Benedictine Bling

For most Benedictines today is the greater of the two feast days of our founder, St Benedict. Today honours his passing to eternal life; 11 July commemorates the translation of his relics to Monte Cassino (or was it Fleury? Depends who you ask!). That we are in Lent does not dampen our celebration in any way save for the absence of the A-word.

This evening at pontifical vespers the abbot will wear our patronal, or Malvern, cope. It comes from our (Douai Abbey’s) short-lived foundation at Great Malvern, which was founded in 1891 has a ready refuge in case of our expulsion from France. When expulsion did indeed come in 1903, we settled at Woolhampton at St Mary’s College, the Portsmouth diocesan minor seminary, which the Bishop of Portsmouth kindly handed over to us. Our school and the seminary combined to form Douai School (which closed in 1999).

One of the patrons of the Malvern priory was the Douai monk and Bishop of Port Louis in Mauritius, Archbishop Benedict Scarisbrick OSB. He endowed Malvern with some lovely items for use in the opus Dei, not least this wonderful cope. The striking damask is not of English origin, possibly Belgian as our other striking vestments from that period were made by Grossé in Belgium. The embroideries, which include our patrons St Benedict and St Edmund, as well as a hood showing the Good Shepherd—represented to all Benedictines in the person of St Benedict—were probably made by the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus in Southam in Warwickshire. Continue reading “Benedictine Bling”

Contemplatio, consideratio & caritas

A triverberate (!) of Latin words does not make for good “clickbait”, but this is for the serious reader not the passing internet surfer. All will soon be clear enough.

Today the Order of St Benedict keeps the feast of Scholastica, the sister of St Benedict (and he, not she, is the patron saint of Benedictine nuns, for the record). Glimpses into her life can be gleaned from Book 2 of the Dialogues of Pope St Gregory the Great (or, in the eastern Church, St Gregory the Dialogist). A homage to his spiritual master, it was written between 593 and 594, less than 50 years after the death of Benedict. The relevant passage was read this morning at Matins, St Gregory as narrator: Continue reading “Contemplatio, consideratio & caritas”

Translating St Benedict

In the universal Church today is the Feast of St Benedict, Patron of Europe, Father of Western Monasticism, founder of the oldest order (as it were) in the Church. At Douai we have a holiday of sorts, with talking meals, a festal lunch, and a reduced regime. However, at Mass we did not have incense nor did we sing (or say for that matter) the Creed nor the Sequence. An odd way, you might observe, to commemorate our monastic patron. Have we gone low-church all of a sudden?

Many of you will already know the reason why. Today is for most Benedictines, and certainly for us English ones, what we might term Little St Benedict’s Day. For us, the major feast for St Benedict is the Solemnity of the Transitus of St Benedict on 21 March. Thus we keep his day of death as the main feast day. Traditionally 11 July was the feast of the Translation of St Benedict’s relics (though whether his relics went to Fleury in France or Monte Cassino in Italy is a vexed question: both abbeys still lay claim to possessing the true St Benedict). After the Council the reformers opted to omit the Transitus and keep the Translation in the Calendar for the universal Church, possibly because the Transitus always falls in Lent. This is no bar to English Benedictines keeping the Transitus in full fig, a God-sent break from the rigours of Lenten penance (well, not so rigorous any more to be honest, but that is another story).

The Prior preached this morning on St Benedict’s teaching on poverty, which set me to reflecting in the light of the new pontificate. Pope Francis is laying great stress on simplicity (rather than a neutered humility as the secular-minded wish to make out). Thus Pope Francis recently exhorted priests and religious to eschew fancy cars and go for a more unprepossessing jalopy, or even a bike. That strikes the disinterested hearer as perfectly sensible, though he (or she) might wonder why priests and vowed religious should need to be reminded of this. We religious especially should stop and take stock, and ask if in fact our lives reflect the evangelical poverty we profess.

However, the word poverty could use some fruitful elaboration, or even translation, in the context of the religious vows, and even more basically, of Christian life in general. Poverty is not the same as destitution or squalor. To be dressed in rags, living in a hovel and eating gruel is sadly the plight of many in the world today, but it is not the poverty to which religious are called (though some do indeed live so, to the glory of God). Benedictines do not make a vow of poverty at all. We do make a vow of conversion of life, in which evangelical poverty and chastity are integral elements. St Benedict saw no need to single these out for separate vows: evidently they are essential to the life of the evangelical Christian, and even more so to the monk who has committed his life to ongoing and authentic conversion.

