Monday, 15 October 2012

Benedictine Spirituality: an introduction

Saint Benedict’s Church and Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

9 a.m., Monday 15 October 2012

Opening Hymn:
425, Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts

Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts;
thou fount of life, our lives sustain;
from the best bliss that earth imparts
we turn unfilled to thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
thou savest those that on thee call;
to them that seek thee, thou art good,
to them that find thee, all in all.

We taste thee, O thou living bread,
and long to feast upon thee still;
we drink of thee, the fountain-head,
and thirst our souls from thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for thee,
where’er our changeful lot is cast;
glad, when thy gracious smile we see,
blessed when our faith can hold thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
make all our moments calm and bright;
chase the dark night of sin away,
shed o’er the world thy holy light.


Reading: Hosea 14: 1-9.

Our opening hymn was written by Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century founder of the Cistercian or Trappist order within the Benedictine tradition.

This summer I spent some weeks staying at Ealing Abbey in London, studying Liturgy and Liturgical Latin at the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre, invited each day to join the monks in the choir for the daily offices.

There was an old cutting from the Daily Telegraph on the desk in my room in Ealing Abbey that says the Benedictine tradition is so rooted in English life and culture that: “Some claim to see the Benedictine spirit in the rules of Cricket.” But in Ealing Abbey, I was more conscious of how the daily offices in the Anglican tradition – Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Vespers, Compline and so on – draw on the riches of the Benedictine tradition.

I was conscious too that at the same time some of you were on retreat in either Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, or Holy Cross Monstery in Rostrevor, Co Down, two of the preferred centres the Church of Ireland for pre-ordination retreats.

So, an introduction to Benedictine spirituality and prayer life may be an important contextualisation for some of you in advance of your pre-ordination retreats. But it is even more important as an introduction to one of the formative influences on Anglican spirituality.

Last week, at this session in chapel, [Dr] Katie [Heffelfinger] introduced us to the practice of lectio divina, which has been used by for centuries Benedictines to pray using the Bible, and which is growing in use in many Anglican circles.

Indeed, 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.

At the beginning of his academic career, Cranmer was a reader or lecturer at Buckingham College, a hostel for Benedictine monks studying in Cambridge.

It could be said that the Anglican Reformation took the essentials of Benedictine spirituality and prayer life and made them immediately accessible through The Book of Common Prayer, which gives the Anglican Reformation a clearly Benedictine spirit and flavour.

The basic principles that shape The Book of Common Prayer are Benedictine in spirit. For example, the spirituality of the Rule of Saint Benedict is built on three key elements that form the substance ofThe Book of Common Prayer: the community Eucharist; the divine office; and personal prayer with biblical, patristic and liturgical strands woven together.

The Anglican Benedictine monk and theologian, Dom Bede Thomas Mudge, believed the Benedictine spirit is at the root of the Anglican way of prayer in a very pronounced way. The example and influence of the Benedictine monastery, with its rhythm of the daily office and the Eucharist; the tradition of learning and lectio divina; and the family relationship among an Abbot and his community, have influenced the pattern of Anglican spirituality.

In a unique way, The Book of Common Prayer continues the basic monastic pattern of the Eucharist and the divine office as the principal public forms of worship.

On a regular basis, through the day, in the office and in their spiritual life, Benedictines pray the psalms. The church historian Peter Anson believed that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s great work of genius was in condensing the traditional Benedictine scheme of hours into the two offices of Matins and Evensong. In this way, Anglicanism is a kind of generalised monastic community, with The Book of Common Prayer preserving the foundations of monastic prayer.

As a monastic form of prayer, The Book of Common Prayer retains the framework of choral worship but simplified so that ordinary people in the village and the town, in the parish, can share in the daily office and the daily psalms.

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 ordained priest in the Episcopal Church (TEC), and who lived for almost six years in a Benedictine monastery; and Canon Andrew Clitherow of the Diocese of Blackburn.

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.

In the Church of England, there are 13 cathedrals with a Benedictine foundation and tradition: Canterbury, Chester, Coventry, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester, Saint Alban, Winchester, Worcester and York Minster – 15 if we include Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey.

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

Throughout the Anglican Communion, there are Benedictine communities in Australia, Canada, England, Ghana, South Africa, South Korea, Swaziland and the US. In the Church of England, they include: Alton Abbey, Hampshire; Edgware Abbey, London; Elmore Abbey, Newbury, Berkshire (founded at Pershore and later at Nashdom Abbey); Holy Cross Convent, Costock, Leicestershire; Mucknell Abbey, near Worcester (formerly the community at Burford Priory, near Oxford); Saint Benedict’s Priory, Salisbury; Saint Hilda’s Priory, Whitby; Saint Mary’s Abbey, Malling, Kent; and Saint Peter’s Convent, Horbury, Wakefield. The Cistercian Monastery at Ewell closed in 2004.

Benedictine prayer became more accessible in popular culture in 2005 when the BBC screened the television series, The Monastery, in which the then Abbot of Worth Abbey, Abbot Christopher Jamison, guided five modern men (and three million viewers) into a new approach to life at Worth Abbey in Sussex.

