Chapter One

0429641709ef66b1737e145c912f9118--benedictine-monks-roman-catholic.jpg

Four approaches to monastic life

‘We can all recognise the distinction between the four different kinds of monk. First of all there are the cenobites. These are the ones who are based in a monastery and fulfil their service to the Lord under a rule and an abbot or abbess.’

The community that Benedict was to establish would take this form. It is clear from the very short introduction to this form of monastic life that, for him, it is a given that this is the way to exercise the monastic life. He does not need to explain it or go into great detail. Partly The Rule will do this anyway. This introduction is simple and matter of fact about it. A Rule, a place and a leader. This is the simple recipe for Benedict, the skeleton on which he will hang the rest of the rule.

‘Anchorites, who are also known as hermits, are the second kind. Their vocation is not the result of the first fervour so often experienced by those that give themselves to a monastic way of life. On the contrary they have learnt well from everyday experience with the support of many others in a community how to fight against the devil. Thus they are well trained in the ranks of their brothers or sisters before they have the confidence to do without that support and venture into single combat in the desert relying only on their own arms and the help of God in their battle against the evil temptations of body and mind’

I am always struck by this passage whenever I read it. As someone who finds the idea of solitude appealing this warning from Benedict weighs heavy on me. In silence we come face to face with God. In the silence of our hearts that is where we meet Him, in the sacred ground within the self, and when we do, He will go to work on our soul. This can be painful. Parts of ourselves will have to be chipped away, smoothed down, melted down, cooled and reshaped as we grow in the likeness of Him. We must be prepared to encounter a God who wants us to grow in His likeness and the further we are from that image the harder the work to be done on the soul will be.

The second person that we meet in silence is ourselves. We are left alone with the thoughts in our heads and the desires in our hearts. Are they pure? Are they pointing us down the path of righteousness. The honest answer is probably no. And that is why Benedict is very clear about the sort of person that should be attempting long periods, a lifetime perhaps, of solitude. They are not to be the inexperienced, those who have caught the monastic vision, run full speed toward it and grab it with both hands. Because soon, alone, their enthusiasm will be depleted and they will be left undefended. Zeal is no substitute for the tools of the trade.

And how are these tools prepared? In the everyday routine of the community.  I find that particular phrase especially comforting when I am dealing with church related administration or sitting in meetings. These are aspects of my community life, they are important, they may not be my favourite aspect and they may eat into time for prayer or other interaction but that serves to highlight the importance of balance that is so potent in the Benedictine Rule. I try to view the mundane tasks of church life (which is my community) prayfully, living by the Benedictine saying, pray and work, ora et labora, that all we do is part of sharpening the tools in the chest to make them ready.

‘Sarabaites are the third kind of monk and the example they give of monasticism is appealing. They have been through no period of trial under a rule with the experienced guidance of a teacher, which might have proved them as gold is proved in a furnace. On the contrary they are as malleable as lead and their standards are still those of the secular world, so that it is clear to everyone that their tonsure is a lie before God himself. They ground in twos or threes, or even singly, resting in sheepfolds which are not those of the Lord, but which they make to suit themselves. For a rule of life they have only the satisfaction of their own desires. Any precept they think up for themselves and then decide to adopt they do not hesitate to call holy. Anything they dislike they consider inadmissible’ 

For those of us that do not live in the monastery and have the protection of those walls and fellow minded monks around, who have to try and follow the call of the Lord within the world, perhaps this passage provides both alarm and comfort.

So that it is clear to everyone that their tonsure is a lie before God himself

Each day as I place my collar around my neck and button my cassock I am reminded of this phrase. I do not want my tonsure collar to be a lie before God, I do not want anyone to look upon me and think badly of Him who has inexplicably called me. This passage from The Rule reminds me to embody a monastic mentality – to be single minded in my focus so that Christ remains central to my daily life. That my interactions with others, my daily tasks, my presence inside the walls of my church, the boundary of my parish or the wider community is entirely caught up in the pilgrimage I make toward God.

