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, 8 November 2012

The Abbot of Belmont on Benedictine Liturgy

The speaker today about Benedictine Spirituality at St Giles church in Oxford was the Abbot of Belmont, the Rt Rev Paul Stonham OSB. As I have stayed at Belmont I was particularly interested to hear him and his thoughts on liturgy and prayer in the Benedictine tradition.

His emphasis was on the cohesion and integrity of monastic prayer. He saw it as a tradition that had developed and varied with time, and continues to do so. Thus whereas in the wake of Vatican II there had been a purge of extraneous additions, he now saw these returning, and could forsee a future time when they would again be removed.

Vatican II gave discretion to monastic communities to celebrate the Offices in accordance with their particular circumstances  - a move which he welcomed. As it was once expressed to him there was a need to ensure that the opus dei  did not become the onus dei.

Fifty years ago he thought not a few monks did not know Latin, and the Office was recited automatically without attention being paid to the meaning. Often the Offices were run together, with long sessions in church of Mattins, Lauds, Prime, the private Masses of the monks, the Conventual Mass and Terce, all in one more or less continuous block.

Now it is usual to say the Offices at the proper time of day - St Benedict 's insistence on things being accomplished by daylight pre-dated by many centuries the invention of moderns means of artificial lighting.

The public prayer of the community had, from the beginning been different from that of cathedral canons. This has survived in the choral offices of the Church of England, and the public recitation of the Office, a tradition which he regretted was lacking in the Catholic Church.There was a Benedictine tradition of memorising the Office, particularly when books were a scarce resource; thus the little hours were learned so as to say them when working in fields, or Complice so it could be said without artificial light. He cited the example of a Czech monk he had met at Norcia who after years of imprisonment in his home country by both Nazis and Communists had escapedand lived there in exile. He knew the Office by heart, a legacy of solitary confinement.

The tradition of Lectio Divina was a long standing one. The modern method of seeing first what the text actually says, then what it means, followed by what it means to or for the particular reader leads then to contemplative prayer. The aim is that it forms part of the monk, in effect, and leading to him praying all the time.

Communal life had changed markedly over the centuries, and now was not same sort of life as in earlier centuries, let alone that which St Benedict described. One major change was to monks having their own cells rather than sleeping in a single dormitory - thus the individual monk's cell was the most likely place for him to engage in lectio divina. Similarly the Benedictine emphasis on silence was partly to manage the realities of a large number of men (or women) sharing all their communal living spaces.

The Bible was at the heart of monastic prayer. In the past portions of it would have been memorisesd and the text copied for personal use. As arezsult monastic scriptoria produced many biblical commentaries - he cited the works in this vein of St Bede as an early English example. There was a consequential identification of the concept of the Biblical word  as the Word, that is Christ in the Benedictine tradition.
The talk, with its emphasis on the prayer life of monasticism, and not just on the functions and practicalities of daily monastic life, as is so often found in descriptions of the horarium and daily life, was a valuable corrective and reminder of what monasticism is intended to achieve for the individual  and for the community.

That said the Abbot had no illusions about the fact that monastic life required a constant application to its routines and structures by the individual monk - as one fellow Benedictine had once said to him the life was simply "one damn thing after another." Thus does the monk make his spiritual progress!

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