Wayne Smith's occasional blog of pilgrimages and journeys

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday, July 11: The Feast of Benedict

My trip to Birmingham went off without event, and I arrived safely at the home of Peter and Vicky Heywood late yesterday afternoon. All the dioceses in the British Isles have offered hospitality to bishops coming for the Lambeth Conference this weekend, and there are six bishops visiting the Birmingham Diocese. The Heywoods are lay leaders in their parish, St. Philip's, Dorridge, and St. James', Bentley Heath, just a few miles outside Birmingham. Today is a welcomed day of not much activity, for which I am grateful. Tomorrow I go hiking in the Cotswalds and probably will post nothing. Sunday I spend the day with the vicar of the parish, Duncan Hill-Brown, his wife Rachel, who is also a priest, and their daughter Maddy, born just this April. Church at St. James' in the morning, afternoon with the Hill-Browns, service at the Cathedral, and then dinner at Bishops Croft.

My reflection today is on the Feast of St. Benedict, a figure with inestimable significance for the Anglican way of being Christian and the destiny of my pilgrimage through England. The Church at Canterbury began as a monastic foundation in 597, a small group of missionary monks having been sent by the bishop of Rome, Gregory the Great, himself a Benedictine monk. Augustine, the leader of the community, was soon afterward ordained bishop, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. These monks did not bring the gospel to the England, for the British Isles had known Christianity for some centuries by the time of their arrival. But mission is not a one-time proposition, and the Celtic Christianity of those earlier centuries was neither supplanted nor superseded by the style of Christianity brought by these missionary monks. Their remains a Celtic genius within the Anglican way, for which early leaders like Patrick, and Chad, and Hilda rightly receive veneration.

Mission is not bluntly a bringing of Christianity to the “pagans,” and still less is it a bringing of the “right” kind of Christianity, in this case the Latin, to a the “wrong” kind, in this case the Celtic, who very much had their own dignity. Mission at its best, I think, arises out of a holy curiosity about God's other children, and a desire to meet them in the name of Jesus, and because he would have us do so. (Those of you who have read Mary Doria Russell will recognize a paraphrase of the Jesuits' mission, in her fabulous science-fiction work, The Sparrow.) It is in the meeting of the steady monkish manner of being Christian with their wildly imaginative Celtic forebears in Britain that Anglican Christianity finds its voice. For the mission undertaken, we Episcopalians owe a debt, for we are richer for the divine economy that is the result of the encounter, one with another.

Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks around the year 540, and the spirituality expressed in that Rule affected the Church in England far beyond the walls of monasteries. After Augustine came to Canterbury, monasticism spread throughout England through the following centuries, and many ordinary people in the countryside encountered Christianity in its Benedictine expression, simply because the monks were there and no one else was. So pervasive was the Benedictine influence that when Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century went to work shaping the daily office for the Book of Common Prayer, Morning and Evening Prayer, the Benedictine routine of daily prayer provided the raw material for his adaptation and translation. It was a logical resource.

The Benedictine spirituality of balance also affected the English Christianity to which Episcopalians are heirs. Benedict taught that life in community is crucial, and that within that community everyone should work, and study, and pray. He formulated the basic monastic vows—stability (not flitting from monastery to monastery looking for some non-existent perfect monastery), obedience (with an emphasis on the root meaning of the word, which is listen), and conversion of life (because growing in Christ is life-long, or, as Urban T. Holmes III wrote, Anglicanism is more of a marinade than a glaze).

So on this feast day, I also invite you to remember the living presence of Benedict and his rule in the Episcopal Church—for the community of monks at St. Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan, of which community I am a confrater (a non-monastic associate, obligated to adapt the vows to my manner of life and to pray for the community); the Order of the Holy Cross, who follow an adapted rule; the Order of Saint Helena, monastic women who do the same; and the Community of Hope, who teach lay chaplaincy and pastoral care, basing a rule of life on the resources of Benedict's Rule. There Missouri currently has two centers for the Community of Hope, and you can read about them here.


Anonymous said...

We celebrated the Feast of St. Benedict with a eucharist this morning at the Cathedral. We had 12 persons from the Community of Hope join us.

As a good Confrater should!
Praying for you as always!

Deacon Mark Sluss

Kurt said...

Bishop Smith:

Just wanted to drop you a note to let you know that we're featuring headlines from your blog on our religion page. Thought it was interesting that you were doing it, so we wanted to help readers find it. It's on the STLtoday religion page.

If you click any of the headlines, it takes you back to your blog. (http://stltoday.com/religion)

Peace be with you.

-- Kurt Greenbaum

Lisa Fox said...

Thank you for this. It certainly gives me a new insight into the unique way that is Anglican Christianity.

And, once again, thank you for your willingness to share your thoughts in the blogosphere.