I am my own worst enemy. Left to the devices and designs of my own heart I would easily stray. I would develop a spirituality of self – probably the most  dangerous form of idolatry that is usually accompanied by the phrase ‘if only other Christians were more like me’ or ‘my interpretation of this is the only truth’ – we can become so sure of ourselves within our spiritual practice that we cease to offer worship and instead receive it, from our very self.

The routine of prayer and of sacrament helps to ensure that I am returning to the true sheepfold and not being tempted to lay my head elsewhere.

‘Finally those called gyrovagues are the fourth kind of monk. They spend their whole life going round one province after another enjoying the hospitality for three or four days at a time at any sort of monastic cell or community. They are always on the move; they never settle to put roots down the roots of stability; it is their own wills that they serve as they seek the satisfaction of their own gross appetites. They are in every way worse than the sarabaites.

About the wretched way of life that these so-called monks pursue it is better to keep silence than to speak. Let us leave them to themselves and turn to the strongest kind, the cenobites, so that with the Lord’s help we may consider the regulation of their way of life’

I think that for Benedict at the time that he was writing there was indeed a practical problem with these gyrovagues, that they were actually ‘monks’ or certainly acting as though they were and using the charity of others.

In our current spiritual age we probably do not see them in this guise but it reminds me of those that claim to be ‘Spiritual but not religious’ – they go around to different communities of faith and cherry pick the best aspects of each. A little bit of the person of Christ here, a small amount of Hindu reincarnation there, add in a dash of contact with the dead through Mediums…

Benedict emphasises the need to remain still. To put down roots and give them time to grow deeply. Someone who is forever moving, either physically from one community to another or spiritually from one practice to another can never really embed themselves in the rhythm of life. This has become increasingly a problem in modernity where everyone is used to instant gratification. If we want a reply from someone, we can message them in a click and a second. If we want to find information it is in our hand without effort. Unfortunately the same attitude becomes apparent in our faith, we want access to God immediately and are impatient for His reply.

Thomas Merton said ‘Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.’ – when we are impatient we miss these moments, the very moments that could be the difference between advancing in holiness or slipping into darkness.

Rhythm and root. Pray and work.

 

The Prologue (Part Four)

n8n2ea1c29nffdjk9zcq2r15rel.jpg

‘The Lord himself in the gospel teaches us the same when he says: I shall liken anyone who hears my words and carries them out in deed to one who is wise enough to build on a rock; then the floods came and the winds blew and struck that house, but it did not fall because it was built on a rock.’

Perhaps when you read this part of the Rule of St Benedict you are reminded of that well known children’s hymn, the wise man built his house upon the rock, the wise man built his house upon the rock. This was repeated along with various actions of fists stacking up on fists followed by noises of storm and wind and rain. That innocent (and slightly twee) summary of the parable of the wise and foolish builders does not really do justice to it. Benedict is not using any such gimmicks to try and impress upon school children the importance of a Christ centred life, instead, in his school of divine service he returns directly to the source and stresses the point being made.

In our comfortable modern Western Christianity we have, I think, at times been guilty of slipping into a prosperity motif in order to attract people to the Church. We portray life with Christ as brilliant – which in many ways it is – but perhaps not in the way in which we are portraying it. Becoming a Christian does not instantly make life magically better. There may well be some immediate conversion effects, and there are plenty of testimonies from well known and unknown converts alike that can attest to this. Charles Wesley commenting on his heart feeling ‘strangely warmed’ to East End Gangsters who were protected in prison by unknown forces.

However, for most of us the conversion is not a thunderbolt moment that changes our lives dramatically and noticeably but a steady and ongoing conversion. When Christ is accepted as the rock and placed at the centre of our lives, it does not mean that the storms will not come, but that we are able to weather them with greater endurance than we would otherwise have been able to. The apostles in the boat with Christ were not spared from the squall beginning, but they were saved from its effects by Christ. Similarly, we cannot prevent times of suffering coming, but their effects can certainly be lessened by the presence or Christ as rock.

