Posted November 29, 2006
Speech given at St Anselmo in Rome
'Benedict and the future of Europe'
21st November 2006
We are used to speaking of St Benedict as one of the patrons of Europe. This is partly in acknowledgement of how Benedictine houses helped to preserve something of the coherence of a religiously focused culture in the uncertain and often chaotic period after the fall of Rome, as the new Germanic kingdoms emerged in the west. But is there a sense in which we can speak of Benedict and his rule as offering an orientation for Europe’s future? In the half-secularised, morally confused and culturally diverse continent we now inhabit, does the Holy Rule still provide a beacon for common life? I want to argue that it does: the Rule, after all, is not an archaeological document but something that is continually being reinterpreted in the life of the communities that are based upon it – like the Scriptures themselves. And it has long been recognised that what the Rule proposes for the common life of monks and nuns is a structure that can be adapted to the needs of Christian community more widely – as is shown in the extraordinary number of people who still seek to live as oblates or who regularly refresh their vision by sharing the life of Benedictine houses. In the United Kingdom, the television series about Benedictine life based on Worth Abbey proved unexpectedly popular; the five men who shared the community’s life for some months while the programme was being made all emerged with deeper understanding of the very character of community itself. So it is worth asking how all this can be applied to the life of modern European nations as well as modern European individuals. If there is a civilisation to be saved, what are the dimensions of the Rule that point us towards the essentials that have to be preserved and nourished? Or, in slightly different terms, what are the political virtues that the Rule generates, and how are these capable of translation into the context of contemporary geopolitics, especially as regards our own continent? It may be that we can arrive at a fuller grasp of what it is now to see Benedict as patron of our troubled and changing continent.
I shall outline three aspects of the Rule which are of cardinal importance in understanding the crisis of modern Europe and which suggest the areas where we should be most active in challenging some aspects of our present cultural consensus for the sake of the future of some kind of spiritually credible civilisation, especially in our continent. These are (i) what the Rule has to say about the use and the meaning of time, (ii)what the Rule has to say about obedience, and (iii) what the Rule has to say about participation.
First, time. The Rule of St Benedict describes a carefully structured day, a rhythm incorporating labour, study and prayer. The community has to have a productive life – otherwise it would cease to exist. Like Teresa of Avila many centuries later, Benedict has no expectation that the monastery will be dependent on anything other than the work of its members, and – as we shall see later on – he takes it for granted that all will be involved in sustaining the common life. But labour is not everything; the monastery is an environment in which human beings may grow mentally and spiritually, and so where they need time for reflection. And because it is a Christian environment, it is one where the whole ethos and direction of the common life has to return continually to the praise of God, the most central and significant aspect of this life together.
Labour is serious and necessary, but it is not everything. Everyone needs to work, as ch.48 of the Rule implies; but the superior has to determine what sort of work is appropriate for different conditions and capacities. It is not as if the monastery is some sort of Victorian factory in which everyone is engaged full-time in a single process of production; there are various skills and crafts that have a place here, as well as the necessary work for survival (with all that this demands in terms of flexibility and not being ashamed to put your hand to some basic things like harvesting). The monastic life is emphatically not one of subsidised leisure, not one in which there is endless time for self-observation. The self that is brought into the light in study and prayer is a self that lives in a material world where crises and limitations call for response. Yet the identity of the monk is not exclusively or even primarily that of a producer, a pair of hands. The mind and heart have to be both self-aware and turned away from self towards a God who is to be praised. So labour exists in order for there to be a growing conscious self, expanding into the awareness of joy in God’s presence, ‘our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love’ (Prol.). The balance of the day’s rhythm is directed towards that state of being aware of advancing towards God in everything.
In modern Europe - and the North Atlantic world - we live in a climate where both work and leisure seem to be pervasively misunderstood, where both appear regularly in inhuman and obsessive forms. Time is an undifferentiated continuum in which we either work or consume. Work follows no daily or even weekly rhythms but is a twenty-four hour business, sporadically interrupted by what is often a very hectic form of play. It seems we are either producing or being entertained by a vast industry that purports to guess our wants before we ask and leaves us in so many ways passive. At least, that is the message regularly given by advertising and popular fictions. The strain on the life of the family, as well as the life of the soul, that all this generates is well-documented and the object of vague but powerful anxiety in the culture at large.
