Trusting in God: the Lay Community on the Rule of St Benedict

This entry is a sermon given by the community on the 25th of March 2018 (Palm Sunday) as part of a sermon series on the Rule of St Benedict. 

Jennii: Being a New monastic community, we often get asked what our charism is, or another way of putting it, ‘What rule do we follow?’ New monasticism is still a relatively new expression and the numerous communities out there are all widely different, as we try and define and refine what exactly it means to be in a new monastic community. The issue there is that although most of you will know here at the Holywell community we are Benedictine, we don’t actually follow the rule of St. Benedict, we follow the ‘spirit’ of the rule, which is a fancy way of saying we look at the rule and adapt or draw from it and try and make it fit into our society today, which often gets me wondering if the term new monastic is descriptive enough – rather than being ‘new’ the word ‘modern’ may be more fitting.

Joanna: So how do we live a life drawing or adapting from the rule of St Benedict, as modern monastics? Some lay members may come here already having rules of life, some may be looking to live a particularly Benedictine life, and some may be unfamiliar with the idea of the rule. But we are not promising to commit ourselves to the Rule forever. So this year becomes an encounter with the rule, one which will hopefully change each of us. I would suggest then, that there are two ways to experience the Rule of St Benedict: we can take it on as our permanent way of life, as our brothers and sisters in old monastic communities do, or we can live alongside it, and think about how the ideas contained within may change our life. By looking at the reasons and suggestions behind Benedict’s ideas, I think that we may all find new inspiration for how we chose to live our life, and how we are to live with others. For those of us who come to live with the rule for a year, it is a chance to think about the practice of our own faith, and how we wish to build it in the rest of our lives.

Jennii: There are 73 chapters (74 if you include the prologue) in the rule of St. Benedict, and they aren’t exactly short. Joanna and I are going to speak a bit about the parts of the rule we use, the parts we don’t, and the difference and why there is that difference. We have both written about parts of the rule that stood out to us individually, and then tried to put what we both come to together, so hopefully there won’t be many differing opinions… theoretically there shouldn’t be any as we are both living by the same spirit or the same rule, but things often work better on paper than in practice!

Joanna: Both of us were drawn in by the prologue to the rule. Here Benedict vividly evokes the joy of following the Lord, saying: ‘What can be sweeter to us than the voice of the Lord as he invites us, dearest brothers?’ The monastic life he illuminates, with all its particularities and strictures, is driven by a longing to be closer to God. ‘Through the continual practice of monastic observance and the life of faith,’ he says, ‘our hearts are opened wide, and the way of God’s commandments is run in a sweetness of love that is beyond words.’ Everything that Benedict puts in place for the community is done because he believes it will help them to open their hearts to God.

Jennii:   In the prologue I find that there are still things that are of great importance in our day as when the rule was written, and the second paragraph gives a hint that St. Benedict meant for this rule to be widespread. ‘to you my words are now addressed, whoever you may be.’ Benedict felt that what he had to say would be of use to anyone, he did not know what kinds of people would come to read his words. ‘To fight for the true king, Christ, dost take up the strong weapons and glorious weapons of obedience.’ We are all called to fight for Christ, we are all called to do the will of Him whom made us.

The theme or concept of obedience is strong and recurrent in St. Benedict’s rule, but I believe that it is poignant how the first mention of it is obedience to Christ. We have other people to be obedient to within the rule, the Abbot/Abbess, the dean, the Prior and each other. But none of those matter as much as our obedience to Christ. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but rather that each member of the community is to be obedient to Christ, so that obedience to the Abbot, or in the case of HC, the prior, is actually aligned to the obedience to Christ. This obedience to Christ is in kept in high regard within our community, we aren’t all of the same tradition, and with that come different practices and devotions, for some of us these will be a very definite obligation for others they are not, but we have that system in place where although because of this certain things aren’t a requirement e.g. fasting before mass, the option is there. We aren’t forced one way or another, these things are a matter of conscience. Benedict continues to say:

Joanna: ‘And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it, that He who has now deigned to count us among His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us, that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children, nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions, deliver us to everlasting punishment as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.’

Jennii:   We cannot make anything perfect by ourselves, no matter what our intentions or how much effort and time we put in, but by asking Him to perfect it we are showing and admitting our need for Him. This also takes away any temptation of pride or boastfulness, or comparing ourselves to each other, either for the better or worse. When we begin to think that the work we do is done by our own strength then we fall, it is then that we begin to separate ourselves from our community and from God. No one like a sore loser, but they like bad winners even less, modesty and humility are much more pleasing.

Joanna: By being obedient to God, we put our trust completely in him. The truth is that all of these things can sound terrifying, but in obedience and the shared life of the community, the weight is lifted from our shoulders: as it says in the scriptures, ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’. Rather than trying to be strong on our own, we look for the strength of God, and how we can reflect God as a community.