But this is not a passive activity.

‘It is in this light of that teaching that the Lord waits for us every day to see if we will respond by our deeds, as we should, to his holy guidance. For that very reason also, so hat we may mend our evil ways, the days of our mortal lives are allowed us as a sort of truce for improvement. So St Paul says: Do you know that God is patient with us so as to lead  us to repentance? The Lord himself says in his gentle care for us: I do not want the death of a sinner; let all sinners rather turn away from sin and live.’

I find this passage of the Prologue especially moving and one sentence leaps off the page with a rather peculiar and striking turn of phrase.

‘Our mortal lives are allowed us as a sort of truce for improvement’

Until reading this prologue for the first time many years ago I had never stumbled across this view before, to see our earthly existence of a truce in the great cosmic battle between Good and Evil, between the light and the darkness. I love the image that this brings to mind that all around in the cosmos the sounds of a(n) (un)holy war rage on and here in this fragment of mortality am I. Protected from all that rages around me so that I may improve myself, that I may train my soul, turn from evil ways and join the fray on the side of light. Benedict’s words do echo that point that what he creates is a school, a place of learning and training and improvement for all that is to come. This truce is our moment to pick our side and work toward it in our deeds as response to the call of Christ.

‘Well then, brothers and sisters, we have questioned the Lord about who can dwell with him in his holy place and we have heard the demands he makes on such a one; we can be united with him there, only if we fulfil those demands. We must, therefore, prepare our hearts and bodies to serve him under the guidance of holy obedience. Conscious in this undertaking of our own weakness let us ask the Lord to give us through his grace the help we need. If we want to avoid the pain of self-destruction in hell and come to eternal life, then, while we still have the time in this mortal life and the opportunity to fulfil what God asks of us through a life guided by his light, we must hurry forward and act in a way that will bring us blessings in eternal life’

There will be points, as we go through the different chapters of the rule, that you might find yourself remarking on the severity which which infringements are punished or the discipline that is given to unruly monks. However, apart from this being because of the need to preserve the balance and the sanctity of the community, it is also because of what is written here. Benedict reminds us of the reason for this rule, the reason for this particular response to the call of Christ. We have asked of God what we must do in order to dwell with Him and He has given us a reply. Our reward is to dwell with Him. To be with God. That is an extraordinary reward and perhaps the enormity of it, being beyond our comprehension in this mortal life, is lost on us. If we are allowed to dwell with God, is anything asked of us really too much?

The Rule that Benedict sets, you could say imposes, can at points be considered harsh only if the end goal were human hierarchy and earthly obedience but it is not, it is to enter the presence of God, not briefly, not for only a moment, but to be able to dwell with Him. This is our baptismal promise, this is the call of Christ, and continues through our response in action.

The second phrase that I find striking is this;

‘If we want to avoid the pain of self-destruction in hell and come to eternal life’

The punishment of hell is not inflicted upon us by demonic underlings as the paintings and literature of the medieval world have instilled into but our own self-destruction. Dante paints vividly with his words in ‘Inferno’ the circles of hell, based on the sin of the individual and right in the centre encased in ice is Judas, locked in his betrayal, the very worst aspect of himself becomes his prison, his pain and eternal torment is his own self-destruction, the fait that awaits each of us. Can you imagine being faced for eternity with the very worst aspect of your character?

To avoid this path and to dwell with God means the demands are heavy upon us and success might seem unattainable and so in this paragraph we are reassured of the help of God, that we are guided by His light but also that it is urgent, life is fleeting in the grand scheme of the universe and we must not waste time but hurry forward in that light.

