This is the slightly expanded version of the sermon preached on June 15, when we marked the feast of St Bendict. Now, we need to confess that June 15 is not actually Benedict’s feast day, which in fact falls on July 11. However, given that the Sunday nearest that July date will find any number of people away on vacation or out at the Folk Festival, it seemed to be wise to make the date transfer. Hey, the date in the old liturgical calendar was in March, so even the July date marks a transfer… besides, such things of ritual and ceremonial are there to serve the people of God, and not the other way around.
At the conclusion of his influential book After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre offers the following observation regarding the times in which we live:
“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us… We are waiting… for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.”
In this statement, MacIntyre is making two rather astonishing claims: 1) that our society has already entered into a new dark age, analogous to the bleak era which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire; and 2) that the vision of one person – Benedict of Nursia – was critical in creating an alternative to the violence and lostness of the first Dark Ages, and, further, that such a vision may be what is most needed in our own time.
Let me back up a bit, and tell you about the person whose name is carried in our community’s name, and whose feast we celebrate tonight. Let me first say, though, that we celebrate a saint’s day not to worship that person or to say how great or influential or holy that person was. Rather we mark a saint’s day to worship God, whose greatness and holiness is shown in the lives of those who have managed to be disciples.
“The world into which St Benedict was born,” writes Esther de Waal,
“…was a troubled, torn apart, uncertain world. It knew little of safety or of security, and the church was almost as troubled as the secular powers. It was a world without landmarks. It had this in common with the Twentieth Century: life was an urgent struggle to make sense of what was happening.” (Seeking God: the Way of St Benedict, p. 15)
Benedict was born sometime around 480 C.E., in Nursia in what is now Italy. His family was one of privilege, and so as a young man he went off to Rome to study the liberal arts and to begin to make his way in the world. Rome, once the centre of the Empire, had been sacked in 410, some 70 years before Benedict’s birth, but still would have carried the reputation as a centre of learning, faith, culture and civility. The young Benedict, however, was not convinced; in fact, what he saw there was a crumbling, corrupt, and ultimately hollow centre to an Empire that had become a mere shadow. Disillusioned, he left Rome, not for some better academic centre, but for a life of solitude and prayer in the hills outside of the city.
Over the next five years, however, something remarkable happened. Others, similarly disillusioned with the empty memory of the Empire, went out to join him in his life of prayer. In time, surrounded by so many others eager to share his life, he came to see that solitude was not to be his vocation, and so to give some order and shape to what was unfolding all around him, Benedict organized a series of small monastic communities. Later in his life, as a result of the movement growing ever larger – and with growth always comes a particular set of challenges – Benedict composed his Rule for community life.
Now clearly some of that Rule will sound quite remote to our ears, particularly the bits about discipline and punishment; it is, after all, born of a different age. Yet at its heart is a measured wisdom that has shaped Christian communities for 1500 years, and which again in our time places deep claims upon a church living in a world marked by deep uncertainty.
“Listen:” that is the very first word in the Rule. “Listen carefully, my child.” But listen to what? First and foremost, listen to the scripture. Again from de Waal’s book: “St Benedict’s essential aim was to make Scripture a living experience for his community with all the means at his disposal. ‘Holy Scripture cries aloud!’ is how he opens chapter 7. We are continually confronted with God speaking. There is no escape.” (Seeking God, p. 33).
And what is heard when a community listens? For Benedict, it is a call to balance and wholeness, in our lives as individuals and as a people together. In this vision, the Christian life is one marked by a rhythm of prayer, work and study, lived out together in a community of friendship and accountability. According to de Waal, the Rule embodies, “…an acceptance of each element in the person, each member of the community, each activity of the day as valuable and significant in its own right without encouraging extremism, competition, over-activity, workaholism.” (Seeking God, p. 92)
The work of the physical body – of digging the garden, caring for the wine cellar, preparing the meal – is no less valued than the work of the mind at study or the work of the soul at prayer. There are feasting times and fasting times; times to be silent and times to be in conversation; times together and times alone. No part of life is devalued or scorned, and no part is so over-valued as to become all-consuming.
And in this vision, these communities are never closed. There is always time to open the door and to provide hospitality to the stranger, the pilgrim, the poor person. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,” Benedict wrote, which really means that the community can never convince itself that it is in itself complete.
Through the Dark Ages, when Europe was plunged into chaos, these communities became anchors; lived parables of an alternative vision. Communities where prayer mattered, where learning and literacy were preserved and deepened, where a door could always be opened even in a uncertain and violent world, where friendship – the “love one another” of Jesus’ new commandment – was lived. None of this happened easily or perfectly, of course. These were human communities after all, and Benedict would have laughed at the very notion of a perfected human community.
To bear in our community name the name of Benedict is to be challenged to hear what God has revealed through his life and vision. It is to be challenged to be a community in which prayer matters, learning is deepened, the door is opened to the stranger, and Jesus’ new commandment is lived. To do this, even in our own small and modest way, might just be a point of resistance and a moment of fresh hope in a social and cultural world that is skeptical that such things – anything? – actually matter.