St Benedict has little to say on poverty. The point he does labour is private ownership. In chapter 33 of the Rule, Monks and Private Ownership, St Benedict writes,

Above all, this evil practice must be uprooted and removed from the monastery. We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive or retain anything as his own, nothing at all … not a single item, especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills… All things should be the common possession of all, as it is written (Acts 4:32), so that no one presumes to call anything his own.

The crucial phrase is as his own. The quotation from Acts refers to the life of the primitive Church, a common life that reflected the Lord’s radical self-emptying. The Christian life is one of sacrifice, just as Christ’s was, who sacrificed his own body for our salvation. Thus the Christian is called to conform to the lifestyle of Christ, to a freedom born of indifference to material possessions and to one’s own preferences. It is not things that matter, but our attitude to things. Even our Lord and his apostles had a common purse (held by Judas). In today’s gospel from St Matthew (19:16-21) the rich young man can do everything but divest himself of his possessions. His property and wealth were not the obstacle as much as his possessiveness of them. It reveals a deep-seated selfishness which is at odds with the essence of Christian life: self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice.

Since religious life is the Christian life reduced to its concentrated essence, religious (like all Christians) are not called so much to get rid of everything but to renounce any right to possess something as their own, for themselves and their exclusive use. For the monk, nothing can be “mine” but only “our”. Only when we have removed our attachment to a thing can we be free to use it properly. That is the freedom of Christian poverty: a simplicity that allows us to retain or discard anything with peace of heart. The monk, as too the Christian, says with Job, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

So Pope Francis is quite right to remind seminarians and novices of the need to aim low when it comes to things we buy and use in our lives of service of the gospel. In so doing, we become a reminder to the Church and the world that all things are passing, and that our true and lasting possession is God and his grace which mammon will displace if our priorities are not right. Pope Francis is not advocating some sort of neo-Marxism; he is calling us to practise what we preach. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Happy Feast!

O God, who made the Abbot Saint Benedict an outstanding master in the school of divine service, grant, we pray, that, putting nothing before love of you, we may hasten with a loving heart in the way of your commands. Through Christ our Lord.

St Benedict

St Benedict – gaudeamus!

We have sung first Vespers so it is liturgically, if not quite so by the secular calendar, the Solemnity of the Transitus (Passing) of St Benedict. In our community it is celebrated with pontifical liturgy and a “hog”, or festal lunch of ample proportions. Normally the abbot pontificates at the Mass, but this year the Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, will pontificate at Solemn Mass.

St Benedict lived in troubled times, in and around Rome, roughly from the years 480 to 547. Pope Paul VI named him principal patron of Europe in 1964. He is patron also of the oldest Order in the Church, an Order within which there are many branches, both of men and women, all of whom look to St Benedict as their patron, guide, teacher and heavenly abbot.

To mark our founder’s feast day please read the following words of Pope Benedict XVI, excerpted from his General Audience of 9 April 2008 in Rome:

…the Saint’s work and particularly hisRule were to prove heralds of an authentic spiritual leaven which, in the course of the centuries, far beyond the boundaries of his country and time, changed the face of Europe following the fall of the political unity created by the Roman Empire, inspiring a new spiritual and cultural unity, that of the Christian faith shared by the peoples of the Continent. This is how the reality we call “Europe” came into being. …

[after his studies in Rome as a young man]…he became a hermit in the neighbouring locality of Subiaco. He lived there completely alone for three years in a cave which has been the heart of a Benedictine Monastery called the Sacro Speco (Holy Grotto) since the early Middle Ages. The period in Subiaco, a time of solitude with God, was a time of maturation for Benedict. It was here that he bore and overcame the three fundamental temptations of every human being: the temptation of self-affirmation and the desire to put oneself at the centre, the temptation of sensuality and, lastly, the temptation of anger and revenge. In fact, Benedict was convinced that only after overcoming these temptations would he be able to say a useful word to others about their own situations of neediness. Thus, having tranquilized his soul, he could be in full control of the drive of his ego and thus create peace around him. Only then did he decide to found his first monasteries in the Valley of the Anio, near Subiaco. …

… Benedict describes the Rule he wrote as “minimal, just an initial outline” (cf. 73, 8); in fact, however, he offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today. By proclaiming St Benedict Patron of Europe on 24 October 1964, Paul VI intended to recognize the marvellous work the Saint achieved with his Rule for the formation of the civilization and culture of Europe.  … Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.

