02 December 2008

The spiritual experiences of other Christian traditions: (1) The Benedictines

The chapel in Alton Abbey, Hampshire, one of the Benedictine abbeys in the Church of England

Patrick Comerford

Introduction: Benedictine spirituality and the Anglican tradition

It could be said that Anglican spirituality has its roots in the Benedictine spirituality, an approach to life and prayer that arose from the monastic community of Saint Benedict in the sixth century.

The method called lectio divina, which has been used by Benedictines to pray using the Bible, is growing in use in many Anglican circles.

In recent years, three of the most interesting commentaries of the rule of Saint Benedict have been written by leading Anglican writers: Esther de Waal, a well-known writer and lecturer on theology, spirituality and Church history and the wife of a former Dean of Canterbury; Elizabeth Canham, one of the first women to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church and who lived for almost six years in a Benedictine monastery, and , more recently, Canon Andrew Clitherow of the Diocese of Blackburn.

There are 13 cathedrals with a Benedictine foundation and tradition in the Church of England: Canterbury, Chester, Coventry, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester, Saint Alban, Winchester, Worcester and York Minster, or 14 if we include Westminster Abbey in London. There are at least 15 Benedictine communities within the Anglican tradition, five in England and the others in Australia, Canada (2), South Africa, South Korea and the US (5).

Within the Church of England, the Anglican communities following the Rule of Saint Benedict include: the Order of Cistercians, Ewell Monastery, West MallingKent (founded 1966); the Benedictine Community of the Holy Cross, Holy Cross Convent, at Rempstone Hall, near Loughborough (founded 1857 by Elizabeth Neale, sister of John Mason Neale, the hymn-writer); the Order of Saint Benedict, Alton Abbey, near Alton, Hampshire (founded 1884 as the Order of Saint Paul); the Order of Saint Benedict, formerly at Burford Priory, near Oxford (founded 1941; Benedictine nuns and monks now at Broad Marston and building a new monastery in Worcestershire); the Order of Saint Benedict, Edgeware Abbey, Edgware (founded 1866); the Order of Saint Benedict, Elmore Abbey, Newbury, Berkshire (founded at Pershore, 1914; moved to Nashdom Abbey, 1926; moved to Elmore Abbey 1987); the Order of Saint Benedict, Saint Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, Kent (original foundation ca 1090; re-founded London, 1891; moved to Somerset, 1906; moved to West Malling, 1916); the Community of Saint Peter, Saint Peter’s Convent, Horbury, Wakefield (founded 1858); and the Community of Saint Wilfrid (founded 1866).

Dom Gregory Dix (1901-1952) was a priest-monk of Nashdom Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine community. As a liturgical scholar, his work has had an immeasurable influence on the direction of changes to Anglican liturgy in the mid-20th century.

At a more popular level, in 2005 in the BBC television series, The Monastery, the Benedictine Abbot of Worth Abbey guided five modern men (and three million viewers) into a new approach to life at Worth Abbey. Since then, Abbot Christopher Jamison’s best-selling book following the popular series offers reader a similar opportunity. In this book he points out that no matter how hard we work, being too busy is not inevitable. Silence and contemplation are not just for monks and nuns, they are natural parts of life.

Yet to keep hold of this truth in the rush of modern living we need the support of other people and sensible advice from wise guides. By learning to listen in new ways, people’s lives can change and Abbot Christopher has offered some monastic steps that help this transition to a more spiritual life.

In the Church of Ireland, two of the preferred centres for pre-ordination retreats are Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick, and the Benedictine Abbey in Rostrevor, Co Down.

So an introduction to Benedictine spirituality may be an important contextualisation for some pre-ordination retreats. But it is even more important as an introduction to one of the formative influences on Anglican spirituality.

Benedictine spirituality approaches life through an ordering by daily prayer that is biblical and reflective. At its base, Benedictine spirituality is grounded in a commitment to “the Benedictine Promise” – an approach to spiritual life that values “Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life.”

What is Benedictine Spirituality?

So, what is Benedictine spirituality? Benedictine spirituality is not a spirituality of escape. Benedictine spirituality is a spirituality that fills time with an awareness of the presence of God.

Benedictine spirituality is a way of life that helps a person to seek God and his will daily. It encourages a life balance between corporate worship, spiritual reading and work in the context of community. People are seen as an integrated whole: Body, Mind, and Spirit.

The core values in Benedictine spirituality are stability, obedience (to God), personal transformation, humility, and hospitality, care of the ill, living a life style of love centred in Christ and listening for God in all of life.

