INTRODUCING THE WAY OF ST BENEDICT
LENTEN PREACHING SERIES
Our reference book for the series is Esther De Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict
Gracious and holy God, please give us: intellect to understand you; reason to discern you; diligence to seek you; wisdom to find you; a spirit to know you; a heart to meditate upon you; ears to hear you; eyes to see you; a tongue to proclaim you; a way of life pleasing to you; patience to wait for you; and perseverance to look for you. Grant us your holy presence, … a blessed resurrection, and life everlasting.
That prayer was composed and prayed by a man named Benedict, in the 6th Century. He was sent by his parents to study at the once great city of Rome, but he was horrified by the low quality of life there, so he decided on the life of a solitary. Like Jesus, he went off to a lonely place, and lived in a cave as a hermit for three years at Subiaco, and then, about the year 529, because so many people were coming to him, looking for spiritual direction, formed a small community of intentional Christians at Monte Cassino, southeast of Rome.
The monastic order he established eventually became a huge influence not only on the life of the Church but upon the life of European society in general. Fr Lawrence Freeman OSB calls the Rule of St Benedict “the most decisive document for Christian living after the Bible” (Seeking God p. 10).
Born just as the Roman Empire was disintegrating, Benedict provided one of the main foundations that allowed a new kind of society and civilization to emerge. Esther de Waal says, “on this scene which seemed to be rapidly descending into chaos … there appeared the man who built an ark to survive the rising storm, an ark … into which human and eternal values might enter, to be kept until the water assuaged, an ark … which lasted not only for one troubled century but for fifteen, and which has still the capacity to bring many safe to land” (Seeking God p. 15).
Despite his rejection of and withdrawal from the mainstream of public society, and initially trying to keep his whereabouts secret, dozens, then hundreds, and then thousands came to him, looking for guidance on how to live a meaningful life in confusing and challenging times.
Living according to the Rule that Benedict created, the monks of the Benedictine order prayed, worked, learned and talked together, building up communities based on mutual love and respect, and personal responsibility – communities where Christ was the central focus and everyone mattered. Eventually, as de Waal says, “the monasteries came to stand out as centres of light and learning. Here men and women might expect to find a rich liturgical life, informed devotion, a love of learning and intelligent companionship” (p. 20)
The Benedictines not only gave Western civilization a meaningful concept of how to do community; they showed the world that Christ was to be found in others, and that living in community was a way to know God.
Over the next few weeks, we will be reflecting on what the way of Benedict might have to say to us here at St John’s, as our preaching series focuses on Benedictine spirituality. My hope is that this will not generate a merely academic interest, or merely burden you with more information. My hope is that the Benedictine model will reveal to us a way of being a faith community that draws and binds people together in real mutual commitment; a way that liberates individuals from a token and shallow sense of God into a real relationship with the living God; a way that sends people out into the world inspired and equipped to serve compassionately and creatively in the name of Christ. I hope these next few weeks will remind us that “the local church is the hope of the world.”
In the Prologue to the Rule, Benedict says “Let the Abbot always be mindful that, in the dreadful judgment of God, he must give an account both of his teaching and of the obedience of his disciples.” On this, the day of our Annual Vestry Meeting, these words of St Benedict remind me of my ultimate accountability, which is to God, and of the responsibility I have to point you toward God and toward living together in a meaningful way. This homily serves as my annual report to the parish – a reflection on my own ministry in the light of the ministry of the whole parish, and in the light of the Benedictine Way.
The model of abbot and community, with its high standard of accountability, may seem a little hierarchical and dated. But Benedict was ahead of his time. He understood very well that the abbot could not run around doing everyone’s ministry for them or directly supervising every little thing – his responsibility was to teach and encourage and show the monks how to become responsible, to each other and to the life of the community. As De Waal says, Benedict changed the “almost exclusively vertical pattern of authority by emphasizing the relationships of the monks with each other . . . so for Benedict the monastery has become a community of love and the abbot a man who is expected not to be infallible or omniscient, but a man who will exercise his discretion as the circumstances demand” (p. 19).
The Rule has all kinds of ways of ensuring that members of the community are accountable, because the value placed on the health of the community is so high. As the Rule Ch. 71 says: “the brethren are also to obey one another, knowing that by this road of obedience they are going to God . . . but if anyone is found contentious, let him be corrected.” What is our commitment to each other? How do we encourage each other toward greater accountability?
As a parish priest, I must do my best to encourage and persuade and inform, but it is your responsibility to see to it that this parish is a profoundly caring, understanding, welcoming and inclusive place. How you decide to act in the smallest ways impacts the quality of life in this faith community. At some point I hope we will look at developing a “Rule” for St John’s – a set of expectations and standards of behaviour that provide a guideline for all who come here. We have already done that in relation to our Food Bank community.
It is not a well-known fact that the great St. Benedict was not a bishop, a priest, or a deacon, as is often assumed. He was a lay person. He was simply a man who acted upon his vision of a new way of being – a new way of living — in Christ. It is partly through Benedict’s example and influence that Anglicans are typically committed to the concept of lay ministry, the ministry of all the baptized – “each of us is gifted, each of us is called,” as the song says.
Kathleen Norris, who wrote the foreword to Esther De Waal’s book Seeking God, said “I was spinning my wheels,” until “I encountered Benedict’s conviction that genuine spirituality is not an individual pursuit, but must be anchored in one’s local community” (p. 8).
