Sermon for Matins: Introduction to series on Benedict

2 September 2007 at :00 am

“Avoid all pride and self-importance. Don’t drink to excess nor over-eat. Don’t be lazy nor give way to excessive sleep. Don’t be a murmurer and never in speaking, take away the good name of another”.

These are words from the Fourth Chapter of the Rule of St Benedict, the rule by which the monks who formed the community here in Westminster Abbey between the 10th and 16th centuries would have lived.

During this month of September, at Matins, I’m going to explore different aspects of Benedict’s Rule ~ this will include looking at his teaching on perseverance and stability; the necessity for change and conversion; living a balanced life and the importance of the community around us.

Today though, by way of introduction let’s first remind ourselves about Benedict himself.

Benedict was born in 480 in Italy, in the Umbrian province of Nursia, into a fairly wealthy family. As a young man he went to Rome to study the liberal arts, but he soon tired of the decadent culture around him and so left to live a simple life as a hermit in the countryside around Subiaco.

For about three years he lived in a cave on a hillside, alone apart from the help of a neighbouring monk who brought him food and kept his whereabouts secret.

However, Benedict was soon discovered by those, who like him, were looking for a more meaningful way of life. The number of these followers grew so rapidly that Benedict established twelve small monasteries in the hills around.

After some years, in the late 520s, Benedict left this area and went south to Monte Cassino, taking some of the monks with him. Here he built a new monastery and remained in it for the rest of his life.

Benedict slowly acquired a widespread reputation as a saintly man, his fame grew and his way of monastic life spread over the whole of Europe.

It was a way of life adopted by many thousands of men and women back in the 6th century, providing them with a desperately needed sense of security and stability at a time when society as a whole was in turmoil following the fall of Rome and its Empire.

Benedict’s concept for a monastery was that it should live as a household or family under the care of an abbot. His monks were to live a balanced way of life based on worship, prayer, reading the scriptures, practical work and the offering of hospitality. His rule running to 73 chapters covers all these aspects of life.

And it was this way of life which was established here at Westminster by St Dunstan in the year 960 and which was to continue for the next 600 years.

So I invite you now to use your imaginations to step back in time and reflect on what life would have been like for those monks who lived here under Benedict’s rule.

Much of the Abbey as occupied by the monks can still be seen today. You can wander into the ancient Cloisters; see the Chapter House and the site of the Monks Infirmary Chapel as you leave this service.

From ancient records and manuscripts we’re able to get a fairly clear picture of how they lived: Getting up in the middle of the night, leaving their dormitory to come down the steps which you see over there in the South Transept, in order to start their daily round of services.

These began at 2am with Matins and continued with seven further services finishing with Compline, the last office of the day at around 7pm.

Each day the community gathered in the Chapter House where a portion of the rule was read.

Then the monks spent time in the Cloisters where they studied and copied manuscripts. They ate together in the Refectory and slept on straw mattresses in the Common Dormitory.

So life for them would have been austere in many ways, certainly in comparison with ours ~ but there were times when they had the opportunity to make merry and some of the records show that it wasn’t uncommon for them to over-indulge with both food and alcohol.

Although study and prayer played such an important part in their lives there was also the necessity for a fair amount of physical work as the Abbey had extensive gardens, a pig farm, and an orchard; together with a granary, mill, brew house and kitchens.

A monk known as the Cellarer had oversight of all this area of abbey life and for making sure that visitors received generous hospitality.

Although they lived in this close-knit community, the monks also had quite a lot to do with the neighbourhood around the abbey, much of which was very poor.

One of the monks, known as the Almoner was responsible for making sure that food and alms were distributed to those in need and that the sick were cared for.

When the monastery was dissolved by Henry V111 in 1540 we might think this way of life died out, but it didn’t.

Although the monks were replaced by a Dean and Canons, certain aspects of the monastic way of life were to some extent, maintained, and still are today.

The Abbey with the Shrine of St Edward, the High Altar and Quire at its heart continues to be a house of prayer ~ with Matins and Evensong said and sung daily and with the frequent offering of the Eucharist.

We still maintain the monastic garden, now known as College Garden and said to be the oldest cultivated garden in England.

The Abbey continues to be a place of study and research ~ with a Canon Theologian, a librarian and the keeper of the muniments, amongst others, enabling countless people to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the Christian Faith and the history of the Abbey.

We maintain the tradition of giving alms to people in great need and once again one of the canons takes responsibility for this aspect of our life ~ and is still known as the Almoner.

Offering hospitality to thousands and thousands of visitors each year is a further example of living out the Benedictine Rule today.

But, most important of all, as we think the Rule of Benedict, is the place of prayer and worship in our daily lives.

For the monks, everything they did flowed from the firm foundation of reciting the psalms and reading the scriptures and offering their lives to God through their worship.

For the Dean and Chapter and the rest of the Abbey Community today, it is the daily round of worship which lies at the heart of life here and gives meaning to everything else we do.

So as a Chapter we could have the most learned academics, offer the most lavish hospitality and be the most generous donors to charity, but if that failed to flow from our worship of God it would become meaningless.

For me, the image of the monks being here in the Abbey for those eight offices each day is what gives us most inspiration today. Of course it is impractical for the majority of us to have that kind of prayer life ~ but even if we spend a short time in disciplined prayer each day, that perhaps will help us to let God into all the other parts of our lives.

Benedict certainly believed this, as he wrote in his chapter on “Our Approach to Prayer”:

“We believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord gaze everywhere.”

Benedict’s rule grew out of a search for a meaningful way of life in the midst of a world which often seemed to be in turmoil. Whoever we are and whatever we are doing in our daily lives, that surely must be the goal for all of us.

Benedict was born in 480 in Italy, in the Umbrian province of Nursia, into a fairly wealthy family. As a young man he went to Rome to study the liberal arts, but tired of the decadent culture around him and left to live a simple life as a hermit in the countryside around Subiaco, about 30 miles outside the city. For about three years he lived in a cave on a hillside, alone apart from the help of a neighbouring monk who brought him food and kept his whereabouts secret.

However, Benedict was soon discovered, both by the local people and also by those who like him, were looking for a more meaningful way of life. The number of these followers grew so rapidly that Benedict established 12 small monasteries in the hills around, each with about a dozen monks.

After some years, in the late 520s, Benedict left this area and went south to Monte Cassino, taking some of the monks with him. Here he built a new monastery and remained in it for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, his sister, St Scholastica, established a community of nuns nearby.

Benedict slowly acquired a widespread reputation as a saintly man, his fame grew and his way of monastic life spread over the whole of Europe. His Rule runs to 73 chapters and covers many aspects of life. His concept for a monastery was that it should live as a household or family under the care of an Abbot; the ideals were to be stability and perseverance in the life together, as well as obedience to the Abbot, to one another and to the will of God.

As we read his Rule today we may find some of it rather austere and strict, however Benedict wouldn’t have viewed is in this way. He saw his Rule as being moderate and balanced and he encouraged a way of life based on worship, prayer, reading the scriptures, practical work and the offering of hospitality. This way of life was adopted by many thousands of men and women back in the 6th century and at that time the movement provided desperately needed security, stability and peace in Europe, at a time when society as a whole was being torn apart following the Fall of Rome and its Empire.

Even in our time, over 1,400 communities of men and women still live according to the Benedictine rule and many more people find that it offers inspiration and guidance for them in their daily lives out in the world.

Later in this short act of worship we shall hear some words from the Rule itself.

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