St Benedict: For the God who Radiates in Community. Alleluia.
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 8 pm after compline, til Terce at 9 am 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 4 pm 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, 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.’ (see link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVx8dfMIR7k)
This is our identity in Christ and this is the gaze of God, and God’s contemplation of the world God has made. This is also the gaze we are asked to hold one another in.
1 Our relationship in and with God always starts from the place of the heart.
Where does the Rule of St Benedict start? The opening line of the Prologue : Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. The choice of the human sense that Rowan Williams employs for being in relationship with God, that of seeing, is here now one of hearing; the Divine Look which Williams alluded to, is here transposed to listening out for the Divine Word. For Benedict, our dependence on God is in hearing something of the Divine Word of God being said into the the heart. This hearing is both personal inclina aurem cordis tui - incline the ear of your heart, and relational - incline towards the magistri, (literally trainer or teacher). And the back story for both the monk reading or hearing the Rule, and the magistri, is their relationship in God. God holds all relationships; God coheres the world.
Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. Here is a call to begin your spiritual journey wherever you are at. There is a story in the Desert Father tradition where Apa Pambo is asked about how to find salvation: ‘Find your heart’ he instructed, ‘and you will be saved.’ It’s in chapter 4:55 of The Rule St Benedict says:
‘listen readily to holy reading and devote yourself often to prayer.’
The heart space, guided by holy reading and prayer, and wisdom of those we turn to, is the beginning of all spiritual journeys. And it continues to remain so. For here we are brought into our ground with God. Here we receive, as well as speak into.
The Rule encourages all monks, including the Abbot, to lean into God’s Divine Word speaking into each their hearts. As monks are accountable to the Abbot, so he and all considered themselves accountable to Christ. Christ moved amongst them. And the 3 vows which Benedictine monk’s still make today, set down an interplay for how a group of people, a network of close inter-dependencies, may strive to live under the roof of Christ in peace together: stability, obedience and conversatio morum (conversion of manners). They form the foundation for what it can mean to hear Christ amongst a community of individuals: stability is the recognition that each monk grounds his being and the others he is in close proximity with in the love of Christ; obedience is faithfulness to hearing Christ, becoming too a model and teacher for others; and conversatio morum, is that commitment to be in the place of the not yet. It’s a pledge to keep the heart open to change and growth.
The space of the heart with a recognition of our interdependency and our dependency on God may be a good place to start. But what about those annoying habits of our fellows, those inner frustrations we experience, unfulfilled desires, grumblings that afflict anyone in community or family situation? St Benedict was very down on ‘murmurings of the heart.’ But from very early on in the Rule he gives us guidance to help us here. Underpinning our lives is the mercy and expansive heart of God.
2 Our hearts and minds need to remain open: our perception expansive and inclusive.
A book of daily devotions I’ve enjoyed using is Of Martyrs, Monks and Mystics: A Yearly Meditational Read of Ancient Spiritual Wisdom. Here All Souls Day is given the subject heading: The Works of Mercy. Under this, The Joy of the Saints by St Augustine is quoted: ‘When we pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down ….hoping to be given something- and that something is God himself.’ And this is something St Benedict emphasised very early on in The Rule, ‘never lose hope of God’s mercy.’ In all our struggles with difference, with irritations, anger, impatience with one another, our sense of frustration at our own inadequacies and limitations, our arguments and disagreements, never lose hope in God’s mercy.
Denise Levertov, in her poem, To Live in the Mercy of God (Collected Poems, pp 974-975) writes:
‘ …not mild, not temperate God’s love for the world. Vast flood of mercy Flung on resistance.’
Mercy is encounter with the expansive and inclusive heart of God; to touch mercy is to receive something of God’s heart. We are all invited to receive mercy. In his writing on St Benedict, Rowan Williams borrows a very beautiful phrase-image from a welsh poet: life is about ‘inhabiting a great hall between narrow walls.’(Holy Living, p 65). I hear by these words, a call to know life as lived in small spaces with wide views; to inhabit limited bodies with expansive hearts. And it’s in this learning to receive from God’s expansive and inclusive heart, that we can then extend ourselves in generosity to others.
