St Benedict Sermon 21/8/2013
A dead sinner, revised and edited. That was the American satirist, Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a Saint.
And he was spot on. No one has ever claimed that saints were perfect, and revising and editing perfectly summarises the process of hagiography. In which some anecdotes and apocryphal stories are embellished after death, and every few decades re-interpreted for a fresh audience.
Possibly the best known example is St Francis, whose extraordinary character has allowed him to be celebrated with some justification by Eco- warriors, Italian Nationalists, Christian Radicals, and Pillars of the Roman Catholic establishment- the current Pope noticeably leaning on him to demonstrate that he is a conservative and reformer at the same time.
But other saints are different. Their personality is of little or no interest, and they are honoured more for their achievements- or to use that fashionable word, legacy.
St Benedict of Nursia is one such. Details about his life and character can be found in a near contemporary work by one of his admirers, Pope Gregory the Great, but they don’t catch fire the way tales about St Francis do.
But what he left behind was probably far more influential.
Most people only have to hear the name Monte Cassino to recall the destruction of Benedict’s famous Abbey, during the allied onslaught on Italy in 1944. I knew one of the British soldiers who was there and he lamented the destruction as a tragic case of necessary vandalism. But the fame ,or infamy, of that incident does serve to remind everyone that Benedict had something to do with monasticism. Actually he was to all intents and purposes, its founder and architect, as far as the Western church was concerned.
Everyone who visits a cathedral or ruined abbey will encounter a chapter room: So named because it was the room in which members of the monastic community met to hear a daily chapter of St Benedict’s Monastic Rule; first written down nearly 1500 years ago.
But surely this is, literally, just history?
And not only something from the remote past, but from the remote present too.
Nothing could be further from the lives we lead today than monasticism. Now a church is deemed to be thriving best when it is full of activity and noise. So what can be learned from such a quaint pattern of life?
Quite a lot I would suggest; without any need to romanticise monasticism or ignore the practical realities that we have to face today.
Last year we collectively came up with a Vision, setting out priorities for the life of our church. You will recall that we based that Vision on ideas from a book by Robert Warren , called ‘ Developing Healthy Churches. Since then I have concluded that in truth this is simply St Benedict’s rule brought up to date .And while there is nothing wrong with Robert Warren’s ideas, we should not be embarrassed about drawing water from the well which sustains them.
Here are some echoes between the Benedictine tradition and our concerns today.
In order to hear God, we need stillness, silence and a place for prayer.
And other people need that too; even if they are not overtly religious. Because we are so near to a main road we can’t provide absolute silence, but we can provide a different sort of space.
We do have some really quiet rooms in the new hall, we do have gardens, and a beautiful building- where worship happens and a sense of holiness can be found. And we are now much more actively encouraging people to come in. Notice-boards.
Benedict insisted that part of every day was set aside for study and reflection. With busy lives people find that tough, so our commitment to provide a place where people can come and reflect, or attend thought provoking talks, with more depth than the chatter of much of modern media, is invaluable.
Again internally within the Monastic community, between the members of the community, and through its face to the world- of hospitality to all those who come, a spirit of service to others was put at the heart of things. We are endeavouring to make sure that the homeless, the elderly and those who find life tough are not excluded from our thoughts or actions.
This summer we have been busily trying to find a professional person to help with our work with young people. One of the principles of the Benedictine tradition is that each generation has a responsibility to the next, to, along with love, provide guidance and enduring values.
How we get on together is important. I am aware that we are not as good as we used to be at events where members of the church community can get together and get to know each other. A planned Harvest lunch on September 29th might help. But deeper than that we would be a stronger community if we had stronger connections between each other- the words about of a visitor still ring true for me, when they described St Barnabas like this- ‘friendly, but not really a community’.
Two other Benedictine principles might help here. Because monasteries followed the church year assiduously, with all the feast days and fast days, they cherished festivals, when people could rejoice together. They also try to practice the principle of benedicere, which means listening to others and resisting harsh words. Making space for people to be who they are, and avoiding easy judgement.
Joy and I will come back to these themes again, but just one last word; actually it is a phrase that I find helpful.
I can start with this tomorrow.
There is so much that we could change, so much that potentially needs to be done, but this is a one small step at a time principle. Notice boards- more people are discovering that we are open, and dropping in.