The Rule of St Benedict
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
19 August 2007, 10:30 (Trinity 11)
‘Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.’ So begins the Rule of Saint Benedict.
The Rule was written 1500 years ago. It is a short 6th century monastic text, coming from St Benedict’s own experience of life. It is a simple and practical manual that gives guidance to a family of brother monks, who had to earn their living, who were concerned with food, with the care of visitors or the sick, with the upkeep of buildings and land, while recognizing the need for time to read and study, and determined to make prayer the central focus, the one priority of their lives.
The Rule of Benedict helped them to bring balance and rhythm into a life where pressures and demands were remarkably similar to those in our own day. At the heart of the Christian Gospel, as at the heart of Jesus’ own life, there is paradox. ‘I came to bring fire to the earth....I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed.....Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.’ [Luke 12.49-51]
As I have discovered, living with Christ means living with paradox, with contradiction at the heart of one’s life. This is something for which I am profoundly grateful, and the gratitude has increased the older I become. It is curiously liberating to realize that I shall go on, until the day of my death, trying to hold differing things together. The challenge is to do it creatively and courageously, so that the tensions may become life-giving.
The Rule of St Benedict addresses itself to us, just as we are. Benedict understands human nature, its strengths and weaknesses, limitations and potential. He respects the mystery that each person is, and the result of this is that the thrust of the Rule is never towards controlling or dictating. Rather it is towards the inner disposition of the heart. This is an approach to Christian living which flows from Benedict’s understanding that each of us is a highly sensitive and complex being, and that allowance must be made for this.
When a novice enters the monastic community, he lays his vows on the altar and says, ‘Accept me, O Lord.’ These are wonderfully simple words that I keep coming back to myself. Accept me, O Lord, just as I am, in my frailty, my inadequacy, my contradictions, my confusion, my need to control. Accept me in my complexity, with all those discordant currents that pull me in so many directions. Accept all of this, and help me to live with what I am, that what I am may become my way to God. Accept the tensions and help me to hold them together, so that I may learn to live fully, freely, wholly, not torn apart but finding the balance and harmony that will allow me to discover my point of inner equilibrium.
The older we become, the more urgent it becomes to learn to live with these stresses within ourselves, and to learn to live with them in such a way that we are neither fragmented nor exhausted, but learning how to hold tensions together and let them become powers for good, powers to liberate and affirm us, powers to release the energy to allow us to run the way to God that is St Benedict’s concern in the prologue to the Rule: ‘Run while you have the light of life....Run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.’
What I have gained from the written text of the Rule has been made more vivid and immediate for me by the way in which the themes addressed by the Rule are reflected in Benedictine monastic buildings themselves. Living for the past six years under the shadow of this cathedral – itself a Benedictine foundation – has furnished me with images that have slowly worked themselves into my subconscious, have fed me and sustained me and above all coloured my understanding of the Rule and of the life to which it gives rise.
If there is a single reason why the Benedictine way of life has remained dynamic across the centuries, I suspect it is because the Rule carries within itself the ability to hold together opposing forces, conflicting tensions. I believe that the Rule is able to feed the divergent streams within myself because it is made up of divergent streams itself.
Living in a cave at Subiaco, St Benedict knew the solitary life of a hermit for many years before founding his community of monks at Monte Cassino. Here is something important for us to ponder. Unless and until I first learn to respect my own solitude, my own identity, the mystery that I myself am, I cannot respect that same solitude in others, revere their own identity, and recognize them for the mystery that they are.
The holding together of body, mind and spirit is one of the most basic of the tensions in the Christian life. We are made for both solitary and for communal living. This balanced way of living was something Benedict wrote into the daily and hourly routine of the monastery. There was time for work, for study, and above all time for prayer.
Perhaps, during these quieter weeks of August, we might read Benedict’s Rule for ourselves and review the rhythm and balance in our Christian living, that pattern of alternating activity between work, study and prayer that challenges us to become a full person and a whole person in this cathedral church, that learns to respect the whole of ourselves as a household (or community) of faith, and yet allows each of us our own space and solitude away from the community on our way to God.
Today as I look around, read the papers and listen to the news, I see a world in which there is not so much holding together as splitting apart. There is increasing polarization, whether in politics or in religion or in the divisions within society itself. It seems so adversarial, antagonistic. How far this is from the stance of St Benedict, whose first, opening words of the Rule establishes the keynote of all that is to follow: ‘Listen.’
Listen, he goes on to say, with intention, with love, with ‘the ear of the heart’ – that most lovely small phrase which suggests that we listen not with the intellect in our heads, but with the whole of ourselves, our feelings, emotions, and imagination.
I am taken away from an inner monologue with myself into a giving and a receiving that is deeply incarnational, which is gentle and open, accepting of the other. Like the diameter of a circle or the diagnosis of a disease, true dialogue means going through the centre – just as the stone boss carries the thrust of a medieval arch so that that creative holding together of the tensions brings about stability to the whole building, to the whole person.
Jesus knew the tensions and paradoxes in himself. Living with the contradictions and inner conflict in his own life he became the chief corner stone, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is a man surrounded by friends who yet withdraws to be apart in the desert. He is a son and yet separates himself from his family and asks ‘who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ He stays alone with himself wrestling with God through long nights of prayer but still journeys on, on a road that he knows will bring him to suffering and to death. He is the redeemer who on the Cross holds together the vertical, pointing towards God, and the horizontal arms stretched out to the world.
In my heart of hearts I know that I only grow spiritually by opposites, not by simple progression along a single line. At the beginning of his Rule, St Benedict promises that ‘the way will be narrow’ and that ‘my burden will be light’. He does not attempt to suppress the opposition between them. Instead he shows how they will be reconciled in Christ.
The way of St Benedict is pervaded with the idea of sacramental encounter with Christ, in liturgy and office, in material things, in the circumstances of daily life, above all in people. In his Rule Benedict is giving us practical help towards creating space for the presence of Christ in our lives. He offers us the opportunity of finding Christ, of experiencing his love. He is showing us the Easter Christ, crucified and risen, present to us now, who knows human strength and weakness, inner conflict and pain, joy and sorrow, solitude and companionship, and in his humanity enables us to find our way to God.