Benedictine Spirituality Christ Gospel Lectio Divina Monastic Life Prayer Rule of St Benedict Scripture Uncategorized Vespers

Grounded in love and prayer.

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Today’s gospel is about learning to pray and forgiveness. As I reflected on it I was struck first of all by these words:

“Jesus was in a certain place praying.”

They reminded me that prayer is not an abstract activity, it is a practical activity grounded in the reality of our daily lives. Jesus is praying in a real, physical place in the midst of a particular web of relationships and events. It is in the midst of this complex reality that his disciples ask him to teach them to pray. The pattern of prayer he lays out for them grounds them even further in the reality of their daily lives, moving them from praise and thankfulness to forgiveness.

Forgiveness also needs to be grounded in the reality and context of our daily lives. St Benedict recognises this when he says that the Our Father should be said by the superior at Lauds and Vespers “because thorns of contention are likely to spring up“. He wants the community to be reminded regularly both of their need for forgiveness and their need to forgive others in the course of their daily life. The prayer Jesus teaches his disciples points us in the same direction, asking us both to accept and give forgiveness:

“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.”

It seems to me that these two are intimately linked. We begin by acknowledging our own need for forgiveness. When we know ourselves held in the loving forgiveness of God then we are able to reach out and offer forgiveness to the people who have wounded us in the course of our daily interactions.

What enables you to ground your prayer in the reality of your daily life?

Benedictine Spirituality Christ Gospel Lectio Divina Monastic Life Rule of St Benedict Saints Scripture Uncategorized

Bearers of Peace.

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This is my final post on Benedictine spirituality for now. Thank you to everybody who shared their favourite Benedictine quotes with me. It’s been an interesting and enriching experience to reflect on and write something about them. Today I’m reflecting on what has become the motto for modern Benedictines, “Pax”.

Although he most certainly didn’t write this motto I am sure that St Benedict knew the importance of peace for human flourishing and spiritual growth. Living violent and troublesome times he would have been only too aware of the damage that a lack of peace can cause. His desire to maintain peace is a thread that runs through the whole Rule.

We see it in his concern for both this physical and spiritual well-being of the community. Whether he is ensuring that the community have adequate clothing and food or warning them against the vice of grumbling his aim is to ensure a peaceful environment where everyone can flourish.

The peace he seeks to establish in his community is not a human structure, it is the peace of Christ. It is the peace that St John tells us Christ gives to his disciples in that darkest of times before his crucifixion

“Peace I leave you, my own peace I give you…”

Living in our own violent and troublesome times I too am all too aware of the need for Christ peace to come into our world, to change hearts and minds, to enable us to build communities that are stable and allow people to flourish.

Where is Christ calling you to share his peace in your community today?

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A balanced yearning

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Today my Benedictine quote comes from chapter 64, “on the election of an Abbot”. In his two chapters on the abbot St Benedict sets high standards. The superior is the representative of Christ in the community, and as such has the responsibility to ensure that each member of the community is able to grow in the love of Christ, developing their potential and talents. This is not always easy to achieve. St Benedict writes:

“The Superior must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.”

These chapters on the abbot can be easily overlooked as not being relevant for people outside the monastery. I think they have a real wisdom that can help in many situations. In any group of people there will be a variety of talents and capabilities. We can all fall into the trap of thinking a one size fits all approach would be the most straightforward. While that can appear easy it can lead to uniformity rather than unity. St Benedict is wiser than that and suggest an alternative approach.

He asks that community life should be organised so that that those who are stronger are able to develop their strengths without putting pressure on others to keep up with them. Those who are weaker should have the space and opportunity to step back when they need to. While it’s a beautiful ideal it’s not always easy to live up to. To strive towards it we need to admit both our strengths and weaknesses with humility, and to rejoice in the strengths that others have that we might lack.

What yearning do you want to bring into Christ’s presence today?

