Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2016
Start Date 13th Mar 2016 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

In the midst of our frenetic and rather fragmented modern culture, many Christians are finding something they long for in the simple ideals of the pioneering sixth-century monk St Benedict and the movement he founded at Montecassino in Italy about 540 AD.

This monastic movement began as a desire among lay people for a more intense, disciplined way of living the Christian life. St Benedict wrote a guidebook, a Rule, for the monks in his monasteries that eventually became the standard for monastic life in the West.

In the following centuries, monasteries such as the one founded here at Westminster, thrived with Benedict's Rule at the heart of its foundation. According to tradition, St Benedict died this month in 547AD.

The stones all around us have all witnessed to the presence of the black habit here;
stones that silently watched over the monks in prayer, at work, and in their administration of lands and possessions.

Of course, the simple celebration of the daily services in praise of God was their first duty: to praise our creator 'for his righteous ordinances'. Indeed as the Rule says, prayers ought to be short and pure, unless they are lengthened by the inspiration of divine grace. At the community exercises, however, let the prayer always be short!

Many centuries after this monastic community was dissolved, it was G K Chesterton who wrote: 'it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.'

He argues that this is the reason why the nineteenth century chose St Francis of Assisi, and the twentieth century chose St Thomas Aquinas, as their contraries or perhaps I should say, the saints who chose them.

The nineteenth century chose 'the Franciscan romance precisely because it had neglected romance.' The twentieth century chose St Thomas, the master of reason, precisely because it had forgotten how to be reasonable.

I like to think that St Benedict, who has had such an influence upon this holy place, may once again be the saint to emerge for the twenty-first century. I say this because St Benedict was fundamentally practical; he recognised the fact that people need rules. Otherwise, as G K Chesterton once said, we run the real danger of becoming "broad-minded turnips" or "dogma-less trees."

So, in just a few days' time, on 21st March, (Monday of Holy Week) we shall quietly recall the death of St Benedict, giving thanks for his momentous influence upon Western Christianity. It's highly unlikely that monks would have placed this date of St Benedict's death during Lent, unless it truly occurred in this penitential season in the sixth century.

But it's also fascinating to note that St Benedict begins chapter 49 of his Rule on the observance of Lent, with a phrase borrowed from a sermon by the fifth-century pope St Leo the Great: 'The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance…'

Here he specifically talks about the importance of private prayer, spiritual reading, and fasting from food and drink, along with self-denial in sleep, but also (interestingly enough) talking and jesting.

On the surface, it's easy to think we've been given an uncomfortable paradox, balancing talking and jesting, with self-denial. Of course Lent is a time of fasting and self-denial, but it's also a time of hope and optimism, rather like waiting for the joys of spring or long summer days.

St Benedict teaches us that Lent isn't so much about the absence of joy; but rather through silence and simplicity. Lent invites us to reconnect with joy and jesting in a very natural and very human way. This understanding of Lent is underpinned by a theology centered on God's mercy, God's unconditional love and forgiveness, rather than our sinfulness.

So we begin to see that Lent isn't something we do to make God change, but rather it's something we do in response to God's love, to bring about change within ourselves.

In his Rule for Monasteries, St Benedict not only suggests to his monks that they should be wary of over-doing their fast during Lent, but also that they should share their Lenten commitments with their spiritual superiors.

In today's very individualistic culture, it's all too easy to lose sight of the fact that Christianity is fundamentally a communal faith, that the centre of Christian life isn't private religious devotion but corporate worship, gathering with fellow believers to sing, pray, and receive the Sacraments.

It's also very important to understand that if we examine the rule of St Benedict we quickly see that this Rule wasn't written for the elite, or the highly educated, or even solely for the religious.

His rule was written for everyone, and his goal was to 'establish a school for the Lord's service.' In drawing up its regulations, he claimed that he hoped 'to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.'

Benedict's rule is primarily a civil, communal rule on how to live charitably in a society of people with whom you may or may not like. To put it simply, it's a rule on how to deal with ordinary people, in a balanced and Godly way. Benedict's rule celebrates obedience and is grounded, as St Paul says 'in the law of God in my innermost self'.

The saint connects obedience with humility, two virtues seriously lacking in the world today. Just as the nineteenth century chose St Francis of Assisi, and the twentieth century chose St. Thomas Aquinas, as their contraries.

St Benedict stands an excellent chance of subconsciously moulding our frenetic, fragmented modern culture and greatly influencing twenty-first-century life.

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