Trinity Institute explores Benedictine spirituality

May 14, 2003

The Benedictine way of life is alive, well and precisely relevant to shaping holy lives. That was the subtext underlying this year's annual conference of Trinity Institute, April 28-29.

Addressing the conference theme, "Shaping Holy Lives," were the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury; Joan Chittister, outspoken author and former Benedictine prioress; Laurence Freeman of the Monastery of Christ the King, Cockfosters, London; and Kathleen Norris, poet and former Benedictine oblate.

It was the first time that Williams had returned to Trinity since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He preached at the opening Eucharist on the Benedictine value of "listening," and closed the conference with a "prosaic" look inside "God's Workshop."

Chittister tackled the essential values of St. Benedict, among them creative work, holy leisure, humility, and peace, drawing from those values a kind of "holy warfare" aimed at righting the world's wrongs. Freeman asked why the ancient Rule of St. Benedict was attracting adherents to this day, and Kathleen Norris examined the quality of "holy realism" through poetry.

Transparency rooted in honesty

For Williams it was a low-key visit to New York. He had originally accepted the invitation when he was still archbishop of Wales and the possibility of a translation to Lambeth Palace was uninformed speculation. His references to September 11 and the war on Iraq, which he had opposed, were glancing.

In his main address to the conference, entitled "God's Workshop," he discussed the themes of transparency, peacemaking and accountability in terms of Benedictine spirituality. "The monk must be transparent; the monk must be a peacemaker; the monk must be accountable," he said.

Transparency, he explained, is rooted in honesty with others and within ourselves. "To become in this way open to your own scrutiny, through the listening ministry of the trusted brother or sister, is to take the first step towards an awareness of the brother or sister that is not illusory or comforting," he said. "If we are to become transparent, we must first confront the uncomfortable fact that we are not naturally and instantly at peace with all."

For this reason, he noted, with transparency comes a need for peacemaking: "The precepts are clear enough: there should be no retaliation, no malicious gossip, no hatred or envy or party spirit… Stability requires this daily discipline of mending."

Daily mending can prove a difficult task in the 21st century, Williams acknowledged. "We have been told--rightly--that it is bad to deny and repress emotion; equally rightly, that it is poisonous for us to be passive under injustice," he said. "The denial of emotion is a terrible thing; what takes time is learning that the positive path is the education of emotion, not its uncritical indulgence, which actually locks us far more firmly in our mutual isolation.

"Likewise, the denial of rights is a terrible thing…what takes time to learn is that the opposite of oppression is not a wilderness of litigation and reparation, but the nurture of concrete, shared respect."

Accountability, he said, concerns our state of being answerable "both to God and to the spiritual realities of the people [we] deal with."

"Everyone in the community that the Rule envisages is responsible both to and for everyone else in different modes, depending on the different specific responsibilities they hold, but nonetheless sharing a single basic calling in this respect… The workshop is manifestly a collaborative venture with the aim of ‘mending vices and preserving love' … The workshop is at the end of the day a solid and tough metaphor for that spirituality which is a lifetime's labor, yet also an expansion of the heart." Williams said.

Essential values

Should a 5th century monk influence today's world? This was Chittister's question, in an address on the essential values of St. Benedict, among them creative work, holy leisure, humility, and peace.

She arrived at her answer--an emphatic "yes"--through excoriating "pseudo-contemplatives," "pious moles," and the United States government for exorbitant defense spending. She was particularly searching during her evaluation of Benedict's notion of holy leisure.

"In the mind of Benedict, life is not only lived by doing," said Chittister. "Leisure is an essential part of spirituality as well as work. The real measure of holy leisure, Sabbath leisure, contemplative leisure, has more to do with the quality of life and the depth of our vision than it does with play and vacation."

Chittister then outlined the depth our vision should reach. "If anything has brought the modern world to the brink of destruction, it must surely be the loss of Sabbath," she said. "The purpose of holy leisure is to bring this balance of being, not a balance of time, back in to lives gone askew and to give people time to live a thoughtful, a contemplative, as well as a productive, life. It's the reflectiveness of holy leisure that brings us to ask what it is to follow the Gospel.

"When people sleep in a Metro station, it's holy leisure that asks, ‘Why?' When a high-ranking [U.S. government] official was asked by the media last week why there were no estimates of the Iraqi dead reported, and the official's answer was, ‘that is a number in which I have no interest whatsoever,' it is holy leisure that breaks the secular silence and asks the Sabbath question, ‘Why don't you?'

"Holy leisure asks how our today became more important than God's tomorrow. In other words, holy leisure is the foundation of contemplation, and contemplation is the ability to see the world as God sees the world."

A transformative tool

Freeman suggested that the sense of measure and order that Benedict espoused was actually a transformative tool. If someone could be convinced to look at life with measure and order, and to do so over time, a transformation of perception could be achieved.

Trying to determine why the Rule of St. Benedict remains so influential, he examined its basic principles, such as "moderation, measure, good order, respect for those who are different from ourselves, compassion for the old, the young and the sick, generosity for the stranger who turns up after the guest-master has gone to bed, a balanced lifestyle, good time management, vertical and horizontal forms of authority, listening to everyone, social equality, and justice."

He argued that the Rule was pertinent today, even when what it means to be holy has changed. "Time was when everyone agreed that the right aspiration of life was holiness, but what does holiness mean today, when holiness is often a neglected value in Christian circles? It lives on, maybe in diminished forms.

"In the aspirations of some New Age spiritualities, we speak of wholeness," Freeman said. "None of us would mind being called whole persons. Wholeness is that which has been fixed; what has been repaired, healed, made whole again."

The "eternal principles" of the Rule were easily translated into other ways of life, Freeman observed. He spoke of two oblates, from different countries and stages in life, whom he had received into the Benedictine order.

"One of them was a 24-year-old Italian engineering student. The other was an 84-year-old French-Canadian retired businessman. When I asked them on different occasions what made them want to take this step, they gave surprisingly similar answers: simplicity of life, spiritual friendship, the need for a framework of values in their life, and the sense of being part of a community that is itself an expression of a living tradition."

Holy realism and poetry

Norris's address examined the influences of one of America's best-known poets. Her goal was to "overturn our false notions of holiness," to bring it back down to earth, and she did so in large part by reading reams of poems.

She introduced the concept of a Benedictine-influenced "holy realism." The concept would prove a refreshing about-face from piety, and an illuminating case for the holy power of poetry.

"The popular wisdom is that the words ‘holy' and ‘realism' don't go together. Aren't holy people, like poets, dreamy and sentimental...not of this world? They are always dreaming of other things."

She read poems by herself, her husband and others, including Mark Van Doren, Marilyn Nelson, Kate Daniels, and Elizabeth Bishop. Each described aspects of "holy realism."

The first quality of holy realism, according to Norris, is that "we recognize it when we see it… and we can't help but remark on it… its qualities are universal."

However, "if we recognize holiness in ourselves, we are dead wrong" and heading down the road to narcissism. Further, "Holy realism is grounded in the real world and not, especially not, in our heads. Holy realism rejects false images… and it reminds us of who we really are. Holiness is humbling, and that's a point St. Benedict makes quite forcefully, devoting an entire chapter of the rule to the subject of humility."

Norris also said what holy realism is not: "It is the opposite of Narcissism; it welcomes the presence of others…as gifts from God." It seeks deep connections between people.

Finally, "Holy realism is the ultimate realism," said Norris. It is a conviction that "life does have meaning; it is worth caring about."