Jennii:   I’m jumping from the start of the prologue to the end as I believe the last paragraph although written for a traditional community actually can be applied without fail or alteration to our community.

It reads:

Joanna: ‘ Therefore we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13) and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.’

Jennii:   The idea of a school fits well with the traditional community but also with our community, as in a school you learn how to be independent and how to live in the world today and you are taught skills needed to survive and you are formed into hopefully, working and productive members of society. In this idea of a school, the monks (and nuns) would learn how to truly be dependent on Christ, how to live in communion with God and neighbour, and are taught the skills needed to spread the Gospel and live out the Gospel. But in a secular school, the pupils grow and move on, they eventually leave, the school. I’ve done 18.5 months here and I am now preparing to move on to the next stage, the have been 4 members here before me, and two who joined after (one of whom left before me) but its ever changing, the teachers of a school, don’t change or at least less often than the pupils. Similarly the Prior and sub-Prior don’t change or at least not as much as the lay members. But if we take the latter part of this paragraph which speaks about how we advance through the religious life our hearts expand to the way of God’s commandments, for me personally I don’t feel that one needs to be in an enclosed order or any kind of religious community. We can grow in faith as we continue in our own personal, spiritual development however that may be expressed.

Joanna: One of the unique parts of our community is that it does prepare the lay members for their next steps in faith, much like an ordinary school. There is something in this metaphor of St Benedict, however, that we can apply to any Christian community we belong to, whether a religious order, a church, the mothers union, or so forth – that no group should be static. Benedict challenges us to keep on growing and changing, and to never become complacent about where we are.

So what do we do as a community, and what have we learned together? We wanted to share with you a few parts of the rule, and how we interpret them as a contemporary community.

Jennii:   In Chapter 4, Benedict lists out ‘tools of Good works’: basically things we should strive to do as well as thing we should strive not to do. There are 62 in total, so I have highlighted four. Number 57. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.

In the community we pray a fourfold office, which means we have four services of prayer as well as daily mass – this is actually what drew me to the community over say a pastoral assistancy. But having those moments where we do stop and pray, refocuses us on what we are doing and who it is we are doing it for, it gives us the rest and restoration we need in order to provide those things for others.

Number 58. Daily in one’s prayers, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God, and to amend them for the future.

We all make a general confession everytime we attend mass. In the community we have the option of daily mass, and I do have to say that the idea of tears and sighs in that setting would get noticed easily. However, one of my personal disciplines, is regular participation in the sacrament of reconciliation, in which the vast majority of the time, I do end up crying, not because the priest is being cruel or that the experience is horrible, but because it is such a personal and humbling experience.

Number 60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot or Abbess even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord’s precept, “Do what they say, but not what they do.”

If you have been to any of the commissioning services you will have heard the lay members make their ‘vows’ as it were, but behind the scenes we also sign a contract and swear a solemn oath to the bishop, in which we promise obedience.

  1. To never despair of God’s mercy

For me this is the one that has helped me through my time here, that makes it sound bad, did not mean it like that. My time here has been hard, my first year, I didn’t know who was coming and going there were so many changes, being away from family can be hard so for me the community became my family, so when each person left, it brought up emotions from my past that I would rather not have had. And this year has come with its own set of difficulties but having this rule, reminds me that God hasn’t left me, God is still supporting me.

Joanna: Having a book of rules, including such huge precepts can seem hard from the outside. But much of Benedict’s advice is reassuring, and the experience of living it is of being built up. Like any community, the lay community here has challenges which face it, now and in the future. But being part of this community has given me the opportunity to think about how my daily life, in work, prayer, and community life, responds to God. Before joining the community, I was an occasional participant in morning prayer at my church but was still struggling with the self-will to integrate prayer into my daily life. The discipline of saying the four offices with the community – inspired by the seven Benedictine offices – has helped me put into practice something I was never strong enough to do on my own, and I can’t imagine life now without that rhythm of prayer. Although I came to community with a longing to develop my faith, I couldn’t do any of this on my own. Many of the rules of St Benedict revolve around how the monks nurture and support each other, and we try to bring this into our adapted rule.

Jennii:   Benedict in his rule, frequently offers this notion of the brothers serving each other and putting the needs of their brothers before their own. For example, in ‘Chapter 35 – the weekly kitcheners’, he says ‘Let the brethren serve one another’, linking this in with meals and kitchen duty, and stressing that ‘no one be excused from the kitchen service, unless for sickness’. In this way the more senior monks serve the lower and the lower the senior, no one is above his brothers. Many of you will know that the community used to get their food in the tithe barn, which due to its closure no longer happens, and in some ways this is a good thing as it has strengthened that service to each other as we now eat together in Fr Mark’s vicarage, each of us taking our turn to cook for the others, and then on a Friday, we go to Fr. Tom’s vicarage for dinner. In this way, we serve each other.