With all this in mind what we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service. In the guidance we lay down to achieve this we hope to impose nothing harsh or burdensome. If, however, you find anything which seems rather strict, but which is demanded reasonably for the correction of vice or the preservation of love, do not let that frighten you into fleeing from the way of salvation; it is a way which is bound to seem narrow to start with. But, as we progress in this monastic way of life and in faith, our hearts will warm to its vision with eager love and delight that defies expression we shall go forward on the way of God’s commandments. 

Possibly the most famous phrase and most oft quoted from The Rule is this creation of the school of divine service. I have already touched upon it several times in this prologue meditation and it will be a theme that repeats throughout. It is worth keeping close to the heart.

Here Benedict pre-empts the complaints he may have or the difficulty that some of the brothers may have with the severity of The Rule and he warns them not to take the easy option, not to flee. I imagine it like this; that as we begin along this path and we begin to submit to holy obedience the human and worldly part of our character, our pride, our ego, our desire for wealth, possession or flesh rail against it. We are attempting to restrain the wild vices within us that could easily drag us from the path of righteousness.

Benedict urges the brothers who begin this way of monastic life, this single focus, to persevere because something incredible happens. As those unruly parts of ourself become subdued, not ever fully abated for we remain human with all that the incarnation brings, but tempered or measured, our hearts expand to understand this new way of life as we are given a glimpse of our pre-fall condition. Just a glimpse for it remains out of reach this side of judgement for all but Christ Himself. But this glimpse is enough to spur us on, to sustain us in devotion and commitment to God and The Rule and this be brought closer to Him.

‘Then we shall never think of deserting his guidance; we shall persevere in fidelity to his teaching in the monastery unit death so that through our patience we may be granted some part in Christ’s own passion and thus in the end receive a share in his kingdom. Amen.’

Perhaps this final paragraph as Benedict signs off the prologue of his Rule we have been invited to grow in holiness. Growth in holiness is imperative and is our life long commitment as Christians but it is deeply unfashionable and extremely challenging. The modern church is choosing to focus upon numbers, upon programmes and training, upon increasing clergy – instead, perhaps, we should listen to Benedict and focus on becoming a holy people.

Amen.

 

The Prologue (Part Three)

6c2359161b6bbd6d8957609ae751df8d

‘And so to prepare ourselves for the journey before us let us renew our faith and set ourselves high standards by which to lead our lives. The gospel should be our guide in following the way of Christ to prepare ourselves for his presence in the kingdom to which he has called us. 

Do we set before ourselves often enough the words of the call of Christ to follow Him? Do we, like James and John hastily urge Him to prepare a place for us, even though in doing so, we are asking to drink from the cup which he drinks from. In our comfortable modern and Western culture, following Christ sometimes appears to be nothing more than waking up a bit earlier that we otherwise would on Sunday in order to go to church, we might sing hymns and pray those ancient words, such as The Lord’s Prayer, but do we take seriously to heart those words we sing and those prayers we say?

How often have you said The Lord’s Prayer? I would anticipate that your answer may be hundreds or thousands of times. How many times have you truly prayed it? I don’t mean just being slightly more earnest in your thoughts, or putting a more sincere tone in your voice. But, how often have those words left your lips and your heart, your brain, your very being meant every word. I confess to you that I have said those words thousands of times but prayed them relatively few.

The Lord’s Prayer came to mind when I was reflecting on this paragraph of the prologue. Benedict urges his monks to set before themselves high standards to live their lives by. We are to conform to the image of Christ through His teaching and His life as demonstrated in the gospels. The Lord’s Prayer came to mind because it is the prayer that He taught those that were following Him, and so teaches us too. And if we really dwell on those words, I believe that they fully encapsulate the message of the Gospel that Benedict is writing of here.

The words of Jesus in The Lord’s Prayer evoke the Spirit powerfully. Right in the middle there are words of surrender. ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done’ – that simple phrase ushers in the Kingdom of God, when we pray it, we are willing it to happen. Secondly, we are giving ourselves over to God fully. Telling Him to take our lives and make of them what He wills them to be. Sacrifice hurts. So we have to mean these words when we say them, as every fibre of our worldly self will bristle against them. It is preparation, as Benedict goes on to suggest.

