BENEDICTINE VISION

By Alban Hood OSB. June 1999

For some time now I have been reflecting on the spiritual life of our parish, as well as on its many strengths and qualities. Last December I went to see the Archbishop and was able to tell him about the many good things that are already taking place here, and about the process of parish renewal which was so effectively enhanced by our Parish Day last November. The Archbishop expressed a hope that parishes like ours, which are served by priests belonging to religious orders should in some way reflect the spirituality or charism of the order. This prompted me to reflect on Benedictine spirituality, and how it finds particular expression in the life of St.Anne’s.

People often ask me ‘what is a Benedictine parish?’ Ormskirk has been served by the Benedictines since 1732 and many people in this part of the world have affectionate memories of monks who have served this parish and others in the Archdiocese over the years. From a superficial viewpoint, the life and work of Benedictine parishes may not seem to have any distinctive contribution, but “closer acquaintance reveals a specifically Benedictine character hard to describe exactly but nevertheless very palpable and much valued by those that know it.(1)“ In the following pages, I would like to attempt to highlight various aspects of this ‘Benedictine character.’

Perhaps our starting point should be to tease out what Benedictine spirituality is about. It is important above all to stress that Benedictine spirituality is not just for monks and nuns – it offers something for all Christians. In recent years a lot has been written to make Benedictine spirituality more accessible to people by writers such as Esther de Waal, who comments that

The Rule of Saint Benedict does not call us to heroic deeds. Instead, it tells me that my way to God lies in the daily and the ordinary…the Benedictine life is undramatic and unheroic; It simply consists in doing the ordinary things of daily life carefully and lovingly, with the attention and reverence that
can make of them a way of prayer, a way to God (2)

Pope John Paul II asserts that “the teaching of St. Benedict is simply the teaching of the gospel…the whole thrust of the Rule of St.Benedict is directed toward the goal of following the basic gospel precepts: love of God and neighbour, the spirit of faith, humility, obedience, prayer and mutual love.(3)” It seems to me that there are five aspects of Benedictine spirituality which may help us in articulating some key priorities for our life as a parish community:

1. The search for God through personal prayer and lectio divina (prayerful reading of the scriptures)

2. The central place of the liturgy in the life of the parish:

3. The development of a strong sense of community in the parish, making hospitality a key feature as well as finding concrete ways of valuing the gifts of everyone.

4. The promotion of on-going theological and spiritual formation for all through courses, study days and talks;

5. A particular vision of ‘church‘ which transcends the local diocese and fosters a concern for Christian unity.

Each of these will now be looked at in detail.


1. THE SEARCH FOR GOD THROUGH PERSONAL PRAYER AND LECTIO DIVINA

‘See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life…Let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide.’ The Rule of St. Benedict, prologue

For Benedictines, the Christian life is viewed in terms of a continual search for God; the spiritual life is seen as a process of exploration, not a list of clearly defined spiritual exercises. The Benedictine rule encourages people to find their own spiritual path, recognising that there are many paths to God. Here at St. Anne’s we already have a variety of groups which help to nourish personal prayer; there is the Tuesday night prayer group at Pontville, the Banneux group which meet regularly to pray the rosary; the recitation of the rosary in church before Mass in May and October; regular exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and recently Christian Meditation has been introduced into the parish.

People are often surprised that Saint Benedict didn’t write more about personal prayer in his rule beyond saying that it should be “short and pure.(4)” Sometimes I am asked whether there is a particularly Benedictine way of praying? A characteristically Benedictine method of prayer for centuries has been lectio divina, which encourages a prayerful, reflective reading of the scriptures. Saint Benedict recommended this practice to his monks, urging them to “listen readily to holy reading.(5) One of the ways of praying among the early Christian monks was the use of a phrase or a sentence from the Bible. This they would repeat as prayer, “squeezing it until all the spiritual juice had been extracted.(6)” The late Fr. Henri Nouwen seemed to have lectio divina in mind when he wrote that “it is often helpful to take one sentence or word from the Mass readings that offers special comfort and repeat it a few times so that, with that one sentence or word, the whole content can be brought to mind and allowed slowly to descend from the mind into the heart.(7)”


2.THE CENTRALITY OF THE LITURGY IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH

‘Nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.’Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 43

The Benedictine tradition has been known for its attention to the careful execution of the liturgy and the liturgical apostolate. The celebration of the liturgy lies at the centre of a monk’s life, as it does at the centre of the lives of all Catholics. In his Rule Saint Benedict gives very exact instructions about how monks are to organise their celebration of the liturgy – which he calls “the Work of God (8).”