If, then, we want to ask some awkward questions as Catholic Christians about the future of civilisation in Europe, we may well direct them on the basis of a Benedictine understanding of time and its uses. Authentic culture needs rhythms of activity and retrieval, recovery of the self; the great British Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst liked to say that the creation of a meaningful culture was the whole process by which the world to which humanity belonged became the world that belonged to humanity (see the posthumous collection of his papers, Multiple Echo, London, DLT, 1979, especially pp.55-6). Culture has to be more than the round of producing and being entertained. It must be the context in which humanity is allowed to grow – that is, a context in which memory, intelligence and love are allowed to grow. I don’t mean to sound like an Augustinian fundamentalist, but the great doctor’s analysis of human capacity is as good a vehicle as any for grasping what is distinctive about human mental and spiritual life.
So when we think about the processes of production, about the whole pattern of an economy, we should be asking in what sense it is intelligent production – work directed towards the maintenance of a recognisably human environment. That recognisably human environment is, for the Christian believer, one in which the habits of self-examination and the possibilities of self-knowledge are being nourished – one in which the imagination as well as the intellect is matured. Remember, when Benedict speaks about lectio, the goal he presumes is that of self-knowledge, humility and growth in holiness: the dimension of study in the monastic life is not about developing intellectual skills for their own sake, but a way of advancing in understanding of oneself as made in God’s image, as mortal and fragile, subject to temptation and struggle, and as capable by grace of maturing in service. Just as work is there in order to sustain a life in which study may be properly carried out, so study is an activity sustaining a particular kind of human maturity and self-awareness before God. And in turn this is the context in which prayer and praise emerge as the natural crown of the whole pattern of the life of the Rule. The self-aware, intelligent and imaginative disciple who is formed by labour and study knows that the purpose of his or her life is now turning outwards to acknowledge God: proper self-awareness delivers us from self-absorption, since it shows us what kind of beings we are, what we are made for – which is the enjoyment of God.
A civilised life structured around the vision of the Rule is one in which economics is not allowed to set itself up as a set of activities whose goals and norms have no connection with anything other than production and exchange. We have to ask what it is that economics sustains – its own business or an environment of human development, intelligence and awareness? This poses questions about Europe’s use of its economic influence in the wider world; about the way in which the incorporation into the European community of less economically developed nations offers a model of collaboration between wealthier and poorer states; about the degree to which European states are willing to use their internal resources for humane education, resisting the creeping functionalisation of education and research; and, not least, about the fate of our literal material environment in the processes of production.. The environmental question, with all its current urgency, is not just one of survival; it is about our capacity to understand the world in which we live as more than a storehouse of useful raw material for us. It is about how we learn to see the world that does indeed – remembering Cornelius Ernst’s phrase - in some sense ‘belong to us’ through our intelligence and labour as being also something to be contemplated with delight, not only utilised for our convenience. It is a question about our own humanity and its need for space, for contemplative wonder, and for receiving what we had not planned or asked.
And the Benedictine structuring of time stands as a potent reminder of the balances we risk losing in a culture obsessed with production and reluctant to locate that production in a broader picture of human activity and growth. The pressing issue is how we sustain a civilisation capable of asking itself questions about its purpose and its integrity; only a civilisation that can do this will generate people – citizens – who can turn away from individual instinct and self-protection, whether in adoration of God or in compassion for the needy, because they know what sort of beings they are, mortal, interdependent, created out of love and for love.
I have just mentioned interdependence, and this leads me to my second Benedictine category for cultural interrogation – obedience. As the Rule insists, especially in its fifth chapter, obedience for the monk is the practice of constantly being ready to suspend a purely individual will or perception for the sake of discovering God’s will in the common life of the community. It is not quite the same as the submission of disciple to teacher in the desert monastic tradition because the Rule is so much more concerned with the pragmatic issues of organised common life and with the particular requirements this places upon the abbot. The abbot has to discern the needs and the common calling of the community; and when the individual monk obeys the abbot it is a submission to the outcome of a remarkably complex and nuanced process on the part of the abbot and the community as a whole. One of the most striking aspects of the Rule for someone discovering it for the first time is what we might call the ‘mirror effect’ in regard to obedience: the abbot has to listen and attend with intense concentration to the specific requirements and gifts of the individual members of the community (chapter 2.31-2). The one to whom obedience is due is one who is called to exemplary obedience to the Rule itself (65) but also to a sort of ‘obedience’ to every brother. If obedience is the silencing of the purely individual will, the abbot must above all be a model of this silencing, someone who will not pursue an individual agenda but seek the immense, elusive goal of a common life in which each can recognise their good and their flourishing in the life they share and their mutual dependence. It is worth looking at the candid discussion in chapters 21 and 65 of the way in which the administration of the monastery has to be structured so as to avoid giving any hint of solitary authority for the enforcing of individual goals. And the well-known injunction (chapter 3) to remember that ‘the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger’ adds a surprising and important perspective to this picture of mutual obedience, in counterpoint rather than contradiction with.the simple recommendation in chapter 71 of routine obedience from junior to senior in the community.
