As a former Benedictine monk I am probably a little biased, but I believe that we as Anglo-Catholics have a great deal to learn from the vision of Christian life set out in St Benedict’s Rule. No less august a supporter of this Society’s outlook than the Rt Rev’d Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has commented on the Benedictine flavor (or perhaps more appropriately “flavour”) of the Anglican way.
One of the many things we stand to learn from the Father of Monks and of Europe is the importance of what I’ll call indirect achievement.
The very titles I have used here attest to this point. Benedict of Nursia did not set out to be the “father” of anything. He set out simply to pray. That his life of solitary prayer in a cave at Subiacco should have grown into the founding of monasteries, branched out into the composition of the most enduring of monastic rules, flowered in mystical vision, and borne fruit in the creation of European culture (among so many other things), would all have been regarded by the great Abbot himself as of secondary importance.
The same is true of his daughters and sons, at their best. Between the eigth and the eleventh centuries, Benedictinism was the dominant force in the life of the Western Church and, one could even argue, of the Western World. Monastic communities built great churches (and a Benedictine abbot more or less invented Gothic architecture). They wrote and illustrated beautiful manuscripts of essential importance in the preservation and transmission of texts ranging from the Bible to works of classical literature. They composed exquisite music. They wrote important works of theology. They even became some of the most powerful landowners of their time.
All these achievements, however, would have been regarded by the communities responsible for them as byproducts of their real raison d’etre, which was simply the search for God (as Pope St Gregory the Great so memorably put it), toward which all their work was oriented. The churches were for praying in. The books were for learning to read (the Classics) in order pray (the Divine Office, Mass, lectio divina). The music was, as some scholars of chant would still argue today, not music so much as sung prayer. The theology was written in the service of prayer and as the outpouring of prayer (and thus nearly always in the form of commentaries or homilies rather than systematic treatises). The land and the agriculture it supported were to provide a livelihood for the monastics so that they could sustain the search for God in work and prayer.
I must avoid idealising the monastic achievement. It had its dark side. There were systemic problems (like the second-class status of “lay brothers” and of all women monastics throughout much of history, or the injustices occasioned by all that land ownership). There were also occasional ones (arising and subsiding with the ebb and flow of fervor, decline, and reform). St. Bernard, one of the great monastic mystics, was also a bitter controversialist. But despite the flaws, the achievement was – and is – real. And it was (and remains) essentially indirect.
There is much that our Society hopes to achieve. Dauntingly, perhaps it may sometimes seem overwhelmingly, much.
All the more reason, then, to take up the Benedictine imperative to aim at something other than what we might think of as our concrete goals. To aim, simply, for God. And to allow what we hope to achieve in practical terms to take shape, almost unobserved, on what will seem like the periphery.
What I am talking about here is – unsurprisingly – largely liturgical. The hallowing of time by the Daily Office, the transcendence of time in the Eucharistic meeting of heaven and earth, the inhabiting of time in our personal prayer and in the undertaking of all our work as a quest for God. All this will aim us in the right direction, keep us on course or correct our course as needed. And it will free us to accomplish, within the life of the Holy Trinity, much besides.
If these themes interest you, consider perusing the following books:
Jean Leclercq: The Love of Learning and the Desire for God
Ivan Illich: In the Vineyard of the Text
Alexander Schmemann: Introduction to Liturgical Theology
The Rev. Dcn. John Hazlet is a parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood, CA. He was ordained to the transitional diaconate while a (Roman Catholic) monk but has not been in ministry since leaving the monastery. He holds the degrees of BA (philosophy) from Grove City College, PA, and MA (theology) from the University of Oxford. At present, he works as a realtor and has a small shop on Etsy.