Sermon for: July 13, 2007
Season: St. Benedict’s, Los Osos, on our Feast of Title
What do we know about Benedict? Personally, relatively little. He was the son of a Roman noble, born about 480, in Nursia, in what is now Italy. It seems that at about age 19, he became disgusted with the way of life of Rome, which he thought dissolute. He may also have been jilted in love. These things are deduced from the only “biography”, more a character sketch in the hagiographic style, done by Pope St. Gregory the Great. Benedict left the city, taking his nurse and a servant, to live quietly, apparently in some kind of association with a group of “virtuous men”. He apparently knew the Gospels, and was drawn to the life they manifested.
Benedict received the distinctive monastic habit from a monk in the areas named Romanus, with whom he had discussed the reasons that brought him to Subiaco, where Romanus had his monastery. At Romanus’s advice, Benedict became a hermit for 3 years, and he lived in a cave above the river, pondering the Gospel and how one should live to be a part of the Kingdom of God. Some monks begged him to be their abbot, but that experiment failed, and Benedict returned to his solitary life. But many people, attracted by his sanctity and by the various miracles that he is recorded to have performed, came to join him. He had 12 monasteries built, where 12 seekers lived with an abbot. Benedict lived in a separate monastery with a few close followers. Somewhere in this time, he wrote a Rule for his monks, based on an earlier rule called “The Rule of the Master”. Benedicts “Rule”, described by Gregory as “firm but reasonable”, became the basis for Western monasticism in following centuries and up until the present day.
Benedict intended the Rule to be a way of life that honoured Christ’s teachings. The rule allows all that is necessaryto each individual: sufficient and varied clothing, abundant food (excluding meat from quadrupeds), wine and ample sleep. Possessions could be held in common; they might be large, but they were to be administered for the furtherance of the work of the community and for the benefit of others. While the individual monk was poor, the monastery was to be in a position to give alms, not to be compelled to seek them. It was to relieve the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead, help the afflicted, and – what became a central Benedictine character - to offer hospitality to all strangers. The poor came to Benedict to get help to pay their debts, and for food.
Work was critical in the common life, and even more important than liturgical prayer. This is enshrined in the famous phrase, “Laborare est Orare”, to Work is to Pray, and it reflects Gospel teaching that religious faith must manifest itself in good works to be authentic. Work was not to be considered the task of slaves, but seen as a necessary path to for holiness for all men and women. But Prayer was the common bond; the average day provides for a little over four hours to be spent in liturgical prayer, a little over five hours in spiritual reading and private prayer, about six hours of work, one hour for eating, and about eight hours of sleep. The entire Psalter is to be recited in the Divine Office once every week.
All possessions were held in common. And all were equal, whether once slave or noble. Benedictine communities are families. The local community is more important than the larger order, a character that is reflected in our Anglican tradition, where parish communities are the heart and the diocesan level serves the local communities. Unlike many religious orders which take the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, Benedictines take the vows of Obedience (so that God comes first), Stability (so that the prime place where holiness is sought is in one’s parish family), and Amendment/Conversion of Life, the goal being to become as Christ. These vows reflect the Baptismal vows.
Benedict is the icon of our community of faith here, what we call our “patron saint”. We live under his bright shadow. Most people are not called to be monastics. But Benedict is a worthy icon for us as followers of Jesus. We are here because we have the same desire as Benedict and his monks did. I was a monk for 15 years. I only knew many years after why I was led to try the monastic life. The monk is an archetype – a symbol of the radical call to become as Christ. Which is the same as the radical call to become fully human and fully the unique individual we have been created to be. But even more amazingly, to become Divine – for that is what the Gospel says we are, an incarnated expression of holy love.
We are not called to be monks or nuns. But Benedict’s radical search for the Gospel life is our search. That is why we come together around the altar and the Eucharist and Scripture. Archbishop Cranmer, in the early 16th C, specifically designed English parish life on the Benedictine model. We pray together, we seek to understand the Gospel life. We commit to obedience to God, to a stable parish family life, and to learning in that family how to let God shape us in the image of Christ. And we work together to reach out to those in need, especially offering hospitality to those on the journey to God, as our mission statement says.
Today we gather to join Benedict on the path to holiness. To thank and honour him as a faithful model and guide for parish life over the last 1500 years. And to recommit ourselves to each other as diverse people brought together by God to help and support each other on our journey of transfiguration into people of Divine Light.