The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges
Sunday, 30th September 2007
When I was in my last parish I was invited to take part in a local version of desert island discs. As with the radio programme, I was allowed to choose my favourite pieces of music and one luxury item to take to the desert island.
But the person conducting the interview then added another choice ~ “If you could take one person to the desert Island with you, who would it be?”
Having been told it couldn’t be anyone from my closest family, my mind went completely blank and I couldn’t think of a single person who I would particularly like have me with on a desert island.
Having said that, I would absolutely hate being alone ~ I’m an extrovert and so I like to be with people most of the time and I am happiest living as part of a community.
Those of you who’ve had the experience though, of living in a community of some sort ~ maybe at boarding school or college or through serving in the armed forces or perhaps as a member of a large hospital staff, will know that nice as it can be to have lots of people around you, community life can also have it’s problems and tensions.
During this past month at Matins I’ve been looking at the Rule of St Benedict, written back in the sixth century for communities of monks in Italy; a Rule though, which has since influenced the lives of countless others, including the monks who lived here in this Abbey between the 10th and 16th centuries.
In previous weeks we’ve looked at what Benedict had to say about the need for stability in the lives of his monks, at his call for constant change and conversion on their part, and on the need to live a balanced life of prayer, study, practical work and the offering hospitality to guests and pilgrims.
Today in this final sermon in the series I want to take a brief look at what Benedict taught about living in Community.
He had an incredible amount to say on this particular subject, much of which is relevant to us in the twenty first century. So I can only offer a fleeting glance at his teaching, but I hope it will wet your appetites and that you might then want to discover more for yourselves.
In Chapter 58 of the Rule which gives a description of how new candidates should be received into the community; we get a very clear indication of the importance Benedict placed upon mutual respect and interpendence amongst his monks.
As the novices offer themselves to God singing words from Psalm 119 “Receive me, Lord, according to your promise and I will live. Do not disappoint my hope,” they also prostrate themselves before every member of the community asking for their prayers. In this deeply symbolic act they acknowledge their need of others as they make their vows.
But before they reach this point of commitment they will have had to familiarise themselves with the whole Rule. And Benedict is very specific and practical about the things which will help maintain community life.
A top priority in a Benedictine Community is that everything is held in Common Ownership following the pattern of the early Church described in the book of Acts.
So in Chapter 33 of the rule Benedict writes this: “Those in monastic vows should not claim any property as their own exclusive possession ~ absolutely nothing at all”. He of course recognised that people had a need for material goods in order to work and to look after themselves, but these needs were to be met as they arose rather than people being acquisitive regarding possessions.
Needless to say Benedict paid a great deal of attention to building up good relationships within a community. And so he is very clear in his condemnation of people who grumble or gossip ~ referring to this vice as “murmuring.”
In Chapter 5 of the Rule which is concerned with monastic obedience he tells his monks to obey orders willingly and without delay ~ “not fearful, nor slow, nor half-hearted, nor marred by murmuring”. And in Chapter four he reminds them that they should never take away the good name of another in the way they speak, so once again he says, “Don’t be a murmurer”.
Patrick Barry, in his commentary on the Rule says this about murmuring:
“In monastic life obedience and love are so intimately bound together that each becomes an expression of the other. Nothing is so corrosive of that ideal as the sort of constant complaining St Benedict has in mind when he talks about murmurers. The damage is done not by the fact that there is a complaint. There are always procedures for legitimate complaints, which are healthy in a monastic community provided they are not destructive and are honestly brought forward in a spirit which is open and ready to accept a decision.
Murmuring is not like that; it is underhand and quickly becomes part of the ‘underlife’ of a community … in the end it affects the spirit of a whole community… That is the ground for Benedict’s exceptionally severe treatment of it”.
In contrast to this destructive kind of behaviour, Benedict calls for a spirit of mutual love which flows from the love of Christ himself.
This kind of love he says, calls for patience with each other and in Chapter 72 he describes “The good spirit which should inspire monastic life”.
Monks he says, should try to be first to show respect to one another with the greatest patience in tolerating weakness of body or character. No one in the monastery should aim at personal advantage but should rather be concerned for the good of others.
As with every part of his teaching Benedict is very practical about the things which will help a community to thrive.
And so he says that words and ideals on their own are not enough ~ it is actions that will make the most impact. And it is the leader of the community, the Abbot who plays the crucial part in setting an example by his deeds and actions.
Chapter 2 of the rule he speaks about the qualities an Abbot needs to display and reminds the person who takes on this role that within the community they stand in the place of Christ himself. So they must pay heed to his words: “More is demanded of them to whom more is entrusted”.
And it is the well being of the community and of every individual within it that the Abbott is responsible for; so enormous skill and sensitivity is required on his part.
In the words of Benedict himself:
“The Abbott must adopt sympathetic understanding to the needs of each entrusted to his care”. He is never to show favouritism, showing equal love and having the same standards of discipline for everyone in the community.
At the same time however, he is required to adapt to changing circumstances, showing firmness to those who need it while giving gentle encouragement to others who lack confidence.
Throughout his guidance to the Abbott, Benedict makes reference to mutual deference and respect. The rule calls upon the Abbott to consult the whole community before any major decisions are made and to listen to the voice of even the youngest and least experienced, because God may be speaking through that person. So Benedictine communities are built up through their common commitment to serving God, to serving each other, and through holding all things in common, under the leadership of an Abbott or Abbess who is called not to exercise power but to serve the needs of those in their care.
Nearly everything Benedict teaches about living in community has things to teach us in our everyday lives.
It may not be practical to hold all our possessions in common, but we can at least be challenged here to think about our attitude to our possessions and reflect on whether we willingly share what we have with others.
We can all be challenged I’m sure by Benedict’s teaching on murmuring ~ attempting to move away from the practice of grumbling about others behind their backs to being prepared to be open and honest with people; taking to heart those words: “In speaking, never take away the good name of another”.
We can learn too from Benedict’s wisdom on accepting each others strengths and weaknesses, on being patient with each other, letting others be themselves, developing their potential and always trying to practice mutual respect and tolerance.
And perhaps most important of all we can learn a huge amount from his guidance to the Abbott. For those who are called to exercise leadership there is a great deal of wisdom in Benedict’s teaching about maintaining a careful balance between being firm and gently encouraging; and about wanting the best for everyone for whom you are responsible.
All of us here though will, in some aspects of our lives, be under the leadership of others. And Benedict’s teaching challenges us to think about the kind of support we give to our leaders, encouraging us not to be prompted merely by our personal desires, but once again, to be concerned for the whole community.
Because there is such interest in Benedictine spirituality amongst Christians today many people have written about Benedict’s Rule.
Amongst the best known is Esther de Waal, who in her book, “Living with Contradiction ~ Benedictine wisdom for Everyday living, devotes a whole chapter to living with others.
If you have a chance to read her book I would thoroughly recommend it, because it draws out beautifully and simply the spirit of Benedict’s teaching, and this is what she says about it:
“Love dictates the Rule of St Benedict. It is the best guide I know to the hard work of living with people and loving them as they need to be loved”.
The rule helps me to love without judging, without making demands, without wanting to manipulate. It helps me to find within myself a love which accepts, which forgives, which frees...
The central message that I learn from St Benedict is that Christ is the model for all our loving... our love for one another is a reflection of that first, exceptional, unconditional love”.