Conference 20th July 2012
Brethren, on Wednesday evening, as Dom Leo and I stepped out for our evening walk before Compline, we saw on the small expanse of lawn between the Woodfield Gardens’ garages and the road two green woodpeckers feeding in the company of two wood pigeons. We stopped to watch these colourful birds. They flew up onto a tree trunk, on which we had an even better view of them, as their bright green feathers contrasted well with the bark. Then they flew off in the direction of the monastery garden. I was thrilled, for it was at least two years since I had seen green woodpeckers at Belmont. For many years there had been a pair who fed on the front lawn and I often discussed them with Fr Peter, who informed me that, although they are called woodpeckers and look like woodpeckers, they’re not actually of the same family. I also notice that we now have two badger sets at Belmont, an old one which had been rebuilt and enlarged in the ditch beyond the pavilion and a new one in our woods, just off the “monks’ walk”.
I mention these events of nature at the beginning of this conference as an example of hope and new life. I don’t know if this is the same pair of green woodpeckers or the offspring of the original pair nor do I know where the badgers have come from to rehabilitate an old set and build a new one, but I do recognise in them God’s gift to us of the wonders and beauty of creation, creatures that have much to teach us about God’s love and divine providence. They also teach us something else. Some people occasionally complain to me about the state of the woods or certain areas of our grounds that have “gone wild” and need cutting down and cleaning out. But wild life flourishes precisely where nature is allowed to go wild. Animals need undergrowth, rotting tree trunks, tall grass and wild flowers. They need space and shelter where they can live, breed and thrive and also where they can find food.
Now, while monks are not necessarily wild animals, they are, I believe, an integral part of creation, part of God’s plan for the world. They are that sector of human society which, perhaps, best reflects the interplay and interdependence there must be between the wild and the domesticated, the providential and the planned, the natural and the cultivated, the institutional and the charismatic, and I use the word charismatic in its true and original sense. I believe that monks, like woodpeckers, badgers and other animals, need space and a suitable environment in which to flourish. This means balancing and blending the providential with the planned, the natural with the cultivated and the institutional with the charismatic. You can also compare our lovely gardens and lawns, so well tended by Elwyn and his companions, with a field of wild flowers (take a look at the paddock, for example). Both are beautiful in their own way and complement each other, and both are necessary and useful. The great thing about the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedictine is that they give us that freedom of time and space in which we can best love and serve the living God as we faithfully continue each day that search for him which will ultimately lead us into the fullness of the divine mystery and our true homeland in heaven.
The Gospel, the Rule and monastic tradition do not clip our wings and put us in straightjackets but rather direct us along the path of our vocation, encouraging us to freely embrace a life of discipline and obedience, a life of charity and communion, a life that leads us to God in the company of our brethren, who are here to encourage and support us as we should encourage and support them. Although in the Rule there is a lot about correction and punishment, and some of it quite shocking to modern readers, even to monks who are used to hearing these sections read on a regular basis, nevertheless the goal is always the salvation of a soul and the saving of a vocation. The chapters on the abbot are a case in point.
In Chapter 2 the abbot is asked “to lead by a twofold teaching”, pointing out “all that is good and holy more by example than by words.” Not only is he to be “stern as a taskmaster”, but also “devoted and tender as only a father can be.” The abbot “must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence that he will not only keep the flock entrusted to his care from dwindling, but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock.” In Chapter 64 he is told that when he has to punish a monk, “he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.” He must govern the monastery with discretion, “the mother of virtues, and must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run away from.”
When it comes to such things as food and drink, he is to verge on the side of generosity, especially when the monks have a lot of work on their hands and conditions are stressful. Even in Lent he is not to impose fasts or other Lenten exercises, but allow the monks of their own free will to decide how best to keep the holy season, provided they do so in consultation with him and in a spirit of obedience. The abbot, together with the prior and the cellarer of the monastery, are to make sure that everything the brethren need is provided for. Even if it’s not always possible to give what has been asked for, the cellarer “should offer a kind word in reply.” St Benedict is quite clear that, “necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper time, so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.” So, we are not to be disquieted or distressed but at the same time we should all make a great effort not to upset our brethren in any way. We must never forget that the relationship is mutual: we have the right to be at peace and content in the monastery but we also have the duty of creating an atmosphere of peace and contentment for others.
Let us pray this evening that the good Lord in his great mercy will continue to bless our community abundantly not only with new vocations, for which we give thanks, but with holiness and a spirit of true Benedictine peace, Never forget that Pax rather than Ora et Labora is the motto of the Benedictine life and that it is our common work, in a spirit of prayer, to create with God’s help here on earth the icon of that heavenly Jerusalem which is to come. Belmont should give to each one of us, and to all who visit us, that vision of peace for which we yearn as “ we progress in this way of life and in faith, running on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” Amen.
BLESSED FRA ANGELICO OP