It follows then that especially in a Benedictine parish the liturgy should be given special priority, especially the Holy Mass which is the “source and summit of the Christian life.(9)” Cardinal Hume, himself a Benedictine, underlines this when he says:

The Real Presence has important consequences. It binds the members of the Church together into the one Body of Christ. It calls for: respect and devotion when we receive Holy Communion and worship of the Blessed Sacrament; respect and reverence for the Eucharist … these must be priorities in our parish life. for what it truly is, the most precious encounter with the mystery of God…done well it is dignified and prayerful.(10)

It follows that for this to be achieved, careful preparation is needed for the celebration of Mass, not just by the celebrant, but by all. Sometimes we fall into the mistaken trap of thinking that to make the celebration of Mass attractive, we have to make it superficially cheerful or gimmicky. Sometimes one hears people bemoaning that the post Vatican II liturgy lacks the reverence of the Tridentine rite. It is not a question of returning to the past, or discovering new ways of celebration but to go deeper, to participate in the Mass at a prayeful level, so as to discover its riches. To do this entails having a life of prayer, a willingness to spend time reading the scriptures to be read at Mass prayerfully beforehand, and joining in the prayers and responses as fully and as meaningfully as we can. However, we still need to recognise that our human efforts at celebrating the liturgy well can never be totally perfect or successful. Cardinal Hume remarks that

Having lived in a community where the liturgy was very important, very much the centre of monastic life, one had to learn very quickly that you were not there to get an aesthetic enjoyment out of it. It was very good if you did, but I found it was quite often sweat and toil. You were there not for your own sake, but to give honour and Glory to God. (11)

We are immensely fortunate to be blessed with such good resources for worship here – dedicated readers, eucharistic ministers, welcomers and altar servers as well as a thriving childrens’ liturgy group. There is also the Liturgy Committee which seeks to support and co-ordinate all the efforts to improve and enhance the liturgy.

Recognising the important place given in Benedictine life to the celebration in common of the Divine Office, the Prayer of the Church, it is hoped to introduce Morning and Evening Prayer in church on a regular basis. A study day will be devoted to this in the near future.


3.THE DEVELOPMENT OF A STRONG SENSE OF COMMUNITY

‘Let them serve one another in love.’ Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 35

Benedictines live in communities and so much stress is placed upon the importance of living in community that the monastic life is often called ‘the common life.’ A strong sense of community is a hallmark of many parishes, not just those who happened to be staffed by Benedictines, but in a Benedictine parish this is an important priority and goal. There is already a strong sense of community in our parish as evidenced by the many activities that go on and by the warmth of the sign of peace at every Mass Sometimes newcomers to the parish report feeling isolated, unwelcomed, but others have spoken of the warmth of welcome they have received. Being a large parish, it is no longer possible for the clergy to visit homes as regularly as they would wish, but one pleasing development has been the division of the parish into areas and the piloting of a network contact scheme, whereby a team of visitors in a given area establish contact with all the Catholics who live there. In recent years there has been a lot of effort put in to the ministry of welcome, both at Mass, and in visiting new parishioners soon after they have made the initial contact with the church. St. Benedict reminds us of the importance of this ministry of welcome when he says in his rule that

All visitors who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say:
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Proper honour must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith and to pilgrims. (12)

Benedict also reminds us of the importance of mutual care and support. He says: “No one is to pursue what they judge to be better for themselves, but rather what they consider best for others.(13)” Elsewhere in his rule he re-asserts a crucial biblical principle when he says: “Never do to another what you do not want done to yourself.(14)” We may all be aware of our failings in this matter of charity, but Benedict emphasises that at the heart of community is forgiveness, and he urges his monks to follow the scriptural adage, “if you have a dispute with someone, make peace with them before the sun goes down,(15)” for peace is an overriding objective in Benedictine life. Little wonder that peace (or pax in Latin) has become the Benedictine motto, for Benedict realised that a lack of interior peace threatened the whole fabric of community life and that peace must start within ourselves.

