This page is mostly focused on my church-going, which has taken on a new lease of life since I became in September 2020 a confirmed member of the Anglican communion.
Its content includes commentary on some of the readings that feature during the Anglican liturgical year as set down in The Common Worship Lectionary, particularly those from the Holy Gospel.
There’s also discussion of the succession of devotional texts I read periodically – several coinciding with Advent, Lent and Easter – to help develop my faith
The church I attend in Harrogate – St Wilfrid’s – conducts worship following the Anglican High Church tradition. As such, it emphasises the Mystery of God, ritual ceremony and the centrality of the sacraments.
In significant contrast to my politics, my churchmanship is thus very traditional and deeply conservative.
When I attend for worship, I don’t like to hear modern religious folksongs, spontaneous prayers and extemporized sermons. I prefer rather a highly regulated order of service that closely follows the Anglican Common Worship, including hymns from The New English Hymnal, and parts – like The Gloria and The Agnus Dei – sung by a solo cantor or small choir. And I like homilies strictly to keep faith with Scripture, especially the Gospel, preferring the RSV of the Bible more than the NEB.
Moments of personal prayer also rely less on my creative imagination and more on picking out something relevant from Eamon Duffy’s The Heart in Pilgrimage. There’s a good review of this book here
Christian doctrine evolves and changes. It always interacts with and responds to altering times and changing cultures.
On the other hand, Common Worship and Duffy’s anthology draw special attention to the unchanging importance of Jesus’ sacrificial ministry, which I am able to recall and celebrate each time I receive the Blessed Sacrament.
I’ve also found useful Stephen Hough’s The Bible as Prayer. This is a miscellany of short phrases and passages from the Bible, each selected as an aid to personal contemplation.
Every book in the Bible is featured in Hough’s collection. Little context however is provided; each passage is allowed to speak for itself. Some are very familiar; others less so; with a few surprising.
St Wilfrid’s exterior and interior architecture, including its furnishings, add considerably to my sense of spiritual well-being when I attend for worship there. Pevsner’s Architectural Guide emphasises its “restrained splendour”. Another source describes it as “one of the great twentieth century churches of England. Within all is light and space”.
Entering its chancel, you pass beneath the Great Rood – an imposing wood carving depicting Jesus on the Cross flanked on one side by his mother, Mary, and on the other by John the Baptist, each attended by a single Seraphim. Rightly, the Rood’s Latin inscription invites worshippers “not to revere the representation, but rather Him which it portrays”, which is why I always use it as an aid to concentration during private moments of prayerfulness.
Mention of prayer leads sympathetically to report my recent experience of re-reading the 14th Century devotional classic, THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING
This time-honoured devotional text (Penguin Classics edition, 1961), which was written during the latter half of the 14C, and which I first read in my 20s, comprises 75, mostly short, chapters. Its author is not identified, though he does reveal himself in the final paragraph of the last chapter to be a priest.
The key to understanding it is to be found in Chapters 1-5 (pp.51-59), which tell us that God in his love is calling us to a contemplative level of spirituality. In responding to this call, we are enjoined to “look forward, not backward”; to see what one lacks, “not what one has already” (2,p.52); to focus entirely on the goal – “hate to think of anything but God himself, so that nothing occupies your mind or will but only God” (3,p.53); to be dedicated: “Do not give up, but work away at it” (3,p.53); to be patient: “Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary” (3, p.54); to be disciplined about how time is spent while contemplating: “In the twinkling of an eye heaven may be won or lost.
God shows that time is precious, for he never gives two moments of time side by side, but always in succession. . . . Time is made for man, not man for time” (4,p.56); to put aside any attempt to comprehend God intellectually, who is unknowable: “Only to our intellect is he incomprehensible” (4, p.55) . . . So, for the love of God, be careful, and do not attempt to achieve this experience intellectually. I tell you truly it cannot come this way. So, leave it alone” (4,p.58)
Chapter 6 (pp.59-60) includes a memorable passage about the exclusive role of Love in contemplating God: “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never” (6,p.60).
Chapter 7 (pp.60-62) recommends attending to a single word in contemplation – “With this word you will hammer the cloud and the darkness above you” (7,p.61). Chapter 40 (pp.99-100) says something similar: “You should use this little word ‘God’. Fill your spirit with its inner meaning, without considering any one of his works in particular. . . . So that nothing works in your mind or will but God alone” (40,p.100).
