Benedictine a friend of God, one who intercedes for others, a truly humble person. I think I can see how I should be examining my conscience today, don’t you?

Note
Today is the day on which Archbishop Justin Welby will be enthroned. We pray for him and for all our Anglican friends: Ad multos annos!

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St Lawrence and his Gridiron

The one thing everyone seems to remember about St Lawrence is his gridiron. (Those who use the Latin antiphoner may smile a little at the mention; if you want to know why, look at the antiphons for the feast.) Traditionally, for us, it is also the day we first pick tomatoes from the garden: their redness reminds us of Lawrence’s martyrdom. This year there are no tomatoes, and somehow I don’t think we shall manage a BBQ for supper. That means we can reflect on another aspect of St Lawrence’s story.

When Lawrence was asked to give up the Church’s treasure, he asked for a respite of three days. When he next appeared, he brought with him not the gold and silver that was confidently expected but the poor, the sick, the blind, the underclass of Roman society. Suddenly we are dealing not with a pious legend of the third century but with the reality of Church and society in the twenty-first century. The riches of the Church are, above all, people. Sometimes we forget that in our anxiety to ensure that buildings are looked after, outreach properly financed, educational programmes adequately staffed and liturgy reverently performed. For a Benedictine, it is very obvious. Throughout the Rule Benedict comes back again and again to the way in which we treat one another being a mark of our godliness, a measure of our transformation in Christ. We see Christ in the superior and in one another; in the old, the young, the guest; above all, in the poor.

Today would be a good day for thinking about how we treasure the poor. Poverty does not mean only hunger and thirst and degradation; it can be hidden; it can exist where we would suspect it least. Nor is it necessarily something ‘other’. We can be intellectually impoverished, spiritually poor; and the tragedy is we may not know the extent of our need.

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A Tale of Two Tunics

An idle thought struck me at Mass this morning. In today’s gospel, Mark 6. 7–13, we hear the Lord sending the Twelve out on what we would now call missionary work. His instructions are precise: they are to take nothing for the journey — no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purse; they are to wear sandals but not take a spare tunic. That absence of a spare tunic has always bothered me. It is often presented as an aspect of the ‘lean, mean, missionary machine’ idea, in which those who are to preach and teach in Christ’s name are to travel light, taking nothing that is not strictly necessary, depending rather on God to supply all their material needs. As a young girl, I concluded that the first missionaries were probably dreadfully smelly. Later, I began to think that those first missionary journeys were quite short, as though, until the institution of the Eucharist (‘no bread’) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (‘nothing for the journey’), the disciples were not fully equipped for their task. Even today, more commentaries than I care to remember later, I am still puzzling over the text.

St Benedict remarks, in the course of his chapter on the clothing and footwear of the brethren (RB 55), that when we go out of the monastery, our tunics and cowls should be better than the ones we normally wear. It is still our custom today to put on our ‘best’ habit when we have to go anywhere on monastery business. I think the reason we do so is so that, whatever the austerities practised within community, our public face should be like that of the faster, who no one should know is fasting. We represent our community best when we draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. Can the same be said of the missionary?

The life of a monk or nun is largely hidden, by its very nature; the life of a missionary, by contrast, is almost entirely public. For us, the habit preserves the privacy of the community — it may hide its penury; it certainly hides any excessive individualism. For the missionary, with just the clothes he stands up in, what we see is what we get: he or she must radiate Christ, allowing nothing to get in the way. Both missionary and monastic have the same end in view, but we approach it from different angles, so to say. My tale of two tunics may sound a bit far-fetched, but for me at least there is the germ of an idea there. Would someone like to take it further?

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St Benedict, Co-Patron of Europe

For many Benedictines the 21 March feast of St Benedict is the big one. It occurs during Lent and is celebrated with a kind of spartan splendour which seems very apt for the father of western monasticism. The 11 July feast, by contrast, is a rather truncated affair (no I Vespers, for example) and overlaid by other concerns. When Paul VI declared St Benedict Patron of Europe, however, he touched upon something important: the role of Benedictine monasticism in giving shape to what we now call ‘Europe’.

It is scarcely possible to mention Europe nowadays without hearing a groan or mutterings about economic collapse; but Europe as an idea, as a political and cultural entity, as a source of both intellectual and material creativity, is not to be dismissed so summarily. What, I wonder, is the contribution that Benedictines make to the Europe of today? Medievalists tend to talk in terms of learning and literature, art and agriculture, acknowledging the diversity of monastic endeavours in the past. We cannot see the present so clearly, but I have a hunch that the monastic contribution is by no means spent. Maybe the large monasteries of the past, with their great estates and highly regulated way of life, will be seen no more, but it is the genius of St Benedict to be interpreted afresh in every generation. ‘Behold I am doing a new thing.’ These are exciting times in which to be a disciple of St Benedict.

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