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Benedict Four: Balance/Work

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges

Sunday, 23rd September 2007

Most of the time, apart from having to keep your nerve it was most important not to lose your balance! If you did, disaster struck!  

During September at Matins, I have been looking at different aspects of the Rule of St Benedict, the rule by which the monks here at Westminster Abbey lived between the 10th and the 16th centuries.

A Rule though, which was written back in the sixth century as Benedict established several monasteries in Italy in and around Monte Cassino, and which has had a profound influence on the lives of thousands of men and women since ~ both within monastic communities and beyond. 

In the previous weeks we’ve taken a brief look at the how the monastery here was organised; we’ve looked at Benedict’s teaching on the need for stability in life; and last week we explored what he meant by conversion, discovering that this was not describing a sudden and dramatic event in the life of a monk, but was about a process in which his followers were constantly called to grow and change. 

This week I want us to look at what Benedict had to say about BALANCE in our daily living, exploring what he meant by balance, and how his teaching might be of help to us today both as individuals and as a Church attempting to influence the world and society around us.

First then, what did Benedict have to say about balance? 

Like a lot of the themes running through his teaching, there isn’t one particular section of his Seventy Three Chapter Rule which deals with balance as a subject.

What he has to say about balance is concerned with a whole way of life. 

As a deeply spiritual man, who had inadvertently drawn others to himself because they were attracted by his holiness, one might have expected his rule to be very “spiritual” in nature. To concentrate heavily on the life of prayer, on reading the scriptures and on contemplating the doctrines of the Church. 

His rule did indeed pay attention to all these matters, and the life of a Benedictine Monastery was centred and grounded upon prayer and worship. Yet Benedict also devotes a huge amount of his teaching to many other parts of life ~ and this teaching is both simple and practical.

So large sections of his rule are concerned with very down to earth matters such as what the monks should eat and drink, about their sleeping arrangements, the care of monastic property and tools, the keeping of the gardens, the care of children and the elderly, the receiving of guests and many other things besides.  

What Benedict wanted for his communities was to avoid extremes of any kind and so he encouraged a balanced way of life attending to the whole person ~ looking after their physical as well as their spiritual needs.

For this reason a Benedictine community always had one of its number appointed as the Cellarer. This monk had the responsibility for overseeing the distribution of food in the monastery and of making sure the community offered generous hospitality to its guests. 

In chapter 31 of the Rule, Benedict demands the following of the Cellarer: 

The community should receive their allotted food without any

self-important fuss or delay on the part of the Cellarer. There must be no negligence on his part. Let him not be controlled by avarice, nor should he waste or dissipate the goods of the monastery. He should take a balanced approach to everything.”

However, Benedict’s teaching on balance wasn’t simply about living a life which brought together a variety of daily activity and a healthy diet; it was also about the attitude of the monks to everything they did. 

In Chapter 19 of the Rule entitled “Our Approach to Prayer” he begins: “God is present everywhere – present to the good and to the evil as well, so that nothing anyone does escapes his notice”. 

This balance of attitude towards prayer and daily work instilled into his monks a reverence for every part of life. 

They recognised that whatever task they were doing, however seemingly humble, mattered to God and therefore should be done with care and attentiveness. And that the same kind of care and attention should be given to all the people with whom they came into contact, whoever they were.

It seems to me that this particular aspect of Benedict’s teaching has relevance to every single one of us in our personal lives; perhaps helping us to a healthier balance in our attitude to our work, to family life and to relationships with friends.  

For example ~ reminding us that reading a bedtime story to our child is as important as preparing a presentation for the board of directors. Or giving our attention to an awkward elderly relative is as important as preparing for a dinner party with our favourite friends.

And doing practical tasks such as weeding the garden or cleaning the kitchen floor, matter just as much serving as a school governor or chairing a local charity.

If we are able to capture the vision that God does look upon all that we do, then perhaps we will find ourselves growing into that way of life where we perform every task, however small, to the best of our ability and treat all people with dignity and respect. 

This would be a life on track ~ a life where we had achieved the balance Benedict was looking for. 

And is it getting back on track ~ finding our balance and regaining a commitment to mutual respect which  the Anglican Communion needs so much at this time.

Only if we are able to achieve this, will we be able to witness to the world with any kind of integrity;

our world which is crying out for stability, transformation, generosity and a sense of community ~ all the things that Benedict was trying to encourage.

But in case we should despair of ourselves and think that we will never achieve Benedict’s vision. We should remember that we all remain beginners on the pilgrim road to a better and more balanced life.  

We will fail as individuals and as a church, but we can perhaps take inspiration from an old abbot who, when asked by a journalist what more than half a century of Benedictine life amounted to, said: 

“Falling and getting up again. Falling and getting up again.” 

So losing our balance in living the Christian life is not as disastrous as losing our balance high up in the branches of a tree ~ because we can always get up and start again.

The important thing is that we keep trying!

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