St. Benedict had a good handle on how to foster spirituality within community, and after 1500 years the sixth century monk’s insights are still valid today, Bishop Melissa Skelton told a group of pastoral care givers at Christ Church Cathedral recently.
The bishop led a one-day retreat in the Cathedral’s lovely Park Room for 35 of the Cathedral parish’s healing prayer, healing touch, and mental health ministry members on Benedictine spirituality.
Benedict, considered the father of Western monasticism, was the author of a 73-point “Rule” that has been used by monks throughout the world. Bishop Skelton told the group that what he prescribed for lay people living in community was neither self-denial nor asceticism, but living a normal life well.
“The rule recommends that monks get half a bottle of wine a day,” she said. Mortification of the flesh certainly wasn’t Benedict’s method for helping monks find the love of Christ.
The three important principles of Benedict’s Rule are Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life, the bishop said. Most of the day, with a series of exercises, the bishop and the group examined what each principle meant in practice.
Stability means commitment to a location (not necessarily a place on a map), to norms, to people, to inner stability, to the belief that “God is right here,” not in some imagined future.
“That doesn’t mean one stays in an unhealthy situation,” she said, “just the recognition that no one will be the perfect friend or mother or father.”
Obedience, a term that comes from the same root as the word auditory, means listening: listening to sources of authority like Christian leaders and Scripture, to each other, to the tone and feel of one’s community.
In Benedictine communities the Abbot had final authority, but the Benedict’s Rule decrees that important decisions are to be made by him only after he consults with the whole community, old and new. “The Rule states that sometimes God give the word of truth to the youngest member.”
Obedience isn’t to be slavish or unquestioned, Bishop Skelton said. “We don’t swallow things whole in the Anglican Church,” she said. Still, to determine whether the community and its members are headed in a spiritual direction people must listen to each other. “Listen, or your tongue will make you deaf.”
The third element, Conversion of Life, involves turning to God in Christ. It means after listening deeply a person must “get off the fence” and act. Bishop Skelton likened conversion to the way some animals might shed a new skin. Conversion may be gradual yet continual, so that one will be fresh and new always.
Stability is not stasis, the bishop said. Obedience is not slavish. Conversion is not change for its own sake. Stability enables Obedience which leads to Conversion. The process works over time not overnight, she said.
The retreat concluded with ministry groups discussing how Benedictine spiritual practice might help them in their tasks: offering healing prayer and touch and ministering to people with mental health challenges. Bishop Skelton recommended a number of resources including a BBC series “The Monastery” which is available on YouTube.
Bishop Skelton presenting in the Park Room, February 17, 2018
Photo: Neale Adams