The Right Rev Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, has an interesting piece in The Times about humility being at the foundation of community life...it is a good read for an increasingly divided society...
Behold how good and joyful a thing it is when brethren dwell together in unity” — so the psalmist sang, comparing it to the precious perfumed anointing oil that set aside the priests of the Old Testament.
How the human community lives together as a family, a school, a church, a city, a nation, a continent or the whole world, is indeed demanding and challenging. Both in microcosm and in macrocosm the challenge is real. Claims and counter-claims about territory; different histories and human stories; different ways of looking on the world; extroverts and introverts, thinking people and feeling people — all are challenged to find how the good and joyful dwelling together in unity can be realised.
Jesus taught that there were two overriding and shaping commandments: the love of God with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength; and the love of our neighbour as ourselves. The two are inseparably linked, and St John reminds us that it is impossible to love God whom we have not seen if we do not love our neighbour whom we have seen. St Anthony, generally regarded as the first Christian monk, withdrew to live a solitary life in the desert east of the Nile, where you can still find his monastery, and the cave in which he lived. Despite that solitary life, pilgrims came to seek him and to ask his advice, and one of the pieces of advice he would give is “that your life and your death is with your neighbour”. For all his commitment to the solitary life of prayer, and his wrestling with the temptations of distorted desire, Anthony knew that human flourishing and growth in the likeness of Christ was never a narcissistic cultivation of the soul.
His contemporary Pachomius was not, as Anthony was, a hermit of the desert, but was one who saw monastic community life as that which enabled the shaping of souls. The rule that Pachomius gave was one which sought for what we might call today a life-work or life-style balance, seeking a middle way between conformity and excess. He told his brethren: “If you cannot get along alone, join another who is living according to the Gospel of Christ, and you will make progress with him. Either listen, or submit to one who listens.”
Some two centuries after Pachomius St Benedict, whom the Church commemorated last Saturday, composed a rule of life for his monks. It is one of the shaping documents of the Western Church, and a guide not only for monks but for all who seek to live the Christian life. Benedict called it “a school for the Lord’s service”. The abbot, the father of the monastery, has a key role. He must have a wise discernment, for he has to serve a variety of temperaments, “coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate”. The abbot, although he has authority, is not an autocrat, he has to consult. Listening is important, and not just to the older and more senior for, Benedict tells us, “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger”. “The love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.” Benedict’s brothers are told that they are never to lose hope in God’s mercy. When guests arrive at the monastery they are to be welcomed as Christ himself.
If there is a duty of obedience to the abbot this obedience is also to be shown in relation to each other: “It is by the way of obedience that we go to God.” At the heart of the common life is the learning of humility, and that is sustained by the praise and worship of the community, which is expressed in the psalms and praise of the divine office and in prayer that is “short and pure”.
The rule of common life is an imitation of Christ. So Benedict concludes with words summing up his rule, telling his monastic brethren that they are to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ”. The rule, Benedict insists, is a rule for beginners. The practice of the presence of God is not something in a separate religious compartment from “the rest of life”, it is simply the whole of life lived towards the God of love who is the source of all life. What Benedict offers us is indeed a “school for the Lord’s service”.