The Rule of Saint Benedict offers guidelines for the ordering of life. The guiding principles of Benedictine practice are found in the Rule of Saint Benedict, which was written in the fifth century as a guide for life in a Christian monastery. The Rule has guided many communities today who use it as an aid to live by the Scriptures.

The primary concern of the Rule of Saint Benedict is to confront those who live by it as forcefully as possible with the Gospel and its demands. The major themes of community, prayer, hospitality, study, work, humility, stability, peace, and listening find their expression in this rule.

Saint Benedict’s aim in writing his Rule was “to establish a school for the Lord’s service,” (cf. Prologue 45) where “we progress in this way of life [that, in his love, God shows us] and in faith,” and so “run along the way of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love,” in the hope that “never swerving from his instructions, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the passion of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his Kingdom” (cf. Prologue 21; 49-50).

The Life of Saint Benedict

But to understand the rule, I should also introduce the life and personality and story of Saint Benedict (right), who gained a fresh perspective on Christian spirituality as he lived by those three simple vows: stability, obedience and conversion.

It has been said that the condition of both church and state in Europe was never so sadly deplorable as it was during the era in which Saint Benedict (ca 480–547) was born. All bonds of order seemed to have been dissolved and civil laws and authorities had been done away with.

Benedict was born around the year 480 in Nursia, a city in Southern Italy, into a noble Roman family. After his childhood years, his parents placed him in the schools of Rome for an education in fine arts. This led to a turning point in his life. When he saw many of his companions in the great metropolis giving themselves up to vice, he was led to heed the call of God and flee from the world and its corruption.

He left Rome at the age of 14 to seek salvation and perfection in solitude. Living a solitary life for three years in a cave near Subiaco, Benedict was given the vision to start a monastery. Leaving the cave, Benedict later formed small monasteries of 12 monks or more.

In this period he wrote his famous Rule for monks, distinguished for its discretion and clarity of thought. In 73 chapters he regulates the entire monastic life by combining the principles of the Gospel into a clear, concise set of guidelines for monastic life. Millions of people in the years since, both inside monasteries and out in the wider world, have befitted from applying the simple, Christ-centred principles of the Rule to their own lives.

Saint Benedict died on 21 March 547 in the church where daily he had sung the praises and celebration of the Sacred Mystery. He was buried in the Church of Saint John the Baptist at Monte Casino.

The medal of Saint Benedict, incorporating Benedictine prayers and images

The Benedictine monastic life

A major characteristic feature of the Benedictine vows is binding a monk with a particular community. Vows, despite their great value and dignity, are not the aim in themselves. They are the means of realising the deepest desire to be with God.

The monastic profession, taking place within the context of the Eucharist, is seen as a public adoption of God’s consecration. The monks believe they are called to do good for their brothers by a clear example of a life directed towards God. But the distance to the “world” in Benedictine spirituality does not mean any contempt of goods created by God, but is to express itself by a wise selection, which leads to more objective and sober appraisal of temporality. In monastic spirituality, the internal life is characterised by utmost freedom, but it is shaped on the Bible and liturgy.

And so, prayer in the Benedictine tradition appears in two forms: as liturgical prayer and as individual prayer.

Liturgy is one of the essential elements uniting the monastic community and is for the monks the basic, never-failing and extremely rich source of the whole internal life. The everyday Eucharist is the centre of the Monastic Liturgy of the Hours.

The monastic tradition did not create a distinct system of internal prayer. This prayer is characterised by great openness. It derives from two sources: everyday liturgy and lectio divina – meditative reading of the Bible and its comments, mainly in the patristic writings.

In a monk’s life the point is to create a specific attitude of prayer, which makes the monk a man of prayer. In his Rule, Saint Benedict assumed a clearly positive attitude towards work. It is a normal source of the monastery maintenance and help for the needy.

Work is for him one of the ways of “God’s service,” an opportunity to approach God and brothers. Thus, a very serious and honest attitude to work comes about as a consequence of the feeling of God’s presence.

In addition, the monk binds himself forever with one community as a “school of the Lord’s service” (Prologue, 45). In its framework, solitude and mutual bonds are equally important for being open to the mystery of Christ.

An abbot is a visible sign uniting the whole community. Receiving guests in whom monks are to meet Christ is an integral part of the Benedictine rule and tradition. This basic form of apostolate in monastic life is accomplished in a way typical for each monastery.

Monastic life lived comprehensively, without looking for any strange secondary values, qualifies for an optimistic attitude to matter, creation and world, despite their transitory nature Peace – Pax Benedictina – so searched by the monk is its fruit.

