Arts & Books Books

Benedictines in the age of Facebook

Buckfast Abbey, Devon: towering once again as a beacon pointing to God

The limits of the ‘new monasticism’

Monasticism Today
By various authors,
Buckfast Abbey, 112pp, £10/$13 (available from buckfast.org.uk)

Buckfast Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in the west of England, surely has never looked so resplendent. Rebuilt a century ago largely by French and German monks on the site of the original foundation, it has been improved over the past decade in readiness for this year, the celebratory millennium year of its foundation by a charter from King Canute in 1018. Today, it is simply stunning.

It is an abbey that has known both “seasons of grace and seasons of storm”, as Fr Gregory Polan, the Abbot Primate of the Order of St Benedict, said during a Mass there in October to celebrate the return of the monks in 1882. The abbey towers once again as a beacon pointing to God and, in the words of Benedict XVI, giving “visibility to the faith as a force of life”.

That said, Buckfast, in common with Benedictine monasteries throughout the Western world, is having to face difficult challenges. Foremost among them is declining vocations and a corresponding reduction in the range of activities undertaken by Benedictines.

“Appalling” cases of historical sex abuse at schools run by the monks of Ampleforth and Downside, and recorded by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, mean monasteries must plot a careful course to restore credibility. They also must find ways of operating in a world which could not have been envisaged by the founding father of Western monasticism in the 6th century.

It was appropriate, therefore, for Buckfast to end its millennial celebrations by bringing out this book of essays which looks ahead to the next 1,000 years, reflects on what it means to be a Benedictine, and considers how to meet the demands of the more immediate future.

All the authors belong one way or another to the Benedictine family. There are spiritual pieces, such as a reflection on humility by Abbot Edmund Power, and another on contemplative prayer by Dom David Foster.

Other essays deal with the Benedictine lifestyle, with Dom David Charlesworth, the superior of Buckfast, writing about the charism of hospitality, and Sister Margaret Truran exploring the marvels of Gregorian Chant.

Dom Mark Barrett considers models of leadership, suggesting that abbots should act more like “guides” on paths to spiritual maturity rather than authoritarian figures at the summits of vertical hierarchies; while Abbot Jeremy Driscoll sets out why monastic life is as appealing today as ever and proposes it as the antidote to the sickness of Western culture.

Looking further beyond the confines of a monastery, Stephen Bullivant, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald who was baptised by a Benedictine priest in Rome in 2008, examines the so-called Benedict Option: the idea of building counter-cultural Christian communities in the post-Christian West, but within homes and workplaces rather than monasteries.

This is an idea explored inadvertently by Sister Joan Chittister in her essay, “Monasticism in a Mobile World”. An advocate of the notion that Benedictine communities could be constructed online, she cites the success of Monasteries of the Heart, a US-based internet forum with 17,000 members, very few of whom actually live in a monastery. About 1,300 of them have, nevertheless, completed retreats and online courses offered by the website, while more than 10,000 a week visit its prayer pages. Thousands of others take part in Lectio Divina online, as well as good works suggested by the website, such as prison visits.

This is an interesting and fruitful idea, but not one which all Benedictines necessarily warm to. Even in this volume, Sister Catherine Wybourne disparages the “new monasticism” which, she says, “sometimes has nothing very obviously monastic about it”. She wonders how a dispersed community made up of people who are married, single or in same-sex relationships can truly call itself Benedictine. For her, following the Rule of St Benedict means living in a specific community which has as its aim “the sanctification of its members and those with whom it comes into contact”.

Sister Catherine is, however, just as enthusiastic as Chittister about the role of social media in evangelisation. She has already earned herself the moniker “the digital nun” because of her blog and her intelligent use of other social media, and this essay is peppered with references to Facebook friends and Twitter spats. But she also acknowledges the downside of the digital revolution, groaning, for instance, about visitors who find the idea of not being in constant contact alien, and who react as if they were “asked to undergo amputation of a limb” when told to switch off their mobile phones in choir.

Overall, this is a stimulating book. It is capable of teaching the unenlightened precisely what it means to be a Benedictine, while debating a future in which giving “visibility to the faith as a force of life” may be even more difficult.