Sunday, 6 January 2013

Two weeks of study with the Benedictine monks of Ealing Abbey

Ealing Abbey is the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I spent two weeks at Ealing Abbey a few months ago, following the daily cycle of prayer with the monks in the abbey, with the psalms, canticles, antiphonies, Scripture readings and prayers.

During those two weeks, I was reminded each day of the shared tradition in the Benedictine offices and the Anglican offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

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, 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.

Studying liturgy and Latin

Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing is one of the largest in Britain and the main work of the monks is parochial and pastoral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ealing Abbey began life as Ealing Priory almost a century ago in 1916. When it became Ealing Abbey in 1955, it was the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation.

The Benedictine Study and Arts Centre at Overton House, in the grounds of Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was there for two weeks to study Liturgy in the Institutum Liturgicum, based in the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre, under the guidance of Dom Ephrem Carr, President of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo in Rome and Professor of Eastern Liturgies at the Patristic Institute, the Augustinianum, also in Rome.

I also attend classes in Liturgical Latin with Dom Daniel McCarthy, head of liturgy at the Institutum Liturgicum and a former lecturer in liturgy at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome.

Ealing Abbey … space for reflection and study for two weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During that time, I studied Eucharistic texts or anaphora from the first four centuries of the Church, paying particular attention to the Apostolic Tradition, the Testamentum Domini, and the Apostolic Constitution, and comparing them with the Eucharistic prayers in The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004).

Cultural and cricket

There was a warm welcome from the monks of Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was reminded at Ealing Abbey that 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.”

The Benedictine motto is: “Ora et Labora.” This does not present prayer and work as two distinct things, but holds prayer and work together. 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 Benedictine offices and the Anglican offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer have a shared tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.”

Saint Augustine of Canterbury, who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury (597-604) and who is considered the “Apostle to the English” and a founder of the English Church, was a Benedictine monk. At least 16 of the Archbishops of Canterbury between the year 960 and the Reformation were Benedictine monks, including Dunstan (960-978), Lanfranc (1070-1089) and Anselm (1093-1109), and another four were Archbishops of York.

In addition, Benedictine monks who were bishops in Ireland included John Stokes, Bishop of Kilmore, who was a Suffragan Bishop in Lichfield in 1407; John Chourles, who was Bishop of Dromore (1410-1433), but spent most of his time as a Suffragan Bishop in Canterbury (1420-1433); Robert Mulfield, a Cistercian monk of Meaux, who was Bishop of Killaloe but spent all that time as a suffragan in the Diocese of Lichfield (1418-1440); and Robert Blyth, Abbot of Thorney and Bishop of Down and Connor, who was a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Ely (1520-1541).

A shared spirituality

Ealing Abbey began life as Ealing Priory almost a century ago in 1916 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At least 18 of the Reformation bishops were Benedictine or Cistercian monks. It is no surprise then to hear again that it is often said that he Anglican Reformation made the essentials of Benedictine spirituality and prayer life immediately accessible through The Book of Common Prayer.

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.

The stillness and quietness of the abbey gardens make it easy to forget that Heathrow Airport is only a few miles away (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The basic principles that shape The Book of Common Prayer are Benedictine in spirit. The Book of Common Prayer retains the framework of choral worship but simplified so that ordinary people can share in the daily office and the daily psalms.

Grapes on the vines outside the monks’ dining room (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The spirituality of the Rule of Saint Benedict is built on three key elements that form the substance of the 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, once argued that 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.

By the 17th century, John Bramhall, the restoration Archbishop of Armagh, was lamenting the dissolution of the monasteries. Later, many Benedictine houses were founded throughout the Anglican Communion in the 19th century.

Today, there are more than half a dozen Anglican communities and houses in England who also follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, including Edgware Abbey, Malling Abbey, Saint Benedict’s Priory in Salisbury, Costock Convent, Mucknell Abbey, Alton Abbey and Saint Hilda’s Priory, Whitby.

