Ord Om ordet

St Benedict

Proverbs 2.1-9: The Lord gives wisdom.
Colossians 3.12-17: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
Matthew 19.27-29: Lo, we have left everything.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, still going strong at 95, famously concluded After Virtue, one of the twentieth century’s seminal books, with the remark: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St Benedict.’ Much ink has been spilt in attempts to work out what this statement means. Entire societal options have been deduced from it. This latter enterprise is not so plausible, perhaps, given that St Benedict does not much appear in the rest of MacIntyre’s work. We are not dealing with a recurring motif in his writing. What is more, MacIntyre warns against historical analogies. It is not, he says, helpful to think of the present time as equivalent to that of the declining Roman Empire, the context for St Benedict’s career.

Yet he concedes that ‘certain parallels there are’. Then as now, political structures that had long been thought bearers of civility are no longer regarded with confidence. Not only that, people have largely lost interest in them. Demagogues can carp on about making this or that country or institution ‘great again’; but since ‘greatness’ in such cases is usually a matter of seeking confirmation for delusional self-regard, the proposition is unlikely to inspire effort over time beyond roars at rallies before the beers are popped. Few are minded to invest their strength, not to mention their lives, in the propping up of other people’s egos.  

In Late Antiquity, writes MacIntyre, men and women disillusioned with empire, neither believing in nor especially wanting its resurgence, sought instead to achieve ‘new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness’. He posits that we are on the threshold of a like development. Indeed, he sees the process of descent into civilisational twilight as being already well advanced. The only reason we fail to notice, he adds, is because ‘the barbarians are not’, now, ‘waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time’. MacIntyre wrote that in 1981. How one would love to be able to say that he has since been proven wrong. 

So does this mean that Benedictines are about to enjoy their providential moment of glory? That they must again step forward as dependable guardians of ‘morality and civility’ while the secular, purposeless West goes to the dogs? It is right that we should face these questions here, in this monastery, on the feast of our holy Father St Benedict.  

Let us be cautious, though, with regard to easy answers! If we cast our mind back to the crumbling of Rome’s empire, then, yes, it is true that monasteries emerged as bearers of culture, microcosms of charitable order in a global setting of breakdown. This happy circumstance was not, though, the finality of the Benedictine quest, but a corollary.

St Benedict was neither a political scientist nor a social reformer. When as a youth he spent time in Rome, rife with activisms, his response was to get out as quickly as he could. He exchanged debates in the taverna for a solitary, narrow cave at Subiaco, a cleft in the rock like that of the dove in the Song of Songs. There he implored God’s mercy on himself and on the world. There he sought the Lord’s face. There he learnt the transforming impact of Christ’s saving sacrifice, an experience summed up in a principle he later inculcated insistently: ‘Prefer nothing to Christ’s love’ (RB, IV.21).

The life-giving radiance of monasticism in the so-called Dark Ages erupted from fidelity to this injunction. What shapes and renews the world, now as ‘in the beginning’, is not ultimately the brilliance of human notions broadcast in floods of words. What shapes and renews the world is the Word in Person. We shall be instruments of renewal in so far as the Word not only gives us a prod now and again, but dwells in us – and ‘richly’, as Paul says. For that to happen, we must make space inwardly and outwardly. We have heard Peter exclaim, ‘Lo, we’ve left everything and followed you’. This profession challenges us.

Have I left everything in order for Christ to be my life? Or am I still lugging my own accumulated overweight — dreams of greatness, perhaps, or at any rate of significance.  

St Benedict was an indefatigable builder and a fruitful father. Yet he knew that mere enterprise is short-lived. Not all that long after settling on Monte Cassino, he saw in a vision that the monastery would be destroyed after his death. This did not keep him from labouring on, for he knew that the community’s life would survive the destruction of its walls. Where Christ is present indeed, where lives are utterly given in union with his, death has lost its sting. Eternity is already present. I sometimes worry that the Church in our time has lost faith in this fundamental truth, so seeks to justify herself to herself by espousing a range of subsidiary causes, fine in themselves, but transitory. For prophecies will pass, and tongues, and knowledge, and rallies. Love only remains. Being its own end, love will not let itself be instrumentalised. Our beneficial contribution to our weird times will be in proportion to our surrender, in Christ, to love.

Such a contribution may be unspectacular; that is not to say it will be ineffective. I was recently reminded of the last few lines of Middlemarch, where George Eliot contemplates the wholeness of the destiny of her heroine Dorothea, a name that means ‘God’s Gift’: 

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

That is a statement of Benedictine purpose as good as any. Individuals’ commitment to it in oblation will determine whether a society withers and dies or lives and flourishes.  

The monastic cemetery at Quarr Abbey.