The six hallmarks of Benedictine Spirituality

In a clever article, “A Twenty-Minute Novitiate,” the Benedictine, Father Harry Hagan of Father Harry Hagan, OSB, American Benedictine Academy, St. Meinrad, Indiana, identifies “Six Hallmarks of Benedictine Spirituality” – a list of six distinguishing features of Benedictine monasticism. In the language of Benedict, these six hallmarks of community are:

1, regula et traditio, the written text and the tradition;
2, Stabilitas, Commitment to community;
3, conversatio, Conversion or openness to change;
4, obedientia, Hearing and obeying;
5, ora et labora, Work and prayer are held together;
6, Hospitalitas, Taking care of others.

Regula et Traditio

The list begins with regula et traditio. The Rule of Benedict is a written document, and most communities have a written statement that defines their identity and purpose and order. Nations have constitutions. Religions have scriptures. Many institutions today have mission statements. The written document typically defines the core values and processes for the group. The tradition is the living memory of how the written document has been interpreted and adapted over time to different situations. Often the tradition is captured by stories. Both the written document and the living memory are needed for the continuing life of a community.

A monastic community cannot be understood or created merely through reading the Rule, the written document. Every book needs a community of interpreters to understand and live the written text. Without a text, a community is left to the whim of the present. Both the written text and the tradition embodied in a living community are necessary.

The next three marks are simply the vows which the novice takes: stabilitas, conversatio, and obedientia.


Stabilitas is defined as commitment to a particular community. Monasticism is not just a commitment to a way of life, but to a way of life in a particular monastery: to the place, to the people, to its tradition and culture. Stability is sometimes presented as a state of mind, but we have emphasised the importance of stability in the concrete and literal sense.

A person identifies with the particular community by participating in its common life: that is, its common prayer, its common table, its community work, one's service to the community, and its common recreation. Other common elements can contribute to this identification, such as common dress, a special monastic vocabulary (e.g., words such as refectory, choir, prior), the delineation of spaces (e.g., cloister), as well as schedule and rank.

The Rule also calls us to certain community virtues such as the precedence of the common good, respect and love for the individual, and care of the sick.

There are community sins as well: anger, murmuratio, and acedia (that is, the temptation to abandon the commitment).

Finally, Benedict creates an elaborate system for the correction of faults. While few monasteries follow his processes exactly; still every community must have some way of acknowledging faults and reconciling members. For individuals to be stable members of a community, they must be able to support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour.


Conversatio has been a hot topic among scholars who have been anxious to distinguish it from conversio meaning conversion. In the 1980 version of the Rule of Saint Bendict, the term is translated as “fidelity to the monastic way of life.” However, we can contrast conversatio with stabilitas and there is a need to emphasise the sense of change and becoming which lies at the root of the word convertere which means “to turn,” “to turn with,” “to turn from,” or “to turn towards.”

If stabilitas means standing still, then conversatio is about movement and change, about becoming, about giving oneself more and more to the monastic vocation. Humility can be seen as the foundation of change because humility is the ability to acknowledge and face the truth about oneself and the truth about others. By doing so, one is able to climb the way of humility which leads to that love which casts out fear. The other side of changing oneself is letting others change. Too often we need others to remain as they are, and so we become obstacles to their changing.


Like humility, the third vow, obedientia, is a dangerous but necessary virtue. It is dangerous because it can be easily misused to manipulate others. It is necessary because obedientia is grounded in listening, and we must listen to know whether we should stand still or change. The relationship between listening and obedience transcends cultures.

In Hebrew, the word šamac can mean both “hear” and “obey.” In Latin, obedientia has its root in hearing: ob plus audire. Obedience is not just passive listening. If you truly listen, then you will know how to respond. To obey is to respond to what one hears. The sense of autonomy in our culture makes this virtue difficult, yet there is no real learning without obedience and humility.

In the Rule of Benedict, these virtues are bound up particularly with the master disciple relationship. The Rule calls for the disciple to give the self over to the magister, to the Teacher: the abba or amma. The gift of the self becomes possible because of what Benedict demands of the Teacher.

Perhaps the genius of the Rule shows itself most clearly in Chapter 64 on the qualities of this Teacher, someone who could be called a wisdom figure. Benedict’s prescriptions point to a person of discretion who holds together both justice and mercy, and, if necessary, grants precedence to mercy. But the vertical relationship of master and disciple is not the only demand for obedientia. Chapter 71 of the Rule calls for mutual obedience, which perhaps is more difficult.

