One of the great aims of modern journalism is the celebrity interview. So Downside Abbey is to be congratulated on a scoop in arranging for St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, to be quizzed by a boy at their school. No explanation is given about how this might have been achieved, since the saint died 1,500 years ago.
But this does not bother the interviewer, Peter, who is polite, faintly patronising and assuredly ignorant. He begins by saying that he has occasionally seen the saint around the school but never realised that he was more than just a statue or icon, and could speak. Inviting him to say something, the saint replies: “Benedic.”
“What on earth does that mean?”
“It means ‘Speak good things,’” says the saint. “In my Rule I advise the old monk at the monastery door to say it to any visitors.”
Peter briskly turns to the school’s statement of purpose in the front of its handbooks: “We are led by the Gospel and guided by the Rule of St Benedict.” But many do not know much about the Rule – “written in the 6th century, I believe”. It also seems complicated and strange, so that most pupils have not had time to read it.
The saint replies that it is just a little guide for beginners, then adds, pointedly, that Peter seems a young man in quite a hurry; and that some of the things that go on in the 21st century look rather complicated and strange to him. After describing the monastery as a school in the Lord’s service he pauses for a prayer before asking Peter whether he fears his life might turn out to be meaningless and desperate. If he is prepared for some strictness and the correction of his faults, the school could be the right place for him.
What many people call “freedom”, the saint continues, is “doing what I want, when I want and on my own terms”. This means slavery to selfishness and isolation, and often ends up as an addiction which begins in the attempt to escape necessary suffering. Unsurprisingly, when offered the chance to be shown a deeper understanding and love of God, Peter is suspicious, asking: “Is our journey going to be a hard one?” He is busy with his A-level studies.
The path is bound to seem narrow at first, he is warned. But if he follows the commandments his heart will warm towards Christ’s kingdom, particularly if he takes up lectio divina, the deep and loving study of the Bible.
For St Benedict, a monastery is a home, a place of aspiration but not of perfection. As the order’s first superior in Italy, he would have liked to ban meat and wine completely and to ensure that members do daily manual labour to counteract the great enemy that is idleness, today’s boredom. One continuing problem is murmuring in the community. Monastic life in some ways resembles military service. The community devotes itself to glorifying God as it comes together to pray the psalms seven times together during the day and once in the night with its monks preparing to fight their own selfish desires instead of an enemy. But if these should be conquered, Peter is assured that he might become a hermit.
Peter does not like the idea of spending three years alone in a cave like the saint, and is already becoming uneasy about his ambition to be head boy after learning about the humility expected of leaders.
He is especially concerned when the saint admits to not having been always right as an abbot.
Nevertheless, St Benedict offers some useful tips, such as never make an important decision on your own; consult some sensible people you know. Beware pride, the deadliest sin, which prevents you journeying out of self-absorption and into God. It is comparatively easy to look holy, which is why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees. And it is important to avoid the most wicked vice of proprietas, living as though God and neighbours are unnecessary.
As their conversation continues, the saint bats away several questions, such as one about girls, which he says should be directed to his sister St Scholastica, and another about the green movement, which he considers an attempt to change the subject since respect for God requires respect for his Creation.
All this has been rather overwhelming for Peter, who is relieved to be rescued by the ringing of the school bell. Rising to say how he would certainly like to hear more, he pauses on remembering the start of their conversation, and murmurs “Benedic” as he departs.
A School in the Lord’s Service, by Dom Leo Maidlow Davis, the former headmaster of Downside (Downside Abbey Publications, £4; illustrated by Belinda Bouchard)
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