Homily preached on the Solemnity of the Transitus of St Benedict, 21st March 2014, by Abbot Cuthbert Madden.
On the 24 October 1964 Pope Paul VI declared St Benedict to be the Principle Patron of All of Europe. In the Apostolic Letter to the Church by which he made this pronouncement Pope Paul listed five qualities which Benedict displayed which fitted him to be patron of Europe: he said that Benedict was a messenger of peace, a builder of unity, a teacher of civilisation, a true herald of the Christian religion, and the founder of monastic life in the Western Church. Paul went on to suggest that the followers of Benedict had “carried Christian progress to scattered people from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the plains of Poland”. This is pretty heady stuff and you may be thinking that all of these qualities rather set Benedict apart from you and from me. But if you were thinking that you would be wrong.
Benedict’s story starts when he was about the age of those of you who are in the Sixth Form. It is worth remembering that, not just about Benedict but about all saints: sanctity grows in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. So Benedict was about your age when he faced the question which we all have to face, “what is God asking of me as I live this life which he has given me. It is a question which I would hope many of you are confronting for the first time – and those of us who are somewhat older will tell you that you will ask yourself this question repeatedly in the course of your life.
Benedict was growing up in a time of extraordinary mobility of peoples in Europe. A great movement of people from the East led to successive invasions of the Goths, Huns, Vandals and Ostrogoths into Italy during the fifth century. Inevitably in the confusion of mass migration and war one civilisation broke down and another started to take its place. Benedict was sent by his parents to the city of Rome to complete his education but what he found there so challenged the values implanted in his upbringing that he fled the city and sought solitude in order to answer the key question he believed God was asking him. We know little about this time in the wilderness; what we do know is the shape of the life which emerged from it.
In a time of violence Benedict sought to build peace. In a time of mobility of peoples Benedict sought to build stability of place for a community of likeminded men. In a time when civilised restraint built on the Gospel of Christ had given way to a life of indulgence of the passions which seemed to be drawn from paganism, Benedict sought to retain was good in the previous culture and to rebuild values based upon the Gospel of Christ. In short, Benedict proposed a life which ran counter to the prevailing culture; like all men and women who are counter-cultural his values did not please everyone, but there was something both healthy and practical in what he proposed.
In the centuries after his life his form of monasticism seemed first to wane and almost disappear, but the Rule he left behind has a flexibility and humanity which meant that in later years it shaped a renewed monastic movement. This monastic movement emphasised stability of place, it emphasised the regular worship of God our Father in the monastic choir using the words of the sacred scriptures, and it emphasised long hours of reading and reflection on the books of the bible and of other books of human learning with the aim that the community of monks might come to know and love God. Everything was ordered to this end: that monastic men and women might fulfil their baptismal vows and come to know, and love, and serve the living God.
Five centuries after Benedict, if you study the scattered remnants of monastic history you will discover men travelling across Europe in order to enter monasteries where there were great scholars and great spiritual fathers. One example would be Anselm, born in Aosta in Italy, who travelled to Bec in Normandy to learn how to seek God, and who was later called from Normandy to Canterbury to be the Archbishop there. If you study the manuscripts and later the early printed books you will discover monasteries across Europe sharing their knowledge – because the monks across Europe were a brotherhood of men engaged in a common task: they were seeking God.
Times have moved on. Monasteries have died in a variety of different ways and become bare ruined choirs; mute reminders of a Christendom which once encompassed Europe and which brought knowledge of the Gospel and the learning of ages past, which helped to foster stability and which sometimes brought peace. Today we are living in a Europe which is once again largely pagan; in which there seems to be increasing mobility of peoples; in which there is, in some places at least, the breakdown of civilised values even to the extent of the reawakening of barbaric behaviour. You may feel that there is little that you can do to counter this seemingly irresistible tide: but you would be wrong. You are the heirs and heiresses of Benedict. You are listening to the Gospel of Christ. Dedicated teachers are bringing you the knowledge built up over countless ages, knowledge which continues to expand as the result of human curiosity, as a result of the desire to know and to understand. During your time with us or in the years immediately after leaving us you will be faced with discerning your own call from God; and having discerned it you will be challenged by the difficulties of holding true to your ideals. My prayer for you is that you will be inspired by the desire to encounter Christ, and to live following in the footsteps of Christ. My prayer is that you will be great builders of community. For the values announced by Christ in the Gospel and community life based on the Gospel constitute the foundations for great hope for the future of Europe. I pray that you will remember this monastery in your prayers – and that you will pray that some young men will be inspired to give their lives to Christ so that we may continue the work which Benedict began all those centuries ago.