Second of two addresses delivered
Church of the Resurrection
Mt Macedon, All Souls Day, 2019
The monks are to bear with patience the weaknesses of others, whether of body or behaviour. Let them strive with each other in obedience to each other. Let them not follow their own good, but the good of others. Let them be charitable towards each other with pure affection. (RB 72:5-8)
I first encountered the Rule of St Benedict at the beginning of the 1990s when English historian and spiritual writer on the Rule, Esther de Waal, offered a 7 Day Benedictine Experience in Melbourne. We, a group of very disparate people from many walks of life, came together for 7 days and lived out the Rule in as faithful way as possible for a group of 20th century Christians, at the Santa Maria Convent, Northcote.
In the 1970s, then married to the rector of Canterbury Cathedral, Esther de Waal lived on this site of a former Benedictine monastic settlement for many years. In Medieval times her house was the prior’s lodging. Outside her front door, daily she walked passed what once had been the granary, the bakehouse, the brewhouse. Further down were the ruins of the infirmary. The windows of the house itself viewed over the different parts of the monastery - the scriptorium, the pilgrim’s hostel. All was overshadowed by the great Cathedral. During these years, as a busy mother raising a family, tutoring at Open House University as well meeting with groups of people who constantly visit the Cathedral she began to think about those early communities who there hundreds of years ago.
In Seeking God she writes about her own early encounter with The Rule: ‘sometimes one finds a place, a landscape, which is new and yet the forms, the shapes, the shadows seem already familiar. So it was for me with The Rule. It was neither remote, nor past, nor cerebral but immediate and relevant, speaking of things I already half knew or was struggling to make sense of….’ (Seeking God p12). In deciphering this world of the past, she began to make meaning from these clues all around her present life. She felt challenged to think about what shape the life of these monks might have looked like; she pondered about them as persons living in their own time. Slowly she let go thinking of them as simply faceless and amorphous, a past event with little relevance beyond sentimental history. And gradually she discovered some of the puzzles and paradoxes of her own life begin to make new sense. The clues left behind of their story, and especially as mediated through The Rule of St Benedict, gave her new a new value and insight into her own life.
During that week at Santa Maria Convent, as we trod along our own Benedictine road, I felt touched, in a very small way, by something of the intention of The Rule which those early monks at Canterbury would have dedicated their whole lives to. And lives which, Esther de Waal reminded us, were ‘essentially unheroic.’ We too followed many of the monastic hours though not in the middle of the night, and we maintained the Great Silence (not speaking unless we had to, from about 8pm after compline, til Terce at 9am the next day). During some of these prayer times, Esther included short addresses and reflections on the life of Benedict, or the early Desert Fathers and Mothers. Over lunch, she read to us sections from Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary. We spent time gardening in the afternoon, and at 4pm each sat alone for lectio divina.
Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we win our brother (or sister) we win God. If we cause our brother (or sister) to stumble we have sinned against Christ, is a saying which comes from Antony the Great, one of the most influential of the Desert Fathers. (Silence and Honey Cakes by Rowan Williams p23) The lives of these early hermits in the Egyptian Deserts were influential on Benedict and in turn helped form his understanding about how to shape a Christian community.
We know most about St Benedict from his Rule. It is based on an earlier Rule of the Master, but a third in length. Benedict called it a little Rule for beginners, ‘mimimam inchoationis regulam’ designed to ‘set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.’ (RB Pro46). He understood community life in a down to earth, practical and very human way. But also, he was psychologically astute and sensitively attuned. He deciphered clues in his own world and re-shaped an existing Rule to form one much less austere, one which took into account the humanity, the differences as well as the temptations of all monks. He understood human foibles and fallibilities, the need to find a way in all these diverse human traits for a group of men to come together, to live, work and grow in the Love of God.
The Rule of St Benedict differed from it’s predecessor not so much in how monks structure their day, but by the sort of communal culture St Benedict sought to foster. The Abbot now was thought of as a loving father, and the monastery itself compared to a workshop. Less hierarchal than the Rule of the Master, relationships between the monks were much more important for him. Mentoring was encouraged - older monks asked to move amongst the younger, to sit amongst them at table in the refectory. The instructions in the Rule itself offered a box of tools for the whole community, including the Abbot.
In her subsequent work, Living with Contradiction Esther de Waal writes about the vault of the nave at Canterbury Cathedral built in the Middle Ages: ‘Stand beneath that triumph of late Gothic building and you find pillar and arch, rib and vault, all brought together in one great harmonious unity, each separate and individual part linked both with the other elements and with the whole.’ (Living with Contradiction p40)
Rowan Williams says that a person can only fully be a person when he or she recognises that they are part of ‘a network of relation.’ This involves an honest recognition and acknowledgement that we are all inter-dependent. ‘For the Christian believer that dependence is ultimately a dependence on ….a comprehending and comprehensive gaze. We are held in a look, a divine look, a divine contemplation of us; which leaving nothing out, judging and rejecting nothing of us, holds us. A comprehending - that is, an empathetic and interior awareness; a comprehensive - an inclusive vision of who we are.’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVx8dfMIR7k)