Introduction to the 2016 Lent Program at St Martin’s.
It’s still January as I write. I write this during a five-day retreat, which I am grateful to be able to take in order to prepare for this coming Lent. As I write, Lent is unbelievably only a month away. In Lent 2015, we began our study of St Benedict, his rule of life, and the wisdom this ancient wisdom might hold for our increasingly stressed 21st-century lives. This coming Lent in 2016 offers us a chance to build on this foundation, and to go deeper.
To find this five-day retreat window has not been easy to carve space for from my busy routine. I mention this only to tell you how hard I find it to live by the wisdom St Benedict and the Benedictine rule of life, offers. Like most of you, I too struggle with the pressure of modern life-work balance. Unlike many people working in increasingly overly regulated worlds of work, I have fewer excuses in that at least, my role though pressured, offers a certain amount of freedom of choice as to how I structure my time. This reminds me of that interesting statistic: that 60% of our stress is internally driven. I am sure the Type A personalities among us understand what I mean.
Benedict was born in the Northern Italian town of Nursia, sheltered among the Appenine Hills, in 480. He died at Monte Cassino just north of Naples in 543. From the beginning of the 3rd-century, the foundations of the Roman Empire often referred to as the pax Romana, the basis of economic and geopolitical stability had begun to fracture. In its wake invasion and massive waves of migration led to serious social and economic instability, the like of which Europe is experiencing once again with the massive migration of populations from the Middle East and elsewhere. Benedict lived in a time when the massive migrations of barbarian tribes from further north had resulted in Germanic social structures settling down upon Roman social and cultural foundations, with all the chaos, fear and suspicion attendant upon two cultures coming into close proximity. The armies of Rome were not yet vanquished and this led to a series of military defeats for the invading tribes. Rome tried to enslave the German Goths only to discover that they made very poor and volatile slaves. Rome eventually discovered they made better tenant farmers, and so Benedict grew up in a region where Italian and Gothic rural farming cultures had become intertwined, at least economically. As the centralised power of Rome dwindled, a local economy of mutual cooperation and common concern arose. Benedict had a first-hand experience of life in a culture of antagonistic differences during a period of rapid change.
I won’t go too much into Benedict’s personal journey. A quick search on Wikipedia will give you all the information you need. The point I want to emphasise is that the wisdom he acquired in order to become the Father of Western Monasticism flowed from his experience of a world in many ways very similar to our own. We too live in a period when the economic and geopolitical stability of the last 50 years of the pax Americana is fracturing. You have only to listen to the current rhetoric of the presidential primaries to get a sense of the unforeseen consequences that rapidly flow from such fracturing. We too live in a world where existing orders are threatened by waves of population movement unparalleled since 1945.
What is Benedict’s Wisdom?
Benedict codifed existing tradition and combined it with his own brand of practical spiritual common sense into what is known as a rule of life. This way of life was rooted in three vows, Stability – rootedness, Obdience- listening, and Conversion of life – growing with change. Wil Derkse, a Dutch writer on Benedict and practitioner notes that it has direct application to our modern frenetic lives through the application of attitudes:
- Cultivating a culture of background silence in world of continuous background noise, so as to be able to recognise what needs attention.
- Approaching our daily work not as a necessary evil so as to live for the weekend or vacation, or retirement. Benedict teaches that daily work is a necessary good through which we contribute to our own flourishing and that of the community around us.
- Balancing work with study (a pursuit not only for intellecturals) and reflection or prayer (not only for the holy).
- Cultivating the courage to serve (humility). We are all vulnerable, inadequate beings, but we have a capacity to grow. This growth results from service in which we place others needs of equal value to our own.
- Holding to the values of hospitality, tender competence in areas of relationship and husbanding of resources, patience, perseverance, courage and generativity- by which one generation helps another to grow towards fruitful independance. Derkes comments that this contrasts strongly with a culture of isolation, laxity, sloppy waste, cynicism, coarseness, and the quick gleaning of competneces in instrumental contexts of learning.
- Importance of discipline- the correction of what is wrong, and frugality practiced with an attitude of celebration and joy in contrast with a culture of indfferent tolerance, overconsumption, and unlimited superficial pleasure.
- Benedict stresses good personal and social life rests on listening attentively from the heart and speaking good words. In a world of mass communication speaking evil results in the erosion of mutual respect and as we see all around us leads increasingly to violence.
Lent 2016 at St Martin’s
The wisdom of Benedict and the Benedictine tradition, a tradition that has been overwhelmingly formative upon Anglican Tradition, has much to teach us as we struggle to make sense of what it means to be Christian in 21st-century America. This coming Lent we will explore a program developed by the Society of St John The Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. SSJE is the oldest men’s community in the Episcopal Church and follows a rule of life modeled on Benedictine wisdom. The program is titled Growing a Rule of Life. The program allows for individual as well as group participation through by offering a 5-week program workbook supported by daily videos and weekly group discussions. Even if you can;t make the group discussions, you can still take part individually. To subscribe as individuals to the video series go to www.SSJE.org/growrule.
Once you sign up and download your work book (we will also provide hard copies of the workbook if you prefer) you can use the daily videos and 5-week workbook on your own or join our weekly group discussions on Tuesday evenings. Beginning on Tuesday, February 16th our weekly Lent discussion evenings will begin with Stations of the Cross and Holy Communion at 5.30 pm, followed by supper at 6.15 pm and discussion at 7 pm. Each discussion session is designed for on hour and we will finish with the service of Compline, at 8.10 pm. The evening ends around 8.30 pm.
We hope to see you then. The program is open to all who might care to take part in it. At St Martin’s we are a dynamic Christian community that is only strengthened by your presence among us.
For Benedict study meant reading scripture. Copies of The Story will also be made available so that we can as a community begin to read the Bible over the course of the next year. The Story is the Bible rewritten as a chapter novel. As a community we will read and then have regular opportunities in the Sunday morning Christian Formation hour to share our experience together.
Please check back as new resources will be continually added to assist you in our 2016 Lenten Study Program.