July 12, 2021
Categorised in: Sermons
Sermon, Evensong on the Feast of St Benedict, 11th July 2021
Preacher: Revd. Fi Jenvey
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today we celebrate the Feast of St Benedict, the so-called Father of Western Monasticism. During this sermon, I hope I will be able to share something of the background to Benedictine life and the ways St. Benedict speaks to both men and women of our contemporary culture through the Wisdom tradition. But, above all, I hope to encourage you to ‘listen carefully,’ just as Benedict suggested (Prologue 1).
So, who was St Benedict? Benedict was born in 480 CE to a noble family in central Italy. Educated in Rome, he became disenchanted with the dissolute life of the city and instead left for the hills to live the life of a hermit. Nevertheless, Benedict’s prayerful life attracted disciples, and he eventually founded communities at Subiaco and Monte Cassino in Italy. The Rule of St Benedict is described as ‘a school for the Lord’s service’ and is considered a blueprint for religious life. Concisely framed, as it is, within seventy-three short chapters, the Rule, founded on the Wisdom tradition (Proverbs 4), invites us to take steps towards a faithful life of humility and obedience where the Wisdom of God is our principal authority.
The tradition of corporate prayer, Christian life and Biblical learning are St. Benedict’s legacy to the Anglican Communion. Much of our Anglican liturgy is inherited from St. Benedict in the form of the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship. This beautiful Cathedral, and my home church, Romsey Abbey, share a common Benedictine heritage. Benedict begins his Rule with the words ‘Listen carefully…’ and calls brothers and sisters in Christ to peaceful mutual obedience.
My first encounter with Benedictine Spirituality was about eight years ago through a religious brother. I had recently left my previous work as a creative director to explore Christian Spirituality and a possible vocation to ordained ministry.
St Benedict cultivated a blueprint for living which was built around a pattern of thirds. After making provision for the necessities of sleeping and mealtimes, he approximately divided the day into a balanced three-part structure: Ora, Labora et Lectio; Prayer, Labour and Biblical study, all of which were part of his pattern for the common life. With some seasonal variations, Benedict’s timetable was organised into three hours for the Divine Office, five hours for work or manual labour, and three hours of Divine reading.
Benedict’s three-part pattern for attaining Christlikeness may not seem particularly significant, yet every good design is based on these principles. In art and commercial design, we creatives refer to this same balance as the ‘Rule of Thirds’ or ‘Golden Ratio.’ This creative principle teaches that crucial elements within a perfect composition will be balanced, aesthetically pleasing and effective if aligned to this ratio.
To modern ears, the noun ‘rule’ implies strict discipline or order; this was not Benedict’s meaning; ‘Rule’ originates from the Latin noun ‘rēgula’ and describes a pattern, model, or example. Thus, the Rule of St. Benedict provides a guide for his household, a common life of prayer, labour and Biblical study, which holds in balance the Active Life and the Contemplative Life.
Benedict did not write his Rule as one might write a business or activity plan, which is usually done ahead of the event. Instead, the Rule was completed in his latter years and is based on Benedict’s own experience of monastic life, the Psalms, Proverbs and the Gospels. Benedict’s Wisdom additionally draws on more ancient Rules and Conferences.
Benedict’s ultimate aim was to reach the very heights of spiritual perfection. His pattern for life was a way of achieving this. Benedict cites St Basil (circa 329 -379) as an essential teacher for those wishing to reach the loftier summits of the spiritual life. (RSB, 73). Echoing Basil, Benedict says, ‘Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven’ (RSB, Prologue 9). St. Gregory, Benedict’s biographer, described a vision of glory with the world gathered in a single ray of light, brighter than the sun. Benedict’s vision shows us that God’s glory does indeed infuse the entire blueprint of the created universe.
It is unsurprising that Benedictine congregations of both men and women quickly spread across Europe. Female communities were established under St Scholastica, who, according to tradition, was the twin sister of Benedict. The first Benedictine community was established in England in the late 6th century under Augustine of Canterbury. Hilda of Whitby in the 7th century was famously the founding Abbess of the first woman’s community. In 10th Century Winchester, under Bishop Æthelwold, Benedictine brothers established Winchester Cathedral Priory, which came under the patronage of St. Swithun around 100 years later. Romsey Abbey was established and later came under the leadership of St. Ethelflaeda.
Benedictine communities have contributed substantially to early female church leadership. Benedict’s instruction to ‘Listen Carefully’ is seemingly the male voice of Benedict’s Abbot to a young male novice. In fact, the words ‘Listen carefully my son’ originate in Proverbs and are echoed in this evenings reading from Ecclesiasticus 4. This is significant because the voice of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus are the female voice of Wisdom personified.
Wisdom is presented in Proverbs as ‘precious,’ and part of the very foundation of creation (Proverbs 3:15-19), and the highest value a human can seek (Proverbs 4). Elsewhere in Proverbs, Wisdom is said to be possessed by God before the beginning (8:22-31).
Thus, the Wisdom which Benedict’s Father invokes in the first word of his Rule is not a ‘He’ but a ‘She’. In Ecclesiasticus 4, we hear the voice of Mother’ Wisdom teach[ing] her children and giv[ing] help to those who seek her.’ Wisdom connects with ‘Woman Wisdom’ of Ancient Near East vernacular, i.e. both Jewish and Gentile culture. Thus listening ‘carefully’ accordingly provides those of all faiths, no faith and those on the margins of society a seat at Wisdom’s table.
St Paul, in his epistle to the Romans likewise says, when speaking of his ministry of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, that by the power of the Spirit of God, we must address those who have never heard, in both word and deed (Romans 15:14-29). As Benedict himself said, quoting the Gospel of Matthew, ‘All are to be welcomed as Christ, for…I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35).
Our Diocese, Cathedrals and Parish communities must therefore prayerfully discern what ‘listen carefully’ really means for our own time. Sr Joan Chittister, a contemporary Benedictine writer and Prioress, recognises Wisdom as a pattern for peace across cultures. Benedictine Spirituality is ‘a school for the service of the Lord’, an instruction on becoming more authentic disciples of Jesus Christ, welcoming those who have never heard to the table. We must therefore proclaim to the world by the work of our hospitality what the Kingdom looks like, ‘listening’, just as St Benedict taught us.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.