Our spirituality is based on the rule of St Benedict, whose aim is the re-formation of an individual within a community context. With the support of those in community, monks and nuns are re-created in the image of our Saviour, so that they may share in his divinity. This means that the supportive ethos of monastic living, its regularity, its rules and systems, are designed to help us be open to the voice of the Spirit, and the power of grace.
The Gospel motivates us as Christ’s disciples, and the faith of the Apostles enables us to put our faith in the Risen Lord. The life and example of countless members of the Body of Christ that have done likewise, helps us to commit our lives to Christ in a public way – not demanded of all the baptised. Monastic vows are expressly targeted toward growth and freedom in Christ. The rules of daily living which flow from these vows are in the service of growth and liberation. Thus, monastic vows are designed to help monks and nuns to focus their lives so that they can experience growth in the Spirit.
The rules always serve positive values: personal growth, the prospering of the community, taking good care of things. Even the prescriptions regulating correcting and punitive actions of the Superior are targeted towards welfare and improvement, not toward revenge or punishment. Rules and norms should always give support on a road which leads toward positive values. All things are regulated in view of a goal, a value to be achieved, a faith to be strengthened.
In the Rule of St Benedict, the joining of order and flexibility is noteworthy. It is almost humorous that St Benedict has dedicated long chapters towards an orderly regulation of even the smallest details of the Divine Office, but then writes: ‘if this distribution of the Psalms is displeasing to anyone, he should arrange them otherwise, in whatever way he considers better. . .’ (ch. 18) – provided that the substitute list be orderly arranged over the prescribed time. That is typically Benedictine: order and regularity are essential for a blessed life, provided they are combined with flexibility.
The first sentence of the Prologue contains the essence of the Benedictine outlook: ‘Listen, my son, to the precepts of your master, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labour of obedience you may return to him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.’ This is not a severe and dominating commander speaking, but a loving master and father. Also, this is not about blind obedience or the discipline of a slave: the master and father hopes for an enthusiastic, vigorous and an active agreement in carrying out his rules.
‘Listen,’ the first word of the Rule means listening attentively. The goal of such attentive listening is to hear what a situation demands of us, and then to respond to it. This clearly reflects the Lord’s own injunction for those who wish to be his disciples – hear the word and act upon it. Benedictine life may be summarised in a single rule: to listen very carefully and to respond heartily and actively to achieve a result. It is interesting, and not by chance that the last word of the Rule is pervenies: you will arrive. So those committed to the monastic way of life will arrive where they want to be, they will achieve a result. By listening, monks and nuns engage with the spirituality of the Rule. St Benedict’s approach to Christian living has, of course, no other purpose than to help those who choose to follow the Rule to live the commitment made at Baptism.
Benedictine spirituality is firmly rooted, it is not swept together from all sorts of spiritual traditions; it offers a measured approach, it does not make haste; it contains nothing mysterious or esoteric; it does not focus on the spiritual quest of the individual, but the growth of the person who is living in a community, with his daily and often very ‘worldly’ activities.
Benedictines present Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, by listening to their monastic Master and Father, so that the Gospel is preached more by the example of their lives than by words. We are well aware at Buckfast that people are naturally curious about a group of men whose lives are guided by a 1500 year-old Rule. What, they may well ask, are these men doing putting themselves back in the Middle Ages? But of course, at Buckfast we live in the present time: being monks does not mean we have to shun the modern world. Modern technology can have its place in the monastery. Also, the people who know about or who come to Buckfast will know – in some way – that prayer is important to us without quite knowing why or perhaps even knowing what prayer is. They may see the monks at prayer at the different times of the day, or they may see them engaged in different works. But whatever the monks are doing, wherever they may be, they should be striving to be attentive – to hear the words of the Gospel, the precepts of the Rule and the voice of the Holy Spirit, so as to get things right; so as to be a fruitful example – inside or outside the community.
Another characteristic which should give voice to the monastic way of living the Gospel is the calm and properly maintained order of the monastery. Even little things are important. Beauty and order are contagious in their effect.
A monastery, no matter how isolated it may seem, is surrounded by a circle of people and activities which are fed by the monastic life. So for example, there are people who are directly employed by the monastery, as well as many guests who come for a day or longer – for all sorts of reasons. In these ways the monastery radiates its spirituality. Also, a new way of communicating – of radiating the life of a monastery, has been a monastic presence on the internet. The Buckfast website and social media platforms certainly provide a window into our way of life.
There is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane in a Benedictine monastery. Tasks and activities may indeed be different, but one is not worthy of more attention (‘is more sacred’) than another. This attitude is especially difficult to cultivate. It is very tempting and quite natural to view some activities as more worthy of time and attention than others, and it might be tempting to consider other activities as less important. But monks and nuns are called upon to realise that all their tasks, though not the same, are equally worthy and that all of them deserve to be done attentively, as opportunities to praise God.
There is only this rule for beginners: monks and nuns remain always as beginners on their pilgrim road to a better quality of life. In that sense, monks and nuns remain novices. When an old monk once said he was asked by a journalist what more than a half a century of Benedictine life amounted to: “Falling, and getting up again. Falling, and getting up again.” We do this – so that we may be transformed – through, with and in Christ, and that in all things God may be glorified.-