The Benedictine way is about community. Not even the abbot stands alone; everyone matters. But it is the common life that is paramount. The Rule conveys the importance of learning to serve together, and having a common purpose, and makes the idiosyncrasies of the individual secondary. People coming into the order (indeed, any order, or any parish for that matter, because this is a promise made at Baptism) agree to stop operating as isolated individuals and to start living intentionally for the purpose of building community.
In monastic settings, you can see the beauty and the appeal of doing things in unison, in the way people dress, in the ritual movements and gestures, in the chanting and singing – becoming one voice and one coordinated Body. We also reflect that as we worship together, embracing a corporate spiritual discipline which requires that we listen to each other, and become aware that we are not sitting here alone, not imposing our own voice or desires or mannerisms over those of others.
You could say that it’s not fair to compare a parish to a monastery and that level of dedication and self-discipline. Monastic communities were typically quite isolated, and could operate with almost a military discipline. Parishes operate with more of an inter-play between their life together and the life that operates around them and in which its parishioners are immersed on a daily basis; a parish is composed of both the committed and the non-committed (which indeed can be a saving grace at times).
As Br. John-Bede Pauley, OSB writes: “Anglicanism is more at home with the Benedictine image of the Church as a supportive family than with, for instance, the militia image of the Jesuits” (“The Monastic Quality of Anglicanism,” Anglican Embers Vol. I, Issue 5, Lent 2005). I think a parish can be compared with a monastic community, especially the Benedictine, because it has that sense of balance and understanding of human frailties. But if not, why not? Or we could ask: What would we compare it to? Are we operating with any real idea of what a parish is supposed to look like?
It might surprise us to know that there has been something of a monastic character to Anglicanism from the beginning. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who essentially constructed the Anglican liturgical tradition, did so using the Benedictine daily offices as his model, and he shaped those into the services which still are the framework of Anglican worship. But it was not just the framework and structure, it was also the spirit – the ethos – which was humane, balanced, harmonious, open and welcoming. The Anglican sense of balance in priorities, between scripture, tradition and reason, is no doubt an aspect of Benedictine influence. Cranmer’s idea of a spirituality of common prayer intended that everyone, clergy and lay people alike, would have a daily and weekly discipline and rhythm of prayer both private and communal.
The Benedictine way also inspired a balance between body, mind and soul – between work and study and worship. De Waal says “The Benedictine climate does not attract or develop a particular type of sanctity; it does not encourage the prophet, or any form of extremism” (p. 91). At a time when the church was tending toward a dualistic approach, denigrating physical and earthly life and promoting a body-denying, other-worldly approach, separating religious and worldly life, the incarnational way of St Benedict kept the Church from the way of extremism. We are not machines, we are not angels, we are human beings, and Benedict’s wholistic approach glorified the integration of the whole human experience. Again, as De Waal says, “Neither the Benedictine community as a whole nor its individual members are expected to be working feverishly, consumed with a restless energy which damages health and strength, the phenomenon known … as burnout, the result of working too hard with no rhythm or relaxation . . . Instead there is contentment with the familiar, the ordinary, the monotonous” – a witness, as she puts it, to the value of normalcy (p. 92).
The Benedictine way is hospitable, creating an open-door policy toward the world around. This past year has seen a dramatic transformation of our community, as the former parish of St Margaret’s joined with ours. We decided to enter the formal merger process in order to ensure that St Margaret’s would be treated as an entity, as a fellow community, and not like a group of individual survivors, cut loose from the ship.
In Seeking God, De Waal says the unpredictable nature of God confronts our coziness and need for security: “We have to live provisionally, ready to respond to the new whenever and however that might appear. There is no security here, no clinging to past certainties . . . It means a constant letting go” (p. 70). Every new person coming into a parish enriches and changes it, bringing new gifts, abilities, experiences and ideas. We have been blessed by an ongoing influx of new people into our midst and I hope we will continue to encourage them in becoming more and more involved in the community.
What can you do to make this parish a better place? What gifts do you have to offer that perhaps you have not felt able to offer to this point?
Benedict was all about creating a new kind of community, a new way of being the Church, a way of living that made the world around stand up and take notice. The principles of the Benedictine way can guide and shape us, but we have to dare to be as creative, to trust in the influence of the Spirit of God, and to look to the example of Jesus, just as much as St Benedict did, in order to be effective in our time and circumstance.
The image of the ark looms large today as we read part of the story of Noah. I love that scene from the movie Jaws, in which the local sheriff gets his first glimpse of the shark they are trying to catch. With his eyes wide open in shock, he says “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” At some point soon we’re going to need a bigger “boat,” partly because we already are maximizing space here, partly because there are particular deficiencies in our existing buildings (e.g. no elevators), and partly because we must expect and assume further growth; but primarily, because it is critical that we realize the seriousness and the magnitude of our calling to represent God in this place.
There is a saying in the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” I look to the future in hope, because I trust in the living God to be present as light and as guide; and because I trust the people of God in this place will rise to the challenge.
I close with a prayer that is taken from the Prologue of the Rule of St Benedict:
“Let us arise, then, for the Scripture stirs us up, saying, ‘Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep’ (Rom. 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with attentive ears the divine voice that cries daily to us: ‘Today if you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts’ (Ps. 95). And again, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Matt. 11-15; Rev. 2:7).”
Prayerfully, thoughtfully and respectfully submitted,
(The Ven.) Grant Rodgers, B.A., M.Div.
Genesis 9:8-17 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Psalm 25:1-10 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD! Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
1 Peter 3:18-22 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Mark 1:9-15 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”