Chapter 8 (pp.62-65) elevates reason nonetheless to a position of significant relative prominence in the process, “for it is a godlike thing” (8,p.62), capable of “greatly fostering devotion” (8,p.63). Even so, there remains a big problem with reason, inasmuch as it can divert the contemplative’s attention away from the main goal, especially when “pride inflates it” (8,p.63). Indeed, “much learning and book knowledge” can make us “anxious to be known [for being clever], not for having skills in things divine and devout, [thus] making us masters of vanity and lies” (8,p.63). This limitation leads the author to distinguish between “two ways of life in Holy Church – one is active, the other is contemplative” (8,p.63). By the ‘active’ Christian life, the author means to refer to the performance of “straightforward acts of mercy and charity” of the kind normally associated with practical Christianity (8,p.63).
By contrast, the ‘contemplative life’ entails a detachment from ‘doing things’ which allows the contemplative to be “wholly caught up in the cloud of unknowing, with an outreaching love and a blind groping for the naked being of God, himself and him only” (8,p.64).
Although the author does not regard the active and contemplative as mutually exclusive Christian lives – “a man cannot be fully active except he be partly contemplative, nor fully contemplative without being partly active” (8,p.63) – he does think the former is “the higher” way: “Active life is begun and ended in this life; not so the contemplative. It begins in this life and goes on eternally.” (8,p.63).
Anticipating his reference in Chapters 16-23 to the Mary and Martha story in Luke’s Gospel, he also tells us here that, while the “active life is careful and troubled about many things (cf. Martha), the contemplative life sits [more] peacefully with one” (cf. Mary) (8,p.63).
Chapter 9 (pp.65-66) warns of the dangers of drawing on the reflective imagination in the contemplative process, which the author tells us can compromise the ability to have “only God in mind”.
Accordingly, we “must put down all such reflections, holy and attractive though they be” (9,p.65). Instead, the contemplative “should have a blind outreaching love to God alone” (9,p.65). S/he must “strive by God’s grace to forget all else” (9,p.66).
Chapter 10 (pp.66-68) elaborates further on this theme, urging the contemplative to avoid “every recollection of any living person or thing” as s/he gropes through the darkness of unknowing. To do otherwise, the author says, is to run the risk of invoking the sins of wrath, envy, sloth, pride, avarice, gluttony and lust.
Chapter 11 (p.68) encourages us to “weigh up carefully every such thought and impulse [to do with any living person or thing], and to work hard at destroying it as soon as it makes its first appearance”.
Chapter 12 (pp.68-69) reinforces the emphasis of each of the previous two chapters – “never give up your firm intention . . . Hate to think about anything less than God, and let nothing distract you from this purpose” (12,p.68)
Chapters 13-15 (pp.70-73) looks at two kinds of humility – ‘imperfect’ and ‘perfect’. The former “springs from mixed motives”; the latter is “caused solely by God” (13,p.70), which means it is attained by God’s grace alone, albeit through “continually pressing into the dark cloud of unknowing between you and God . . . seeking nothing less than God” (14,p.71).
Chapters 16-23 (pp73-113) picks up again the earlier distinction made between the active and contemplative Christian life, which on this occasion is illustrated more explicitly by reference to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha (10, 38-42).
The author enjoins contemplatives to “match their lives with Mary’s”(17,p.76), for she, more than the complaining/busy Martha, “reaches out into that high cloud of unknowing that was between her and Jesus . . . looking at the supreme wisdom of his Godhead” (17,p.75).
Mary moreover embodies perfect humility, inasmuch as she chooses “to be humbled by the unimaginable greatness and incomparable perfection of God than by her own wretchedness and imperfection” (23,p.83). See Jose Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, pp.227-8, for discussion of the friendship between Jesus and Mary. On page 215, Pagola comments directly on the Mary-Martha story. George Caird’s interpretation of the Mary & Martha story in his Penguin commentary on Luke’s Gospel suggests that the author of The Cloud mishandles it. Specifically, he does not think it is a story about the worldly Martha versus the spiritual Mary, for in early translations there is no comparison made between the two sisters.
Mary is certainly defended, but she is not praised to the disparagement of her sister. Indeed, Martha, he argues, is maybe the stronger character and more mature disciple, for she is full of good works, whereas Mary seeks merely her own pleasure.
Chapters 24 & 25 (pp.83-86) comments on the importance of ‘charity’ in the contemplative process, which is “nothing else than a single-minded intention to love God for himself, above all created things” (24,p.84)
Chapters 26-33 (pp.86-92) tell us how hard the work of contemplation is. The work is hard because it requires the contemplative fully to “stamp out all remembrance of God’s creation” (26,p.86) – “to truly and deliberately forsake the world” (27,p.87) – and to “cleanse totally his conscience” (28,p.88).