Joanna: As we reflect on how we serve each other, it is interesting to note that Benedict also talks at considerable length on how we serve members of the community who are struggling. One of the advantages of living in the community, as a lay member, is having people to hold you accountable and to share your work and life; Benedict emphasises how we should support each other where we each fail, whether spiritually, physically or mentally. One of the lessons I’ve taken from the experience of being in community is the importance of seeking out other people, and seeking them out in the areas of my life where I am weakest. It can be tempting to only share the parts of our life where we are most sure of ourselves, like a talented musician joining an orchestra. But Benedict expects us to share our weaknesses and gives considerable advice on how we help those who are struggling in community life. In Chapter 50, in his advice on dealing with a monk who has been excluded from community life as a punishment for sinful behaviour, he suggests that the abbot may send wiser brothers in to offer consolation and advice, and most importantly, that ‘love is reaffirmed towards him’. Although there are consequences for our failings written into the rule, Benedict intends to help the follower discipline themselves and make repentance, rather than be humiliated or beaten down. Living in the spirit of this rule means that we aren’t bound to Benedict’s exact instructions on dealing with faults, but we follow a Benedictine understanding of struggles and difficulties as something to work through together.

So how do we manage to live as Benedictines? For St Benedict, one of the key parts of being a monk was humility, which he writes extensively on.

Jennii:   Benedict uses the image of Jacobs ladder, to help with the understanding of humility saying that ‘if one wish to attain to the summit of humility…then we must set up a ladder of our ascending action like unto that which Jacob saw in his vision, whereon angels appeared to him, descending and ascending. By that descent and ascent we must surely understand nothing else than this, that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.’ This sounds illogical, if we want to go up, we have to lower ourselves: if we raise ourselves up we go down. But the logic of this world is different to the knowledge and ways of God. Benedict then gives us varying degrees of humility. Here are a few.

–          The first ‘is that a man keep the fear of God before his eyes’ The reason for this given by Benedict is that ‘his action are everywhere visible to the eye of Godhead, and are constantly being reported to God by the angels.’ If we know that God sees all then we are more likely to behave in a manner fitting to God. And if we are constantly aware of his presence then we are also aware of how low we are in comparison.

–          The second ‘is that a man love not his own will…but carry out in deed the saying of the Lord “I came not to do my own will, but the will of him whom sent me.’ If it was enough for Jesus, a man who was God to be obedient to the father, to renounce his own will, to do things he did not want to do, for even he prayed “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; yet not will but yours.” (Luke 22:42) then surely we too should put our wants aside for the will of the father.

–          The fifth ‘is that he humbly confess and conceal not from his abbot any evil thoughts that enter into his heart, and any secret sin that he has committed’ in the HC, we don’t have an abbot and although I don’t purposefully hid things I have done wrong, I have a confessor, who isn’t part of the community, confession is an important part of my tradition, but for me it works better keeping it separate from the community, my sins are mine, they are not the sins of the community. It’s a very personal thing, and as confession isn’t a requirement of the lay members of the community and I’m also beginning to prepare to leave, I need to have these things in place in my personal life.

–          The twelfth ‘is that a monk should not only be humble of heart but should also in his behaviour always manifest his humility’ as the phrase goes actions speak louder than words. If we are to truly be humble of heart, then the behaviour would manifest naturally from that.

So now we come to the end of the rule.  This last chapter, entitled ‘The the full observance of justice is not established in this rule’ isn’t so much a chapter as Benedict signing off, but before he bids us adieu he want to stress that he is in no way stating that his rule contains all that is necessary to get into heaven, but that it is the start of the journey. ‘We have attained some degree of virtue…but for him who would hasten to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy fathers’ and again ‘whoever, therefore, thou art that hastenest to thy heavenly country, fulfil first all by the help of Christ this rule for beginners…’ Benedict stresses that this is the starting point and that his rule is for beginners, so it slightly perplexes me why then we take things away from it, it’s the starting point but somewhere over the centuries we have lost that zeal to persevere with religious disciplines to the point where following this rule in its entirety would seem lofty, in contrast to being for beginners.

Joanna: Something about this last passage drew us both in. The message I took from this was of encouragement. The Rule of life set out by Benedict is a starting point for us to reflect and take stock, and go out and onwards, adding and developing as we explore other theologians and disciplines. In my own life, I am currently finding inspiration in the work of Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and Julian of Norwich. These and others may be brought into our own rule of life – Benedict doesn’t expect his rule to cover everything or be our only guide! But as the Rule reminds us, before anything else, any discipline or tradition, we must start by trusting God.

Jennii: May you in your own personal rule of life strive to do that which draws you closer to Christ. Amen.

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