11 Jul Sermon: The Feast of St Benedict
Today we give thanks for the genius of Benedict: that his tiny ‘Rule for beginners’ – 73 short chapters – has proved itself sufficiently strong and flexible to come up with expressions of the monastic life appropriate to the widest possible range of cultures and situations for over fifteen centuries.
As with many things, it is tempting to assume that what we are familiar with is how it always has been and how it should be everywhere else … and of course that’s simply not true. In the case of the Benedictine charism there has been, and still is, a tremendous variety of expressions of the life. Despite the Vatican attempts over many centuries to streamline and homogenize, every monastery is unique, and some very, very different from others as they have responded to local circumstances.
It is important for us to be clear about the real charism of Benedict – not to confuse the trappings, the accretions of centuries, with the essence, or the essence with our own preferences and neediness.
It is only as we become more and more rooted in the essence that we will have the freedom and the flexibility to respond to what the Holy Spirit is asking of us now.
So how do we begin to articulate the genius of Benedict?
I’m acutely aware of the inadequacy of what I’m about to say, and I trust that the Lord will supply what is lacking as we each ponder further.
One characteristic I’ve mentioned already is flexibility. Benedict is very clear when talking about the abbot that the abbot must bend himself to the temperament of each individual member of the community. Each one is unique and precious, fragile and vulnerable – to be loved into wholeness, not squashed into conformity.
And yet he is providing for a cenobitic community – a group of people, none of them perfect, living together at very close quarters: “They should each try to show respect for the other”, he says, quoting St Paul, “supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or character, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. None are to pursue what they judge best for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else. Amongst themselves they show the pure love of brothers or sisters. They should have a loving reverence for God. They should love their abbot with sincere and humble affection. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”
The skeleton he gives for this way of life is the Monastic Vow and the strong daily structure of the Offices, work and study.
Stability: Discovering and sticking with the truth of who we are ~ and who we are becoming ~ and sticking with the truth of our brothers and sisters and who they are and who they are becoming ~ and sticking with the truth of our situation as it changes from day to day, week to week, year to year. As St Paul counsels: ‘Come to a sober estimate of yourselves’: no false humility ~ we are to accept our giftedness as well as our weaknesses, no trying to impress others by appearing to be better than we are, whatever the expectations of others. It’s a huge ascesis, and very much counter cultural: no masks, no pretences. It’s something that takes a lot of courage and a lot of working at, because we all have our fantasies of the perfect monastery, or community, or monk or nun – of who we want to be. Benedict will have none of it. BE REAL, he insists. And part of that reality is that we live in a society of other people. Part of our truth is that we live as social beings, whatever our temperament.
It’s no joke! And Benedict, like so many of the spiritual giants, roots his spiritual teaching in the humdrum of the daily chores and relationships. The ordinary is the arena for living out the second strand of the vow: conversion of life. Faced with the poverty of our love, patience, generosity, our difficulties in forgiveness, tolerance, prayer, – whatever – in this present moment we turn to Christ, asking for help.
But where is Christ? Yes, he’s in the ether, ready to hear our yelps for help, to honour our struggle and to receive our worship … but then Benedict is insistent that he also meets us in many incarnate guises: in the abbot, the other members of the community, and especially the sick; he meets us in the guests ‘who are never lacking in the monastery’, and especially in the poor.
Now all this can at first be experienced as crippling: ought I to recognize Christ as he comes in all these people? Ought I to welcome him and be glad to see them? I ought to, but I don’t, I can’t! … and we can so easily go into a downward spiral. We can begin to distance ourselves from others and yearn to be a hermit. … or simply throw the towel In and give up.
This raises a serious question: what is my idea of Christ if this is how his coming makes me feel? How do I honestly regard Christ? What image of Christ are all those “ought” feelings based on? … and how does it relate to the truth of the Risen Christ?
The experience of those who met the Risen Christ in the New Testament was totally devoid of any “ought”. It was one of being known, understood, forgiven, loved, empowered and above all, filled with joy. Jesus must have known how hard it would be for those who weren’t able to have that kind of encounter with him, so he gave us what he called his New Commandment: “Love one another AS I have loved you.”
And Benedict takes this up. He knows that without this foundation we get no-where…. and yet how often the mutual aspect is forgotten. “I” ought to recognize Christ, love Christ, serve Christ as he comes to me in others…. we forget that we are to allow ourselves to be recognized, loved and served, because for the others we are Christ. “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do It to me.”
It takes time to sink in. Perhaps it never will completely, but I’m sure that this is at the base of our life as Christians, let alone monastics ~ and of course, this leads to the third strand of our vow: obedience.
Obedience to Christ’s New Commandment ~ to allow that love to be mutual. Life is hard enough; cherish each other. Allow ourselves to be cherished by each other. Allow ourselves to be loved by God the Father as Jesus was – the love which knows, understands, values and transforms; the love which is a real encounter between the truth of God and the truth of the individual – the encounter which is the source of the joy … which is like the oil which makes possible all the sacrifices and the hard times.
It is that deep joy that quells the waves of anxiety as God invites us to step into the unknown, to be flexible, to become what he needs us to be for this moment in history. ‘Joy is where God happens’. “Do not fear,” says Jesus.
We give thanks for Benedict who encourages us to prefer nothing whatever to Christ, – ‘and may he bring us all together to eternal life. Amen.’