‘If we want to make our lasting home in his holy kingdom, the only way is to set aright the course of our lives in doing what is good. We should make our own the psalmists’s question: Lord, who will dwell in your kingdom or who will find rest on your holy mountain? In reply we may hear from the same psalmist the Lord’s answer to show us the way that leads to his kingdom: anyone who leads a life without guile, who does what is right, who speaks truth from the heart, on whose tongue there is no deceit, who never harms a neighbour nor believes evil reports about another, who at once rejects outright from the heart the devil’s temptations to sin, destroying them utterly at the first onset by casting them before Christ himself. Such a follower of Christ lives in reverence of him and does not take the credit for a good life but, believe that all the good we do comes from the Lord, gives him the credit and thanksgiving for what his gift brings about in our hearts.’

In many ways, what Benedict is telling his young monks here is nothing new. He is repeating he words of the psalmist and drawing attention to the importance of this way of life. What he is emphasising is the work of the monk – monos – the single mindedness in which this call needs to be followed in order to make ready the soul for the spiritual destination that is the Kingdom of God.

Benedict is not shying away from the fact that what he is asking of his monks is hard. In this modern age when the church is changing liturgy to make it less complicated, when new services are being trailed that have less content, more gimmick and last for shorter amounts of time because of concern for attentions span, it is interesting to note the contrast of Benedict’s approach. He did not pull any punches, and as we will see later in the rule, the demands placed upon each member of the community is rigorous and the rule is to be followed strictly. Why? Not to inflate some sort of control for the powers that be, but because the focus is on Christ and conforming to His likeness, that those elements, those marks of character listed in the paragraph above, become the very being of that community.

As Benedict was forming his community there would have been many different motives for people joining. Some were zealous converts who desired a ‘white’ or ‘bloodless’ martyrdom in order to show that they were serious in their desire to follow Christ, some would have had more simple motives, looking to honour God but not as passionate to experience hardship or suffering, others may not have had a religious motive at all, using it as an opportunity to escape the law, spurned lovers or the demands of fatherhood after an indiscretion. Whatever the reason for joining, Benedict treated them the same and he made sure that the rule was followed consistently.

‘In that spirit our prayer from the psalm should be: not to us, O Lord, not to us give the glory but to your own name. That is St Paul’s example, for he took no credit to himself for his preaching when he said: it is by God’s grace that I am what I am. And again he says: Let anyone who wants to boast, boast in the Lord’

Do not follow this path if you are out to seek glory. If you want your fellow man to look at you and heap praise upon you, this is not the path for you. The monks that Benedict is instructing are not to focus on worthiness in the eyes of man but focus on God alone. Their separation from the the world by entering the cloister, by shedding their riches, by donning the simple black habit and taking to heart this rule, they should think of themselves as lost to all but God.

This is not Saint Benedict’s 72 step plan to a happier, healthier you. This is his roll call for the school in service of the Lord.

 

 

The Prologue (Part Two)

saint-benedict-rule-e1342023149490

However late, then, it may seem, let us rouse ourselves from lethargy. That is what scripture urges us when it says: the time has come to rouse ourselves from sleep. Let us open our eyes to the light that can change us into the likeness of God. Let our ears be alert to the stirring call of his voice crying to us every day: today, if you should hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. And again: let anyone with ears to hear listen to was the Spirit says to the churches. And this is what the Spirit says: Come my children, hear me, and I shall teach you the fear of the Lord. Run, while you have the light of life, before the darkness of death overtakes you.

 

It was Thomas Merton who wrote ‘The Spiritual Life is firstly a matter of staying awake’ and it is those words of his that came to mind as I sat with this second part of the Prologue of the The Rule.

