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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The First Frost

We have just had our first real frost of winter. Everything crunches underfoot and there is a mist rising with the sun and shrouding familiar shapes and forms with an ethereal winding-sheet. Odd, isn’t it, how frost and cold turn our thoughts (my thoughts, anyway) to a half-remembered past, peopled by warriors, kings and thegns, with their bright armour and their strange and wonderful poetry. It would never surprise me to see Beowulf emerging from the mist or some dark Celt moving silently from tree to tree. An over-lively imagination, my mother called it, but for me it is just the necessary mental equipment of the (now lapsed) historian. Without the ability, or at least the desire, to enter into the lives of others remote from us in time and place, I think understanding both past and present is much more difficult.

Today there is much that requires a huge imaginative leap to understand, if we ever can. The allegations against Jimmy Savile have propelled us into the dark world of the abuser; the never-ending violence in Syria and Afghanistan haunts us; Malala Yousafzai struggling for life in Pakistan and the continuing search for the body of little April Jones, they weigh heavy on the spirit. As a Christian I believe that evil does not have the ultimate victory, but to live according to that belief requires more than mere acquiescence. It is never an easy way out. We are called to live our faith in the Resurrection; to do battle with all that is opposed to the goodness of God. This morning the first frost reminds us that some of the most powerful enemies we face come not from the world around us but from within, from our own imaginative failures, from imperfectly accepted personal histories. We all have our own inner demons to overcome.

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