Ora et Labora

The fifth hallmark is the great Benedictine motto “Ora et Labora.” Perhaps in another context one would hold up prayer, particularly liturgical prayer, as a value in and of itself. The motto has been used to stress the unity of life. The motto does not present prayer and work as two distinct things. Rather, it holds prayer and work together.

The chapel becomes the place for the Work of God (Opus Dei), but the work of God does not end at the chapel door. God continues to work where we work. The monastic cell is the place of solitude, but this is not a refuge from the common life. There must be time and place for both.

For the individual there must be a unity of the inner life and the outer life. As Psalm 19 says: “Let the words of my mouth [the outside], and the meditation of my heart [the inside], be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19: 14).

A quotation from Saint John Cassian also speaks powerfully to this integration of one’s life:

“When all love, all desire, all zeal, all impulse, our every thought, all that we live, that we speak, that we breathe, will be God, then that unity the Father now has with the Son and the Son with the Father will fill our feelings and our understanding. Just as God has loved us with a sincere and pure and unbreakable love, so may we also be joined to God with an unending and inseparable love. Then we shall be united to this same God in such a way that whatever we breathe, whatever we think, whatever we speak may be God.” [Saint John Cassian, Conferences, 10.7.2]


The final Benedictine hallmark is hospitalitas. Saint Benedict identifies three groups with Christ: the Abbot, the sick, and the guests. In my opinion he does this because all three are trouble. Everyone knows that a superior is trouble. So Benedict calls them Christ. Moreover, these people must be taken care of. The sick are unable to do for themselves, and so their demands are constant. Guests come at odd hours with their expectations for food and sleep. The Master in his rule is very leery of these travellers as he is of the sick, but Benedict demands vulnerability to these wayfarers who come as Christ because they are in need of service.

Hospitalitas means taking care of others. However, the guests also bring something. They bring the outside world; they bring a different experience and perspective. They bring critique.

Such inward looking communities as monasteries can insulate themselves from critique, yet this is the gift of the guests. They bring the possibility of newness just as the junior member of the chapter may bring insight (quia saepe juniori Dominus revelat quod melius est).

Hospitalitas is the opposite of defensiveness. It is openness and vulnerability – openness to Christ who was nailed to a cross.

Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor, Co Down

Benedictine Prayer

The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me. – Joan D. Chittister, OSB

Benedictine spirituality teaches us that prayer is not a matter of mood. To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled.

Prayer is not about making God some kind of private getaway from life. Prayer is meant to call us back to a consciousness of God here and now. And so, prayer in the Benedictine tradition is a community act and an act of community awareness.

One of the best-know Benedictine theologians and writers at the moment is Sister Joan Chittister OSB. In Benedictine Prayer: A Larger Vision of Life, she explains that “Benedictine prayer is not designed to take people out of the world to find God. Benedictine prayer is designed to enable people to realise that God is in the world around them.”

Sister Joan says: “Benedictine prayer, which is rooted in the Psalms and other Scriptures, takes us out of ourselves to form in us a larger vision of life than we ourselves can ever dredge up out of our own lives alone. Benedictine prayer puts us in contact with past and future at once so that the present becomes clearer and the future possible.”

She says Benedictine prayer has several characteristics that make more for a spirituality of awareness than of consolation. She lists those characteristics of Benedictine prayer: It is regular. It is universal. It is converting. It is reflective. And it is communal. Out of those qualities, a whole new life emerges and people are changed.

For example, prayer that is regular confounds both self-importance and the wiles of the world.

“It is so easy for good people to confuse their own work with the work of creation. It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important than what we are. It is so easy to simply get too busy to grow. It is so easy to commit ourselves to this century’s demand for product and action until the product consumes us and the actions exhaust us and we can no longer even remember why we set out to do them in the first place. But regularity in prayer cures all that.”

Saint Benedict called for prayer at regular intervals of each day, right in the middle of apparently urgent and important work. His message was unequivocal.

“Pray always,” Scripture says. “Prefer nothing whatsoever to the Work of God,” the Rule of Benedict says (RB 43: 3). “Impossible,” most people will say.

But if we train our souls to remain tied to a consciousness of God, as the Rule of Benedict directs, even when other things appear to have greater value or more immediate claims on our time, then consciousness of God becomes a given. And consciousness of God is perpetual prayer.

