Not a lot of people know this in secular Britain, but July 11th is the Feast Day of St Benedict, the father of western monasticism.
Born around 480 in the Italian province of Nursia, as a young man Benedict spent three years as a hermit before being headhunted to become abbot of one of the monasteries near Rome. He went on to found a dozen more, out of which came his legacy – The Rule which still informs religious life fifteen centuries on.
The Rule of St Benedict distinguishes itself from other, harsher monastic regimes by its humanity and balance. The day is to be divided between work and prayer – or the needs of body and soul – and monks are to have a full night’s sleep. Its guidance takes account of human foibles: the porter who acts as the gatekeeper to the community should be a ‘sensible old man’ whose age ‘keeps him from roaming about’.
In a rather nice coincidence for a Britain dealing with the fallout from Brexit, St Benedict is also the patron saint of Europe and students.
It’s easy to forget how important, in the times before widespread education and healthcare, monasteries once were. As well as spiritual beacons for their communities, they were the centres of learning of their day, where the monks undertook the laborious process of making books and building libraries. Their gardens were the source of medicinal herbs which could be used to treat the local community. Remember the friar, in Romeo and Juliet, out gathering herbs in the early morning?
In Britain, until the ‘dissolution’ – the political euphemism for the nationwide destruction carried out under Henry VIII – monasteries were extraordinarily successful centres of wealth and influence.
Is monasticism breathing its last in 21st century Britain? Certainly it’s on the decline in its traditional form: the monasteries that re-established themselves in the modern age struggle to keep their numbers up. Monks and nuns are an ageing population, and new recruits are hard to find.
But my research into the faithscape of contemporary Britain reveals that the contemplative tradition is alive and well, and finding new forms in spiritual communities up and down the land. The two that feature in The New Monastics are firmly rooted in the Christian tradition, but situated at opposite ends of the spectrum: one, Holy Trinity Monastery, is a tiny start-up community of Benedictine nuns, founded on a shoestring without any major institutional backing. The Northumbria Community, following in the footsteps of the Protestant thinker Bonhoeffer, is a dispersed community which provides a way for its members to pursue a life of contemplation while remaining in mainstream society.
So on July 11th, raise a glass to St Benedict – monks also made wine – supporter of contemplatives, Europeans and students!
The New Monastics is available on Amazon.