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Preferring Christ

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Today’s Benedictine quote is from chapter 72. It captures the very essence of Benedictine spirituality. It’s a call to keep focused on what is essential in the midst of busy lives full of demands and distractions. It takes us back to the Prologue with its call to wake up to the voice of God calling us. It requires us to give our whole attention to following Christ. St Benedict writes:

“Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ…”

It can be tempting to see this as a call to focus on our spiritual lives at the expense of the practical. Although focus on the spiritual life is essential, St Benedict makes it very clear that it is not enough. He puts our preferring nothing to Christ very clearly in the context of day-to-day living with one another as the whole quote shows:

“Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”

Chapter 72 makes it clear that our preferring nothing to Christ is a communal venture as well as a deeply personal one. It needs to be shown in the way we treat our sisters and brothers as well as in our commitment to prayer and spiritual growth.

Preferring nothing to Christ means that we bear with one another’s burdens with compassion and patience. It calls us to choose what is better for the other rather than our own will. It reminds us that our journey to Christ is necessarily communal, it is not an individual venture.

How are you being called to prefer nothing to Christ today?

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Needs and Wants

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Today’s Benedictine quote is from chapter 55, “On the clothing and footwear of the community”. It’s an extremely practical chapter that grounds us in the reality of our physical needs. This might seem a surprise in a Rule that we expect to be about the spiritual life, but the reality of human life is that we are body AND spirit. St Benedict is wise enough to know that both have to be attended to as part of the spiritual life. He writes:

“The clothing distributed to the community should vary according to local conditions and climate, because more is needed in cold regions and less in warmer.”

St Benedict’s words show real concern for the physical comfort and well-being of his community. They acknowledge that if our physical needs are not met we are not going to be able to give our whole attention to seeking God. He also calls us to reflect on the difference between needs and wants. In affluent societies today it can be hard work to distinguish between those. We are encouraged to treat them equally, if we want something then it is necessary to have it.

St Benedict presents a different view. He doesn’t say that the community should have the clothing they want, but the clothing they need because of the physical conditions of their region. His words recognise that this will vary from region to region, with some needing more and others less.

The real challenge of these words for us today is to reflect our attitudes to our physical needs and on the difference between need and want in our own lives.

Where are you being called to reflect on the difference between the things you need and the things you want today?

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Guided by kindness

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Today’s Benedictine quote is one of my favourites. It’s from chapter 31, “qualifications of the monastery cellarer”. The role of cellarer seems the surface at least to be a completely practical one. The cellarer is to look after the material goods of the community, making sure that everyone has what they need.

But it is not just a practical role. St Benedict sees every encounter as an encounter with the living God so even the handling of material goods has to be exercised in a way that opens hearts to God’s loving presence. So he sets high standards for his cellarer, insisting that inappropriate requests are refused reasonably and with humility. If goods are not available, the cellarer is at the very least to offer a kind word. He tells the cellarer to organise everything:

“So that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.”

It’s an easy chapter to overlook. We assume that it’s ancient practical details would not be relevant to our complex life today. Yet, our material needs require just as much thought as they did in St Benedict’s day. We suffer the same pain and frustration if they are not met as St Benedict’s monks did. So it seems to me that this chapter still has much to teach us. At the very least it calls us to look at how we might organise the practicalities of our lives in ways cause the least disquiet or distress to the people we live with.

Where is Christ calling you to find peaceable ways to organise the practicalities of daily life?

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Called to a life of love.

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From the archives for the feast of St Bernard Tolomei, the founder of the Olivetan congregation. He was a 13th century lawyer who, with a few friends, left the city to live as hermits in the hills outside of Siena. However, things did not turn out quite as they planned. Having being led out into one of those “desert places” where God speaks to the heart, they were called back into the city to nurse the victims of the plague in 1349. It was there that St Bernard fell ill and died.