Reviving familial ties

Dom James Leachman, a monk of Ealing Abbey, Director of the Institutum Liturgicam, and Professor of Liturgy at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Sant’Anselmo, Rome, says the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches are “two vigorous traditions” on these islands that “nourish the life of learning and prayer of millions of Christians.”

Writing in the Benedictine Yearbook, he says: “Both traditions find shared and deep root in British and Irish soil and in the history of our islands ... we are constantly present to each other.”

Benedictines have not forgotten their familial and historical ties with many cathedrals throughout the Church of England.

The Benedictine cathedral priories, like all the religious houses in England, were dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII. But before the dissolution, there were nine Benedictine cathedral priories in England: Canterbury, Winchester, Worcester, Durham, Norwich, Rochester, Ely and Coventry and Bath. Others before that had included Sherborne, Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey.

Many of the cathedral deans and chapters are keen to stress their Benedictine roots, some of them holding “Benedictine weeks” with groups of monks, led by the Roman Catholic Benedictine monk who holds the titular position of cathedral prior, residing in the cathedral for the week to sing the office and give a programme of lectures.

A centre for thinking

Ealing Abbey is just half an hour from Heathrow Airport, and the idea of a monastery close to a busy airport and in heart of suburban London seems a contradiction in terms to many. But Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing is one of the largest in Britain and the main work of the monks is parochial work.

The monastery was founded in 1897 from Downside Abbey as a parish, at the invitation of the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vaughan. Building work on the church began two years later, and the school was started by Dom Sebastian Cave in 1902.

Saint Benedict’s School was started in 1902 … old boys include the former Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Patten (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As well as running courses on liturgy and Benedictine prayer and spirituality at the liturgy institute and the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre, the monks of Ealing also run a school, with about 600 pupils in the senior school and 230 in the junior school.

Working in the book-lined Scriptorium … once the research workplace of the Biblical scholar Dom Bernard Orchard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Scriptorium, where I attended my Liturgy seminars, was once the research workplace of the Biblical scholar, Dom Bernard Orchard (1910-2006). The extensive gardens at the side and behind the house have a variety of trees, including a banana tree and an olive tree.

The gardens of Ealing Abbey are friendly to the bees and the birds and the wildlife (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The gardens are friendly to wildlife, and no insecticides are used on the plants and trees, and there is labyrinth on the north lawn, which in quiet moments provides space for prayer and meditation.

Ealing Abbey has been the home at times for many notable monks, including Dom David Knowles, the monastic historian and later Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, who lived there from 1933 to 1939 while he was working on his magnum opus, The Monastic Order in England.

Dom Cuthbert Butler (1858-1934) also lived at Ealing following his retirement as Abbot of Downside from 1922. His books included critical editions of the Lausiac History of Palladius and The Rule of Saint Benedict, and he was the author of Western Mysticism, Life of Archbishop Ullathorne, and History of the Vatican Council.

The labyrinth on the north lawn at Overton House provides space for prayer and meditation in quiet moments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dom John Main (1926-1982), who wrote and lectured widely on Christian meditation, was a monk at Ealing in 1959-1970 and 1974-1977. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1954, and taught law there from 1956 to 1959 before joining Ealing Abbey, and he was ordained priest here in 1963. He was strongly influenced by the writings of the Desert Father John Cassian, and he began his Christian meditation group at Ealing Abbey in 1975.

John Main’s teaching methods are now used throughout the world, and those who have acknowledged his influence include the former President, Mary McAleese, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Influencing a new archbishop

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby, told a recent news conference at Lambeth Palace that he has been influenced by Benedictine spirituality, and has said that the Benedictine and Franciscan orders within Anglicanism, along with Roman Catholic social teaching have influenced his spiritual formation.

He has been a Benedictine Oblate for 15 years and his spiritual director is a Benedictine monk. He is expected to be enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral and the successor of Saint Augustine the Benedictine on 21 March next.

The Benedictine link with Anglicanism continues.

The gardens at Overton House have a variety of trees, including a banana tree and an olive tree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.


Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in January 2013.

Patrick Comerford receives certificates from Dom Ephrem Carr and Dom James Leachman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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