'....attend with the ear of your heart...' Benedict of Nursia


St Benedict and Community Living

My recent reflection on St Benedict and the Desert Fathers and Mothers with regards to community and family life - in response to a friend’s considerations.

‘May you never be isolated but know the embrace

Of your anam cara.’

John O’Donohue

I confess to having no idea how the spirituality of Christian contemplation will look in the future. Contemplative networks, New Monastic or otherwise, grow organically and seem to have a life of their own. They are far more common too, I suspect, than many of us realise. No-one can have a monopoly over a relationship with the Divine. Although I have been interested in ‘Returning to the Desert Principles’ and contemplative living as I experience it in my life and the world for many years, I can only write about it here as a beginner. And in fact, what I mention here will be nothing new. But I take up the invitation to write from an experiential point of view.

Just in our present times in Melbourne alone we are surrounded, locally and technologically, by so many religious traditions, customs, wisdom stories, and spiritual corridors. Despite the many serious worldwide challenges we face in the 21st century, God’s presence amongst us is made valid by a ‘great crowd of witnesses,’ and this isn’t only Christian witness, contemplative or otherwise. In my own life God always seems to be opening up new pathways. Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral London, likes to quote the Sufi, Hafiz, who describes tuning into God as like having the chair pulled from beneath your mind, and watching yourself fall on God. He also likes to quote Meister Eckhart who wrote that to live with a sense of the spiritual is like sitting in a dark room in which, every now and then, God coughs.

But the question, ‘in what spirit can we go forth into the future’ in terms of our Christian contemplative tradition, is a valid one. We never sit in isolation in that dark room, no matter how much we think or feel we do; sometimes it’s the least expected cough that reveals the surprise of God’s voice speaking directly into our hearts. God is always bigger than we are, and God is always particular and present in the smallest, the unlikeliest, the most broken of ways and persons. In all this we are called to trust our Christian footsteps into the future, perhaps even if the pathway seems lit only by a single small votive candle.

Desmond Tutu speaks of an African word: Ubuntu, meaning, I am because you are. Connection, relationship, that bridge we dare to walk over to be open to God or Jesus or another in our lives, is at the heart of my Christian faith. I can only be, because you are. And the faith that the bridge is there, that the relationship can be there at all, is not because of my doing, but God’s. When I say Yes to faith, as Dag Hammarskjöld understood, it’s God who invites. Without this sense of deep connection and relationship in God we are adrift. For me God is not third person singular, but second person, You. No Rule, no wisdom, no Desert Mother or Father or teacher can make any true and deep sense until we risk faith, and faith at base is a Who inviting relationship, at the heart of Whom is Love.

I don’t live in a New Monastic community. I don’t live in a religious community, in terms of a group of women or men coming intentionally to live together with Christian fellowship, with a certain rhythm of life involving the hours, with an eschatological resonance. I don’t live in a Christian Community like L’Arche where there is ministry to the most vulnerable. Although I have a ‘Spiritual Director’ and am part of a Church Community where I both work and worship, I don’t live what would be thought of a traditional religious life. I am an Associate of the Community of the Holy Name, and the I value the connection with this community of Sisters, but feel the regret I cannot give more time for this simplest of commitments to a Religious Order. The life in each of these communities would have its own challenges and difficulties. However, to enter any of these would require great thought, time of discernment involving others, and intentionality on the part of each person. Many of my closest friends are not ‘religious,’ and though my relationship with them feels deeply Christian, the language and symbols of Christianity are not something they would relate to. And more often than not, their friendship feeds me rather than anything I feel I can give them. But nonetheless, I am discovering that when I speak from my heart I find words that allow mutuality and connection. I feel a little bigger and a little smaller; more whole.

The collective I live in on a mundane day-to-day basis, is potentially the most fraught, the most common, and the least understood. It will still be around in the future, and it will still be highly challenging. Often it is entered into without a lot of consideration or discernment, but with huge expectations. It’s traditionally called ‘the family’. Some people would argue that the ‘family’ is different from a ‘community.’ Families are varied in form, complex, evolving and interweaving networks, especially for children. I live in a family, but I am part of broader communities. Community can be a township, a church, a sport’s group, a religious order, a hobby group, the place you work or where you shop. It is where people gather with a particular purpose; literally, ‘together with’. These are generally more ‘intentional’ groups, but equally fluid. And in these chosen communities you are either a part of or not, in or out, by choice or not by choice.