This morning at Lauds we will sing this from the prophet Ezekiel:

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

It seems to me to sum up both the essence of St Bernard’s life and of the call to contemplation that we all experience. Bernard was led to seek a life of contemplation and prayer. In turn his life of prayer softened the stoniness of his heart enabling him to leave his solitude to care for those in need.

His life suggests that there is no division between a contemplative life and one of active service, they are two parts of a whole. It is our time spent with God that enables and sustains our service to others. It is the love we discover in the heart of God that softens our stony hearts and enables us to love our sisters and brothers.

Where is God softening your heart today?

Benedictine Spirituality Christ Gospel Lectio Divina Rule of St Benedict Saints Scripture Uncategorized

Learning Patience

The next quote in my series on the Rule of St Benedict is a call to tolerance, patience and compassion. In chapter 72, my favourite chapter, St Benedict writes that the community should:

“Bear with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour.”

Chapter 72 sums up all the teaching of the Rule. From the beginning it stressed the need to treat one another with love, concern and kindness. We see it in St Benedict’s concern for guests, the sick, the young, the excommunicated. In each case the focus is on treating others with love.

St Benedict knows communities are not Utopias, full of of perfect individuals living up to their high ideals and standards. Every community is made up of broken, frail individuals falling short of those standards. Whatever the ideal, the reality is that community life can sometimes feel like a long string of petty niggles and annoyances.

This quote balances the reality and the ideal. It allows us to acknowledge that living with others is hard work. Finding patience to bear the faults of those we live with is a real and daily challenge. It also leads us to the life changing realisation that we too need the patience and forbearance of those we live with. As we strive to practice the tolerance and patience St Benedict recommends we become more aware of our own need for it. So the practice of patience leads us altogether towards the great love and compassion that is the heart of the gospel.

Where is Christ calling you to practice the utmost patience today?

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Never loss hope

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The next quote in my series on the Rule of St Benedict is from chapter 4, “The tools for good works.” At first glance it can seem like a rather dreary list of dos and don’ts. At times it felt a bit hectoring it took time and practice to see its value. Over time I learned to appreciate its insights.

It lays out very clearly and practically how we need to treat one another to live by the values of the commandments and the Gospels. St Benedict offers us a list of tools that enable us to learn to put the good others first. To use them requires self-knowledge, self-discipline and self-sacrifice. There are days when it can feel like a long list of impossibilities. Then, as he comes to the end of this list he says:

“And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy.”

Those few words at the end of that chapter put everything into a new context, they draw us back to a central principle of the Rule, we can’t do this alone. However determined we are we we fail daily in using these tools. We will grumble, we will be unkind, dismissive and hurtful to others and we will receive similar treatment from them. It is then that we need to remind that whatever our failings we can turn in hope to the merciful God, assured that God will give us the courage to begin again.

Where do you need to hope in the gentle and everlasting mercy of God in your life today?

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With the inexpressible delight of love.

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My next quote from the Rule of St Benedict is also from the Prologue. Once again it stresses the dynamism of Christian life with its call to action:

“As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

The Benedictine scholar, Dom Terence Kardong describes the Prologue as a call to “a little less talk and a lot more action.” It can be very easy to say all the right things about following the gospel, only to put them aside when we are called to act.
That is not the way St Benedict points out to his followers. Instead, he calls us to ponder the gospel in our hearts so that, internalising it, we learn to allow its values to shape the way we behave. It’s a call to balance contemplation and action, for Benedict either without the other becomes meaningless.

Today’s quote comes at the end of the Prologue, after makes it clear that the road he lays out for his followers will include “a little strictness”. It is an encouragement to persevere in love, even when it is challenging and difficult, even at those times when we feel like we are losing everything of value.

It’s a promise that the practice of internalising the values of the gospel will expand our hearts, filling them with love. Then our actions will be motivated by delight of overflowing love and things we once did out of of obedience, or even conformity will a joy and a delight.

Where is God inviting you to run in the way of his commandments today?

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