St Benedict

ST BENEDICT OF NURSIA was a monk who lived at the end of the fifth century, when Christianity was under attack from the barbarians.  Today, when Christian life and values are under stress, many are looking at the Rule that Benedict wrote to order the life of his monks, and finding in it helpful resources for their spiritual life. Despite its ancient pedigree, the Rule is surprisingly contemporary in the issues it addresses, helping people to find stability in a changing world.

I have produced a variety of materials exploring different aspects of Benedictine spirituality, from afternoon workshops and evening courses to a week-long residential series of seminars. I happy to lead parish and chapter study days, parish weekends, retreats, etc., on Benedictine themes.

The sub-pages to this page contain the two main Benedictine courses that I have written: The Way of St Benedict, an introduction to Benedictine Spirituality; and Leadership in the Benedictine Tradition. The content will take a little time to upload, but in the meantime, if you would like to know more, please contact me: click here.

My particular interest is in the Benedictine model of leadership, which I presented at the Anglican Centre in Rome, at a seminar at John Lewis, Watford, and St Paul’s United Methodist Church, Houston, Texas (The Kerley Foundation Lectures). A concise version of the model is described in Theonomics (see the Books page).

The talk below, given at Ely Cathedral in 2004, gives an outline of Benedictine Spirituality. (Another talk, A Spirituality for the Times, giving a fuller account of Benedictine spirituality, will be found on the Spirituality page. It can also be downloaded here.

A Tribute to Benedict

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he lead us all alike to everlasting life!
(The Rule of St Benedict, Ch 72)

With these words St Benedict concludes the final chapter of his Rule, a manual for those who wished to follow the monastic way of life.  Unlike St Francis, Benedict did not set out to found a religious order; his aim was to help those who wished to model their lives on Christ and to enter his kingdom.  Yet from this humble beginning a great religious order did in fact arise, so much so that St Benedict is regarded as the father of western monasticism.  Moreover owe to Benedict the survival through the Dark Ages of the learning and the values that undergird European civilisation; it was the Benedictine communities that kept them alive.  This cathedral in which we worship is the monastery church of one of the largest Benedictine abbeys of medieval England, and of all those who have left their mark on Ely, none has been more influential that Benedict – indeed his influence has been more formative than that of our foundress St Etheldreda.  For 570 years – from 970 to 1539 – Ely was a Benedictine monastery; the Rule of St Benedict regulated it life,  and it is their daily round of services that shapes its worship to this day.  Yet even here Benedict remains largely unsung, so it is good to take this opportunity, when his feast day falls on a Sunday, to celebrate his contribution to Ely’s life, and also his part in preserving our European heritage.

Benedict was born towards the end of the fifth century, the traditional dates for his life are 480 – 547.  He came from a good family and lived at first in Rome, but its worldly way of life repelled him and he became a hermit seeking God in solitude.  In time his evident holiness attracted others, and after some false starts he and his companions settled at Monte Cassino, about 70 miles south-east of Rome, and it is there that he wrote his Rule.

Esther de Waal, in her book Seeking God, says that Benedict’s greatest contribution to the development of monastic life was his understanding of the relationships between members of the community.  Monasteries had tended to be groups of novices gathered round the feet of a master, in whom enormous power was vested.  Benedict changed this vertical pattern of authority by emphasising the relationships of the monks with each other.  ‘So,’ she writes, ‘for St Benedict the monastery [became] a community of love and the abbot a man who is expected not to be infallible or omniscient, but a man who will exercise his discretion as the circumstances demand.’  Basic to this new understanding is St Benedict’s teaching about leadership, and it has a wider application than monastic life.  It has much to offer to the local church, and indeed to any group that wishes in some way to share a common life and to work together to achieve a common goal.  Perhaps surprisingly, today the Rule is being used in industry and commerce, both as a means of reflecting on corporate management practice and to develop a more spiritual understanding of work.

Benedict’s monks bound themselves into a community with three vows: stability, conversion of life and obedience.  Stability means commitment to a community.  It is a promise to be loyal to a group of people, and with all their faults and failings to seek God with them.  The call to conversion of life is a promise to be open to change, never to remain still in in either self-satisfied fulfilment or in self-denying despair.  Obedience saves the monk from being self-willed and domineering; he acknowledges an authority greater than his own desires and is open to the possibilities inherent in others.  It is not difficult to see how these basic qualities enable people to live and work together effectively, whatever their situation.  Commitment, openness, and humility build good character, and deepen community.

