St Benedict’s Day
Brother Lawrence Lew OP preached the following fine homily this week for our celebration of St Benedict. Dom Michael cooked a splendid luncheon to follow.
In the Prologue of St Benedict’s holy Rule, the monk is called to “do battle under the Lord Christ”, and as we heard in the second reading, we are all called to put on armour and fight against the Enemy. So, the image of St Michael, typically portrayed here in gleaming armour and victorious over the devil, might seem a fitting reminder of our daily battle. Generally speaking, this is true. But, in a more particular way, perhaps an angelic warrior isn’t so fitting. For despite appearances, monks are not angels but men. Angels, after all possess perfect knowledge, and so, they have nothing to learn. But men, who are changeable, can and do need to learn. Hence St Benedict’s wise Rule famously establishes a “school for the service of the Lord”; a place in which monks learn to be human.
It is tempting to think of monastic life, rapt in song and liturgical splendour, as angelic. And yet, it is vital to resist this. Man is a creature of the earth – that is what adam (in Genesis) means. And the monk is very much a creature of the earth. He works with his hands, and tills the earth. He lives with other people, and so is constantly reminded of his own human failings, and that of others! But above all, he is called to a life of humility, which comes from the word humus, meaning ‘earth’. And so, at the start of his monastic life, a man prostrates himself and clings to the earth, from which he is raised up as a new man, with a new name. His whole monastic life, in which he is schooled in humility, involves learning to be more truly a man of the earth, more fully human as Jesus Christ is. And for the monk, as for every one of us, there are two other temptations that we face.
Like Adam and Eve, one is tempted to overstep our human limitations, and to grasp at what is man’s by divine gift and not by right. As our first reading reminds us, all knowledge and understanding belongs to God, but he gives wisdom to the humble. With pride, we tend to grasp what is properly God’s, and seek to be übermensch. Governments and societies challenge the natural law, and ignore its limitations, they dare to control and manipulate fertility, family, marriage, and even life and death. And closer to home, we often judge others, and so usurp a divine prerogative which God will finally give to his faithful disciples. On the other hand, like Cain, one might behave not as men but as irrational beasts with irrepressible urges, powerless to control one’s desires, and giving in to passion, greed, and violence.
The monastic life stands in opposition to these extremes, and the monk is called to battle against them in his own heart. Citing the psalmist, St Benedict’s Rule reminds us: “Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me”. With humility, he knows man’s natural limitations, and his need of others, and above all, of God. He offers worship to God, as is right and just, and service and hospitality to others, and he cares for the earth, and for beasts. Through this balanced and humane life, the monk receives the gift of wisdom and understanding from the Lord. Such was the humanism of Christian Europe, shaped by the monasteries of St Benedict, and enlightened by the Gospel. In contrast our world, it would appear, lacks wisdom and humane civilization, plunged into another Dark Age by rationalistic and skeptical philosophy, relativism, and atheism. So, the psalmist says: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god’”.
In contrast to the folly of the world, the monastic life reflects a divine wisdom. Against the consumerist temptation to succumb to every desire, pleasure, and emotion, the monk gives witness to what it means to be truly human through the discipline of a vowed life of obedience. For man is endowed with intellect and will, and so he is capable of knowing and loving Another, and of giving his life to the service of God. So, the vowed life is a profoundly free human act, and the monastic life is humanizing. Some might think that a life of obedience is constricting and inhuman, but in fact obedience is a vital part of the spiritual battle to which every Christian is called, and it forms us to be like Christ, who is true God and true Man.
So, in the Prologue, St Benedict says that the monk must take up “the strong, bright weapons of obedience”. It was in perfect obedience that the divine Son took humanity to himself, and became true Man. So, it is also in obedience that the monk learns to take on the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ. This is what the St Paul means when we’re told to put on the armour of God. Effectively, we’re being called to not just receive the virtues and grace of Christ, but to put on Christ, to have his sacred humanity as our defence, to have the Lord as our shield (as Proverbs says). Because only God, living and active in us, can give us victory against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Therefore, St Paul says to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might”. The temptation is to think that we can advance in holiness by our own strength, but we have to leave everything, including our own efforts and achievements, to follow Jesus, and to share his life. Such total dependency on Another is fundamental for humility. Man’s tendency is to rely on his own powers, or to aspire to be an angel or superman, or to create a hedonistic heaven on earth. But we Christians are called to trust completelyin God’s love and mercy, and to rely only on God’s providence and gift. We are called to a humble realization that as men, we can do nothing without God. And so, as St Benedict says, “we… ascend by humility”.
For although the life of a monk is bound to the earth, after his body is planted in the very earth around his monastery, he is bound for heaven. Not as an angel, or a superman, but as a god! This is the astonishing destiny of graced Mankind. Each of us who has been baptized, and who persists in sanctifying grace is elevated above our human nature to a supernatural divine end. Made partakers by grace in the divine life of the Trinity, God raises the humble man from the earth to “inherit eternal life”. This is the divine wisdom that the monk understands, the lesson that he spends a lifetime learning, and which St Benedict’s holy life exemplifies.
St Benedict’s wisdom, which Europe has now forgotten or discarded to its detriment, needs to be re-learnt and proposed anew. St Benedict’s monks have a vital role to play in this new evangelization, and they are fitting reminders of our on-going spiritual warfare. In our fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil, let us, of course, have recourse to angelic warriors, but let us also look to the wisdom and witness of St Benedict, a most fitting icon of our daily “battle under the Lord Christ, the true King”.