And, to bring us monks back down to earth, if only briefly, we might include words preached by Monisgnor Ronald Knox at Ealing in 1937:

The spirit of a great institute like the Benedictine congregation does not survive automatically through the centuries; there is always a danger, as time goes on, that such an institute, depending for its life not so much on any principles of organization as upon the influence of a subtle spirit which animates it, will lose the freshness and the purity of its character; will make terms with the world and forget its secret. “If the salt loses its savour”, our Lord asks, “wherewith shall it be salted?” It will be a bad day for the Church if the black monks, who are meant to hand on a message of peace to us others, lose the spirit of peace which is their inheritance. So let us ask our blessed Lady (the Queen of Peace), and St Benedict … that the monks may live as befits their vocation, men dead with Christ, buried with Christ, risen with Christ, by their prayers and their example giving to the world that peace which, now more obviously than ever, the world cannot give – the peace of God.

Happy Feast!

St Benedict, the refectory court, Douai Abbey

Pope Benedict’s manifesto for Benedictines

When the present Holy Father adopted Benedict as his pontifical name it was quickly recognised as an homage to St Benedict, the Father of western monastic life and patron of Europe (though, in part, it was also a tip of the mitre in the direction of Benedict XV ‘the peacemaker’, who reigned throughout the First World War).

Given his fondness for our holy founder it strikes me as worthwhile taking note of what Benedict XVI says or writes about the saint and those who follow his Rule. It seems a particularly Advent thing to do. Of interest is his address to the monks of Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria, a Cistercian monastery and so following a stricter interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. He visited this abbey in 2007 during his papal visit to Austria. In his address he expresses what he sees, through the eyes both of a scholar and a pastor, as essential to the Benedictine charism. It is fruitful reading for any monastery following the Rule of St Benedict. In effect, it is the papal manifesto for Benedictine life today. It should also be seen in the light of his ongoing programme to reform and reinvigorate the liturgy of the Church.

That St Benedict and Benedictine monasticism figure large in the Pope’s thinking on the Church is clear from his stated purpose in coming to the ancient monastery of Heiligenkreuz:

I wished to come to this place so rich in history in order to draw attention to the fundamental directive of Saint Benedict, according to whose Rule Cistercians also live. Quite simply, Benedict insisted that “nothing be put before the divine office”.

“For this reason” he continues, “in a monastery of Benedictine spirit, the praise of God, which the monks sing as a solemn choral prayer, always has priority.” It is for this reason, he notes, that the early Fathers likened monastic life to that of the angels, whose “very life is worship”. The Holy Father elaborates:

This should hold true also for monks. Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised… Such prayer for its own sake, intended as pure divine service, is rightly called officium*. It is “service” par excellence, the “sacred service” of monks.

* Officium, translated liturgically as “office”, is Latin for duty, obligation, service, office.

For Pope Benedict the worship of God for his own sake is definitive, a sine qua non of Benedictine life. Monks offer divine service in choir not, fundamentally, for any pragmatic goal but because God deserves our praise. In fact it is our duty to praise him, and in large measure the monastic choirs praise God on behalf of and in the name of all the Church.

As a result, the monastic commitment to worship in the divine office above all other things is truly a gift to the Church, since it is “also a sacred service to men and women, a testimony offered to them”. Since it is a universal truth that all people have “a yearning for definitive fulfilment, for supreme happiness, and thus, ultimately, for God”, the fact that monks gather together to worship God at the set times throughout the day “testifies to the fact that this primordial human longing does not go unfulfilled”. Indeed our basic human longing has already been fulfilled because “God has shone forth in our darkness with his light, with his Son Jesus Christ”. Christ, in whom God has come to us so intimately that he is one of us, is the one thing necessary which will complete us as human beings: a person, not a doctrine, who is “(o)ur light, our truth, our goal, our fulfilment, our life”.