The community envisaged by the Rule is therefore not in any way a unit dominated by individual will, however strongly the injunctions may be phrased about surrendering to authority. That authority attempts to be, not representative in the modern sense, but at least systematically attentive to the diversity of character and experience within the community. Most significantly, perhaps, the community’s discipline does not assume that there is a ‘natural’ order of precedence established by the world outside which dictates the degree to which you are taken seriously in the community. Seniority is a matter determined within the monastery (chapter 63), primarily related to the date of entry, except as the abbot may determine. It is, we could say, the scope of your involvement in the community’s life that defines your standing, not any external criterion such as wealth or social status or education, or even chronological age. Put the other way around, no-one’s voice in the community is automatically dismissed or minimised because of the lack of wealth, status and so on. The community is one in which the ‘currency’ of exchange is not restricted by social or historic accident; commitment to the community is the ground upon which the right to be heard is based.
Once again, how does all this relate to the questions we might want to put to our continent and its culture at the present time? The first point is obviously about the valuation of diversity in the Rule. It is not anything remotely resembling the rather passive pluralism which seems to be the default position of many kinds of postmodernity. There is a clear and unambiguous assumption that there is such a thing as a common good and that therefore each distinct diverse perspective is open to challenge; Benedictine obedience is to do with this, not with some generalised submission of one person’s will to the power of another. But there is an equally unambiguous refusal of any sort of competitive struggle for the dominance of one individual or group, and a set of checks and balances to offset any risk attaching to the strong emphasis on the abbot’s authority. Authority is the negotiating of a variety of gifts in order to sustain a society in which all are at work for the sake of each other’s flourishing and (in the monastic context) holiness).
In the macropolitical scene, this implies a serious valuation of cultural diversity – of local language and custom – and a suspicion of those trends that associate authority either with an isolated professional class or with an economically dominant partner in the community of states. The bureaucratic urge to homogenise is one which Christians have every reason to resist; and the characteristic style of international planning and debate needs to allow the less materially advantaged partners a free voice. One of the more positive factors of some of the language of European politics in recent decades has been the emphasis on regional autonomy – a recognition that the solid and inflexible concepts of national sovereignty that have prevailed in the modern period cannot do full justice to actual cultural diversity and the need for appropriate local freedoms.
A European community (in the strict sense, and in the looser sense of the general geographical ensemble of European countries) that reflected something of the Benedictine vision would be one in which smaller nations and minorities within nations would be assured of a voice. And, to pick up a point that is especially pertinent in our present situation, it would be one that did not panic about migrants. The migrant group that is prepared to work within the civic framework of a host society, that aspires simply to citizenship, is one whose voice in the community overall is of significance alongside those who have a longer history and a political or economic advantage. Once within the relationships of purposeful common life, the facts of coming from ethnically or religiously different backgrounds should not disenfranchise them. The basic importance of ‘obedience’, in the full sense give by the Rule to that word, requires governing authorities to listen to diversity and to ask how the overall balance of nation or transnational grouping needs to be adjusted so as to incorporate both the gifts and the needs of the incoming stranger who is seeking not simply hospitality (the Rule’s priorities are clear about what to do in such a case) but shared belonging.
How this is achievable when we confront groups whose basic assumptions about civic identity appear to be different from our own historic ideals is of course a major challenge. While it is a facile and dangerous fiction to think of Islamic civic ideals and Christian or Western ones as so different that they cannot be sensibly compared, there is undoubtedly a spectrum of understanding from the ideologically secular liberal through to the most inflexible Muslim primitivist (the kind who elects to ignore most of Islamic history and jurisprudence in favour of a supposed adherence to the bare data of initial revelation). But once we have stopped thinking of this as inevitably a standoff between rational pluralism and simple theocracy – once we have actually begun to think about how to conduct debates over civic identity across some of these frontiers – the way is open to a properly ‘Benedictine’ questioning as to how we shape a common civic purpose out of these new diversities rather than assuming that this is now a level of diversity with which we can’t cope.
