The Way of St Benedict
By Rowan Williams Bloomsbury Continuum, 160pp, £12.99
Rowan Williams describes St Benedict as “uncompromisingly prosaic”. For the saint, the monastic community is a workshop, a place in which members of the community use specific tools which are lent to us by Christ, to be returned on the Last Day, when we receive our wages. This workshop, the former Anglican archbishop of Canterbury writes, is a “solid and tough metaphor for that spirituality which is a lifetime’s labour, yet also an expansion of the heart”.
The Christian workshop is a communal enterprise, a place of peace: there should be no retaliation, no hatred or envy. We must be determined to give up grudges. This workshop is “manifestly a collaborative venture with the aim of ‘mending vices and preserving love’.”
This book is, among other things, a guide to the virtues, a commentary on St Benedict marked by Lord Williams’s distinctive style. He writes, for instance, about transparency. In St Benedict’s teaching, this means that we must not entertain deceit in our hearts; we must be aware every day of death; and we must deal swiftly with evil thoughts, breaking them against “the rock of Christ.”
The book touches on politics, asking what an honest society would look like. It would, he argues, be one where voters can expect the people in power to be self-critical and self-questioning. In an honest society, politicians would accept that they can make mistakes. He comments wryly: “It’s an ideal that doesn’t seem very close just now.”
What about political debate? Peacefulness, Williams writes, does not mean a bland evasion of conflict; rather, it is the intent to confront conflict without despair, in the assurance that not everything must be dictated by rivalry and violence. So the question becomes how to create a set of political habits which include a readiness to go on debating policies civilly, negotiating our differences.
Yet while addressing large political themes, the book also looks at the simpler ones. For Lord Williams, St Benedict teaches us “to live with gratitude … in our feverish, lonely and fearful world”.