+cspbAssociation of Benedictine Colleges and Universities

The Benedictine Charism Today, Part II

Address to the Illinois Benedictine College Community
26 April 1995

by Esther de Waal


Continuation of Part I:

Images again. In recent years, I've come to much appreciation of Thomas Merton. There is a real prophetic person. If you haven't yet discovered Merton, you're very lucky for great riches await you. A Trappist monk, living therefore by the Rule of Benedict, I've come to know him recently through his photographs. They've told me a lot about the way he saw the world. They express how much he lived out of the Rule. Imagine Merton living in his hermitage outside the Abbey of Gethsemani in the blue Kentucky hills. The good friend who lent him his camera, John Howard Griffin, a remarkable journalist, said that the way Thomas Merton focused on people was also the way he focused on things. He was totally present to the person or thing before him. Listening, he let each person, each thing, have its own voice. He stood back never tying to possess, to label, to organize.

Merton didn't believe that we come to God through the truncation of our humanity but through the wholeness of our humanity. All the senses are to be valued. He told his novices that the body is good; listen to what it tells you. He recognized that all the senses, particularly the senses of sight, sound and touch can teach us much. In those hermitage years, he was nurtured by long periods of silence, getting up at two in the morning to pray. Those hours before dawn enfolded him in the gentleness of the world around his hermitage. He learned those relations with his body and the world about him produced joy, openness and dialogue. I think that he used his camera to express this. He walked gently through the woods around the hermitage using his camera as a contemplative instrument. What and how he saw came out of his hours of prayer.

While writing a book on Merton using his photos, I saw that you've just got to stay with the simplicity of his vision, standing in front of piece of wood and some stones, which we otherwise might easily pass by. The texture and the relationship speak to him. Seeing an old workbench with a nail and all the scars of that battered wood, he stands back and lets it express itself in its own voice. He doesn't want to control or to possess. It's as if he goes beyond the things themselves to their essence, to the integrity of the things.

This is also true of Benedict. He is always moving beyond the individuals to the common, the corporate, the shared, the underlying essence, all the while saying that each individual person is unique and matters. The opening words to the Rule are totally personal: "Listen, carefully, my son," Benedict says, addressing each one of us, I believe, as the prodigal. The whole theme of the Rule is that each of us is the unique son or daughter of a loving Father, but each of us has gone astray. The whole purpose of the Rule is to bring us back to the embrace of the Creator Father. Each person is unique. And every single thing matters, which is why Benedict says something very profound in an almost absurd, throw-away line: "If anything gets broken or damaged in the pantry, own up at once." Own up at once because every single thing matters.

Above all, Benedictine spirituality is a shared, common, corporate spirituality. We have all these good things to share with the whole of God's family. We are partners with God in handling all these good gifts. This isn't an individualistic or isolated spirituality. It's about community life in whatever shape or form that may take. For those of us who are living outside monastic communities, we expect that form to change throughout our lives, involving overlapping circles as we are inserted into a succession of relationships, including relationships with the non-human. Benedict touches a deep and universal truth which traditional peoples know. Time and again in Celtic understanding-- and you know it from Native American experience-- we see that we are inserted into the whole web of creation. It's important that we stay with this.

There is a sweeping tide of interest in spirituality which, in my most cynical moments, I think is making a spirituality one more consumer product, an offer of in-built success. You buy it, and with it comes the promise of ultimate or even instant success. I haven't read anything by Ariana Huntington, but she is noticed in England. I quote her from something that I read just before I left England. She said, "The contemporary spiritual search is like a gigantic medieval fare where we wander between stores and booths and hawkers selling promises, and these promises, I've attempted to say, come very close to the promise of self-discovery, self-fulfillment, the rented me-ism that can be so seductive."

Benedict takes us into the theme of unity and connectedness. And again we come back to images. When I first picked up the Rule in Canterbury, I discovered the way of Benedict not just through a written text but through the actual monastic buildings amongst which I was living. The buildings were an expression of the way life that was lived by a great monastic community during the Middle Ages. What was it that I experienced as I walked through the cloisters or past the granary, the brew house or the bake house at the end of the garden? I knew where the herb garden was and what had been the infirmary and the guest house. And not the least, I explored a marvelous succession of underground tunnels through which an enterprising 12th century prior brought piped water to the monastic community. They built these tunnels with enormous care and skill. Nobody would have seen them. Yet, they were made with beautifully cut stone, set in rounded arches to carry the lead pipes. This speaks of their care for infinite detail, whether they were piping water, growing herbs or welcoming guests.

As I walked around the cloister, I saw all the buildings that depended on the cloister. Benedict's respect and reverence for the unity of body, mind and spirit was set out before my eyes. There was the dormitory. Benedict says enough sleep is very important. Eight hours sleep is what he said. There was the refectory. He loved and respected food and wanted it to be carefully served with reverence. There was the scriptorium, expressing respect for the intellect, for extending and challenging the mind. And there at the base of it all, anchoring it, was the church telling us that everything must flow into prayer. This life is a seamless garment said Dominic Milroy OSB. And it's very appropriate that he should, since he's a Benedictine and the headmaster of England's biggest Benedictine school at Ampelforth. This holistic approach recognizes the importance of the whole of ourselves, body, mind and spirit, and the rhythm by which we let it be part of our daily life.

Someone who recently joined a Benedictine community reported, "We came expecting to be taught a prayer technique. Instead, you are told that when you take your shoes off, you put them parallel to each other and not pigeon-toed, that you should close the door behind you quietly, that you should walk calmly and eat slowly and leave things ready for the next person to use. At first I thought this stuff is for the beginners. The real stuff will come later on. Then I came to understand that that is the real thing. It is how we do the little actions that makes us mindful of God or our neighbor."