Since then, Dom Christopher’s best-selling books following the popular series, Finding Sanctuary (2007) and Finding Happiness (2008) offer readers similar opportunities. 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 Dom Christopher offers some monastic steps that help this transition to a more spiritual life.

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.”

Saint Benedict of Nursia wrote the first official western manual for praying the Hours in the year 525. Benedictine spirituality approaches life through an ordering by daily prayer that is biblical and reflective, and Benedictine spirituality is grounded in an approach to spiritual life that values “Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life.” The major themes in the Rule are community, prayer, hospitality, study, work, humility, stability, peace and listening.

Working in the Scriptorum in Ealing ... study is a major theme in the Rule of Saint Benedict (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Benedict’s approach is refreshingly simple and uncomplicated. For him, the key that opens the door to prayer is the quality of a Christian’s life, and the whole existence of a Christian is to seek to imitate Christ in fulfilling the will of his Father.

Apart from the scripture readings that are heard in the liturgy, Saint Benedict sets aside from two to three hours a day for lectio divina, which is not an intellectual pursuit of knowledge and information but a way to let the word of God penetrate the heart and the whole person, so that we listen and open our hearts to God who speaks to us in his word.

Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the word listen, ausculta: “Listen carefully, child of God, to the guidance of your teacher. Attend to the message you hear and make sure it pierces your heart, so that you may accept it in willing freedom and fulfil by the way you live the directions that come from your loving Father” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue 1, translated by Patrick Barry). His advice is as short and succinct a directive on how to prepare to pray as I can find.

The monastic cell is a place of solitude, but this is not a refuge from the common life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Benedictine motto is: “Ora et Labora.” This does not present prayer and work as two distinct things, but 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, a unity of the inner life and the outer life.

For Saint Benedict, the spiritual life and the physical life are inseparable. As he says: “Orare est laborare, laborare est orare, to pray is to work, to work is to pray.”

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

The Front Door at Ealing Abbey ... prayer is not about making God some kind of private getaway from life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

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.”

She 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.”

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.

It is communal.

And 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. “Nothing should be accounted more important than the Work of God,” the Rule of Benedict says (Rule of Benedict 43: 3, in Kelly et al).

“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.

Grapes on the vine in the cloister garden at Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

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.

Esther de Waal puts it this way: “Prayer lies at the heart of Benedictine life; it holds everything together; it sustains every other activity. It is at the same time root and fruit, foundation and fulfilment” (Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p. 145).

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.

It is surprising that in his Rule Saint Benedict does not have one method of personal prayer. Although there are many instructions on the Divine Office or Opus Dei and the Liturgy of the Hours, he has little to say about personal prayer. He did not establish set times for personal prayer, nor did he give detailed instructions on how to pray. Instead, he gave instructions on how to live.

This distinction between liturgical prayer and private prayer, which is familiar to modern spirituality, was unknown to the early monks. Apart from one short reference to prayer outside the office, Chapter 20 of the Rule is concerned with the silent prayer that is a response to the psalm. Listening to the word of God was a necessary prelude to every prayer, and prayer was the natural response to every psalm.

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

Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor, Co Down

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 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 than 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 Sister 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.”

Finally, before we begin the work of the week, could I conclude with the words of a prayer attributed to Saint Benedict:

A prayer of Saint Benedict:

Gracious and Holy Father,
Give us wisdom to perceive you,
Intelligence to understand you,
Diligence to seek you,
Patience to wait for you,
Vision to behold you,
A heart to meditate on you,
A life to proclaim you,
Through the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

Our closing music is the hymn Jerusalem the Golden, by the 12th century Benedictine Bernard of Cluny and recorded at Glenstal Abbey a few years ago.

Additional reading:

Anglican Religious Life 2010-11 (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009).
Patrick Barry, Richard Yeo, Kathleen Norris, et al, Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St Benedict for everyday life (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005).
Gordon Beattie, Gregory’s Angels (Leominster: Gracewing Fowler Wright for Ampleforth Abbey, 1997).
Benedictine Yearbook 2012, ed William Wright (Warrington: EBC). 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).
Joan D. Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: a spirituality for the 21st century (New York: Crossroad, 2010 ed).
Joan Chittister, The Monastery of the Heart, an invitation to a meaningful life (London: SPCK, 2011).
Andrew Clitherow, Desire, Love and the Rule of St Benedict (London: SPCK, 2008).
Esther de Waal, Seeking God, The Way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1984).
Mary Forman OSB, ‘Prayer,’ in Patrick Barry et al, Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St Benedict for everyday life (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005).
Abbot Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everyday life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006).
Abbot Christopher Jamison, Finding Happiness – Monastic steps for a fulfilling life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008).
Nicolas Stebbing CR (ed), Anglican Religious Life: A well-kept secret? (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 2003).
Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998).

Some links:

http://www.altonabbey.org.uk/">Alton Abbey.
Glenstal Abbey.
Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor.
Mucknell Abbey.
Worth Abbey.

More information on the TV series The Monastery.

Staying at Ealing Abbey ... with a window onto the wider world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture in the chapel on 15 October 2012 was part of the Spirituality programme within the Pastoral Formation modules with Year I, Year II and Year III MTh students.

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