But I believe that at essence this distinction between ‘family’ and ‘community’ is one of the many divisions that Christ sought to break down. Whilst retaining a real recognition about the boundaries and expectations, the legal ramifications in the world concerning their differences, Christ sought to show us that true life is grounded in communion and love, in relationship, in mutuality. Such freeing up of these boundaries is subversive and threatening. This is because in God’s kingdom our dependence for all things comes from God. Politics in God’s collective consists of the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The redemptive kingdom of God continually seeks to break into our world; present, alongside, but we are not always open to receive. God’s kingdom asks us to grow in a conscious awareness of divine action in our lives. To commune in this way, all relationships become a priority, all creation manifests God’s presence, nothing considered pure or un-pure is left out in God’s kingdom.

The family in which I live in consists of three persons: myself, my husband, and daughter who is 14 years old. Families are complex and move in all sorts of both hidden and exposed ways. All families have their brokenness, and their potential for healing. Communities are like this too, but families (particularly our early childhood family) dig deep into our souls, they form us and manifest something throughout the rest of our lives, in what we take into the wider world. But what can happen in a ‘family’ is that it becomes a clan. All families and all communities - New Monastic or otherwise - always run the risk of becoming a clan. Clans are groups of people who are inwardly focused, there are explicit or implicit rules of conduct, and these rules are based on power dynamics and scapegoating. Often there is a strong pecking order and though other people can be invited in, they never quite belong; they are always tinged by something of the ‘other.’ In clans there’s a strong sense of who’s in and who’s out, who’s major and whose minor.

Many people who claim they have ‘no religion’ or who loosely describe themselves as ‘atheist’ actually ascribe to the family their life’s ultimate meaning and value. It doesn’t mean they become a clan, but crisis or trauma does become something much harder to negotiate. Also, for me, family as meaning only of itself is not enough. But I recognise how easy it can be to have family as your life’s meaning when the members seem well and are surrounding you; work can be fulfilling: though life may be recognised as not perfect and the world full of problems, it is personally comfortable and pleasurable whilst always there is something to aim for. Besides, there’s so much to distract and keep one too busy to think too seriously about meaning. The general ticking over ‘your own’ family can mean you don’t have to think or question too much about the meaning of existence whilst living a comfortable life.

It’s very hard to find a toolbox in the Christian tradition that equips you with a Way, helps you shape a life with others, that is meaningful, relatable, full of wisdom, common sense and attuned to the particular. When I encountered the Rule of St Benedict, in my late 20s, with the interpretative insight of such people as Esther De Waal, it helped me make sense of and understand the basic workings of a healthy human life both individually and collectively. Until I encountered the Rule I had no framework for a Way of living. And although I’ve since come to recognise that this is the beauty and the extraordinary challenge of Christ himself being the Way, no other Rule or Way that I know of could have met me precisely in the manner that I needed to be at that time. It has been formative for how I understand the workings of a healthy ‘family’ and ‘community’ today.

It seems bizarre to me now that I, then a university postgraduate, a secondary school teacher and recently divorced, needed to learn the basic building blocks of a balanced lifestyle. So I don’t think St Benedict was being disingenuous or overly modest when he describes the Rule as ‘a little Rule for beginners.’ I think he wrote it for a bunch of people just like me: whose only previous experience of family or community living had been that of a clan, or at best, a well-intentioned group of people with a lot of misguided interpersonal dynamics. Tangibly here in the Rule was the instruction that we each need time for work, time for study, time for prayer, time to eat, time to rest, time for togetherness, time to be apart. The Rule is about how a group of persons can come together and live inside a rhythm of life that recognises we are connected to something bigger than ourselves, and of which we are also a part of. This connection is linked into a much bigger story based on remembering and contains eschatological resonances, all held in mystery. It’s ‘way’ makes common sense, offers spiritual meaning and brings life. It’s founded on right-relationship. ‘Let Christ be the chain that binds you,’ Benedict says.

In his Rule, St Benedict always points away from himself and toward Christ. Christ is the heart of community and family. Christ in God, feeding us, leading us by the spirit. There is space and time given, respect for and a place for each person. The stranger at the door is welcomed, fed and sheltered. With Love present like a living well of water, a birdbath continually filled by rainfall in the middle of a garden, communities and families are much less likely to be susceptible to becoming a clan. This rhythm of life is a framework, and like learned patterns of prayer it carries us through all seasons in our life. This isn’t a rhythm that sets one up only for the good times or when life makes sense. As a path that is a growing into, a process, it offers a course through times of deep suffering and dereliction as well. Faith can never be chosen, is not a commodity to be picked up - but it’s a Way. At root, it is the invitation to journey inside and with God, Love. The Rule of Benedict recognises all of this; Love is at the centre and rhythm of our life. Any new or old monastic community must continually come back to this foundational rock.

