Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
RCL - Feast of St Benedict - Saturday 11 July 2009
Today we celebrate the feast of St Benedict. Its an important feast for a number of reasons - not the least because we are Benedictine monks, but also because you could not overstate the importance of Benedictine practice on Anglican worship as it grew out of the English Reformation.
But what catches my imagination this morning is the Gospel passage assigned for this particular feast. What has it got to do with Benedict?
If you don’t pay too much attention to the Gospel passage, it appears to give a useful lesson in task management. Only idiots start projects they can not finish. And only fools start wars they can not win... Its easy for me to hear this Gospel passage as a call to careful planning and due diligence. And what could possibly be wrong with that?
But that’s a mishearing of the Gospel passage. Jesus is calling us to take up the cross and put other stuff down. Building towers and winning wars is about protecting other stuff.
There’s more to this morning’s reading: We are engaged in an enterprise that is entirely beyond us. If we look at what it will take to build the Kingdom of God, we’ll never start. If we assess what we need in the fight against evil, we will make peace with the devil... Due diligence and careful planning will arrest us in our baptized life.
We proceed because we have God - and that is our only hope. The other things that make us feel safe - those are the things we have to leave behind.
To get from the Kingdom of God to Saint Benedict we only need to swap one word: the Kingdom of God can just as easily be called the Community of God... A Godly community is at the very heart of Benedictine living, and we can only proceed to make such a community with God’s help.
Part of the joy in reflecting on the life of Benedict is that we are not encumbered by too many facts. The stories of the life of Benedict are fanciful, though that doesn’t mean they are not true. But since we start in the fanciful, we can add to the fanciful...
Benedict’s first leadership position was a good learning opportunity - That’s what people say of things that don’t turn out well. In the good old days we might have even used the word failure...
Benedict had developed a good reputation and was a highly regarded monk. And a certain monastic community was in need of an Abbot. Not only did they need an Abbot, they desperately needed reform. It was a community in trouble, in chaos and they knew it. They sought out Benedict to be their Abbot... to come and fix their problems.
They desperately wanted to change. And they adamantly wanted to stay just exactly the same. This is a timeless human reality. I want to do what I’m doing now and, through some miraculous intervention in which someone else does all the work, have a better outcome...
Benedict arrives at this troubled community and proceeds to do what they want him to do. He tries to shape them up. He reproves and corrects and scolds them vigorously.
So, naturally, they conspire to kill him. What else could they do? ... They give him venom meddled with wine - you don’t often see that on the wine list... But when Benedict blesses the wine before drinking, the vessel shatters and Benedict’s life is saved.
Before going to war, a smart leader makes an assessment as to whether or not he or she can win - and if the answer is no, then negotiations begin. In this first attempt, it appears that Benedict went to war and lost.
Here is my own fanciful embellishment: a possibility that has no factual support, but could be true.
The rule of Benedict is not the only Monastic Rule. It is not the oldest. And it surely is not the most thorough. The Rule of the Master is far more comprehensive, to say the least. Scholars are unsure which came first, but the Rule of the Master and the Rule of Benedict are closely related. They are, in some ways, shadows of each other.
In the legend according to me... When Benedict entered that first monastery, it was the Rule of the Master that he sought to impose.
Just so that we all have a clear sense of the Rule of the Master, let me read a little bit... Naturally I was drawn to a section called “Whether brothers who have suffered pollution during sleep should receive communion or not.” But, alas, there is no comparable passage in Benedict, so I’ll have to leave you wondering about the answer...
Lets consider instead: “The Porters of the Monastery”
The Lord has replied through the Master (that’s the way all answers begin in the Rule of the Master - which pretty much forecloses flexibility)
Inside near the gates of the monastery a cell is to be built for two brothers advanced in age. Posted there, let them at all times close up the monastery behind those who leave and open if for those who are coming in, and also announce arrivals to the abbot.
Every day during the periods devoted to reading in the monastery, however, these two old men must see to it that they lock the gates and join the community to listen to the readers. In like manner, when the signal for the Divine Office has sounded in the oratory they are to lock the gates and be present at the Word of God in the oratory.
The Master then gives a lengthy discourse on the manual labor that can be asked of these two old men. The Master also tells us where in the refectory these two are to be seated. It’s thorough, detailed, and very specific. Nothing is left to chance or discretion.
Benedict, on the other hand, says “At the door of the monastery, place a sensible old man who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply, and whose age keeps him from roaming about.” He follows this with a short discourse on how the porter is to greet arriving guests, an important ministry of hospitality entirely absent in the Rule of the Master.
In the legend of Benedict according to me, Benedict learns the hard way that too much control is a human thing, not a Godly thing. The instinct to make sure that everybody is doing the right thing every waking moment of every single day, and at night as well, is understandable. It is what the Rule of the Master seeks to do. But it is dehumanizing. It is life depriving.
From that experience, I think, comes the Rule of Benedict which calls us to a thoughtful, responsible way of living; a way of being fully alive, fully human. It is a joyful response to God’s love, not a carefully planned prosecution of the task at hand.
If we think about what it will cost us to live in community, we will never live in community. If we have to work out all the details in advance, we will never build the Community of God. And whatever we build will be ours, not God’s. Sensible, orderly, safe alternatives are simply not on offer.
This morning’s Gospel reading calls us to move forward in faith, not in certainty. By faith we will build the Community of God. By faith we will triumph in the ageless battle against evil. Following Jesus means being faithful, not careful. We must give up our need for control... our need to fortify.
Benedict gives us a framework in which to live into our faith - a way of ordering a community that calls us to creative, faithful life rather than stifled order.
So what a joy it is to celebrate this Saint Benedict’s day in the Order (and occasional disorder) of the Holy Cross, in the order, (and occasional disorder) of the Episcopal Church, in the order (and occasional disorder) of the universal church.