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Benedict's Neighbours


Bishop Barry Morgan

Monte Cassino pre-1944.jpg

The Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino before its destruction in January-May 1944.
Source: R Doherty via

The Way of St Benedict
by Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury, 2020, 160 pages, £12.99

Saint Benedict (480-547) was born in Nursia, a town situated to the north east of Rome. He wrote a Rule for the monastic community he founded at Monte Cassino eighty miles south of Rome around the year 525. It was a Rule written for that specific community, but which would in the centuries following his death be adopted by nearly all monasteries in Western Europe – a Rule still observed by Benedictines and Cistercians to this day, so that Benedict is regarded as the father of western monasticism.


Monte Cassino was not the first monastery he founded. First of all he led an eremetical life for three years after studying in Rome, where he was shocked by its immorality. As a hermit he was persuaded to become abbot of a community of monks at Subiaco. He then established twelve monasteries in that area. He left for Monte Cassino with a few followers after a disagreement about how a monastic life should be lived. His Rule was not so much about how a monastery should be governed, but was meant as a set of guidelines for living in community, and was written in the light of his experience of the lax way of life of the monks of Subiaco in following their vocations. He was to spend the rest of his life at Monte Cassino, the monastery that was bombed during the Second World War and reduced to rubble.


Scholars have recently discovered that Benedict’s Rule had been preceded and influenced by the Rule of the Master, composed in the early years of the sixth century in Italy. Benedict’s Rule was also influenced by inherited wisdom from earlier monastic figures such as Pachomius and Cassian. Benedict’s Rule however, in comparison with the Rule of the Master is shorter and clearer, written to help monks live a common life devoted to God and is noted for its practical wisdom.


Rowan Williams’s book is, as it says ‘an invitation to look at various questions (in our contemporary world) through the lens of the Rule and to reflect on aspects of Benedictine history that might have something to say to us.’ Thus the five chapters in Part One of this volume explore some of those questions in imaginative and original ways. He does so by concentrating on the essence of what the Rule has to say about living life in the presence of God in the company of others – and the others are all important because for Benedict true holiness, that is a deep relationship with God, cannot be lived apart from a deep and honest relationship with others living in community, also seeking to deepen their relationship with God. In this regard of course Benedict echoes the New Testament, in that one cannot love God whom one has not seen, if one does not love our neighbours whom we have. Put another way, all of us are inextricably bound up with one another simply because they exist along side us. 


During this past year especially, the pandemic has enabled us to rediscover our interdependence since no one is safe in our world unless everyone is safe. ‘Our life and death are (literally) with our brothers and sisters’ as St Anthony of Egypt, one of the earliest desert fathers puts it. In these essays Williams describes the monastic life in terms of transparency, peacemaking and accountability. He poses the question of what would happen if these qualities were to be embraced by the world beyond the monastic enclosure? What kind of people would we become and what kind of world would ensue if we were truly open and honest to the scrutiny of others; if we were determined always to seek the things that make for peace rather than keeping a tally of grievances and if we were to realise in all that we say and do that we are accountable to God and one another. And to do so in the actual situations and contexts in which we find ourselves, rather than wishing we were with different people in another place. In other words being attentive to and engaging with the people we find are our present neighbours. Acquiring these attitudes of mind and heart take time and patience in a world where we are used to instant gratification and immediate fulfilment and where there is little sense of stability. A Rule therefore, which on the face of it is of seemingly no relevance to anyone outside the monastery wall, becomes strikingly relevant to all Christians and others too, as the author unpacks and unpeels the meaning of these directives for living a holy life before God and neighbour. The thing about this author is, that he makes what seem like simple and obvious points, until one realises that they are so profound not to have been thought about by oneself before.


Nowhere is this more true than when the author examines the monastic day consisting of the three elements, of labour, study and prayer. In other words, for monks to flourish, not only do they need to attend to one another’s needs in community but they also need to attend to their own needs, so that they can become fully integrated human beings. He compares that to our world which tends to exalt the world of work above everything else, regarding human beings simply as a means of production. Yet if human beings are to flourish, they need time to reflect, meditate, work and play. And just as in a Benedictine monastery the views of every member are taken into consideration, Rowan William asks how in our world and in Europe especially, the views of smaller nations and minorities might be heard, since in a Benedictine monastery the ‘Abbot is not to be partial, or to love one more than the other. He is not to prefer the freeborn monk above the slave.’ He is to listen to what the most junior member of the community has to contribute to the common life. That leads to a reflection on how nations deal with minorities from ethnically and religiously different backgrounds so that both their gifts and needs may contribute to the common good.


The second part of the book consists of two essays which are far more academic in nature, and were written less recently. The first describes how Benedict’s Rule was adapted in the years following his death and the second is a critique of Abbott Cuthbert Butler’s approach to mysticism and contemplation.


In the end, what draws people to faith says Williams is ‘Poverty and Prayer.’ In other words when people see Christians seeking to engage with God through worship, sacraments and prayer and living out that faith in loving commitment to our neighbours, then they too can be attracted to a church community centred on those principles. Those values are both Benedictine and Gospel ones, easier of course to articulate than to embody.

Background painting is The Education of the Children of Clovis, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861

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