Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Life and Wisdom of St Benedict/20: Become a stranger to the ways of the world


Monte Cassino

Continuing this series for the Year of Grace on the wisdom sayings of St Benedict set out in Chapter 4 of his Rule, The Tools of Good Work, today no. 20, 'to become a stranger to the world's ways'.

Today's saying links very closely to the next in the list, namely to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

Recovering that old-fashioned notion: contemptus mundi

For the monk or nun, these two sayings reflect his or her acceptance of the invitation the rich young man of the Gospel rejected, namely to sell everything and follow Christ.

But for all of us, they point to the radical, counter-cultural nature of Christianity, particularly in times like our own where the prevailing culture is not that of Christendom!

St Benedict lived at a time when Roman civilization was falling apart.  His solution to the problem was to flee from the world, living first in a small Christian community at Affile, then as a hermit at Subiaco, and finally as a monk.  His lasting legacy was the creation of a series of little enclaves, fortresses for the faith where the Christian life could be cultivated undisturbed by the currents outside the monastery, that stretched across Europe and beyond.

Dialogue and syncretism?

The Jesuit rag Eureka Street this week featured a talk by Fr Frank Brennan SJ urging recognition of  traditional Aboriginal religious beliefs and practices as legitimate on the grounds that they:

"...express God's self-communication outside of Christ and the Church's seven sacraments."

This seems to me an entirely erroneous interpretation of Vatican II's teachings on other religions.  It rejects the Providential nature of the work of those early missionaries in Australia, and it rejects the continuing need to choose Christ alone.

There is not a hint in the Rule, it has to be said, that there is something to be learned from the ways of the world, some pearls embedded in those pockets of paganism that we should somehow be seeking to mine, recognise and allow to continue. Quite the contrary: St Benedict urges his follows to become strangers to the ways of the world and instead live the Gospel that stands in contradiction to it.

St Benedict himself, in establishing Monte Cassino, destroyed the pagan idol and sacred grove there, and then proceeded to convert the locals by his preaching:

"In this place there was an ancient chapel in which the foolish and simple country people, according to the custom of the old gentiles, worshipped the god Apollo. Round about it likewise on all sides, there were woods for the service of the devils, in which even to that very time, the mad multitude of infidels offered most wicked sacrifice. The man of God coming there, beat the idol into pieces, overthrew the altar, set fire to the woods, and in the temple of Apollo, he built the oratory of St. Martin, and where the altar of the same Apollo was, he made an oratory of St. John. By his continual preaching, he brought the people dwelling in those parts to embrace the faith of Christ." (St Gregory the Great, Dialogues II, Chapter 8).

Certainly St Benedict was not one for 'dialogue' with the world in any form: his Rule specifies that monks were not to talk to visitors without permission lest they be disturbed by such encounters, nor were they to discuss what they saw outside the monastery for example.

Yet at the same time, the monastery was open, on a strictly controlled basis, to visitors.  It did not cease to care for the world, providing charitable support to the surrounding community.  And above all, the monks acted as missionaries, both by the example of their lives, through their work of prayer for the world, and through their preaching.  According to St Benedict's life by St Gregory the Great, his monks acted as chaplains to local communities of nuns and others, as well as attracting  a large group of lay and clerical supporters and followers who we would nowadays call oblates.

The Scriptural basis for rejection of 'the world'

The concept of 'contemptus mundi' or contempt for the world is often misinterpreted these days.

It doesn't mean rejection of creation or the good things God has given us.  Rather, the traditional contrast is with the ways of the devil and the influence of that concupiscence (tendency to sin) that is the legacy of Original Sin.  Becoming a stranger to the ways of the world means rejecting ambition, greed, the pursuit of pleasure and other vices.

St James (1:27) puts it like this:

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."

St Paul makes similar points in Galatians 6:14 and 2 Timothy 2:4.

Let us all seek to reject the ways of the world, and instead seek to make disciples of all nations, fortified in our faith by the communities created to foster the faith, such as those monasteries that continue to live the Rule of St Benedict.

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