Saint Benedict

Sunday 11th July 2004
Benedict of Nursia (Abbot of Monte Cassino, Father of Western Monasticism, c.550)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

It is impossible from the history we have lived through - even the attack on the twin towers in New York and the Second World War - to imagine the impact on its people of the fall of the Roman Empire. The only clue we can discover is in those rather vulgar, over the top movies which involve the whole world in danger of collapsing. In the case of the Roman Empire it was the whole world and it did collapse. At its zenith it stretched from Scotland to Iran, from the Rhine to the Sahara; but from the middle of the third Century AD, less than half way through the 550 year imperial period which followed the Roman Republic, its borders were first harassed, then infiltrated and finally over-run. Britain, first invaded by Julius Caesar just before the birth of Christ, was effectively abandoned in 305 by Constantine who was to be Rome's first Christian Emperor; Rome itself was sacked by Alaric the Goth just over 100 years later in 410. The massive impact of this cataclysmic event can be seen in St. Augustine's City of God written in North Africa and in St. Jerome's cry of pain from his cave in Bethlehem that he sobbed between the words he was writing for the capture of the city that had captured all. It was sacked again in by Attila the Hun in 455 and the last Emperor was deposed in 476. From Rome's great defeat of Hannibal in 146 BC to the deposition of the pathetic, puppet Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 was 653 years. In comparison, the British Empire reached its zenith in 1918, lost India in 1948 and disappeared by the early 1960s; so what our grandparents thought of as everlasting was a flicker in the eye of history compared with Rome.

What followed is after the collapse of Rome was what always sadly follows the breakdown of law and order as we can see today in the Congo; Pillage, rape, wanton massacre, famine, inflation and then the disappearance of money and a retreat into barter, the end of storage and planning, a necessary obsession with the short term.

But out of this collapse of external discipline exercised by a military government there emerged a movement of spiritual self discipline which dominated Western Europe for a thousand years and still influences the Church. Today we are celebrating the Feast of St. Benedict of Nursia; not the founder of but certainly the father of Western monasticism and the Patron Saint of Europe.

Benedict, born in 480, turned away from the vestiges of Roman decadence to become a hermit but his reputation for piety spread so that he was begged to found monastic communities. The rule that he set out was, in his own view, reluctantly realistic. In the good old days, he said, monks had recited the complete Psalter every day but at least they should do this in a week; in the good old days monks had behaved as if it were Lent every day, now, at least, they should observe Lent during Lent; in the good old days monks did not drink wine, now at least they should drink moderately. The monastic rule that he established, deeply grounded in scripture, is full of sound advice about the fatherly qualities of the Abbot and the flawed human nature of all people.

The three vows which monks took were stability, reform of manners and obedience: the first stopped them wandering between monasteries; the second primarily concerned the renunciation of earthly goods and sexual relations; the third did not call for mindless obedience but it did say that once the monk had had his say, the Abbot's word was final.

So how might we understand those rules today. First of all, stability. Of course we are all much more mobile than our parents and grandparents, we move house more often, we drive cars, we fly in aeroplanes; but what has this done to our sense of our own community? How often do we stick with our friends and neighbours when times get tough and how often do we exercise our right of 'consumer choice' and look somewhere else, hoping for an easier life with fewer obligations? At one level our society's icon is not the church but the supermarket; but another chilling icon is the old folks' home. Is this a necessary last living place or is it, like our prisons, a dustbin for those with whom we have lost patience?

Having mentioned the supermarket it is not difficult to reach a modern understanding of the reform of manners. If we think about the question carefully, would we say that the chief damage to society is caused by a handful of notorious criminals or is it caused by insidious and corrosive selfishness? As to obedience in the monastic sense, how often are we prepared to accept collective decisions with good grace and to implement them willingly and cheerfully? Again, is the biggest threat to our society the notorious 'feral' youth who roam our town centres on a Saturday night or is it the incessant grumbling about 'them', whoever 'they' are?

Of course, St. Benedict understood that simply writing a rule book - in our terms a constitution - was not enough. The monastic life was then and is now based on prayer, study of the scriptures and work. I don't suppose any of us could complain about the work rate in our society which is cripplingly phenomenal; but he was calling for a balance; and, remember, Benedict and his monks were not priests, they were lay men and women. Perhaps, then, we would be less stressed and less inclined to grumble if we gave a little more of our time to prayer and study of the Scriptures.

Apart from the wonderful monastic offices which the monks developed and which we are still enjoying in a modified form in this morning's Matins, I think most of us would identify monasteries with hospitality. In Benedict's time when there was so much poverty and homelessness, the monastery was a haven; it gave rest to the traveller, treatment for the sick and later education for poor children. Monasteries became pivotal social resources in isolated and bewildered communities but they also provided networks stretching across Europe.

There are, then, some very obvious reasons why Benedict might be the Patron Saint of Europe but, in conclusion, I want to introduce another, larger idea. This year, the supposedly joyful accession of ten new countries, largely from the former Communist Bloc, into the European Union has been soured by hysteria about economic migrants and so-called 'bogus' asylum seekers; I say 'so-called' because until a tribunal has deliberated on an asylum case it can't be termed 'bogus'. On Accession day the newspapers were full of stories of all available transport from Eastern Europe being packed with hundreds of thousands of 'scroungers'. Of course it didn't happen but what do these stories say about us? How hospitable are we as one of the richest societies in the world? We all make pious noises about increasing aid to the Third World where people are conveniently far away; but what about the poor and unwanted now among us? The movement of people in Europe and to Europe is nothing compared to the ravages of Alaric and Attila. In an era of unimaginable turmoil, Benedict's response was generosity based on his thanks to the Father, his love of the life of Jesus and his earnest prayer that he might discern the will of the Holy Spirit.

It is the way  

It is, then, sad that in this year of the expanded European Union, the result of a collective act of political generosity, our country should be at the forefront of a campaign to turn our back on our European neighbours and go our own way. The argument about the economics may be party political and no fit subject for a sermon but if the motive behind a political position is selfishness then I would want to moderate a saying of that great theologian Karl Barth: he said: preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other; I say: never read a newspaper without a Bible in your hand.

Kevin Carey

11th July 2004