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Sermon for Matins: St Benedict Series Two

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges

Sunday, 9th September 2007

Mobility is a characteristic of much contemporary life. In Britain not many years ago it would have been quite common for the majority of people to spend the greater proportion of their life in one family home, to pursue one career, and to spend most of their leisure time at home or participating in activities in the local community.

Life today is very different ~ people often work on short term contracts, and therefore have to be flexible about moving house or perhaps living away from home; and most of us have access to world-wide travel and so we holiday in a great many places and often travel in connection with our work.

This kind of mobile life has many consequences for us as human beings ~ impacting on our relationships and family life; on our health the levels of stress we have to endure; and upon our fundamental understanding of life itself ~ perhaps leading to a deep restlessness of spirit.

During this month of September in my sermons at Matins I am looking at the Rule of St Benedict: the rule which guided the lives of the monks who lived here at Westminster Abbey between the 10th and 16th century.

St Benedict wrote his rule back in the 6th century at a time when Europe was in turmoil following the fall of Rome and its empire.

He gave guidance on many aspects of daily life, which inspired thousands of men and women at that time, and has continued to guide and encourage people through to the twenty first century.

Today I want us to look at the teaching he gave on Stability and Perseverance, examining why this was so important for the monks he was guiding all those years ago and what it might have to say to us today.

Benedict relies very heavily on scripture in his teaching and it is words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount which inspire his teaching on stability and perseverance.

So in the prologue to the Rule he writes, “Thus says the Lord in the Gospel: ‘Whoever hears my words and does them is like a wise person who built a house on a rock. The floods came, the wind blew and battered that house, but it did not collapse because it was founded on rock.’

In the way of life Benedict encourages his monks to follow, he seeks to help them build their lives on a firm foundation ~ through the round of daily prayers, through study, through physical work, through a strong commitment to community life, and through serving the needs of others.

He recognises that at times this disciplined way of life will be hard, certainly requiring perseverance to stick at it; but the purpose of it is to bring people closer to Christ ~ their ultimate goal being to inherit eternal life. And so he writes at the end of the prologue:

“As we progress in the monastic life and in faith, our hearts will swell with the unspeakable sweetness of love, enabling us to run the way of God’s commandments. Then we will never depart from his teaching and we will persevere in his doctrine in the monastery until death.”

From the moment a person offers themselves for the monastic life, Benedict sees perseverance as being an essential quality in their life. And so he speaks in his rule of a newcomer needing to “give sufficient evidence of patient perseverance” accepting the rebuffs and difficulties put in their way over the course of several days, before they are allowed to enter the monastery as a novice.

When we read the first chapter of the Rule we begin to understand why he places such emphasis on stability and perseverance.

In this chapter he describes four approaches to monastic life ~ there are Cenobites, who are committed to community life; and Anchorites, who live a solitary way of life. Both of these meet with Benedict’s approval.

But he then goes on describe the Sarabites, who live life on the move, staying where it suits them. Benedict sees these monks as simply satisfying their own desires and not following the call of God. He says of them: “The example they give of monasticism is appalling”.

He’s even more critical of those labelled Gyrovagues, who again move around enjoying the hospitality of others for three or four days at a time, but never putting down roots. These monks use others and give nothing in return.

So Benedict’s rule is written against this background, encouraging his monks to a way of life which demands commitment to others as well as a commitment to God.

So what has all this got to say to us today?

First of all, it faces each of us with the questions: “What am I doing with my life? Am I floundering around, always in search of something new and better? Have I found my true self?”

Esther de Waal in her book “Living with Contradiction” reflects in depth on the Rule of Benedict. On his teaching about stability she writes this:

“The vow of stability tells me that I must not run away from myself. It tells me to stand still, to stand firm, not in the sense of standing still in some geographical spot, which of course is simply not possible for most of the time in our highly mobile world, but in the more fundamental sense of standing still in my own centre, not trying to run away or to escape from myself, the person who I really am.”

She continues, “Whenever I encounter that insidious temptation to say ‘If only’, whether of the past or of the future, I must firmly put it away from me, and instead tell myself that God is present in my life here, in this moment in time and in this place..”

So through Benedict’s teaching on stability we are encouraged us to savour the moment. Not always thinking about moving on or on what we might acquire next, because if we do that we are in danger of failing to enjoy what we already have ~ of missing the beauty in the people and the world around us and not enjoying to the full the gifts and faculties God has given us.

Paradoxically, if we are able to achieve a deep sense of stability within ourselves, we will be much more positive when we face significant change in our lives.

And Benedict certainly brings these two aspects together in his Rule ~ the need for stability and the need for constant change and growth.

It is holding these two things together which seems to me to be the key to enjoying life and finding fulfilment. Somehow having a firm and stable centre enables us to be relaxed and flexible in our relationships with others and in our attitudes to many of the changes going on in the world around us.

Once again, Esther de Waal, writing on the apparent contradiction of having to stand still and yet always move on, makes this her prayer:

“Accept me, o lord, just as I am, in my frailty, my inadequacy, my contradictions, my confusion. Accept me in my complexity, with all these discordant currents that pull me in so many directions. Accept all this, and help me so to live with what I am that what I am may become the way to God.”

Help me so to live with what I am that what I am may become the way to god.

Perhaps we can all make that our prayer too.

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