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Benedict Three: Change and Conversion

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges

Sunday, 16th September 2007

The story continues with him building a cocoon around himself and shortly afterwards miraculously emerging as a beautiful butterfly.

A caterpillar turning into a butterfly is perhaps one of the more spectacular transformations that we witness in the natural world ~ but there are plenty of other examples of dramatic change taking place in the life of plants, birds, animals and human beings as they grow, age and die.

During this month of September in my sermons at Matins I am looking at the Rule of St Benedict written back in the 6th century and teaching about many aspects of daily life.

This was the rule which guided the lives of the monks who lived here at Westminster Abbey between the 10th and 16th century. It has inspired thousands of men and women down through the centuries, and continues to guide and encourage people today.

Last week I looked at Benedict’s teaching on the need for stability in people’s lives and his call to his monks to persevere in their prayers, their study, and their daily work and in their commitment to community life.

His teaching was rooted in that of Jesus himself, who called his early disciples to live their lives like a person who has built his house on a ROCK.

Today we turn to what might seem almost contradictory teaching ~ and look at what Benedict had to say about conversion and change.

In Christian circles conversion is often associated with sudden and dramatic change.

In the New Testament itself we have the story in the Acts of the Apostles of St Paul’s sudden conversion. His Damascus Road experience turning him from a rampant persecutor of the early Christians to an enthusiastic evangelist ~ often risking his life as he took the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ to many parts of the ancient world.

In Christian Bookshops today there is no shortage of stories about people who’ve suddenly experienced God’s grace and have turned away from a decadent life-style to become good Christian people!

And there are plenty of Churches both in the Anglican tradition and in other denominations where there is an expectation upon members to be able to give a testimony of the moment their life changed and they accepted Christ as their Saviour.

However, Benedict’s teaching on conversion is concerned with anything but the sudden or dramatic. It is rather about a process, about developing a way of life in which we are seeking to BECOME what God desires us to be. So conversion for Benedict does not take place at a particular moment, it is instead a whole way of life.

So as we read through his Rule we don’t find a particular section about conversion and change, rather, we find his teaching on this bound up with his guidance about the routine of monastic living.

So for example in the prologue to the Rule he calls upon his monks to open their eyes to the light that can change them into the likeness of God. And he reminds them of the constant need for repentance, quoting words from St Paul: The Lord himself says in his gentle care for us: “1 do not want the death of a sinner; let all sinners rather turn away from sin and live”.

He expands on his teaching about repentance in Chapter 49 in which he gives some instruction on the keeping of Lent. Here he acknowledges that the whole of monastic life should have a Lenten quality about it ~ that is; there should be constant growth in the spiritual life. Yet Lent gives the opportunity for his monks to examine their lives in more depth.

He writes: “Therefore we urge that all in the monastery during these holy days of Lent should look carefully at the integrity of their lives and get rid in this holy season of any thoughtless compromises which may have crept in at other times. We can achieve this if we ……… turn to heartfelt repentance and to self denial”.

Repentance of course involves looking back at what we have done and then turning around to make a fresh start. But as Benedict calls for conversion and change he also encourages his monks to LOOK FORWARD.

In Chapter four which is full of practical advice for his followers, his instructions are set in the context of AIMING AT loving God with all the heart and soul and of BECOMING holy through following the commandments of God. So his monks are to have a goal in life ~ a goal which will call them to make a journey from the old life to a new.

This being on a journey of constant change and conversion is emphasised in the final chapter when Benedict speaks of his Rule as being “only a beginning”. Observing his Rule he says, will only help people achieve the first steps in virtue and good monastic practice.

And so he refers to the early Church Fathers, the Scriptures, Institutes and Conferences as being good sources of other teaching which will help people on their journey. He writes:

“Whoever you may be then, in your eagerness to reach your Father’s home in heaven, be faithful with Christ’s help to this small rule which is only a beginning”.

So what do we make of all this as people who are living their lives out in the world rather than within the walls of a monastery?

First of all I think we should take encouragement from Benedict’s teaching that conversion is a process and not necessarily something which happens dramatically at a particular moment in time. There will of course be people who do experience a dramatic conversion, but even for them this needs to be followed by further change and growth in their lives.

All of us then need to constantly examine our lives and be willing to change them in order to draw closer to God, praying that “we may daily be renewed by his anointing spirit”.

Secondly, even though the majority of us are not living in a monastic community we should not shy away from commitment and perseverance.

We live in a mobile world of instant gratification and so neither of these notions is very trendy!

Yet if we are going to reach our full potential as human beings and allow God’s image to be restored in us we have to be prepared to work hard. Not of course falling into the trap of thinking that we need to do this in order to earn God’s love, but rather being open to his grace so that we use the gifts he’s given us to be as creative as possible.

And thirdly and closely related to this we must expect change and conversion to be painful. For new life to emerge sometimes there has to be a death and always there has to be a struggle. And so in our daily lives we need to be prepared for little deaths and struggles because it is only through these that transformation and resurrection will happen!

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