A School for the Lord’s Service: Gleanings from the Rule of Saint Benedict for Our Parish Life
Anglican Spirituality is, in essence, Benedictine. As the English Church Historian J.R.H. Moorman notes, England was once called “the Land of the Benedictines,” and just about every cathedral was also a Benedictine monastery. Even when the monasteries were gutted during the English Reformation, this Benedictine culture remained, enshrined in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer, but more importantly, in the hearts and minds of the English people. In this series, beginning today, I’m hoping to reveal to you, through these meditations and gleanings, a bit of my heart and mind as I’ve sought to form the culture of our parish.
A Benedictine monk takes three essential vows: stability, conversion of life, and obedience. The monk (from the Greek monos, meaning singular) is to single-mindedly pursue the service of the Lord within the monastery, vowing never to leave, to become remade after the image of Jesus Christ, in strict obedience to the abbot, a true spiritual father. This is at the heart of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which begins:
“Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.”
My friend Esther DeWaal notes that a neutered translation like “Listen, O my child…” will do. These are the words of a spiritual father, Benedict to a monk who has become his child. But, the abbot is not the master. Jesus Christ is the master, and the Rule is essentially continual exposition of Holy Scripture, arranged to point the monk, and the whole community, to the service of Jesus Christ. Benedict writes:
“We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord's service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God's commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.”
Today’s Christian congregations have, at least til the beginning of March, been places of frenetic activity, program upon program, very few seeming to mature, and many leaders burning out and fading into the background. Benedict envisions a very different life, not that endless toil, but of a school. By this, Benedict envisioned a life of leisure, with time to pray and time to study, a life in which time for such things was harmonized with manual labor in such a way that prayer and reading could truly flourish. The Rule is meant to make us yearn for stability, and in that yearning, pursue a life of conversion in obedience to those in authority over us. In this time when the Church is marked by voluntarism and mobility, when you can choose your church, community, and authorities almost at will, the Rule is presenting us with a completely different view of human flourishing, not found in constant exercise of choice, but by self-abandon to the living Word of God in Jesus Christ.
Today, before going into various “gleanings” from the Rule over the next several weeks, I want to say a bit more about this idea of a school of the Lord’s service. In the days of Benedict, Rome had collapsed. Barbarian ways of war and work were starting to prevail. Classical ideas of leisure had almost entirely disappeared. Benedict appears on the scene having tried and failed in a strenuous course of monastic life. He, in a sense, cracks the code, in the very prologue of his Rule. The Rule contains nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. Monastic life should be a delight. As I have talked with many of you through the years, it has become apparent that one of the things you were looking for in a church was rest - respite from the firehose of programs and frenetic activity. Some of you have said you wanted rest from constant performance and the anxiety of never quite knowing what to expect at your church. Many students have told me how freeing it has been when in catechesis, I have commended the practice of letting homework and studies alone on Sundays and going out on a kayak on a Sunday afternoon or taking a long nap. The Rule insists, we cannot learn the way of conversion to Jesus Christ if we are constantly busy. We must have rest and we must have time.
Time is a central part of the rule. The day is not only fitted to the various seasons, but it tells you when to pray and when to eat and when to read. Benedict will say, you might be working on the most important sentence ever written, but when the bell rings, you head to the chapel to pray. Nothing is to be preferred to the love of Christ. We Anglicans have a great deal to say about the sanctification of time through not only the Church Year, but also through the constant practice of the Daily Office. Further, through the constant celebration of the Eucharist, we enter into God’s unceasing time. This forms the soul in a way of conversion.
Lastly, I want to say that by setting up a school of the Lord’s service, Benedict does not mean that there will not be formal instruction. Today, Benedictine novices go through a long period of instruction. But, that instruction is aimed as something akin to a slingshot - to quickly advance them, after they’ve been welcomed into the community for a time, into the life of a monk. As I have crafted our Christ Church 101 and Catechesis offerings, this has been very much in my mind. The idea is to accelerate new members into our common life as an on-ramp and initiation, so that if they have not already, they can take up the life of Christian maturity with not only enthusiasm, but stability. In addition, the life of a parish is built upon obedience, and not in the negative sense. Obedience has become something of a bad word these days. Parenting books say very little of it. But, Christians have always believed that obedience, not only to the way of the Lord, but to those in authority, is essential to living the Christian life. I do not say this to draw attention to myself. I am under the authority of a godly Bishop. I take that authority very, very seriously. What I mean by drawing this to your attention is to say that when we attempt to live the Christian life by our own direction and enthusiasm, we fail. We need to take on a way, a way of clarity about what maturity and conversion look like. For the monk, this is what the Rule does. It is why monasteries listen to chapters of it during meals. For the member of a parish, it means that in the ordered life of the parish, and for those of us who live in a household, the ordered life of a household with its many rules, we learn a way of obedience, not just to each other, but to Christ. With is what life in community and perhaps more radically, communion, has to teach us. A way of mutual submission which requires that every bit our our selfishness, pride, arrogance, and self-determination have to be burned away for the sake of following Christ.
Next week: The Instruments of Good Works