The author commends a number of “spiritual stratagems” (31,p.90) to help the contemplative to make progress. These include physically cowering down before God (32,p.90) in the form of surrender and turning a blind eye at memories which “push in between the contemplative and God: “Try to look, as it were over their shoulders, seeking something else – which is God, shrouded in the cloud of unknowing” (32,p.90).
Chapters 34-50 (pp.92-113) set down some of the characteristics of the contemplative life, which include passively allowing it to work its effects (“Do not interfere with it . . . Be willing to be blind, and give up all longing to know the why and how”, 34,p93); being indifferent to prescribed or recommended stocks of knowledge (“contemplation requires no prior help from reading and sermons”, 36,p.95); praying frequently, using brief interlocutions (“short prayer penetrates heaven . . . because it is prayed with a full heart”, 37/38,p.97); acknowledging fully and sincerely one’s sinfulness (“Feel sin it its totality – as a lump”, 40,p.99); looking after yourself physically (“Keep as fit as you can”, 41,p.101); forgetting everything you know, in order to focus exclusively on God (“Suppress all knowledge and feeling of anything less than God”, 43,p.102); “exercise discretion” (44,p.103) and “do not overstrain yourself emotionally . . . work with eager enjoyment . . . Wait humbly upon our Lord’s will. Do not snatch at it” (46, p.106-7).
Chapters 51-61 (pp.113-128) deal with possible misunderstandings of the author’s words, especially those about the effects of contemplation. While conceding they foster greater overall discernment (“[The contemplative’s] face and words are full of spiritual wisdom, fervent and fruitful, assured and free from falsehood”, 54,p.117), he is anxious to counter the view they increase his standing, making him/her superior to others. The contemplative, he says, is made more “upright spiritually, not physically” (61,p.128).0Chapters 62-66 (pp.128-132) are an excursion into medieval psychology about the nature of sense experience, making them the least important/relevant ones in the book.
Chapters 67-70 (pp.132-138) include fine passages of mystical writing, like this compounded one: “Let go ‘everywhere’ and ‘everything’ in exchange for ‘nowhere’ and ‘nothing’. Leave all outer knowledge gained through the senses; do not work with the senses at all, either objectively or subjectively. Never mind if you cannot fathom it. It is worthwhile in itself that no thinking about it will do it justice” (68,p.134-5, 70,p137).
Chapters 71-74 (pp.138-142) reflect on OT exemplars of contemplative experience – Moses, Bezaleel and Aaron: “We can treat these three as symbols, seeing in them different ways in which the grace of contemplation can benefit us”, 73,p140). Each, the author says, exemplifies a different form of spiritual effort.
Chapter 75 gives signs to test whether the aspiring contemplative has “done everything possible in the way of preliminaries” (75,p142), asking if s/he has privileged sufficiently the process, allowing it to “claim their attention more than other spiritual devotions” (75,p.142).
Sunday 18 October 2020: today is the 19th Day After Trinity (Proper 24), which I celebrated at St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate. The Gospel for this morning’s principal service was Matthew 22, 15-22: The Question About Tax. It tells a story about how the Pharisees with the Herodians try to entrap Jesus, so that they may have a charge to bring against him before both the Council of the Jews and the Roman governor.
They ask whether it is lawful for the Jews to pay the Roman taxes – the Pharisees resenting the fact they are required to, the Herodians thinking the opposite. Instead of trapping Jesus, they are caught out by him. His words distance him from those who oppose supporting Rome. At the same time, by insisting that one should give to God, he relativizes the political obligation.
There is no simple rule, only the imperative to weigh the demands of two very unequal authorities. When those demands are not at odds, as here, obligations to both can be met. In cases of conflict, on the other hand, it is obvious which authority requires the most allegiance – God’s.
Jesus is thus not primarily concerned here with economic relationships to government, but with a person’s existential relationship to God. Jesus speaks therefore as one content to give the authorities their due, while preaching his subversive message of God’s love within the established social order.
He is also recognised by his adversaries as “sincere” (v.16) – as someone that “teaches the way of God in accordance with truth, showing deference to no one. It is precisely Jesus’ clear-sightedness, unencumbered by greed or vanity, which makes him “aware of their malice”. Jesus’ transparent goodness exposes their ill-concealed enmity, causing them to be so “amazed” that they “left him and went away” (v.22).