Part of the success of Benedict’s rule for monks has been the way he advocates the creation of a climate which promotes community whilst at the same time valuing the uniqueness of each individual. Esther de Waal observes that

Love dictates the Rule of St. Benedict. It is the best guide I know to the hard work of living with other people and loving them as they need to be loved…the starting point is…men and women seen as potentially of the highest value: Men and women seen as inheritors of the kingdom…in bold letters St.Benedict wrote across the pages of history that ‘everyone is sacred and each person has a right to develop to their full potential.(16)

What wonderful inspiration this provides for our parish as we strive to promote a sense of community whilst at the same time value the uniqueness of each parishioner and encourage each person to use their gifts and talents for the benefit of the whole community. We must also remember that the quality of the common life can only be a reflection of the quality of the relationships between the individuals who make it up.

Part of the process of parish renewal over the past six months has been considering what form a new parish pastoral council might take. Since Easter there has been a process of preparation for the formation of the council, using the Archdiocesan document, Partnership in Mission. The final stage of the discernment process is about to take place. Perhaps Benedictine principles can help us as the council comes into being and begins its work. Esther de Waal sets out four principles which show an extraordinary humane understanding of how people work best together.

First comes the principle of SOLIDARITY, which states that in every area of life, whether liturgical, social or economic, each member is equally concerned and responsible; there is no picking and choosing, no contracting out. Yet this is not blind conformity, for the next principle is that of PLURALISM, which recognises the ultimate worth of every individual and so allows for the diversity of needs and gifts which grows from this. The principle of AUTHORITY, demands that the abbot, and those to whom he has delegated power, see that they exercise it without at the same time detracting from the final principle, that of SUBSIDIARITY. This means that what someone can manage to do themselves should not be entrusted to another in the name of ‘higher authority.’ So at the end there is a balance of inter-dependence and responsibility which allows the good of both the individual and the group to develop to their fullest. (17)

However our parish community is organised and developed, these words from St. Benedict’s rule would seem to provide a useful guide: “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love. (18)”


4.THE PROVISION OF ON-GOING THEOLOGICAL AND SPIRITUAL FORMATION

‘In pastoral work, the task of monks is contemplata aliis tradere –to hand on to others things which have been contemplated.’ Cardinal Basil Hume, Searching for God (London 1977) p 94

In medieval times Benedictine monasteries were centres of learning and culture, so much so that the Benedictine life was often described as “the love of learning and the desire for God.” Down the centuries Benedictines have been connected with education, not just through schools and universities attached to the monasteries, but also through the provision of retreats, courses and study days for people of all ages. Our monastery at Douai is one of several in this country to run a pastoral programme of courses on scripture, liturgy, spirituality as well as days for readers, catechists and eucharistic ministers. My hope is that our parish will soon produce its own programme of talks and study days that will help us all to deepen our knowledge and appreciation of our faith.

Through the questionnaires that parishioners filled in last summer it is clear that there is a thirst for knowledge and continued formation in every aspect of the faith. The talks organised during Advent and Lent have been well attended, and the parish RCIA group have agreed to organise the Advent talks this year, to help us focus on the Millennium. Any suggestions regarding themes or topics for talks or study days will be much appreciated.


5.VISION OF ‘CHURCH’

May he bring us all together’ Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 72

Benedictines also have something to offer the church through their involvement in a wider, not just diocesan church. Benedictines transcend dioceses, for example, Douai Abbey has the responsibility for six other parishes apart from St.Anne’s in four different English dioceses; Ampleforth Abbey has 23 parishes and mass centres in five different English dioceses; this allows Benedictines to put parishioners in touch with national and international trends.