There are, so to speak, no ‘abbots’ in this macropolitical European scene. But it would be a mistake to suppose that this was necessarily a point at which every parallel with the Rule broke down unless we could create (God forbid) some unitary hierarchy across the European community. The abbot in the Rule is the authority who commands trust because of his own exemplary living out of the basic values of the community and because of its capacity to involve and respect the diverse concerns and needs of all who belong. What we should say, therefore, is simply that whatever the institutions are that seek the coherence and mutual intelligibility of the political communities of Europe, they should be marked by ‘abbatial’ virtues – by the way that authority itself reflects or embodies the careful listening that it itself demands; so that what is in view is always and only a corporate identity that can be owned and trusted by those for whom it acts. And this means also, it hardly needs saying, that such authority has to be self-critical and transparent, in just the ways expected of a superior in the Rule; it is not merely a way of keeping an uneasy peace between factions and interests but a creative search for what lies beyond any existing account of a group’s interest and agenda. Borrowing a Hegelian insight refined by the late Gillian Rose in her political philosophy, we must say that every initial self-description of a person’s or a community’s interest is necessarily involved in error to the extent that it has not yet fully engaged with what is other to it, with the stranger whose presence may first be felt as a threat or a problem. Good governance and government is always about an engagement with the other, a developing relation that is neither static confrontation nor competition, but an interaction producing some sort of common language and vision, a common vision that could not have been defined in advance of the encounter.
And this leads on to a brief consideration of my third contribution from the Rule, which I have called in a rather shorthand way participation. As we have seen, one of the abbot’s tasks is to find the sort of labour appropriate to the capacity of each; but this takes it for granted that each member of the community needs to be active in the common work of the community, even if they are unwell or not particularly competent (chapter 48). Similarly, ‘no-one will be excused from kitchen service unless he is sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery’ (chapter 35). The monastery both demands from each a positive and distinctive share in sustaining its life, and gives to each the dignity of responsibility for that life, in every prosaic detail. This cannot be a community in which some live at the expense of others, or in which some are regarded as having nothing to offer and are mere pensioners or objects of charity. The apportioning of work is a sign of just that ‘listening’ to the need of each member to be taken seriously that is at the heart of Benedict’s understanding of authority. If , as was suggested earlier, work is the sustaining of a properly human and intelligent corporate ecology, it is not only in creating the material conditions for this but in the very fact of work being understood as a matter of shared dignity or creativity.
In this perspective, then, a community of states and societies needs to be one in which there is clear commitment to setting free the specific contribution of each partner. This is partly about the diffusion of economic resources, but, as already indicated, it is also something to do with the preservation of minority culture and language. To pursue the metaphor of an ecology for a moment, we are speaking of commitment to human and cultural ‘biodiversity’. But this is not a matter of some benevolent central power ‘licensing’ minorities in what you could call an Indian reservation model; it must involve the kinds of active cultural exchange that help to provide resources for challenging the centralising and impersonal pull of bureaucracy. And it must also be a ground on which there may grow a global commitment to the same principles. If within Europe it is not enough to hand out subsidies to the disadvantaged, it must be recognised that the same applies worldwide. The aim is not to avoid disaster by ‘ambulance’ provision but to equip and regenerate.
In the era of global marketing, one of the consistently pressing moral questions is how to avoid creating perpetually dependent and powerless enclaves, reservoirs of cheap labour or raw materials in which there is no scope for exercising real economic liberty, for individuals or societies. The Rule presupposes that a viable working community does not permanently split into active and passive members. So its question to our current global politics and economics is to do with how far our global systems have the effect for some societies of reducing instead of enhancing full economic freedom for all their citizens, the freedom which defenders of the global market rightly see as the goal to which we should move and the potential which the global economy opens up. Enforced passivity is bad for the soul, says Benedict; in terms of our present situation, it is hard to deny that economic powerlessness of the kind that rapidly and insensitively enforced globalisation breeds may be fertile ground for destructive behaviour – for the self-destructive spirals of collapsing or failing societies, brutalised and deprived of civil dignity, as well as for the frustration that feeds terrorism. These are not automatic processes, of course, and the role of plain political despotism and corruption in disadvantaged economies cannot be ignored. But when there is intense pressure to open up struggling markets and remove subsidies prematurely or pressure to comply with requirements by international financial bodies that strike at the availability of essential goods, this has its part in the crippling of emergent societies and can undermine advances towards accountable and just government. Gradually, many of our economic institutions a swell as the governments of developed countries have become more aware of these risks; moves towards cancellation of unpayable debt represent an important step away from some of the patterns that have prevailed.
If no-one is exempt from the labour both of sustaining and of serving the whole community, no-one should be without the expectation of support and what we now call advocacy. Participation in the common life is also assurance that you will not suffer alone or ignored. European states may argue about social provision, but the fact is that part of the European vision in recent decades has been a conviction of the importance of civil dignities underpinned by publicly resourced care, sometimes direct state provision, sometimes through partnership between state and voluntary agencies. If this diminishes or disappears in the face of economic pressure, we have to ask what the cost is in relation to the trust that a state can command or expect, and to the sense of a guaranteed dignity for all.