Today is also St Luke’s Holy Day. Because St Wilfrid’s this morning didn’t mention the fact, least of all comment on the evangelist’s contribution, I will. He’s the “beloved physician” mentioned in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (4, 14), which explains why today he is the patron saint of surgeons. Luke is also Paul’s companion or fellow worker (Philemon, v.24), and author of the 3rd Gospel (written around 80-5) and the Acts of the Apostles, also composed in the 80s. He was not one of Jesus’ original followers, but a highly educated Gentile convert. Of all the evangelists, Luke has the most to say about the Virgin – it is he alone who relates the Visitation, the Annunciation, the Birth of Jesus, and the Purification. Luke’s Gospel also constantly portrays Jesus as acting under the authority of divine exigency – that at every period in his ministry, Jesus responds with willing obedience to the necessity laid upon him by his vocation: “For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined” (22, 22). I’ve always thought that Luke gives more emphasis to Jesus’ miracles than his fellow evangelists; he also seems more interested in people than ideas, leading him to have a lively social conscience: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19, 10).
Sunday 1 November 2020: Today is All Saints’ Day, the Sunday in the liturgical year when Christians throughout the world celebrate the life and faith of the whole body of the church’s saints.
No particular individual is recalled, the focus being rather to draw thankful attention to the memory of all those who throughout the ages and currently have significantly added value to the life and ministry of the church, providing examples of how best to live a life of high Christian piety.
Because no one is named in today’s feast, I used it this year as an occasion to bring to mind and offer gratitude for the lives of those ‘saintly’ uncanonized individuals who, through their example, have inspired me in my faith. This approach of mine actually is very true to how the word ‘saint’ is infrequently used in the New Testament, where it is associated with the idea of being ‘divine’, suggesting an individual who is from, of, or like God – as in the Epistle Reading for today, where Paul writes: “We will be like Him” (I John 3, 2).
I therefore said a special prayer of gratitude for my late friend Christopher David, whose huge positive influence on me over many years of friendship is celebrated here
Today’s Gospel – Matthew 5, 1-12 – offers a set of principles for living a saintly life, which Christopher unassumingly exemplified in his own.
Eleven of its 12 verses contain the famous ‘Beatitudes’, some of whose declarations reverse assumed positions and judgements: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v.5).
In this way Jesus puts before us the values of a different kind of world to the one we are not only used to, but which we take mostly as read – an upside-down world that’s actually the right way up. As is recorded elsewhere: “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20, 16).
Meanwhile, the reading from Revelation (7, 9-17) takes us back to the main theme of the day, poetically and dramatically envisioning a heavenly host – “a great multitude” – of redeemed saints, “robed in white”, standing before the throne of God, who they praise: “Thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen” (v.12). Their redemption, through faith, is complete, for “God wipes away every tear from their eyes” (v.17).
And, to end, a short prayer I like, authored by a favourite saint of mine, whose imperfect life I admire, despite its horrible lapses – St Thomas More:
“The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me your grace to labour for. Amen.”
MAN IS NOT ALONE, an undoubted classic of modern theology, was first published in the 50s. I have only recently discovered it.
Its author – Abraham Joshua Heschel – was a Jewish theologian and Professor of Ethics & Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He died in 1972.
His book is a profound examination of the ingredients of religious piety – how one senses the presence of God, explores it, accepts it, and builds a life upon it.
Although systematic, many of its paragraphs can be separately read devotionally as a resource for thinking meditatively about the nature of the ineffable and one’s response to it.
Its frequent pointed observations certainly have enabled me to think spiritually about the unknowable and unsayable; about the meaning of my life; and about how I should conduct myself in that bit of it I temporarily occupy:
“What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we are able to convey, but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp” (pp.4-5); “The sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure” (p.8); “Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased” (p.13); “To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words” (p.16); “We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it” (p.20); “The inner response evoked by the ineffable is that of awe or reverence” (p.23); “Reverence does not rush to be spoken” (p.26); “The ineffable is there before we form an idea of it” (p.27); “What appears to be a centre is but a point on the periphery of another centre” (p.31); “Music, poetry, religion each initiate an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names” (p.36); “Poetry is to religion what analysis is to science” (p.37); “The essence of what I am is not mine. I am what is not mine. I am that which I am not” (p.48); “The greatest problem is not how to continue, but how to exist” (p.295); “Life is a mandate, not the enjoyment of an annuity; a task, not a game; a command not a favour” (p.294); “Piety is not an excess of enthusiasm, but implies a resolve to follow a definite course of life in pursuit of the will of God” (p.294); “The glory of man’s devotion to the Good is a treasure of God on earth” (p.295); “The pious man’s attitude toward life is one of expectant reverence” (p.286); “The pious man sees hints of God in the varied things he encounters in his daily walk; so that many a simple event is accepted by him both for what it is and also as a kindly reminder of things divine” (p.284).
