Benedictine adventures with God

Benedictine ingredients - from Please God, Find Me a Husband!One of my favourite books recently has been Simone Lia’s spiritual autobiography in graphic novel form, Please God, Find Me a Husband!

The book describes Ms Lia’s “adventure with God”, which includes several encounters with Benedictine nuns in London, Wales and Australia. In Australia, Sister Hilda gives Lia five “Benedictine ingredients for an adventure with God”.

Since finishing Lia’s book, I’ve been reading various books and articles on Benedictine spirituality (see the list of further reading at the end of this post). Sr Hilda’s five “ingredients” provide a useful framework for outlining some of the things that have struck a chord with me (not least from a Lutheran perspective) from what I’ve read over the past couple of weeks or so.

1 & 2. Scripture and prayer

I’ve combined these headings into one, as to do so lies at the heart of Benedictine spirituality: praying the Scriptures, in both corporate and personal prayer.

Corporate prayer revolves around the Daily Office (or, to use St Benedict’s phrase, the Opus Dei, the “work of God”). As Fr Mark Hargreaves (.doc) puts it:

[O]ur spirituality is essentially liturgical, rather than devotional.

And then this, by Simon Jones, on the centrality of the psalter in the Benedictine “work of God”:

If our minds and hearts are to be transformed by the psalter, then we need to make sure that psalmody plays a central part within our celebration of the Opus Dei. Michael Perham has observed that ‘All too often nowadays psalmody can feel like one of the preliminaries, especially when it has been reduced to a snippet.’ When it came to the psalter, Benedict had no time for snippets, and nor should we. Whatever form of office we use, we should make sure that the recitation of the psalter is given its full and proper place. Even though most oblates will not be able to achieve the 75 psalms a week which the Directory for the Celebration of the Work of God requires, at least one substantial portion of psalmody should be part of our daily diet.

My diet of psalms has been a bit “snippet”-based in recent months. I’m grateful for the prompt to go back to something more substantial.

As for personal prayer, another key Benedictine practice is lectio divina: that is, praying the Scriptures, and in particular doing so around a loose framework of “lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio“. I’ve been trying to develop this in recent months, and have greatly benefited from it, so again I’m grateful for the encouragement to persevere.

3. Works of charity

The Benedictine tradition places a great emphasis on work, especially manual labour. Our everyday work is seen a both an inherent good – a service of God and neighbour by those who bear God’s image – but also as a cross we bear.

This combination of vocation (in the Lutheran sense) and cross-bearing is one that finds strong echoes in the Lutheran tradition. I’m sure that any Benedictine could identify with Luther’s statement that “God milks the cow through the milkmaid”: in other words, that in our everyday work we are “masks of God”, instruments through whom he works to serve our neighbour.

This also ties in with the Benedictine emphasis on stability. There is, and must always be, a place in the church for the “Franciscan” spirit of leaving all behind and striding out into the unknown with Christ. But it’s good that there also remains a place for maintaining a steady, everyday existence of daily service in the places in which we find ourselves, as employees, spouses, parents, carers and so on. That’s both very Benedictine, and very Lutheran.

4. Silence

This is one area that I struggle with! Simone Lia’s nun recommended “half an hour of silence a day”. Another Benedictine writer suggests that “five minutes a day is better than five hours once a month”. Even that is something I find hard to fit into a daily routine of bus, train, open-plan office, train, bus and back home to three children.

This may, however, be a good place to look at another point of affinity between the Benedictine and Lutheran traditions. St Benedict’s test for a prospective monk was fourfold: “Does he truly seek God? Is he eager for the Work of God, for obedience, and for trials or opprobria?”

What are the “opprobria” of which Benedict speaks? Fr Mark Hargreaves describes them as follows:

God sends us difficulties—to use no stronger word. He sends us situations that simply should not happen, that are unjust, that are unbearable, etc. Or there is the daily version of this, which is the impossibility of putting up with people, because they are just such a nuisance.

In other words, opprobria are the trials that Martin Luther speaks of as “life under the cross” – whether that’s the Anfechtungen that make a true theologian, or “the possession of the holy cross in the suffering of the saints” which Luther regards as one of the marks of the church. To be a good Benedictine is thus to be a “theologian of the cross” rather than a “theologian of glory”.

It should also be emphasised that the Benedictine way doesn’t seek suffering or extreme asceticism for its own sake. I remember being appalled by the frankly morbid asceticism described (with approval) by J.K. Huysmans in his autobiographical novel En Route, set at the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe in the late 19th century. By contrast, St Benedict famously writes in the preface to his Rule that:

With all this in mind what we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service. In the guidance we lay down to achieve this we hope to impose nothing harsh or burdensome.

The spirit of the Rule is not that of a gruelling asceticism for its own sake, but of a disciplined, orderly community life. Again, this seems very much in keeping with Luther’s pastoral approach in the Small and Large Catechisms.

5. Spiritual direction

This is another unexplored area for me, and to be honest I don’t feel there is currently a “spiritual director”-shaped hole in my life. Never say never, though, especially where the Holy Spirit is concerned.

That does raise the wider question, though, of where an interest in things Benedictine can lead – given that it is self-evidently not my calling to be a monk. Benedictines have a tradition of oblates – lay people who are attached to a particular monastery while living in the world – and the numbers of oblates has been growing significantly in recent decades (so that oblates now outnumber monks and nuns by some margin). As I understand it, there is no requirement for oblates to be Catholics. However, it would be premature (to say the least) for me to think in those terms.

I have been greatly blessed, however, by the day retreats I’ve attended at Worth Abbey in each of the past two years, and would hope to complete the hat-trick later this year. The affinities that seem to exist (or to be capable of existing) between the Benedictine and Lutheran traditions makes me wonder if this sort of private and informal semi-affiliation with Benedictine ways (the daily office, lectio divina, the occasional retreat, and so on) while remaining in the Lutheran church may help provide the “stable equilibrium” that I’ve been in need of for a while now. We’ll see. I hope, though, that this post will provide some helpful pointers to others who may be interested in exploring the Benedictine tradition for themselves.

Further reading

Any other recommendations are very welcome in the comments…


6 thoughts on “Benedictine adventures with God”

  1. As I understand it, there is no requirement for oblates to be Catholics

    I wouldn’t know about that, but as you may be aware, there are Lutheran Benedictines. There are two men’s monasteries that I am aware of (St Augustine’s House in Michigan in the USA, and Östanbäcks Kloster in Sweden) and a number of Swedish communities for women. Whether either St Augustine’s House or Östanbäck accept oblates I do not know. (Though even if they do not, they might start doing so if you suggest it to them.)

    1. Chris: indeed (and thanks for the links), though I was thinking in terms of the UK context. I expect it varies from monastery to monastery, but there are certainly some who accept non-Catholics. I’ve no idea what approach is taken by Worth Abbey (the monastery most accessible to me) – as I said in my post, this isn’t on the agenda for me at the moment anyway.

  2. John, have you ever read “The Cloister Walk” by Kathleen Norris? I haven’t read all of it, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. You might like it as well.

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