Sermon preached at Evensong on 13 March 2016 by Revd Helen O’Sullivan - Priest Vicar & Chaplain

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Sermon preached at Evensong on 13 March 2016 by Revd Helen O’Sullivan - Priest Vicar & Chaplain

Revd Helen chooses St Benedict as her 'Saint for our Day' - keeping the rumour of God alive 

 

No quiz is complete without the ‘what connects’ question ...you know the sort of thing: it might go something like - what connects the Umbrian town of Norcia, with the College of Arms over the road here in the City of London? Well in this case, the officers of the arms, and the inhabitants of Norcia - along with sufferers of gall-stones, cavers, school pupils, coppersmiths, and many others - all have St Benedict watching over them as their patron.

 

Looking at the subjects chosen in our Lent series

 

Saints for our day, keeping the rumour of God alive - you might well wonder what connects them - CS Lewis, Dolly Parton, Desmond Tutu, Janani Luwum, Benedict and Egeria.


Imagine them in a room together - very different personalities, very different passions, but each in their own way able to keep the rumour of God alive for us who have chosen to speak about them.

 

So how is that true of Benedict for me? Well, here I have to make a confession, because it’s not actually Benedict that I am going to talk about. That’s partly because the only record of his life we have is a rather questionable account written by Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century - some 50 years after the death of Benedict.

 

But it is really because it is not encountering Benedict that changed the course of my life but my first encounter with his Monks and with his rule.

 

But a little background on Benedict for those who have not encountered him before. Born in 480 in Norcia (Nursia in its more familiar form) the son of nobleman, Benedict was sent to study in Rome, but apparently scandalised by the loose morals of his fellow students, and Roman society in general, he abandoned his studies and, accompanied by his faithful old nurse, travelled to Affile - but having attracted attention to himself by miraculously mending a sieve - he left Affile, and his nurse and sought complete solitude at Subiaco.

 

After some three years in a cave, a nearby community of monks asked if he would become their abbot, he did so somewhat reluctantly and his initial hesitation proved visionary when sometime later, fed-up with his reforms, the monks attempted to poison him. He returned to his hermitage and over time attracted more followers who Benedict formed into a colony of several groups of twelve monks under the care of a prior - after the model of Jesus and his twelve disciples.

 

Around 525 there was another attempt to poison Benedict (he clearly wasn’t the easiest of masters) and so he left Subiaco with a small group of loyal monks and founded the great monastery at Monte Cassino, and it was there, towards the end of his life, that Benedict wrote his ‘very small rule for beginners’ as he called it.

 

My first encounter with the rule was at Worth Abbey in Sussex as a rather opinionated and naively confident 18 year old, some might say I haven’t changed much except for the grey hairs. But it was encountering the living embodiment of this very small rule that had, and continues to have, a profound impact on my life.
 
The genius of the rule for me is that it is simple, and it is short. It may well have been based on an earlier code for monastic life - the Rule of the Master - but Benedict’s rule is more humane in that recognises and it is realistic about our human frailty, our weakness and so it is a gentler rule but without compromising the goal - to be living proof of a loving God.

 

It was written for the regulation of monastic life and so you might wonder what it can offer you today; well we all live in community of one sort or another and putting aside the instructions on the portions of scripture to be read and the psalms to be sung over the course of the day in chapel, most of the rule sets out how we are to relate to one another in the school of the Lord’s service which is the family, community, organisation to which we belong and within which we rub up against one another.

 

Listen, says Benedict in the prologue to his rule, with the ears of the heart, listen with the ears of the heart, that simple injunction if applied not only to the reading of the rule but to our lived experience, immediately transforms any encounter.

 

Imagine routinely processing information: not here in the brain, but here with the ears of the heart, tapping into my deepest primal emotions (desire and fear).

 

This is the basis for the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina - which is prayerful meditation on our internal response - typically to a short piece of text (scriptural or not) but I think it can also be extended most helpfully to our daily encounters (not only with ideas) but with each other.

 

Becoming attuned to the echoes produced in our hearts by an encounter, ruminating on those reactions and responses, taking that into prayer, and allowing ourselves to rest in God’s presence, is a powerful way to better understand ourselves, our strengths and our frailty.


But Lectio, this prayerful meditation, is not simply employed in order for us to better understand ourselves - but for the conversion of our wills to more fully conform to God’s will.

 

Conversion of life is one of the Benedictine vows and the practice of Lectio Divina and the absorption of the rule are the tools by which this goal is achieved. Learning the rule is not anything like learning the highway code, it has to be lived, not learnt, and learning to live it is a lifetime's work.

 

The most profound encounter with the spirit of the rule was my encounter with the monks.

 

Hospitality is the bedrock of the rule and it is this, above everything else, that has a continuing impact on my life.


I, this bouncy but stubbornly independent 18 year old, was mortally humbled by an elderly monk of some 60 years in the monastery (and me having been there about five minuets) this monk bowed to me (reverenced me) with such gracious generosity that I could have no doubt but to understand, in an instant and with humbling clarity, that he saw through my outward appearance to the presence of Christ (at that time and no doubt still) rather obscured by my all too human attempts to justify myself, he saw Christ within me.

 

This surely is the goal of all our encounters, to receive one another as if we were receiving Christ.

 

Don’t get me wrong I am still no saint, but remembering that imperative - that comes from Christ himself where in Matthew’s Gospel we read ‘as much as you did it to the least of one of these who are of my family you did it to me’ - remembering this has helped me more than I can say when facing encounters with others that would otherwise bring out the very worst in me.

 

One of those moments was an incident when a frozen chicken was used as a missile - and I am ashamed to say it was me who threw it - in utter frustration with a fellow member of the lay community who lived alongside the monastic community. Luckily for him I am not a very good shot.

We will continually encounter people who push our buttons, we might try (with more or less success) to avoid encountering them, but we surely have the most to learn from the people who are least like us.

 

This attitude of hospitality, a first principal of Benedictine living, is I believe the heart of the Gospel, to receive one another as Christ, not just tolerating one another (tolerance is not the noble attitude it is made out to be) but receiving one another as beloved of God, clothed in righteousness divine as we shall sing in a moment.

 

This little rule, fantastically free of dogma and doctrine but stuffed full of scripture, is not just for monasteries, but for anyone who seeks to live more peaceably with self and neighbour.

 

Let us pray.

 

A prayer of St Benedict

Gracious and Holy Father,
give us the wisdom to discover You,
the intelligence to understand You,
the diligence to seek after You,
the patience to wait for You,
eyes to behold You,
a heart to meditate upon You,
and a life to proclaim You,
through the power of the Spirit of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.