To pray in the midst of the mundane is to assert that this dull and tiring day is holy and its simple labours are the stuff of God’s saving presence for me now. To pray simply because it is prayer time is no small act of immersion in the God who is willing to wait for us to be conscious, to be ready, to be willing to become new in life.

In daily life, though, there will always be something more pressing to do than to pray. And when that attitude takes over, we will soon discover that without prayer the energy for the rest of life runs down. When we think we are too tired and too busy to pray, we should remind ourselves then that we are too tired and too busy not to pray.

To pray when we cannot pray is to let God be our prayer. The spirituality of regularity requires us to turn over our broken and distracted selves to the possibility of conversion in memory and in hope, in good times and in bad, day after day after day.

Benedictine prayer is based almost totally in the Psalms and in the Scriptures. “Let us set out on this way,” the Rule says, “with the Gospel as our guide” (Prologue: 9). And so, Benedictine prayer is not centred in the needs and wants and insights of the individual who is praying. Instead, it is anchored in the needs and wants and insights of the entire universe. Benedictine prayer takes me out of myself so that I can be my best self.

Benedictine prayer life, besides being scriptural and regular, is reflective. It is designed to make us take our own lives into account in the light of the Gospel. It is not recitation for its own sake. It is bringing the mind of Christ to bear on the fragments of our own lives. It takes time and it does not depend on quantity for its value.

This is a prayer life that involves a commitment to regularity, reflection, and a sense of the universal. The function of prayer is not to change the mind of God about the decisions we have already made for ourselves. The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.

Finally, Benedictine prayer is communal. Benedictine prayer is prayer with a community and for a community and as a community. It is commitment to a pilgrim people whose insights grow with time and whose needs are common to us all.

Community prayer in the Benedictine tradition is a constant reminder that we do not go to Church for ourselves alone. To say, “I have a good prayer life, I don’t need to go to Church,” or to say “"I don't get anything out of prayer” is to admit our own poverty at either the communal or the personal level.

Community prayer binds us to one another and broadens our vision of the needs of the world. The praying community becomes the vehicle for my own faithfulness. Private prayer, Benedict says, may follow communal prayer, but it can never substitute for it. Prayer, in fact, forms the community mind.

The implications of the Benedictine approach to prayer

The implications of all these qualities for contemporary spirituality can be summarised as follows:

1, Prayer must be scriptural, not simply personal. I am to converse with God in the Word daily – not simply attended to at times of emotional spasm – until little by little the Gospel begins to work in me.

2, I need to set aside and keep time for prayer. It may be before breakfast in the morning; after the children go to school; in the car on the way to work; on the bus coming home; at night before going to bed. But I need to set that time aside that time for prayer and to keep it.

3, Reflection on the Scriptures is basic to growth in prayer and to personal growth. Prayer is a process of coming to be something new, and is never simply a series of exercises.

4, Understanding is essential to the act of prayer. Formulas are not enough.

5, Changes in attitudes and behaviours are a direct outcome of prayer. Anything else amounts to something more like therapeutic massage then confrontation with God.

6, A sense of community is both foundational for and the culmination of prayer. I pray to become a better human being, not to become better at praying.

As Joan Chittister says: “We pray to see life as it is, to understand it, and to make it better than it was. We pray so that reality can break into our souls and give us back our awareness of the Divine Presence in life. We pray to understand things as they are, not to ignore and avoid and deny them.”

Some reading:

Anglican Religious Life 2008-9 (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007).
Mark Barrett, Crossing: reclaiming the landscape of our lives (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006).
Elizabeth Canham, Heart Wisdom: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Guildford: Eagle Publishing, 2001).
Joan D. Chittister, Benedictine Prayer: a larger vision of life: living the rule of Saint Benedict today (San Francisco and New York: Harper, 1991).
Andrew Clitherow, Desire, Love and the Rule of St Benedict (London: SPCK, 2008).
Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the way of St Benedict (SPCK; London, 1984).
Abbot Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everyday life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006).
Gordon Mursell (ed), English Spirituality from earliest time to 1700 (London: SPCK, 2008).
Nicolas Stebbing CR (ed), Anglican Religious Life: A well-kept secret? (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 2003).
Columba Stewart OSB, Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1998, Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series).

Some links:

Alton Abbey: : http://www.altonabbey.org.uk/
Burford Priory: http://www.burfordosb.org.uk/
Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor: http://www.benedictinemonks.co.uk/index.asp
Worth Abbey: http://www.worthabbey.net/

For more information on the TV series The Monastery: http://www.worthabbey.net/bbc

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture in the Year III course, “Spirituality for Today,” on Tuesday 2 December 2008.

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