The connection between work and character is important.  Benedict lived at a time when hard work was for slaves, but he saw that work was a necessary instrument of virtue and that idleness was ruin.  Work was as essential as prayer to human flourishing; work is what we are made for, and all his monks had to work as well as pray.  In this Benedict drew on the Biblical understanding of work as the natural human condition – Adam was placed in the garden of Eden to till and care for it, and Jesus, the new Adam, came among us as a worker not as a king or soldier or philosopher.  In our own day we see the importance of work through the effect of being without work.  The unemployed, those who are laid-off, made redundant or downsized are diminished as people.

But, of course, it is not just any work that feeds the spirit – some work is dispiriting, and even with good work people can feel diminished.  A major cause for concern today is the negative effect of modern working practices on personal character; it is explored in a recent book by Richard Sennett entitled The Corrosion of Character.  By ‘corrosion’ Sennett does not mean ‘corruption’, that is the subversion of character by wrong and wicked devices and desires, but the way in which we are hollowed out as people.  The short-term goals, flexible working practices, constant risk-taking and superficial working relationships of the modern economy turn us into short-term, flexible, superficial people who shy away from commitment and moral clarity.  Against all the material benefits that the modern economy has brought us has to be weighed the spiritual impoverishment that it also brings.

Sennett recounts the story of Rico, a second generation Italian American.  By any standards Rico was well-off; upwardly mobile, well-housed, and able to afford the best education for his kids.  But to achieve this Rico had moved house and job four times in fourteen years, each time having to start his life over again.  After being downsized, he set up on his own as an engineering consultant, but the demands of this job meant that he was at his clients’ beck and call with no time for his family; he said, ‘its like I don’t know who my kids are.’  His fear is that they will become ‘mall rats’, hanging out aimlessly in shopping centres while the parents remain out of touch in their offices.  Rico felt he belonged nowhere, and could not offer the substance of his work life as an example to his children of how they should conduct themselves ethically.  Today, as Sennett comments, ‘The qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character.’ (21)

Rico’s life had corroded his character, like acid eats away at metal; he no longer felt able to sustain social relations or to be able to offer durable guidance.  The world in which he had to behave flexibly in order to survive had taken its toll; his character had become flexible and he was no longer sure what he stood for or what he could pass on to his children.

There are thousands who feel like Rico, ordinary people who want their work to feed their spirits as well as their bodies, and who want to be able to pass on something enduring to their kids.  Its hardly surprising that the Benedictine virtues of stability, openness and humility call across the centuries and speak to our condition.  Rico’s life was rootless; stability speaks of the importance of roots, of being part of  a community whose story you share, and where you are known and loved.  Rico had learned to adapt; conversion of life is about the deep inner change through which we grow and mature, not the superficial world of portable skills and new patterns of team-work.  Rico had become his own centre; obedience is about removing ourselves from the centre of concern and accepting that who we are and the values we should live by are given not achieved.  Of course, translating these insights into the modern workplace is not easy, if only because the growth of virtue is a long-term process, but even so they remain deeply attractive, perhaps because they remind us of something basic about our human nature and the purpose of our lives.  At the least they provide an agenda, a way of evaluating our lives and seeing where we need to make some changes.

Benedict knew that it was important to set the right goals before his monks, and that these goals must place the spiritual above the material.  ‘Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ’, he wrote, and the object of the monastic way of life was to make them better people, to strengthen their characters and fit them for heaven.  I think that remains our goal, even if, like Rico, we prefer to talk about it in secular language.  Job satisfaction is about doing something useful for others as well as doing something that uses our skills and aptitudes; more deeply it is about filling us out as people, helping us to grow and mature.  Benedict’s genius is to have made this possible in a practical, everyday way, and his Rule enables ordinary people to live lives of quite extraordinary value.  His continuing achievement is seen in the way that the Rule is being adapted to new situations, challenging our short-term attitudes and offering a way of finding spiritual riches in a materialistic age.  It is indeed a precious part of our European heritage.

For Benedict to God be the glory through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.