In speaking of the centrality of Christ for every human being, Benedict seems to be echoing St Paul in his letter to the Romans when he says that “(o)ver and above any ability of our own to seek and to desire God, we ourselves were already sought and desired, and indeed, found and redeemed by him!”. Even before we come to the point when we can start our tentative search for God, he has already found us in Christ, and in him offers us a way to a happiness that will endure beyond this passing world.

It is to this truth that the monastic community witnesses, especially when it is gathered for worship, for the “sacred service” it renders to God for the benefit of the Church, and all the world. Moreover, the Holy Father reminds us, the monastic office has enriched the whole Church also in that all clerics and consecrated religious now likewise pray the divine office. This “official” prayer is also a school of prayer, revealing prayer’s rich structure by means of its “hymns and psalms, with thanksgiving and pure petition”. It is this dutiful yet joyful God-centred worship that enables the Church to receive more fully and fruitfully the wonders of God’s love:

When God is faithfully praised and worshipped, his blessings are unfailing.

In light of all this, the importance of the divine office and the Church’s worship of God, Pope Benedict reaches the logical conclusion, one that echoes St Benedict, or rather confirms his teaching to Benedictines today:

Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the divine office.The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of “putting nothing before the divine office”.

Such a spirit of devotion to the liturgical worship of God will have two clear results according to the Pope. First, the beauty of such commitment will itself beautify the liturgy infinitely more than any technique or method we can devise:

The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity.

Benedict’s tip for achieving this foreshadows the description he gives to Peter Seewald of his own prayer life that was noted a few days back:

I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place.

Our worship, as too our personal prayer, is always focused on God yet conscious of the Church universal, both living in this world and living in the next. Worship and prayer take us out of the narrow confines of our own little personal worlds, enlarge our perspective on life and so rescue us from a crippling self-centredness.

The second result of such a commitment to God-centred worship concerns the monastery itself. If it is truly a place where “God ‘is put first’ “, a monastery becomes a “spiritual oasis” and “reminds today’s world of the most important, and indeed, in the end, the only decisive thing: that there is an ultimate reason why life is worth living: God and his unfathomable love”. It is as if the Pope is saying that if a monastery wishes to be relevant to the world of today it must continue to reveal the answer to the deepest needs of humanity by drawing its gaze to God. Then monasteries are truly being what they are called to be,

… not mere strongholds of culture and tradition, or even simple business enterprises. Structure, organization and finances are necessary in the Church too, but they are not what is essential. A monastery is above all this: a place of spiritual power.

In this address to the Cistercians of Heiligenkreuz Pope Benedict tells all followers of the Rule of St Benedict what he expects of them today, and indeed what the Church and the world need from them today. We might reasonably suspect that there is more than one monastery that is more focused on its own agenda rather than the one St Benedict, confirmed by Pope and Church, proposes for it. If it is unfaithful to its essential purpose it will eventually die, perhaps not physically, but certainly spiritually, a whitened sepulchre.

The Pope has also posed a question for each individual Benedictine: to what extent does he (or she) embody this principle of preferring nothing to the worship of God? It is more than a question of how regular a monk is in attending the office, of physical presence in the church or oratory. It is also a matter of the attitude with which a monk attends office. Is his heart in tune with his lips? Is he attentive to what he is doing, both in mind and in body? Does he seek in worship the glory of God and so hope to merit the vision of God’s glory?

Needless to say, the Pope’s words raise fundamental questions for every Christian about commitment to prayer and to worship. How often do I pray? How often do I go to Mass? And when I pray or attend Mass, is it from a grudging sense of duty, or because I desire to find in prayer and worship what they truly offer: the pearl of great price, the one thing necessary?

The Rule of St Benedict

As you can see, things are at an early stage here. In case you know little about St Benedict and his Rule you can find here a couple of links that will get you oriented. You can read an online version of the Rule of St Benedict so you can see for yourself what he teaches, but remember he wrote about 1500 years ago. A former Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order, Jerome Theisen, has written a useful basic introduction to the Rule here. Abbot Jerome also has written a brief introduction to St Benedict himself. This should get you started …

St Benedict - pray for us!