Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
Feast of St Benedict of Nursia – Wednesday, July 11, 2012
I want to focus this morning mostly on the life of St Benedict, for through the lives of the various saints we encounter the living Gospel in powerful ways.
And to talk about Benedict, without talking about the Rule of Benedict, would be passing strange indeed. So first let me just read a short passage of the rule...
|Flowers from the garden for St Benedict's feast|
Those who know the Rule of Benedict will be scratching their heads a bit – for what I read is not really from the Rule of Benedict. Benedict's rule, as many know, has an evil twin: The Rule of the Master.
The two rules share many starting points. Benedict also addresses the porter of the monastery – an older brother is to be given a room near the entrance and his charge is to deal with those who come to the door – so far The Master and St Benedict are nearly verbatim. But how the porter deals with the person who comes to the door – there is the difference. The Master's porter is more or less a gate keeper. He is to keep keep folks out and make sure those allowed in are kept in line so as not to disturb the community. Benedict's porter is there to extend hospitality to the strangers at the door – to welcome them and offer them a blessing. Two rules diverge, as Robert Frost might say...
The two rules have much in common, but whereas Benedict always seems to be focusing on devoted Christians growing in a life of faith, the Master always seems to be prepared for unwilling followers who must be kept in line at all times. Was one rule based on the other? Who knows. Were both rules based on some older, lost tradition? Scholars wonder.
So... let me sort this out for you... As Brother Andrew would say, it may not have happened exactly this way, but this is the truth...
We know the legend of Benedict's first monastic encounter. He was called to lead a monastery that was in trouble... The abbot had died, but more than that, the community was a shambles... The brothers knew they were falling apart and so they sought Benedict, a good and powerful leader, to get them back on track. And so Benedict dutifully assumed the position of Abbot and set about the work of restoring order to this community. It was certainly challenging, but this was what the community had begged him to do – this is why they recruited Benedict.
And so it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about communities that the brothers of the monastery conspired to kill Abbot Benedict. What else could they do?
They put poison in his wine and waited for Benedict to drink his own death. But God intervened. Before drinking, Benedict prayed a blessing over the cup and it shattered, the tainted wine was spilled and Benedict was saved. The Brothers, who may not have been terribly devoted in their faith, were much more devoted to eliminating their Abbot. Next they poisoned his bread, but before he could eat the deadly loaf, a raven swept in and snatched it away. That must have been a mighty raven...
So here is my theory, which I know to be true... When Benedict assumed the position of Abbot at that troubled monastery, he attempted to enforce the Rule of the Master. The result, to say the least, was not life giving. But when God spared Benedict from the terrible poisons he also put it in Benedict's mind to spare future generations from that terrible rule. And so Benedict crafted his rule out of the dregs of the Rule of the Master.
Time and again The Rule of Benedict starts with the same chapter heading as the Rule of the Master, and time and again Benedict turns away from a stringent, precise, highly detailed answer to a generous and hospitable answer. How much food and drink should each brother have? The Master knows to the ounce. St. Benedict is more vague – each should have enough... but not too much... and if there is a shortage we may have to do with less... and if that is the case, we had better not complain...
The Master's rule calls us to behave. Benedict's rule calls us to live life to the Glory of God.
It is a difference of extreme importance – and one that has been part of the Christian enterprise since the time of Jesus, and part of the religious enterprise long before that.
From the very beginning of scripture we see the pattern of these two rules emerging. Starting during the life of Moses, rules (the law) become important in the way faithful people live their lives. You really can't be faithful without some sort of rule. Some of the rules, the law, define how we live with each other, in community. And other rules, also the law, call us to live in a way that is pleasing to God – one is a code of justice and the other a code of holiness.
There lies a fundamental difference between the Rule of the Master and the Rule of St Benedict. The Master is defining a code of holiness. You do what the rule says because that is what is pleasing to God. Benedict is defining a code of just living. You live according to the rule because that brings about a community where all are treated as brothers and sisters – as equally loved children of God.
Why on earth would anyone choose a rule like the Rule of the Master over a rule like the Rule of St Benedict. It is tempting to answer that no sensible, faithful person would, but that is not the truth. The reality is that the Rule of the Master, while it may seem daunting in its minute detail, is simpler to follow. You don't have to figure out what is right or wrong, you just have to figure out what the rule says. Benedict is much messier. It demands that you think and that you adapt. For someone looking for a fixed and unchanging truth, the Rule of Benedict is an unappealing destination.
Yet Benedict's rule is fully concerned with our transformation of life. And it is in the messy, confusing, sometimes frustrating, even contradictory working out of life in community under a rule that our ways are converted – that we are transformed – that God's kingdom is built in our hearts.
The Master seeks to control and manage our will. Benedict seeks to harness our will.
If the rules of Benedict and the Master were available in Jesus day, I dare say Jesus would have been enthusiastic about Benedict's rule while the Pharisees would have been far more enamored of the Master's rule. Jesus is always interested in justice – especially justice for the weak, the powerless, the oppressed. The Pharisees are interested in absolute truth and sound doctrine.
There are still Pharisees with us. I even have my own inner Pharisee – and though I can not necessarily speak for all my brothers, I dare say each has an inner Pharisee or two... There are certainly days, living in community, when I long for a strict, domineering rule – the Rule of the Master. Of course, I really want that rule applied mostly to my brothers...
We tend to overlook that Jesus was a trouble making revolutionary who was interested in disturbing the status quo – because the status quo is designed to give all the advantage to the rich and powerful. Following Jesus meant then, and still means today, standing against the culture.
And so too with St Benedict, we tend to have in mind a very domesticated, tamed sort of Monk. But Benedict was also a revolutionary and a trouble maker. He wanted people to live in a community rather than as hermits, and not only a community, but a community where all were equal – where a child of a slave could be senior to the child of nobility... where all would have access to education, to books, to state-of-the-art medicine... where all would eat the same food and drink the same moderate amount of drink... where all would have a voice – even the newest member of the community was to be consulted before a major decision was made. Imagine how uncomfortable that could make the rulers of nations and of the church...
We may not think of Benedict as particularly revolutionary, but think what it would mean if the world as it is now were transformed into the community Benedict has in mind... it would be wildly revolutionary. It will be wildly revolutionary.
Benedict, through his holy and inspired rule, has given us a plan for conversion of our ways of life to the monastic way – that is to say a plan not for safety, not for comfort, but for revolution.