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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The Tools of Good Works 10 to 31

With today’s portion of the Rule, we get on to more testing ground. Words like ‘renunciation’, ‘fasting’ and ‘discipline’ make their appearance, along with exhortations to perform the corporal works of mercy and keep our hearts and tongues pure, free from perjury or profanity. At the heart of this chapter are two sentences that epitomize both the Christian and the monastic ideal: ‘To make oneself a stranger to the ways of the world’ (20) and ‘To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.'(21)

For two thousand years members of the Church have found the first very difficult. We have embraced the world and its ways with great eagerness, telling ourselves that we must ‘be where people are’ and ‘speak a language that people understand’. Both are true, but perhaps not in the way we have assumed. There must always be something of a prophet about every Christian, a readiness to challenge society’s comfortable assertions with the truth that comes from God, never more so than when society deludes itself into believing that it is acting with compassion when it isn’t. A good example might be the Church’s upholding of the sacredness of human life in the face of apparently strong arguments against it (e.g. see my post here).

The second sentence is perhaps more challenging still, for it calls us to give up not just bad or indifferent things but good things, too. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ is to give up family, career, personal freedom, to embrace something known only by faith, and that imperfectly and often uncertainly. It is here that most Benedictines would place the heart of their vocation. It is this that enables us to aspire to the last tools named in this section: not to pay back evil for evil (29); not to wrong anyone but patiently bear wrong done to oneself — something our world finds incomprehensible for the most part (30); to love one’s enemies.(31)

The Tools of Good Works are precisely that: tools which have to be used to be effective in doing good. As we shall see, Benedict envisages a lifetime’s practice within the enclosure of the monastery. However small or circumscribed our world may be physically, morally it can be co-extensive with the universe. To renounce oneself to follow Christ (10) is to enter upon the greatest journey of exploration ever made. How could such a journey end but in a reversal of what most people would expect (31)?

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