Solemnity of St. Benedict - 11th July 2022

Icon of St. Benedict

This week I have been sitting with our Lauds reading for this Solemnity of St. Benedict, from the letter to the Colossians (Ch 3 v14-15):

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

This reading from Colossians captures well the duality that is always present in our lives and that we encounter in the Rule of St. Benedict. We can get stuck in arguments about whether we are saved by our own efforts or by grace, as if it must be one or the other. I see here that it is both – we are asked to make the effort of clothing ourselves with all the qualities of love, bearing with one another and forgiving each other. But we are also to allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts, something to which we can only surrender. These are two sides of the one process of our conversion into the likeness of Christ.

St. Paul asks us to ‘clothe’ ourselves with love – clothing is something exterior and it is something we put on for ourselves. Perhaps this feels like it could be rather false, just an appearance that masks a reality that is very different underneath. But it is worth thinking about the way our clothes shape the way we present ourselves to others and also the way we feel about ourselves. Our monastic habits tell other people of our commitment to God and also remind us of how we have chosen to live our lives. How we feel on the inside is influenced by how we dress, and how we choose to dress is also a reflection of what is happening inwardly.

The Rule of St. Benedict gives many practices by which we can clothe ourselves with love. By setting out to engage with these ways of love we not only show love in our outward behaviour but we are also shaped inwardly. There is a constant dialogue between inner and outer, always both/and not either/or. As we set out to take small steps towards love we gradually find ourselves changed inwardly into people who live love from the heart rather than on the surface. As our hearts begin to be changed we are more able to embody love in all our actions.

But of course this transformation is not easy, our selfishness rebels against the need to be loving and generous towards those around us. We may still do the loving action but inwardly we are angry and resentful. And I think that is where verse 15 comes in – we are asked to allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts. Rather than the active ‘putting on’ of the previous verses we now have a passive allowing. We can only grow in love as we allow the peace of Christ to flood into us and wash through those angry, resentful places. This action of Christ’s spirit in us gradually integrates our inner and outer selves so that we become the kind of person described by step 12 of Benedict’s ladder of humility – someone whose whole demeanour embodies a self-effacing, loving presence.

A Christian community is a place where we support one another in this process of transformation and St. Benedict has given us valuable guidance. Our communities are not a gatherings of perfect people but of those who know they constantly fall short of the example of Jesus. As chapter 72 of the Rule says, echoing St. Paul’s teaching, we must bear with one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour with the utmost patience and so be bound together in perfect harmony. We become a community that witnesses to what it means to live together in love with all our frailty and failure, a community of real people seeking God’s mercy, not plaster saints.

One of our Magnificat antiphons for this feast sings that “Benedict was like a shining lamp set on a lamp stand to give light to the whole church of God” and I believe that we too as we follow in his footsteps can in our small way be lights to the church and the wider world.

Mother Anne - 11th July 2022