Recognised as the father of western monasticism, St Benedict had a keen understanding of human nature. This is hardly surprising. He had, after all, experienced the ebb and flow of popularity; graphically demonstrated by those who pursued him to accept the position of their Abbot, only to seek to rid themselves of him, when he was no longer to their liking. If the historical accounts are accurate, he was - for his pains- subjected to not one, but two assassination attempts.
Students of his Rule are nonetheless, invariably struck by his accommodation of human frailty. In this respect, the text of the Rule bears witness to a singular commitment to providing effective instruction; practical guidance capable of adoption without excessive burden. In modern parlance, what might well be termed: counselling encouragement. Despite this, the exhortation of the Prologue could not be more direct:
"Listen, Child of God, to the guidance of your teacher. Attend to the message you hear and make sure that it pierces to your heart, so that you may accept with willing freedom and fulfil by the way you live, the directions that come from your loving father."
In this short paragraph, St Benedict is not simply communicating an ambition or purpose. He is declaring a profound truth; one which invites every person to come to a proper understanding of their status as a 'child of God'. It is from this irreducible understanding that both our dignity and responsibility flow. It is the source of our dignity and the end to which our freedom and will must be exercised if we are be true to the vocation to which we are called. St Benedict is nonetheless, astute enough to recognise that this reality must be first embraced before it can find sustained expression in our manner of living. The fullness of this reality was - as St Benedict realised- to be achieved and expressed, witnessed and received, in community. For St Benedict, the vocation is nothing more, nor less, than the authentic pursuit of of The Truth which is Christ himself.
In our own times, it may be said that the principal impediment to the transmission of the faith - and adherence to it - is one of cultural rather than individual resistance. Whilst some proclaim the demise of Christianity as an irrelevance, others advocate a root and branch revision of Christianity itself. This enterprise, it is said, has as its purpose the need to make Christianity more relevant, more accessible. A variety of terms (and justifications) are deployed. The sub-text of each is, on closer analysis, more problematic: it is the fulfilment of an agenda which seeks to reduce Christianity to the palatable. This is a curious state of affairs. One which would undoubtedly mystify those who - like St Benedict- demonstrated both the constancy of the contemplative and the zeal of the missionary. The difficulties presented by such challenges are compounded by two matters. First, the principal advocates of this revisionist agenda are - seemingly - priests or Bishops. Second, the agenda does not admit of contradiction. The outcome is the cultivation of what has been termed by an eminent Benedictine theologian as: "biodegradable Christianity". That is, what St John Paul II and Pope Benedict might have pronounced as a culture of death.
In his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, St John Paul II emphasised what he termed the indispensable requirement of the word of God. He observed:
"Christians have come to an even deeper awareness of the wealth to be found in the sacred text. It is there that we learn that what we experience is not absolute: it is neither uncreated nor self-generating. God alone is the Absolute. From the Bible there emerges also a vision of man as imago Dei. This vision offers indications regarding man's life, his freedom and the immortality of the human spirit. Since the created world is not self-sufficient, every illusion of autonomy which would deny the essential dependence on God of every creature - leads to dramatic situations which subvert the rational search for the harmony and the meaning of human life."
What has this to do with the St Benedict or his Rule? Perhaps the answer is to be found in the writings of Pope Benedict. In his "Values in a Time of Upheaval" he speaks of the movement which seeks to rid man of God in order to cultivate the illusion that in so doing so he will find freedom. He observes:
"It is a comfort to know the telephone numbers of friends and good people; this means they are never very far away from us, never completely absent. We can phone them, and they can phone us. God's incarnation in Christ tells us that God has written our names in his address book, so to speak. We can call him, without needing money or technology. He is always within reach of our voices. Thanks to baptism and confirmation, we belong to his family, and he is always on the line: "I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt. 28:20)."
As with St Benedict, Pope Benedict affirms that the dignity and fulfilment of the human person lies in a re-engagement with, and recognition of, his relationship with Christ himself. It is only by this means that he finds himself. It follows that what is required is for us to affirm our path of travel; not to re-define the purpose of our journey. As the Lord himself revealed to us: "I am The Way, The Truth and The Life". This is the lifeblood of the Rule of St Benedict. To continue the metaphor of Pope Benedict, when the Lord calls, we must be ready to receive the call. We must pray that for each one of us, we are not "otherwise engaged". After all, and the Prologue of the Rule confirms, it is not enough for us to hear, we must also listen. It is only through both that we find instruction:
"Teach me Lord to do Your Will.
For you alone are my God.
Let your good spirit guide me,
in ways that are level and smooth." [Ps.143]
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom:pray for us.