There is also a contribution to be made by Benedictines to the theology of the ordained ministry. The Rule of St.Benedict offers the Church at large a way of seeing beyond the personality of the ordained minister to the person of Christ, for Benedict urges monks to see Christ in the abbot, the sick, guests and pilgrims. The cellarer of the monastery is to “show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will be held accountable for all of them on the day of judgement.(19)” These virtues can be applied to an understanding of the ordained ministry today, so that ordination is not seen as power, but rather seen in relation to Christ, who came “not to be served but to serve. (20)”

Benedictines have already been much involved in the ecumenical movement. It was in 1893 that Pope Leo XIII called upon the Benedictines to be engaged in dialogue with the Christian churches of the East, and in 1964 that Pope Paul VI challenged Benedictines to be at the forefront in the ecumenical movement in Europe. It is sometimes said that of all Christian spiritual traditions, the Benedictine tradition is the one most in tune with the English temperament, perhaps because before the Reformation it was the dominant tradition in the development of English spirituality.

It is significant that the movement for Christian unity in this country was given new impetus in 1976 with the appointment of Basil Hume, a Benedictine abbot, as Archbishop of Westminster. On the day of his episcopal ordination, the new Archbishop led his Catholic and Anglican Benedictine brethren in a moving celebration of Vespers in Westminster Abbey, during which he remarked that the Catholic and Anglican churches resembled “two sisters – estranged, not on speaking terms, quarrelsome and misunderstanding each other” and that “the sister Churches can now look forward to new life, to new hope and in God’s time to the goal of Christian unity.(21)” There has been significant progress made since then in ecumenical relations between the churches in our country, but it has also to be admitted that in recent years the advances have not been as great as one might have hoped.

Here in Ormskirk, through Churches Together, Christians in the town have been brought closer together and through regular joint services and initiatives St.Anne’s enjoys good relationships with the other churches. There are many people within our congregation, and among the congregations of the other churches, who are frustrated and disillusioned by the slow pace of the ecumenical movement, but I believe we can be inspired by the Benedictine tradition. After all, the Benedictines were active in our country long before the divisions in the Christian Church. Esther de Waal reminds us that “the Rule of St. Benedict comes from the undivided church of the past and points on to the undivided church of the future,” and that we must play our part in “helping that search for unity to grow in our own lifetime” whilst still remaining faithful to our own tradition. (22)


CONCLUSION

This document is offered so that we may all reflect on the riches of the Benedictine tradition; to appreciate aspects of that tradition that are already in action in the life of our parish as well as to gain some guidelines on how we might see opportunities for further development and new life. The final words should be those of St. Benedict himself who calls us not to “be daunted by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in faith, we shall run on the paths of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.(23)”


NOTES

1. Daniel Rees & others, Consider Your Call: A Theology of Monastic Life today (London 1978) pg. 338

2. Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: an introduction to Benedictine spirituality,(London, 1989), pp 79, 81

3. L’Osservatore Romano, 22/23 September 1980

4. The Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 20

5. The Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 4

6. Columba Cary-Elwes OSB, ‘Letter and Spirit,’ The Way, Supplement no. 40 (1981) pg. 22

7. Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome, (New York, 1979), pg. 79

8. The Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 43

9. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, para 111.

10. quoted in M.L Gadouin-Parker, Adore what you receive, pg. 6

11. Basil Hume, Light in the Lord, (Slough, 1991), pg. 112

12. The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 53

13. The Rule of St.Benedict, chapter 72

14. The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 70

15. Ephesians 4:26, Rule of St Benedict, chapter 4

16. Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: an introduction to Benedictine spirituality, (London, 1989), pp 57-60

17. Esther de Waal, Seeking God, (London, 1980), pp 139-40

18. The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 4

19. The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 31

20. Mark 10:45

21. The Ampleforth Journal, Summer 1976, pg. 42

22. Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: an introduction to Benedictine spirituality, (London, 1989) pp 111-112

23. The Rule of St. Benedict, prologue.