Man is Not Alone addresses then the big questions: “What is the secret of existence? Wherefore and for whose sake do I live? Why is there a world at all? What is the sense of being alive? Who is that ‘I’ to whom my life is supposed to belong? “.
While Heschel offers no simple answers to any of them, his book does provide this reader of it with thought-provoking signposts to where they might be found. Its prose style is often deeply poetic.
ST JOHN HENRY NEWMAN
Although aware Newman was one of the most influential churchmen of his day, I knew nothing about the detail of his journey in faith, least of all much about his actual ideas.
The chance gift in September 2020 of a biography of him published to coincide with his canonisation by Pope Francis in October 2019, which I quickly read, filled out some of my ignorance.
Other books by and about Newman, including a further biography and edited collections of his sermons and letters, plus reading long sections of his famous Apologia, confirmed that my neglect of Newman was unjustified and that a more complete knowledge of him long overdue.
That’s not to say I found myself in full agreement with his version of Christian piety, which I experienced as overly severe, often lacking joy.
I have never for example thought it necessary to inflict suffering on myself to enjoy God’s proximity. Avoiding eating too much is one thing; uncompromising fasting quite another.
Despite my unease about Newman’s harsh version of holiness, he and I coincide on many other things, notably in rating highly the importance of tradition in initiating and nurturing faith; the Divine origins of conscience; the ridiculousness of assuming that scientific reasoning renders impossible the idea of any kind of religious knowledge; a deep hostility of superficial – feelings-based – evangelicalism; Rome’s fallibility; the importance of a liberal higher education; the crucial important role the imagination plays in Christian commitment; the way that doctrines develop, while the Truths they seek to encapsulate persist; and the crucial parts that each of certitude and persistence play in maintaining Christian devotions.
And I learnt positively to appreciate Newman’s huge contribution to the literary traditions of Christian writing.
If I like one aspect of Newman in particular it is his plea for the engagement of a person’s total humanity in religious conviction and practice: “The heart is commonly reached not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” (Letters of John Henry Newman)
I am also impressed by his understanding of the illative process whereby the Believer arrives at religious certitude, which he insightfully describes employing the metaphor of a skilful mountaineer: “The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness . . . and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression; or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself . . . leaving no track behind him . . .” (A Grammar of Ascent)
Thus, in religious enquiry, we arrive, says Newman, at certainty by accumulated probabilities; not by a blinding flash of inspiration. We feel towards commitment; we don’t enter into it via a sudden unanticipated leap of faith. As with Saul on the Road to Damascus, conversion is, to use that familiar expression, a process, not an event.
THE WAY OF ST BENEDICT
The idea that one grows in faith infuses Benedict’s Rule, which I studied hard before my Confirmation, reading closely both its text and several commentaries on it.
I relied on the Penguin Classics version of the text; and Esther de Waal’s excellent introduction to it – Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict.
Esther talks about her book and how she came to write it in the YouTube lecture posted below.
The first two chapters of Rowan Williams’ The Way of Benedict added further to my understanding.
The routine Benedict proposes revolves around the seven daily services, or ‘offices’, called Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, to be performed at set times in the chapel, in the course of which, during any one week, all 150 of the Psalms are recited or sung. This file details what’s required: BENEDICT’S PSALMODY
Between these services Benedict prescribes set times for eating (Chapter 41), reading and study (known as lectio divina) and periods of manual labour (48).
It is this routine which gives rise to the proverbial precept associated with the Benedictine life – ora et labora (‘pray and work’).
A film about the lives led by Benedictine monks at Downside Abbey in Somerset, which illustrates vividly The Rule in practice, can be viewed here
The website of North Yorkshire’s Ampleforth Abbey is also highly instructive. It can be found here
Benedict’s Rule is divided into 73 chapters, which look in turn at all the essentials of worship, work, study, hospitality, authority, and possessions demanded of monks who are required to follow 3 vows: of obedience, of stability and of conversatio forum (fidelity to monastic life).
A good book on the Benedictine tradition of prayer, which offers a way for Christians who do not live in monasteries to access something of what is the daily experience of monks, is Fr Mark Barrett’s, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives.