How easy it is for us to slip into a lethargic and passive Christian observance. With the pressures of modern life, trying to balance work and family and other commitments, sometimes faith can seem like a luxury. Something that we will have time for when we retire. Sunday attendance at church becomes the only way in which we really express our faith. Our Bible goes unread and our prayers remain unsaid Monday through Saturday. A sleep-walking faith and one that cannot sustain the soul.

If someone were to say to you, that you are only going to eat once a week. I am sure that protests would be forthcoming. It would be dismissed as a ridiculous, unhealthy and even dangerous notion. We need to eat on a regular basis, a variety of foods in order to ensure a healthy body, an alert mind and the ability to deal with those many demands upon our time.

And yet, we are all too prepared to allow our faith to be undernourished – we do not seem to see the same desperate need. Perhaps it is because that when our bodies are deprived of food, they tell us. Weakness, tiredness, a rumbling stomach – all sights and reminders to eat. But there is not the same prompt from the soul. Like a pot plant in the corner of the room, it will slowly wither and die – until that day that you remember, you go to tend to it and find the pot empty of all but soil and the remains of dried our vegetation.

The soul needs to be nourished and the only way it can be is through communing with God.

‘Let us open our eyes to the light that can change us into the likeness of God’

Benedict is not just advocating some form of meditative self-improvement, he is reminding us of the need to become more like Christ. This is not about maintaining our human self, but preparation for what is to come. This life, this gift of time that we have been given, our incarnation in this world, is fleeting – because it is not the goal. The final destination is with Him, when our bodies have withered and our race has been run. We have such a short time when compared to eternity and so Benedict is giving us a shake, he is grabbing our shoulders as we slumber on the first day of school and shaking us awake. Be alert, listen, hear Him who is calling you, Run.

Run while you still have the light before you.

Can you imagine if you were to wait until the darkness began to descend before realising the urgent need to get home? You summon what strength you have and you run, but the earth beneath your feet is rocky and your eyes strain in the fading light to attempt to see the path. But it is gone. You turn this way, that way, without success. Lost.

Do not put off until tomorrow what you should be doing today, do not waste the light but use it to see God and run toward Him. Benedict advocates the serious need to listen, daily, to the voice of God. He is not, at this point, prescriptive about how that should take place, so find something that engages your spirit and draws you closer to Him.

‘It is to find workers in his cause that God calls out like that all peoples. He calls to us in another way in the psalm when he says: Who is there with a love of true life and a longing for days of real fulfilment? If you should hear that call and answer: ‘I’, this is the answer toy will receive from God: If you wish to have that true life that lasts for ever, then keep your tongue from evil; let your lips speak no deceit; turn away from wrongdoing; seek out peace and pursue it. If you do that, he says, I shall look on you with such love and my ears will be so alert to your prayer that before you so much as call on me, I shall say to you: here I am. What gentler encouragement could we have, my dear brothers and sisters, than that word from the Lord calling us to himself in such a way! We can see with what loving concern the Lord points our to us the path of life.

Once we have heard and been attentive and roused ourselves from sleep that we may walk in the light, the hard work begins. To bridle our tongue, to speak no deceit, to seek peace and pursue it. I especially like that image, we cannot just idly say that we are peaceful or that peace is our preferred state, we have to be active in our pursuit of it, if we cannot see peace then we are to look for it. Blessed are the peacemakers – we must be active

But what is the ultimate purpose of this? It is not just self-improvement. Of course, we shall be better people within our community if we are honest, if we do no wrong, if we are actively attempting to make peace. But it is more than that. This advice from Benedict is not simply to improve the temporal relationships between our brothers and sisters, but to improve our relationship with God.

‘My ears will be so alert to your prayer that before you so much as call on me, I shall say to you: here I am’

The more we do in response to the call of God, the more we follow his commands and his example, the closer our lives become in the pattern of Christ. It is not a rewards based system, that the more good you do the more God will bless you, this is not a prosperity message that weighs everything and pays out (which we should be thankful of, because our sin weighs heavy and none of us want the punishment that we deserve) but this is a way to refine the soul, to chisel away some of those rough edges that grate against our community, our family, our faith. We are, in responding to God, working in the heat of the forge to mould and meld our shape into something better, something more natural, as it was at the beginning, back into the image that we were cast into before, His image.