Being open and inclusive, also means finding ways for a disparate group of people rubbing shoulders with one another each day, to live together in a practical sense. And it’s here in the Rule, I think where obedience comes in. ‘The good of all concerned….may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and safeguard love.’ (RB:Pro47) In essence I hear this as a pledge to the love of Christ, through the Abbot, with the intention of establishing good practice on the part of each member in the community. And it’s this then that enables the good functioning of community life for all. We tend to treat the word obedience with suspicion - at best submission to another’s will with discretion, at worst being autocratically ruled over. But here in the Rule all these regulations, St Benedict insists, must be premised on mutual respect and love, in order for obedience to have any meaning. (RB 71) There are also several chapters outlining the Abbot’s own responsibilities and accountability, and the very clear directive to vary his teaching with the personal circumstances of each monk. (RB 2:23)
The Rule itself is full of concessions. The particular needs and frailties of the monks are taken into account, even more as you read further into it. At Vigils (the night office) the opening Psalm 94 is to be said ‘slowly and deliberately’ (RB 43.4), with the implication that the community needs to give their bothers extended time to arrive. Benedict writes that for Sunday vigils, if ‘God forbid, the monks happen to arise too late…(then) the readings or responsories will have to be shortened.’ (RB 11.11) So, adjustments are written into The Rule, just in case the offices go a bit haywire. Implication being, they must have done so - and enough times to warrant putting it into the Rule.
The timetables for meals and the amounts of food consumed at the table are regulated, with the expectation of these terms being met. But again then times and quantities of food, may vary seasonally and concession is given for more food during times of hard labour. (RB 39:6) Weekly kitchen service is mandatory, unless you are sick or otherwise engaged in important business. (RB 35.1) Those who are not strong are given help, and all kitchen servers are to be given extra portions of food and drink before they serve meals to their brothers so they should not be tempted to grumble. (RB 35.12-13)
Chapter 40 of The Rule, is one of my favourites: ‘The Proper Amount of Drink,’ Benedict seems to all (but not quite) completely crumple before what seems even then the Italian cultural mores of daily imbibing wine. He writes:
’We read that monks should not drink wine at all - but since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately and not to excess.’ (RB 40.6)
He then finishes the chapter by admonishing grumbling brothers in other monasteries where drinking wine is subject to tighter regulations, monks
‘there should bless God and not grumble. Above all else we admonish them to refrain from grumbling.’ (RB 40.9)
So, this is a Rule which sets out a list of routines and instructions, but like all toolboxes the way in which the tools are handled and worked with is subject to each person’s character, stage of life and role in the monastery.
3 Place ourselves at the doorway between the invisible and the visible; attached detachment.
Towards the end of The Rule, St Benedict spells out some of the different roles in the monastery. And there is one role, not often reflected on, but one which has me pondering. In chapter 66 he writes about The Porter of the Monastery. The actual Latin word is ‘ostiariis’, from which we get the word - ostiary. And an ostiary is the mouth of a river, but also more pertinent here, one who keeps the door, especially the door of a church. This role of the ‘porter’ is very specific.
The doorway referred to here is the portal which stands between the ordered self sufficient world inside the monastery where ‘all necessary things such as water, mill, garden and various crafts may be within the enclosure’ and the much wider life outside which in Benedict’s time was unsettled, strife ridden 6th century Italy. The Porter is at the door ‘so that the monks may not be compelled to wander outside it, for that is not at all expedient for their souls.’ The doorway to the monastery is a powerful place to situate someone. Benedict tells us: Place there ‘a wise old man’ or ‘a sensible old man.’ A man who is mature and not himself tempted to wander off. He must also be a man of ‘fervent charity.’ He is to welcome strangers with a blessing. Visitors are to be given separate quarters, so as to avoid too much disturbance, but they are welcome to dine in the refectory but only at the Abbot’s table. As always, keenly understanding the requirements of the job, Benedict makes sure that the porter is to be provided with a room near the door, and perhaps a younger brother to help him out.
In my first reflection with Evelyn Underhill I talked about cultivating that sense of attachment with detachment. At the doorway of the monastery, is placed a person with a highly developed sense of this practice. The role of the porter is to protect the inner environment of the monastery, but not overly stifle or ignore the influence of outside environs. Here is placed a seasoned soul who can greet each stranger with warmth, and also discernment.
This prompts me to ask a more psychological question: what or who in me, do I place, do I choose to stand at my doorway; that interface or portal between my inner world and external environment - the visible and the invisible? What inner space are we each called to protect, yet at the same time not stifle to the point where we become invulnerable to the knocking call of the stranger outside?
