July 11, 2000

Obsculta, listen: so begins the rule of St. Benedict who is considered the father of Western monasticism, and whose memory we call to mind today. "Listen … with the ear of the heart," he instructs his followers. "Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts." Benedict's rule, written in the sixth century, and drawing largely from an earlier rule, the Rule of the Master, sets forth the journey into Christ in terms of listening. The context for listening is a community gathered together under the care and oversight of an abba, a father, an abbot who represents Christ.

The community itself is described as "a school for the Lord's service," meaning not so much a place, but rather a closely knit group, as in a school of fish who are devoted to a common vocation: moving together in the same direction - in this case living out in community and through the very experience of community in all its demanding concreteness, the baptismal mystery of dying and rising with Christ.

One of the distinctive vows of a Benedictine monk or nun is that of "stability," staying put and accepting the fact that one's brother and one's sister, in all their singularity and sometimes contrary opinions, are the chosen instruments of ones conversion of life - ones being turned toward Christ. Our faults and foibles, as well as our capacity for grace and truth, are brought to light through the unavoidable intimacies of communal life. Though this is true in a particularly intense way in a monastic community, it is also true of the various configurations of communal ecclesial life with which we are familiar - from the local congregation through the General Convention to the Anglican Communion.

What does the Rule of St. Benedict have to teach us? What "wisdom" and "insight," to draw from our first reading, does Benedict - who describes himself as "a father who loves you" have to impart to us? Listen carefully to everything, he tells us: listen to the patient wisdom of the elders, the urgency of the young, the constructive insight of the visitor who may see from the outside the community with a clarity denied to those who are caught up in its daily preoccupations. Listen to the abbot, who following the example of Christ is called to be the servant of all: challenging the strong and making allowance for the weak. Listen to Christ in the daily patterns of work of prayer marking the hours of the day: to Christ who rises like the dawn and meets us in word and sacrament; to Christ who encounters us in our brothers and sisters and the seemingly ordinary events of the day. Everything, according to Benedict, conspires to open the ear of our hearts in order to hear God's voice.

But there is another aspect of the Rule which is equally important: its sense of moderation and balance. Benedict, according to Gregory the Great his biographer, had begun his life of following Christ as a cave-dwelling hermit in the wilderness of Subicao some forty miles west of Rome. Filled with the zeal of the fourth century desert monastics, he was tireless in his discipline and self-denial.

When asked by a group of wayward monks at a nearby monastery to become their abbot, he warned them that his "way of life would never harmonize with theirs." They persisted however in their invitation; he accepted and instituted such stringent reforms that they attempted to poison his wine. "May Almighty God have mercy upon you. Go find yourself an abbot to your own liking" he said, returning to his "beloved wilderness." He returned somewhat wiser, I believe, and more ready to accept the fact that if you strain the bow string too far, as his monastic forebear, Antony of Egypt, had once observed, the bow will snap. So, too, with monks or any of us if we are pressed beyond the limits of our own humanity.

When you compare the Rule of Benedict with its precursor, the Rule of the Master, Benedict's desire, "to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome" reveals itself in any number of allowances he makes for diverse personalities and aptitudes and degrees of maturity.

The rhythms of a disciplined life ordered to the slow but exacting developmental process of growing up into Christ without the distortions of an exaggerated zeal or an overweening perfectionism which can devolve easily into ruthless judgment of self and others, are the trajectory of the rule. They represent, I think, Benedict's own struggle with Satan masquerading as an angel of light - that is evil tempting us under the guise of some greater good, some more perfect way which altogether rejects the thorns in the flesh, the weaknesses, the idiocies that God lovingly accepts as part of who we are.

"Never despair of God's mercy," Benedict declared. I would not be surprised if he wrote those words as much for himself as for his monks. If zeal, no matter how noble it may sound, strays from the path of mercy and ignores our human frailty it is not of God.

In the Gospel appointed for today, Jesus tells us that, "none of you can become disciples if you do not give up all your possessions." Perhaps the possessions we most need to give up are the idols of our own righteousness and the idealized self I yearn to be which refuses to acknowledge the imperfect self God calls "beloved." The "sound wisdom" of Benedict is a much needed corrective. Obsculta - let us listen attentively with the ear of the heart and make it our own, for we too, gathered in this Convention, are a school for the Lord's service.

And so I invite you to reflect now, quietly by yourself and around your tables, and ask possibly: in what way have I experience the Anglican way and these days here in Denver as a school for the Lord's service.