Reflection for the Feast of St. Benedict

Icon of St. Benedict

I have been intrigued by our hymn for St. Benedict which tells of the ‘silence and solitude’ that he chose, a ‘craggy rock for cell, hidden from all’. Yet he is the great teacher of community living, and the inner vision that came to him was granted when he was living in community with his brothers. I have often wondered whether our office needs a complementary hymn to community life? These two poles of solitude and community are both important and need to be given space in our lives, whether we live alone or with others.

This year the feast of St. Benedict coincides with Passion Sunday, bringing an interesting weaving together themes. As we enter Passiontide our Lenten silence deepens and we enter into Christ’s journey to his ‘passing over’, when he passed through the darkness of crucifixion to the light of resurrection. For each of us that journey will be different and in our common life our shared silence enables us to enter in to our own personal solitude whilst supported by those around us.

Icon of Elijah

I like the phrase ‘the cave of the heart’, that inner space where we can withdraw to be with God. The cave in the wilderness, as we see in the icon of Elijah, is a place of simplicity, a paring down of life to the essentials. We go there in search of the ‘one thing necessary’, to prefer nothing to Christ and to trust in God’s provision for our lives. Our monastic life should have something of that wilderness quality, where we clear away all that gets in the way of our prayer. Particularly in Lent we try to clear our lives of the things that distract us and keep us from resting in that cave of the heart. As we sing in our Lauds hymn for Lent, we seek the silence that sets us free and restores our hearts to the one desire for God. Yet we seek that silence in a life lived closely with others with all the potential for distractions, sometimes frivolous, at other times frustrating or even deeply upsetting.

One way we do the work of solitude in a community setting is the way in which we react to what is happening around us, especially things that anger or upset us. When strong feelings are triggered in us can we simply sit in the cave of our heart and let those feelings ‘be’ rather than act them out on someone else? Strong negative feelings towards another are so often a sign that something from our own past has been triggered and the feelings have little to do with the other person. Practising the Benedictine discipline of silence helps us to develop the ability not to respond immediately, in the heat of the moment. It also means not getting caught up in telling ourselves stories about what has happened, stories that stoke up the feelings further. This is a hard discipline of self-denial, a sharing in Christ’s sufferings, to simply let the painful feelings be there and not to spin self-justifying stories, blame others or retaliate in our pain. We follow the example of one who faced an unjust trial with dignity and few words and embraced crucifixion in a spirit of forgiveness and love.

If we quietly withdraw in solitude to our cave and sit before God with the raw stuff of our feelings then God will gradually transform them. Through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit we grow in wisdom and are enabled to act from a place of clarity and love when the time is right. Whenever we allow this to happen a bit more of our ego dies and we come to experience what St. Paul describes in the letter to the Colossians (chapter 3, verse 3): ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ In this way we bring the light of Christ’s resurrection life into the situation and begin to embody the way of Christ’s peace within the life of our community.

Mother Anne - 21st March 2021