Blessing of the Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford
On Sunday 7th October, Fr Abbot blessed Professor Werner G. Jeanrond as Master of St Benet's Hall, a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford, run by the Ampleforth community. Prof. Jeanrond took up his appointment on September 1st 2012, and is the first lay Master in the history of the Hall. The blessing took place during the office of Vespers, which was held in the Priory Church of the Holy Spirit, Blackfriars, at the kind invitation of the Prior and Community.
Dear Werner and Betty, Brethren and friends in this congregation, we are meeting here this afternoon to mark in a very particular way the beginning of Werner’s time of service as Master of St Benet’s Hall. We marking this transition from a succession of monk-Masters to the first lay-Master of the Hall by a prayer of blessing within the service of Vespers because Professor Jeanrond and I are agreed that God is and must be at the centre of the life of our Hall – and it is to his greater glory that all our efforts in the coming years will be dedicated.
At the very beginning of his Rule St Benedict says “Ausculta” (Hatton Manuscript 48, Bodleian Library), that is “Listen”, “Listen, my Son, to the instructions of the Master” (RB Prol 1). Benedict is speaking, of course, to the young man who desires life, who desires wisdom, to the one who wishes to find the object of his heart’s desire – that is to say to the young man who is seeking God and who is determined to seek him for the rest of his days. Benedict, indeed the monastic tradition as a whole, is very clear about where the young man will find this wisdom: it is to be found in the pages of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments, in the writings of the holy catholic Fathers, in the Lives, Institutes and Conferences of the Fathers, in the Rule of the Holy Father Basil (cf RB 73.2-5) and in the pages of the book of nature (cf Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, Bk 4, Ch 23 referring to Anthony, “To the good Anthony there came a philosopher of the day and said: “Father, how do you hold up deprived as you are of the solace of books?” Anthony said, “My book, philosopher, is nature, and thus I can read God’s language at will.”).
The first task of a teacher, then, is to encourage the young to listen, to listen not just with the mind but also with the heart because wisdom is not simply a cerebral construct, it involves the integration of mind and spirit. But we would make a significant mistake if we were to think that this listening is some kind of passive exercise: it is not. This listening requires the exercise of the thinking mind; it involves a quest for the truth. We see this illustrated in the seemingly simple question of Jesus recounted for us in the gospel according to St Mark, “Who do men say I am?” (Mark 8.28) And the apostles gave him a variety of answers. The answers they gave were good answers, reasonable answers; answers which they could easily justify by reference to what was already known. “But who do you say I am?” (Mark 8.29) And Peter who was not, let us be honest, one of nature’s great intellects; Peter who had been thinking and reflecting about what he had seen and heard; Peter who was open to the workings of the Holy Spirit; made that great leap of faith and answered, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8.29). You are the Christ, you are the Messiah, you are the Saviour, our Saviour, the one who is going to lead us to our Creator; you are Truth incarnate, you are Love made flesh.
As Catholic Christians we believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we believe that it is important to explore as fully as we can the meaning of the Sacred Scriptures and the implications of the ancient creeds. We consider it essential to probe into the workings of the world which surrounds us and so come to a fuller understanding of the God who is revealed to us in Word and World. We believe in the quest for Truth and we understand that sometimes that means following very literally in the footsteps of Christ because searching for the Truth is not always a popular business. Furthermore, we believe that this Truth for which we search should influence the way we live out the lives we have been given – and living according to the dictates of the Truth is rarely a popular undertaking; but it is, I would suggest, important for the well-being of society that there are some, at least, who are willing to try to live according to the Truth which has been revealed to us.
All of this means that being a teacher is a sacred undertaking. It is for good reason that Benedict describes the abbot at teacher (cf RB Prol 1, 49-50, 2.4-6, 23-28, 5.6, 9, 6.6), physician (RB 27.1-4, 29.1-6) and shepherd (RB 2.7-10, 39-40, 27.5-9) and his monastery as a school for the Lord’s Service (RB Prol 45). These are, perhaps, images which you might care to remember and apply to yourself and to those who will be working with you in your particular portion of the School for the Lord’s Service.
Those of you who have been looking ahead in the service booklet will have noticed, I hope, that these ideas which I have briefly presented form the first part of the prayer of blessing. I want now to turn my attention to the wisdom of St Benedict as it is expressed in the Rule from which we have built the second part of the prayer. In the Catholic tradition we believe that all true learning comes from God and can be blessed by God. It is for this reason that we ask almighty God to pour out on his creatures today the gifts he has shared with them in the past, the same gifts that he poured out on Moses, on David and Solomon, on the great prophets of Old, on John the Baptist. We ask Him to pour out on us the gifts of the Spirit which belonged to Christ by his nature as God and which he bestows on us as pure gift. We ask today that you, Werner, may be blessed with the gift of gentleness and patience as you share your knowledge; the gift of graceful and accurate speech to express with lucidity what you have learned; the gift of portraying in your way of life what you teach with words. We ask that you nurture the gifts of friendship and generosity within St Benet’s Hall so that the students you teach flourish and grow to their full stature as children of God. We pray that you will join your efforts to those of the whole Church so that God’s kingdom may be built on this earth.
We believe, Werner, that God is always willing to pour out his blessings on us – but he never forces us to accept his gifts. I ask you therefore to indicate your willingness for all of us to pray for you and for the well-being of the Hall over which you will preside by kneeling now in front of us all as I pray for God’s blessing upon you.