Reflection on the Rule of Benedict

Over lunch at St. John’s church we discussed one of my favourite topics – St. Benedict. It seemed entirely appropriate to be discussing his Rule, adopted and adapted by so many religious orders, over a meal as his concerns include food and dining arrangements. However, his real insight is balance.

Benedict wrote his Rule in the 500s when previously solitary hermits started to live in communities, and had to balance the life of prayer with community and wider concerns. When a monk or nun joins a Benedictine abbey they have to make three promises: firstly stability, being committed to both a place and a community; secondly conversion, being open to God calling them into something new; and, lastly obedience, listening not just to the abbot but also the Scriptures, Holy Spirit and community. At one level this can appear contradictory, how can we be both stable and open to change, but at a deeper level this embraces the tension within life which can be so creative. Balance is shown throughout his Rule, be it balancing both prayer and work, moderation in food or the tension between the communal and the personal. In all of this the community member is called to intuitive obedience to God by listening “with the ear of your heart”.

Balance or harmony is vitally important. Benedict stipulated that Psalm 95, the Venite, would be used every morning . In saying it we hear, “harden not your hearts”. The ear of our heart must always remain open, our souls always receptive.The abbey must have an open spirit. One that receives the guest as it receives Christ and recognises him primarily in the poor or pilgrim; or open to the insights of the newest member as the Lord often reveals his own will to the youngest. How dynamic our churches would be if the new visitor was recognised as having insights equal to the longest serving member.

What really emerged over our lunchtime discussion was the balance and tension between our inherited tradition, stability, and the need to engage with a changing society, conversion. It is a tension which we experience in much of the church’s life: from the latest bishops’ document on sexuality, in the light of civil partnerships and equal marriage; to the desire for our services to be a place of comfort and familiarity in an ever changing world. It can be painful when what has nurtured us has limited engagement with contemporary experiences, or peoples deepest feelings of love and support remain unblessed because they do not follow our inherited heterosexual tradition.

Jesus went to the traditional stable places of worship, synagogue and Temple, but also looked to convert when he kicked over the money changers’ tables or challenged the Pharisees. Those who follow him today seek to live faithfully in unsettled times. Faithful to both our inherited Scriptures and tradition, as well as our contemporary community’s insights. The Spirit, who leads us into all truth,  breathes through all of these.

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