The fascinating thing about that quotation is that I have taken it from the sermon preached on Passion Sunday in an Anglican parish church in a small market town on the border of Wales, close to where I now live. It's a parish that was a Benedictine power in the Middle Ages. But that meant nothing to any of its people until a year ago when the rector and his wife spent two weeks in a Benedictine community in Normandy. It turned their lives around. They felt the warmth, the love and the care in the guest house, which made every meal a loving and sharing experience and built a gentle friendship between the guests and the community. They returned saying, "This is given to us, too, at a parish. Ordinary lay people are given this grace by the very fact of this place in which we worship. We neglected it, but now we will return to it as our vision and guide to deepen our community life in our very ordinary small market town. Ordinary people at the end of the 20th Century." Throughout Lent there has been teaching, study and discussion at this parish. And people, with amazement, say how liberating and natural this is. They say they are allowed to feel and live the way they deep down always wanted to live.

In that sermon, the priest told them, "When you stand at the kitchen stove, that is the center; that is the altar. When you lie in your bed, your bed becomes the altar. When you wash a dish or pick up litter, you are the altar. You are always standing on holy ground. Any moment can be the moment. Any place can be the place." He led them to see the image so powerfully given in the buildings themselves, that all these daily activities would be impossible were it not for the heart of the monastic building-- the empty space of the cloister. It is the cloister, the enclosure, that holds everything together. They are around an empty space in the middle that keeps everything together and in harmony. This empty space of the cloister garden is symbolic of something that runs all the way through the Rule, and that is the emptiness of the individual before God's constant presence. He went on to remind them of the Eastern saying that what allows the wheel to turn is the empty space that joins the axle bar of the cart to the wheel. Without that emptiness, the wheel won't turn.

Here I think of Thomas Merton's photograph of the great cart wheel he had outside his hermitage, which he photographed with such love and care. There, surely, is that image of the empty space at the heart of the monastic buildings, and of our own self too. For me that image was movingly expressed when I managed to get to Subiaco 18 months ago. In that monastery, the cloister is an inner cloister garth or garden. The garden was watered and made fruitful from a water system which stood in its center. The whole image of tending a garden and of the changing seasons of the garden is written out there.

I recently and movingly experienced the power of that inner cloister, that inner garth or garden, when I went back to South Africa. What took me to South Africa in the years of Apartheid was an invitation from Desmond Tutu. He asked me to do in South Africa what I had done in England, and to some extent in America. We had a Benedictine experience week in which we grew together, 25 people, using the Rule as a guide for our daily rhythm of praying, studying and working together. We formed a temporary lay community which drew its inspiration from the insights of St. Benedict. The people who came to live, work and pray together were drawn from all the divides of the South African church-- Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic-- and from the racial divides-- black, colored and white. These people haven't lived close together and shared their life together the way that we did that week. We did this first in Johannesburg then in Cape Town. And Benedict spoke to African consciousness because of this wonderful African concept of "ubunto." It's untranslatable, but Desmond Tutu expresses it with his favorite saying, "A person is a person in relation to other people." The South Africans were excited by what the Rule could give them. "Why was this good news kept from us?" they said. "Here is a wonderful tool. Here is a means we need to build the coming church in the new South Africa."

I went back after Christmas to have continuing conversations with people whom I had gotten to know well. When I was in Cape Town I visited a place that is no longer a living monastery because the monks have left it. Imagine with me this simple monastic building built from a very simple courtyard. The chapel, the kitchen, the refectory and so on run off the foreside. The cells above look down into the central open space. No longer used as a monastic building, it has become a trauma center for the victims of racial conflict, torture, exile, suffering and violence that have troubled South Africa in recent years. As the warden greeted me, he had no idea who I was. He didn't know that I was interested in monastic tradition. He greeted me saying, "This place is, in itself, healing. It's healing just to cross this threshold, just to stand here with this courtyard opening up before us with the sense of the prayers of the monks who are no longer here. But their presence through their prayers is still with us. This is the start of the healing process for these damaged people as they come here, and it begins just as soon as they cross this threshold." I found it so moving that I went to my bag to get the trauma center's simple logo, which pictures prison bars where the bars have become flowering branches with the promise of new life.

And so, the cloister or the enclosure makes possible the welcome and the openness to those in need. And so, we have this picture of the open door depending on the cloister, whether it is written out in the monastic buildings and lived out in a strictly monastic community, or whether it is the principle by which we live that openness, that unity, refusing to be filled up which leads to exhaustion, tiredness, depression. Benedict wants energy for us. He is a man who writes with vibrancy and urgency. Above all he wants the church and society to get behind the divide, the dualities, the divisions and the splits to that centeredness by which we can hold things together. From that center we can reach out with the loving welcome, the fullness of hospitality that is so much the Benedictine charism.

I end with a quotation from Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Merton writes: "There is nothing whatsoever of the ghetto spirit in St. Benedict. That is the wonderful thing about the Rule and about Benedict himself, the freshness, the freedom, the sanity, the broadness, and the healthiness of the Benedictine life." This man gives us a sign, a promise and a challenge as much today as when the Rule was written. Shall we in our generation be able to handle the gift of Benedict's Rule with respect, reverence and responsibility and share this gift with others?

Part I

© 1995 by Esther de Waal.
Transcription courtesy of Scott Rains, D.Min., <srains@slip.net>.



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