Still today, in my family the more I seek to attune myself to this rhythm the more I recognise how paradoxically freeing, feeding this rhythm of life is. It’s not a head thing only; it’s a whole body movement. With focus as ‘other’ grounded in Christ, on Love, the rhythm reminds me that it’s in relationship with others that I find out who I am. It’s in my relationship with God in my cell that my imagination is stretched, grace received, compassion enlarged. Working alongside or leading others helps me see gifts and attributes in myself that I have not realised I had before, and the plentiful and amazing gifts of others. Praying with others brings intimacy and forgiveness. Study and reading and writing teaches me coherence and breadth of understanding, whilst rest is the circuit breaker, the time when everything is let go so my body can begin again refreshed.

It’s very hard to live a life in this balance, and I recognise the gaps in my own life: the propensity to sit at desks, to be inside too much, those inward hurdles that resist me from connecting more directly with the earth and garden. There are many neighbours I prefer not to know about, and periods when I want to write on well beyond the time I need to go to bed. And another glass of wine could do me no harm. Benedict’s Rule reminds me how crooked I am when I’m left to my own devices. The Desert Monastics continually feed my imagination spiritually, but it’s the Rule that has grounded me bodily. The Rule reminds me to get back on a path where to be a ‘whole’ human person means I need balance - time for solitude, time to be in our close community, and time to be in the ‘market place.’ It’s from St Benedict that I’ve learned the value of stability, of continual need to be open to growth ‘conversatio morum’, and of obedience, being in the Latin, literally - hearing in the direction of.

‘Renunciation’ and ‘fleeing’ are part of the same action. They are subversive in that they say No to that which distracts our orientation toward God. We flee that which we sense seeks to deflect us from our relationship with Christ. They are a recognition that, ‘this is enough’; I have been given what I need - ‘my daily bread’. They say: I need to stay here and say no, or, I need to flee before I succumb. Such actions recognise that we are not, no matter how wealthy, talented, powerful, in relationship with God on our own terms. ‘Renunciation’ and ‘fleeing’ help us know the fruitfulness of stability, of reconversion in God, and emphasise the need to keep listening. St Benedict learned deeply from the Desert Mothers and Fathers. ‘Go to your cell, it will teach you everything,’ says Abba Moses. This is Christ saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you.’ In owning and learning to make our inner cell our home we find heaven so we can then move out and connect with others, in family, community, market place. This is a continuing practice for each one of us every day of our lives. From the Desert teachings Benedict learned about human weakness and difference and of true fellowship being rooted in Christ. As Rowan Williams illustrates for us in telling the story of Abba Moses and Abba Arsenius, one who celebrated with the angels in a boat eating honey cakes, and the other severely ascetical who sat in his boat in silence with the Holy Spirit, we are each and every one of us, called in a very particular way, a personal way, a kind way, to be in relationship with our God. And we are to show compassion toward one another. And compassion towards ourselves for our own weaknesses. Benedict has taken the teaching of the Desert Mothers and Fathers and shaped them to become internally consistent for healthy community living.

We are surrounded by a great richness and variety of religious traditions and contemplative communities. In how to make sense of any of it we need to start with what we are given: our bodies, our breath, our feet on the ground, our hands holding. We each have a path given, an Interior Castle which Teresa of Avila teaches us to explore, the inner rooms of self, so that we can begin to know ourselves. As the Dalai Lama has said, if you are given a Christian Tradition, don’t become a Buddhist. Own your inherited and given path. However, to embody any of this we need the basic building blocks of life lived in balance. In order to live creatively and dynamically with others in family or community relationships St Benedict gives us a wonderful toolbox. Like the Desert Monastics, the key to the toolbox is Christ. So Fleeing, Renunciation, Solitude and Community are all essential in life, but at root is relationship; relationship with God, with one another so we become ourselves. And on a day-to-day basis, in very mundane ways, practising being grounded and present in Christ, I often feel that darned chair pulled right from under my mind so once more, very scarily, I seem to fall into God.

Carol O’Connor

October 2017