The result is that we are closer to Him, that we come into contact with Him more easily, not because we are being rewarded but because in our work of refining we have started to remove some of those barriers between us and God, our man-made barriers of pride, of being too much for ourself and too little for our fellow man, our laxity in our piety, our wilful wrongdoing. We are working to turn away from evil and toward good and that can do nothing else but bring us into greater contact with Him who is Good.

Both of these paragraphs are about the immediacy of God. He who is incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us. All we have to do, (as though it were that simple) is to look for Him.

The Prologue (Part One)

IMG_2281

‘Listen, child of God, to the guidance of your teacher. Attend to the message you hear and make sure that is pierces to your heart, so that you may accept with willing freedom and fulfil by the way you live the directions that come from your loving Father. It is not easy to accept and persevere in obedience, but it is the way to return to Christ, when you have strayed through the laxity and carelessness of disobedience. My words are addressed to you especially, whoever you may be, whatever your circumstances, who turn from the pursuit of your own self-will and ask to enlist under Christ, who is Lord of all, by following him through taking to yourself that strong and blessed amour of obedience which he made his own on coming into our world.’

The opening paragraph of The Rule is such that it immediately grabs the attention. Benedict calls from the page, his voice ringing clearly in the ear of the reader, echoing through the ages from the sixth century to our present day. ‘Listen, child of God’ this message is for you, you a beloved child of the Most High. That is striking, this call is both universal but also, somehow, inexplicably special. Child of God. Son or daughter of the Almighty. Unique and chosen and yet not elite, not exclusive. The first of many paradoxes within this opening chapter.

This is not though to be mistaken for a soothing, ego-building speech. Benedict is a realist and his rule is pragmatic – in both spiritual and temporal matters. This opening chapter, though couched in elegant prose, is a rallying call. The saint fixes his gaze upon us and begins. Action is required, it is what he is calling for.

‘Attend to the message you hear and make sure it pierces to your heart’

In this short phrase perhaps he has summed up not just ‘The Rule’ that is to follow but the sum total of the Christian life. Those stories, those miracles, that man upon the cross, that resurrected body, that broken bread and wine outpoured, it is all for nothing if we who hear it, who witness, who partake, do not attend to it. The responsibility falls to us. This is not to be some passive exercise in simply receiving the grace that is on offer from God, not just letting it hit our ears and then wash over us. This is not just about some temporary spiritual high or fleeting feeling of peace. This is the beginning of the hard work of salvation. Benedict is creating an army, an assembled host of holy soldiers who are to rally under the banner of the Lord Jesus wearing their hard earned armour of obedience, following in the footsteps of our Lord, whose own armour is fashioned from that very cup that would not pass from Him.

Like Christ, who does not come for the sinless, but for the sinful, Benedict does not focus his efforts those that are already obedient but on those who desire to be, to those that have heard the voice of The Lord and now, NEED to do something about it. It feels as though he drops his voice, forcing the reader to bend inward toward the page, to listen to what is to be said. He does not care for your credentials, your past, your particular situation or the circumstances that have brought you to this point. If you heart is ready, if you are willing to turn away from the sin of selfishness and prepared abandon your will to God, Benedict has some words for you.

‘It is not easy to accept and persevere in obedience, but it is the way to return to Christ the  you have strayed through laxity and carelessness of disobedience’

I do not hear a tone of accusation in these words. But I know that he is talking to me. It is not Benedict that accuses but my own self. I know that my laxity, my carelessness of disobedience so often erects barriers between God and soul and prevents me from answering that call to stand with Christ, in holy armour. But he understands, this wise father and he offers his hand and his advice. There is, however, no rose tinted view, he is honest and sincere – this will be hard, it will take everything that you have, but you are not alone and it will be worth it.