The Benedictine vow which I gravitate to and yet increasingly find the most challenging, is the one to undergo inner renewal -‘amendment of manners’, ‘fidelity to monastic life’, ‘conversion of life’: conversatio morum. (RB 58.17) It’s one which involves conversation: Oblate Catherine Haynes writes:
‘The monastic profession is a way of life which involves conversation, communication, between the monk and God, the monk and the abbot, the monk and other monks, the monk and the surrounding world, a conversation that is prayer or prayerful.’ (Oblate Catherine Mary Magdalene Haynes, Oblate O.S.B. https://www.idahomonks.org/sect805.htm)
If I translate this into my own life, then here there is recognition that the practice of awareness in conversing is one I am asked to cultivate. Stay awake, consciously unselfconscious in my own conversation with others, with God, with Scripture. We need to keep the doors of our ears open and listening, but also give time to return to our inner room, our heart space, in which we each converse with Christ. This space inside us is a touchstone, a spring from which habits of the heart are are fashioned. Here is the place for new life. Equally so, if I leave it uncultivated or fill it up only with my own ego driven agendas, this inner place stultifies, at worst distorts towards me to coercive action.
So, the porter is an image which speaks to us. Here is the call to be willing to embrace the unknown stranger, welcome in, greet with the blessing of Christ; but, also to hold back, protect the inner ground that has already been prepared over and precious. There’s a boundary between that which is self contained and self sufficient, has integrity; but not so fenced off from an openness that allows the foreigner, the itinerant, to offer change. This is not about becoming resilient or impervious to outside influence; but about being discerning, prepared to be vulnerable because that’s the place where Christ as shepherd also stands. And it’s the steadfast love of Christ who holds us there.
This vow of ‘conversatio morum’ is a radical vow in our world today; it’s counter cultural because of its refusal to take sides. It consciously recognises that standing here in this tension between what you protect and what you let in requires wisdom, and potentially it is the place which can offer a community, as well as a person, deep inner growth.
And this vow, like the two others, stability and obedience, at interplay in the heart, are grounded, made real in the ongoing life of prayer.
4 Move deeper into prayer life. Develop patterns or habits of the heart.
This reflection finishes with an invitation for us all to enter into for a period of time (start with 15 minutes) what the Benedictines call lectio divina or Holy Reading. St Benedict wrote about the importance of this practice in Chapter 48. Beyond specifying its practice being important during the monk’s other daily activities, that it is called lectio which involves solitary reading of scripture and for which the younger monks may need supervision, he gives little direction. However, Benedictines since the founding of the Order have written extensively on this practice of Lectio Divina.
‘Let us enter into ourselves, Time Presses’ Brother Lawrence (1611-1691)
Lectio Divina - Holy Reading: The word is not only external; it is implanted in our hearts James 1:21
One suggested way to practice Lectio Divina.
Select a line or few lines - there’s no agenda here. The line can be from scripture or poetry. A line that touches your heart.
Take yourself somewhere quiet and comfortable - this is time for receiving. At home perhaps light a candle.
Focus on your breathing for a few moments. Be aware of where you are. Take time to settle.
Read the words - aloud is good, but quiet if you like. Focus on only a few of the words e.g. ‘Listen with the ear of your heart.’
Read these words again. Perhaps a few times - befriend the words. Cherish them.
Sit and ponder these words for 5-10 minutes, or longer if you like. Put down the paper upon which they are written. Allow thoughts and feelings to come and go, greeting them like friends, then moving on. Let you mind become a little like Hildegard’s feather on the breath of God. Let the words sit within you like a mantra.
The Rule of Benedict in English
Liturgical Press, 1980
Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict
by Esther de Waal
Fount Paperbacks, 1984
Living With Contradiction: Reflections on the Rule of St Benedict
By Esther de Waal
Fount Paperbacks, 1989
Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert
by Rowan Williams
Lion Publishing, 2004
Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today
By Rowan Williams
Of Martyrs, Monks and Mystics: A Yearly Meditational Reader of Ancient Spiritual Wisdom
Ed by Charles Ringma and Irene Alexander
Wipe & Stock, 2015
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
Ed and annotated by Paul A Lacey and Anne Dewey
A New Directions Book, 2013