Sermon – The Feast of St Benedict
A note from Jamie Howison: What follows here is audio of the sermon preached as we marked the Feast of St Benedict, and the text of a sermon I didn’t preach! As I looked over the sermon text on Sunday afternoon, I decided it was a bit long and rather thick with information for such a hot July evening, and so I set the text aside and offered a rather more personal take on the Benedictine heritage. As I drew the sermon to its close, I read a poem by the Benedictine monk/poet Kilian McDonnell called “The Monks of St. John’s File in for Prayer,” the text of which is available by clicking here
- To listen to the sermon simply click play:
Although it actually falls on July 11 in the liturgical calendar, we’re bumping the Feast of St Benedict back a few days and marking it tonight. It is common practice in the liturgical tradition for churches to celebrate the feast day of the saint for whom they are named. My friend Kilian McDonnell—who has been a Benedictine monk of St John’s Abbey for over sixty years—once challenged me to keep reflecting on how our community might express the particular charism—the gift, spirit, character—of the saint for whom we are named, and I think his was a very helpful challenge. After all, in our very early days of gathering as a worshipping community, we did choose to bear the name of Benedict as our symbolic patron, and we did that for very particular reasons. It is good to keep him in view and to keep learning from his life and writings, and so each year at this time we celebrate his feast day and I try to offer a bit of insight into what it might look like for a 21st century community to learn from a 6th century monk.
There are two key ancient sources for engaging Benedict: his “Rule,” which is basically the working guidebook for his monastic communities, and the 6th century “Life of St Benedict” by Gregory the Great. As is so typical of ancient writings about saints and holy people, Gregory’s “Life” was not designed to provide a historically accurate biographical study, but rather to edify and inspire the reader. It is chock full of miracles, includes several vivid battles with Satan, and more or less suggests that after some initial growing pains Benedict was all but without fault. Yet Gregory’s writings do provide a basic outline of his subject’s life narrative, which dovetails with Benedict’s concerns in his Rule.
In outline, he was born in 480 in Nursia, in what is now central Italy. As a young man he went to Rome to study, but was quickly disillusioned by what he experienced as a decadent and decaying city. He left the city, and eventually encountered a monk named Romanus, who challenged him to take on the life of a hermit, which he did for some three years.
According to Gregory’s account, at this point a group of monks came to Benedict and asked him to become their abbot. He was apparently a bit nervous about this—as Gregory says, “He put them off for a long time, predicting that his life would not square with theirs”—but in time accepted. It was one of the great failures in the history of monasticism, as his life was so out of line with that of what was evidently a pretty dysfunctional group of monks that some of them actually tried to poison him. At that point Benedict quite sensibly left them behind, but over the following years other young men began to make their way to him, and a new community was born. In time he founded no less than twelve communities, for which he wrote his famous “Rule.”
In her 1992 book on the Rule, the Benedictine sister and theologian Joan Chittister claimed that the spirituality of Benedict is “the spirituality of the twenty-first century because it deals with the issues facing us now—stewardship, relationships, authority, community, balance, work, simplicity, prayer, and spiritual and psychological development.” It was on account of such powerful commendations that I first picked up the Rule and read it cover to cover; something which can easily be done in a single sitting. If you decide that you want to do that, I suspect you’ll be struck by at least three things.
Firstly, the Rule is thoroughly soaked in the Bible. For instance, in the short section we heard read aloud tonight, there were six scriptural references; three from the Old Testament and three from the New. What is really striking about this is that while we have these nice books called Bibles, with things all organized in chapter and verse, Benedict would have been working from hand-written manuscripts that had nothing like our modern chapter and verse format (that’s a 16th century innovation, by the way). I use a bible browser on my laptop to find references, whereas the only browser he would have been working with was his memory.
Secondly, there is a good deal of material in the Rule dealing with basic administration, including matters of discipline for badly behaved monks. About a quarter of the Rule sets out how the community is to pray together, and there is a fair bit of detail on the praying of the psalms. Not only is Benedict himself soaked in scripture, he has a plan for how that might come to be for his communities as well.
Thirdly, there seems a real emphasis on holiness and on what Benedict calls “perfection.” The road to this is obedience, and so tonight we heard that, “With the good gifts which are in us, we must obey God at all times.” The other side of obedience is what Benedict calls “the sloth of disobedience,” and to read his words on where such sloth might lead us is frankly a bit unnerving. “[W]e must obey God at all times, that God may never become the angry parent who disinherits us, nor the dreaded one, enraged by our sin, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow the way to glory.” This is sounding like very stern stuff indeed.
And our age is not one that is fond of the idea of obedience. We mostly agree to obey the laws of our society, so long as they suit us. As for disobedience, we’d much rather see ourselves as independent, free thinking, self-determining. I’m not disobedient… I’m just making up my own mind.
But here’s where it is useful to consider the insights of those who have lived with Benedict’s Rule and vision on the long haul. Sister Joan Chittister—who is, by the way something of a radical and an innovator—suggests that in his treatment of obedience, “Benedict is setting out the importance of not allowing ourselves to become our own guides, our own gods. Obedience, Benedict says—the willingness to listen for the voice of God in life—is what will wrench us out of the limitations of our own landscape.” Obedience not as blindly “obeying,” but as a “willingness to listen for the voice of God in life” lies at the heart of this Christian life.
But how do you cultivate that kind of listening? The Benedictine monk and scholar Columba Stewart suggests it needs to be in the context of community, and grounded in, “The natural rhythms of work and rest, prayer and conversation, [which] are basic to human fulfillment.” And so Stewart reflects, “Benedict had learned that left to ourselves we can too easily develop a false confidence about our progress in the spiritual life. Other people remind us by their examples, good and bad, and by our interactions with them, fortunate and unfortunate, of how far we have yet to go.” And it is interesting that for Stewart, the “bad examples” and the “unfortunate interactions” take place in the community! He’s not kidding himself here… like churches, monastic communities are filled with real people, and communities of real people are always complicated. Never imagine that monasteries are populated by fully realized holy people who live in complete harmony with each other. No, they are filled with people, who need to keep working things out, day by day by day.
And still, Stewart can state that, “Benedict’s most fundamental insight in the Rule is that we seek God through ordinary means. God is already here, in and among us, if only we can learn to see Christ and hear his voice in those with whom we live.” Which is a good place to place our focus tonight, as we consider the legacy of Benedict for us. To “seek God through ordinary means” is the thing. In bread and wine, but also in iced tea and cheese and crackers out in the garden after the liturgy; prayer and scripture, but also conversations about the summer plans and how the Blue Bombers might fare this season; the offering of support to someone who is sick or struggling, but also the sharing of laughter over some great story. “God is already here, in and among us,”—and truly, how could it be otherwise?—and so we must keep trying to “learn to see Christ and hear his voice in those with whom we live.”
A brief post-script. Benedict was right in his sense that Rome was in a state of serious decay. In time that once mighty city fell, and what was left of the Roman Empire was plunged into what came to be called the Dark Ages. Yet by that time Europe was dotted with Benedictine houses, in which communities of men and of women shaped their lives around Benedict’s rule. Prayer and work; keeping the feast and observing seasonal fasts; time to learn and study, and time to build life together; hospitality to strangers and travelers. Communities of alternative practice that carried the light of Christ in a time of uncertainty and of social, cultural, and political upheaval. In our own changing times, perhaps the most important question is how we might do the same, as individuals and as a people together.