How to we begin? How can we temper the ego? How can we, though our hearts may be willing, lay down our pride?

‘This, then, is the beginning of my advice: make prayer the first step in anything worthwhile that you attempt. Persevere and do not weaken in  that prayer. Pray with confidence, because God, in his love and forgiveness, has counted us as his own sons and daughters. Surely we should not by our evil acts heartlessly reject that love. At every moment of our lives, as we use the good things he has given us, we can respond to his love only by seeking to obey his will for us. If we should refuse, what wonder to find ourselves disinherited! What wonder if he, confronted and repelled by the evil in us, should abandon us like malicious and rebellious subject to the never-ending pain of separation sine we refused to follow Him to glory.’

I have always been a great lover of spiritual writing on prayer. But I admit this is somewhat self-indulgent. If you are like me, sometimes, reading about prayer can satisfy the mind to believe that it is a suitable substitute for actually praying. As though somehow the reading of spiritual texts and the great writings of prominent saints counts as my own effort, rather than just being, as it should be, a support of an encouragement. I find these words of Saint Benedict somewhat different in that respect. It is, of course, a great encouragement as he reminds us of our relationship with God. Reiterating those words from the first paragraph, that we are sons and daughters of the Most High. But it is also a continuation of that challenge.

In the first paragraph as Benedict told us of the need to allow what we hear from God to ‘pierce our hearts’ – this is the way he recommends we undertake that process. When I first read those words;

‘Attend to the message you hear and make sure it pierces to your heart’

My first thought was how? How am I able to make sure that it pierces my heart? How is it possible to ensure that it penetrates deep into my soul, into my very being? The answer came through prayer, because the answer is prayer.

As we pray we put ourselves in a spiritual posture of attentiveness, of openness. We are, or should be, preparing ourselves not to deliver a monologue, not to present a list of woes and wants and needs, but to enter into an interaction. We are to encounter the divine, but to do this, I believe, we need to led down our guard. I will not use the phrase ‘Allow God to speak’ – because He will speak and He is speaking, all the time, in every aspect of our lives, of His creation. But we have to let down our guard to allow our heart to hear. Too often it is set upon the single-minded path of our own desire – and they are not usually aligned with His.

‘make prayer the first step in anything worthwhile that you attempt’

How much more grounded in God would our daily lives be if before we turned to whatever task is in hand, whatever desire we are chasing, whatever occupation of the mind begins, if first our thoughts were turned to Him.

Benedict is willing the Children of God to get to know their Father.

(Prologue: Part Two – next week)

 

New Beginnings

Stony Cliffs and Rock Badgers (Ps 104 ESV Translation) is a new blog project that will focus on the Rule of Saint Benedict.

As a Benedictine Oblate, ‘The Rule’ has played an important part in my spiritual development and in how I understand, inhabit and exercise my priestly duties in parish and beyond.

Over the course of the next few years I will be focusing on a chapter a week. (Some times one chapter may have to stretch to two or three weeks because of the size of them and the wealth of the material contained within)

I will be engaging in a Lectio Divina reading of the chapters, an extension of the obligation in my personal rule to read ‘The Rule’ every day. After a time of prayerful reflection a distilled and tidied form of my meditation on the text will appear on this blog.

Because the way I am entering into this is through Lectio Divina it means that I may focus on one particular aspect, phrase or even word within any given chapter. I shall always endeavour to give a wider context of the rule and a flavour of what it is addressing, but if you feel that I have left something important unattended to, please let me know. Or better yet, share your thoughts on it.

This is my attempt to be faithful to ‘The Rule’ as those beautiful words in the Prologue call out; ‘Listen my Son to the instructions of your Master, turn the ear of your heart to the advice of a loving father’

I hope that this might encourage discussion, a re-discovery for many and perhaps for some a discovery for the first time of ‘The Rule’. The Comments box will remain open for anyone who wishes to engage with the text, myself and others as this exploration takes place.