On 12 July Fr Terence Richardson, Prior of Ampleforth Monastery, spoke about the Benedictine way of life and spirituality to people from across the Diocese at Blessed Trinity Church, Wickersley. He began by stressing that this does not involve just monks. There are many Benedictine communities of nuns and many lay people who are oblates of the Order.
Fr Terence said that very little is known about St Benedict and even that which is known cannot be guaranteed with absolute certainty. He was born in in Italy in 480 of distinguished parents who sent him to Rome to study. He was upset by the lose morals in Rome and decided to embrace a religious way of life. He went into the hills outside Rome and lived in a cave as a hermit relying on just one other person who brought him food. After a time people began to regard him as a holy man and gathered around him. He, in turn, started to organise them into a monastic community.
Later he founded a second monastery at Monte Casino, the site of the famous World War II battle. It was here that he wrote his ‘Rule’ which was to become the guiding document for all Benedictine Monasteries and others as well. So far as is known this was the only thing he ever wrote. He is believed to have died in 547.
The Rule of St Benedict
Originally it was in Latin but has since been translated into many languages. It comprises 72 chapters but is only a small book because many of the chapters are extremely short. Much of it is more like a spiritual reflection than a set of rules. In it, St Benedict recognises the need to be flexible to meet the needs of local cultures, circumstances and conditions; therefore, he gives abbots of monasteries the authority to change the Rule as they see fit. At the centre of the Rule is the requirement that each day monks pray at seven different times although St Benedict makes clear that they should also pray all the time. They are also required to read and study the scriptures and to carry out physical work. There is no discrimination in this work and monks who hold higher positions with the community are expected to work the same as the rest even if this means carrying out menial tasks.
Fr Terence said that the requirements of the Rule were the main reason why the monastic life had had such an influence on the development of western culture and civilisation in that it had created a climate of prayer, reflection, innovation and settled harmonious community. A monastery has to earn its own keep and this is why they still carry out a range of activities from running schools, to selling agricultural produce and brewing cider and wine.
The Benedictine Community Worldwide
Fr Terence played a DVD which showed the development of Benedictine Communities, both male and female, across the Globe. The Order now has monasteries in Africa, Cameroon, India, Guinea, Brazil and Vietnam to name but a few. This DVD clearly showed how the Rule of St Benedict was being adhered to but also altered to suit local needs and this is reflected by the different habits worn and the styles of prayer. The audience were struck by how the Gospel of the Lord Jesus makes contact with a culture and then is expressed in a way that is in line with that culture, whilst still being part of the Benedictine Order and the universal church. No one who saw the DVD could be left in any doubt that the Holy Spirit is at work in every part of our world.
Fr Terence said that new monasteries are still being established. Nowadays, this is usually a result of a bishop asking a monastery to establish a presence in his diocese. In this way Ampleforth had recently established a community in Zimbabwe which may eventually become a new and separate monastery.
The Organisation of a Monastery
Fr Terence said that monasteries are neither a democracy, nor an autocracy. Decisions are made by the community of monks or nuns voting usually on an issue put forward by the abbot or abbess. In voting, a monk or nun recognises that they could be called upon to be part of whatever is being voted upon. The abbot/abbess can instruct a monk or nun to do something but the usual practice is for them to consult about a proposed course of action although a monk or nun does recognise that what they are being asked to do may be the will of God.
The essence of being a Benedictine is ‘living in a community.’ Not all monks do this and instead work in parishes, some of which have been run by Benedictines for hundreds of years. Now, however, there is a move to withdraw from this type of work in favour of the core purpose of community living.
The primacy of prayer, reading scripture and work has already been emphasised and are the means by which Benedictines try to ‘tune into wisdom’. To further illustrate Benedictine spirituality, Fr Terence read from the parts of Rule of St Benedict that deal with how abbots and abbesses should conduct themselves. He said that even though it had been written 1500 years ago it was still a valuable guide as to how authority should be exercised in any sphere in the modern world and of the attitudes every Christian should adopt whether ordained or lay.
He said that the abbot/abbess is both leader and servant of the whole community and must know the burden this imposes on them. They must not be hypocritical and must demonstrate all that is good and holy, primarily by actions rather than words. They must never show any favouritism for one monk over others regardless of rank or status but they should be prepared to adapt their style to deal with the personality of individuals under their charge. They need to have some concern for temporal issues but their prime focus must always be the spiritual.
An essential aspect of Benedictine spirituality is the welcoming of guests who are seen as Christ in human form. Fr Terence quoted Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Benedictine monks do not just take Jesus to guests. Instead guests bring Jesus to them. As a result, guests are met in all humility and prayer and made welcome. Guests who are poor and/or pilgrims are seen as even more special.
Benedictines are expected to help each other regardless of how menial a task this may require them to carry out.
Under the Rule grumbling is regarded as extremely negative behaviour and a serious sin. Benedictine monks are expected to accept whatever they are called upon to do no matter how menial without grumbling.
Andrew, a lay Benedictine oblate spoke about how oblates try to live the Rule of St Benedict in their everyday life. He said that some of the rule does not translate easily into modern life but some of it does. Oblates say the morning and evening prayers and go to Mass as often as possible. They also try to live a simpler life without all the latest goods in so far as they can.
Oblates are attached to an individual monastery so that being an oblate becomes a vocation in itself and they enter into a spiritual relationship with the monks. They are encouraged to, each year, attend a retreat at the monastery.
Finally, Fr Terence reemphasised that prayer, reading and reflection on scripture, and work carried out in a spirit of love for God and for neighbour are at the heart of Benedictine spirituality. Grumbling and complaining must be avoided.
More information on the Benedictines can be obtained from www.ampleforth.org.uk.