This book and each of Esther de Waal’s and Rowan Williams’ have caused me to learn 3 linked lessons from The Rule: (1) about the value of stability; (2) about the importance of humility; and (3) about the necessity to ‘let go’ [of self] more.
Although Benedict only mentions it once in The Rule (at the end of Chapter 4), stability is altogether fundamental to his approach. It’s what holds it together.
Stability for Benedict is a matter of being committed to situations and people.
His Rule thus sets down a list of specific behaviours designed to help maintain good interpersonal and institutional habits, or what Rowan Williams calls a “prosaic settledness”.
These cover meal times (Chapter 41); personal belongings (32); serving in the kitchen (35); undertaking manual labour (48); wearing clothes and footwear (55); sleeping arrangements (22); and receiving and looking after guests (53 & 61).
Certain virtues are part of this mix: monks must not “entertain deceit in their hearts” (25); “give false peace” (25); and fail to acknowledge their own culpability in any situation of wrong (42, 43).
Monks are also required to be honest about themselves – to be open to their own scrutiny (49); and to endure faithfully (7); to listen attentively (3); and to avoid retaliation (29-32) and malicious gossip (40).
And, running alongside all of that, Benedict specifies how each of the daily offices should be conducted (8-18), including the best ways to pray (20) and sing the Psalms (19).
While I have no desire to be a monk, despite finding many aspects of monastic life attractive, these rules point up the important need to consider which behaviours are most likely to constrain us happily to associate well with each other in settings other than religious-specific ones, particularly given that currently we live in a world and society of almost unimaginable instability.
As I appreciate it, The Rule encourages us to imagine and embrace a form of social life that evokes and encourages an order which makes everyone feel more ‘at home’ in their lives and with other people.
Home is more than a building. It is a place where each of us can safely be ourselves and freely do our own thing, allowing others to do the same. It is also a focus of loyalty – a place even to live up to.
Esther de Waal puts it like this: “It is impossible to say, ‘Who am I?’ without first asking, ‘Where am I?’ . . . Without roots we can neither discover where we belong, nor can we grow. Without stability we cannot know our true selves” (p.40).
Understood in this way, Benedict’s Rule teaches us that a good life is about realising great matters in small ways in homely circumstances. Or, to rewrite George Herbert, it is about creating “heaven in and through the ordinary”.
The Rule also teaches us that stability requires humility, a virtue with which I have not always had an easy relationship, too often falsely imagining it denotes being unpleasantly obsequious or falsely modest, overlooking the fact that the word itself (derived from the same root as humus, earth) suggests we should seek to be profoundly earthed, which is another way of talking about being stable in how we conduct ourselves.
Chapter 7 of The Rule explains the process. There Benedict tells monks they should “not take pleasure in merely satisfying their own desires”; but instead “cling to patience with equanimity”; “be content with the lowest position”; “keep one’s tongue in check” and “speak with humility and seriousness”.
Much of this is difficult. In my case, it has regularly been shirked. In particular, I have rarely spoken with humility; and I have often failed to keep my tongue in check. And I am not known as someone who is content with occupying lowly positions. On the plus side, I am a patient person, often having a strong sense of endurance – of being able to hold on under strain, including during periods of severe sickness.
But’s that’s about it, knowing therefore that more is required of me.
What holds me back is a failure sufficiently to let go, particularly of my ambition and self-esteem, my self-assertiveness, and my wish to be different from other people.
Benedict teaches monks that self-centredness of this sort is a barrier to them serving others in a genuinely fulsome way.
It also makes it hard for the Faithful to place all they are before God, making Him the centre of existence, rather than their own projects and successes.
These are lessons which I am still a long way from learning, knowing I should try harder to acquire them.
The central reality of Benedict’s conception of ‘obedience’ is thus very much to do with letting go of self.
Fr Mark Barrett says this about the consequences of this process: “Someone who is able to let go [of self] is someone who is truly in love, because their open heart can touch and be touched without self-seeking becoming a barrier” (p.112), giving rise to the astonishing paradox that it is only “when we are sufficiently aware of ourselves to let go of ourselves that we can sincerely reach out to others” (p.114).
This makes huge sense to me.
Since writing my appreciation of The Rule I have discovered this new book about it, which is less a commentary on its text and more a set of reflections on the nature of Benedictine spirituality, all informed by lived experience, for the author, Luigi Gioia, was once abbot of a Benedictine community in Italy. His study is warmly praised by Rowan Williams: “This is a really outstanding guide . . . a book of profound intelligence, insight and challenge”.