Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Esther de Waal on St Benedict

Each term the Anglican church of St Giles here in Oxford offers a series of themed lunchtime talks by distinguished speakers on an appropriate theme of spirituality and church life. This term the topic is St Benedict and Benedictine spirituality. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the first two, but I made the effort to go today as the speaker was Esther de Waal. Over many years Mrs de Waal has established herself as a well known writer and retreat conductor on the application of St Benedict's Rule, particularly for the laity.

In, I think, 1990, I attended a week long retreat on the Benedictine way at Glastonbury which she led. For that week we led an adapted version of the Benedictine life. We also had talks by monks from Downside and by other speakers - Geoffrey Ashe and Douglas Dales on the history of the legends of Glastonbury and on St Dunstan respectively.  Not a little of that week has remained with me, and I wanted to hear her again.


St Benedict

Image: clydemonastery.org

In her talk today Esther de Waal concentrated on the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict and drew out its inherent poetic qualities. She is of the view that like a poem the Rule of St Benedict is designed to make us stop in our tracks and think about what we are doing.

The text of the Prologue can be accessed here and we were urged to take away the copies we were given and to not only read  it, but to read it aloud so as to savour the ideas St Benedict was seeking to transmit.

In the story of him leaving Rome after his studies with his old nurse Esther de Waal sees an image of St Benedict leaving Rome equipped with Wisdom, for which the nurse is a symbol. That pursuit of Wisdom through the Rule and then by living the Benedictine life is central to her presentation of the Benedictine vision for today. Thus the Divine Light, a reference to II Cor., iii,18, is the light that makes us like God, makes us into the likeness of God,  and is exemplified by the Transfiguration. This is part of the Divine exhuberance, and the source of St Benedict's desire wherein he wants to energise the faithful in Christ.

So St Benedict bases his approach on the return of the Prodigal Son to set out his school of the Lord's service. Mrs de Waal stressed that the approach of some, particularly in the US, was to see the Rule as a lifestyle self-improvement guide, and that it most cetainly is not to be understood in that way.

Nor did she think it should be, in effect, re-written, as some feminist writers and commentators have sought to do, so as to suit modern predilictions and attitudes. St Benedict stands on his own ground, and that should suffice for us.

So for the modern laity the three Benedictine vows are to be followed in their original intent. So Stability involves us not running away, not indulging in escapism but dealing with life as it is and where we are.

Obedience is, literally, to listen. Hence in a monastery the cloister is always a quiet space in the midst of the day to day management of the monastic community. As individuals we need to make provision for that quiet space in our daily lives.

In the call to Conversion we are called to the metanoia of going forward to meet the challenges we are called to face.

The result is a continuing transformation of the individual, and to discover that the heart expands as it grows in the love of Christ.

Thus, based on the story in St Gregory's Dialogues, at the end of his life St Benedict came to see as God sees - in a vision shortly before his death he saw the world and all it contained as small and like a  nut (my memory recalled Julian of Norwich's vision at this point) and that he had become so united to God that he saw with the Divine vision.

After her talk I had the opportunity to reintroduce myself to the speaker and say that I still recalled insights from that week at Glastonbury.

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