The Feast of St. Benedict - 21st March 2024

Icon of St. Benedict

At Lauds of this feast we hear these words from the letter to the Colossians:

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. [Col 3:12-15]

It has always interested me that our hymn for St Benedict emphasises the solitary aspect of his life and yet the ‘inner vision’ of which we sing was given at the end of a long life in community. The desire for God is brought into focus in the reality of living together, of laying ourselves aside as we seek to serve our sisters. This reading lays out the qualities that we need to embody in our relationships with one another.

This is portrayed in the metaphor of ‘clothing’, and today we will clothe Jo in a tunic that signifies her commitment to a new way of belonging in this community as a ‘Companion’. This idea of clothing can seem like a rather superficial way of regarding the Christian life, as something that puts on an outward appearance but leaves us inwardly unchanged. But it is interesting how the clothes we wear can both express something of our inner life and also transform us inwardly as we live our way in to what the clothing expresses.

Groups commonly adopt uniform clothing to express and enhance a sense of belonging, something that runs deeper than just outward appearance. Our monastic clothing, whether the nun’s habit or the companion’s tunic, reminds us constantly of our commitment to Christ in this particular way of life and makes our commitment visible to outsiders. We are recognisably Benedictine.

What makes this clothing different from ‘fancy dress’ is our desire to live out the qualities signified by our clothes. The letter to the Colossians calls us to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. These do not seem to be very heroic qualities but can call for a deep inner heroism as we struggle with our natural selfishness. It can be as simple, and as difficult, as a kindly smile towards another or taking the smallest rather than the largest piece of that delicious chocolate cake. Or even not taking a piece at all if it will allow another to enjoy it instead – a tough discipline indeed!

We cannot do this ourselves but rather must rely on God’s strength – these clothes are given by God, they are his gift to us. Our contribution is to make the effort to put them on, to inhabit them with our whole being. These are not clothes to be folded up and left in the cupboard for another time.

To borrow an image from the letter of James, the Rule of St Benedict provides us with a mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected. We see how well, or not, we are wearing our clothes of compassion, kindness and humility. To hold the Rule constantly before us, as we try to do in this community, challenges us to look at the way we behave and to note what qualities our lives are embodying. Over many years we hope to come, as it says in step 12 of the Ladder of Humility, to that ‘perfect love of God’ which ‘casts out fear’. All that we once performed with dread of punishment we now observe without effort out of love for Christ. Or to pick up the beautiful phrase in the Prologue: ‘we shall run in the way of God’s commandments with liberty of heart and unspeakable sweetness of love’.

As we put on these clothes day by day we learn to set ourselves aside in love for those around us. That inner ‘yes’ to God’s call, practised in all the little details of our life, forms an attitude in us that can say ‘yes’ when the big challenges come. Jesus had to struggle with his human desire to avoid suffering as he travelled towards the cross but having come to his ‘yes’ in the garden of Gethsemane he was then able to embrace what came to him with dignity and presence. Standing silent before Pilate in the purple robe and crown of thorns it was clear who was the true king.

Mother Anne - 21st March 2024