I spoke at the beginning of this lecture about the challenge of building a ‘spiritually credible’ civilisation. Some may say that the focus of what has been said here is unduly political or material. But at the back of my mind in all these reflections has been the question of what material and practical priorities assure and underpin the spiritual liberty which ultimately grounds all other liberties. The Benedictine Rule did not set out to ‘save civilisation’; what it did was to define in itself the components of a certain kind of civilisation. You may recall Thomas Merton’s exclamation on his first visit to the abbey of Gethsemani, that he had discovered the only real city in America. The way in which the Benedictine contribution to Europe has sometimes been discussed is in terms of a kind of withdrawal into enclaves where the memory of civilisation was preserved, not always fully understood – a sort of archive of cultural treasures. But, while this is not completely wrong, it misses out the positive contribution of Benedictinism as a model of active Christian life in itself; Benedict’s monks were creators of community before they were librarians, and the vision of human possibility and dignity contained in Benedictine witness was at least as important as the conservation of classical letters – or rather, it gave to the heritage of classical letters a clear and practical application, animated by faith. If the Rule is to be one of the sources for the conservation and renewal of European civilisation in the centuries to come – granted that these centuries may be every bit as brutally anti-humanist as the so-called Dark Ages – it will be because of this sketch of political virtue, not because of any merely conservatory role.
Of course, the politics of the Rule is not something invented by Benedict. It could rightly be said that it is simply a concrete example of the politics of the Body of Christ. The centrality of mutual service, of attention to the distinctive gift of each to all, and above all of the conviction that we are made for contemplative joy – all this is fundamental New Testament anthropology. For the Christian, the vision of the Rule is not an ideal created by some individual political genius, but a reflection of what is revealed in Jesus and the fellowship of Jesus about the essential character of human beings. What the Rule distinctively does is (at least) two things. It asks what the rhythm of life is that will best set human beings free to advance towards the joy for which they are made, how the priority of praise may be embodied in a responsible adult common life that is fully located in the material world. And it asks what the style of authority is that will enable ‘faith beyond resentment’, to borrow the title of a recent book by one of the most creative of English-language theologians, James Alison: how does authority operate to set us free from fear of each other, of our own weaknesses and limitations, of our inability to satisfy what we fantasise to be the demands of a distant God? And in balancing inner and outer work, in looking for self-awareness and expansion of the heart, the Rule refuses to make obligation to God and obligation to the common life competitors for the limited number of hours in the day, and refuses to privilege the gifted and articulate, the ‘professional’. Living out the politics of the body of Christ will always require us to think hard about authority, about the claims of production and the claims of contemplation. Benedict offers direct and practical help with just these things.
We cannot take it for granted that any political order, European or otherwise, will regard it as a priority to make possible a life of contemplative delight in God the Father. But what we can reasonably ask, in the light of the Rule, is that political order should recognise that it cannot survive without space for some exploration of what human identity is. A modern or postmodern society is unlikely, for good or ill, to be overtly committed to a single ideology; but this does not mean that it will not covertly promote this or that picture of human distinctiveness by the way it arranges its business and governance. A laisser-faire reduction to market principles is not neutral in regard to human self-understanding. And a programmatic insistence that religious conviction be relegated to the private sphere reduces the exploration of human identity and awareness to the level of a faintly embarrassing leisure pursuit best kept out of sight as far as possible. The challenge that the politics of the Rule poses is how the public sphere might be able to give space to those practices and institutions that witness to the possibilities of the transcendent; how the ‘rumour’ is kept alive that there are levels of self-understanding and self-giving in service or adoration which keep the world of labour and production in perspective, and expose the world of passive entertainment as a narrowing and trivialising affair. The Rule declares that human communities may exist in which production, reflection and delight can interpenetrate. And it also declares that legitimate authority can be understood as an authority that only requires obedience in the light of practising it – obedience to the law that all hold in common and obedience in the wider sense of attention to the particularities of persons and situations.
We shan’t find in the Rule the ingredients of a constitution for any state or federation; but we shall find a set of perspectives on political virtue in the presence of God which will give some edge to the questions that Christians should be putting to the prevailing systems of power in our world today and tomorrow. Patron saints are not there to be benign mascots; they are given so that nations and groups and individuals may have identifiable friends in the company of heaven who will give a particular direction and sharpness to the challenges of the gospel. We need to recover Benedict as that kind of patron for our presently confused continent; there is still much to do to spell out further the ways in which, both confronting and affirming, his Rule may open some windows in a rather airless political room and create a true workshop for the spirit (chapter 4)