12 March 2012, St Gregory the Great, 604
Monks and Mission: a perspective from England
- The role of Benedictine monasticism in spreading the Christian gospel in Europe is too well-known to need much retelling. My purpose in these remarks is simply to highlight a few aspects of how that mission worked in England and what its long-term effects were, in the hope of opening up some reflection on the missionary dimension of monastic life in general. This weekend, we have been celebrating the millennium of the Camaldolese section of the Benedictine family; and it may seem as though this tradition, with its strong emphasis on integrating the hermit life into the common life of the monastic community, stands for something rather different from the apparently activist commitments of missionary monks. But I believe this is a misunderstanding of how monastic mission worked, certainly in Britain and no doubt elsewhere. And if reflecting on this helps us to see the inseparability of mission and contemplation, this may in turn help us to rethink our priorities in mission in ways that protect us from over-busy and superficial approaches to the subject.
- When the Venerable Bede describes the early days of Augustine’s mission in England, he lays great stress on the fact that the missionaries ‘began to imitate the way of life of the apostles and of the primitive church’ (HE I.26). What draws converts to the faith, we are told, is poverty and prayer. Augustine’s community depends for its basic material survival on the generosity of local people and maintains what is obviously an austere regime of prayer and fasting. Bede insists that the Saxon king does not force his people to be baptised; they are drawn to Christian faith by the simplicity of the lives of Augustine’s monks. And when Augustine writes to Pope Gregory for advice about how bishops should live with their clergy, he receives a reply (HE I.27) in which the Pope reminds Augustine that, as a monk, he will already know that he should live a common life with his clergy, modelled on the common life of the apostles: ‘none of them said that anything he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common’, in the words of the Acts of the Apostles, quoted by Gregory. And, living the common life, bishop and clergy will have no problem remembering the priority of hospitality and charity; what is surplus to the basic requirements of a living stipend will obviously go towards these things.
- It is not that the Pope is assuming that all Augustine’s clergy will be monks – and we should almost certainly assume that his immediate missionary community contained only a small number of ordained priests, as would be usual at the time. But he does take it for granted that the clergy should live an ‘apostolic’ life as defined in Acts. Throughout Bede’s History, the theme recurs frequently: what makes a community effective in terms of mission and witness is the apostolic life. The communities of Lindisfarne under Colman (HE III.26) and Whitby under Hilda (IV.23) are, like Augustine’s, described in terms of the paradigm in Acts. Aidan is praised (III.5) for his willingness to hand over for the use of the poor any gifts he receives. There are many other instances: but the point is clear enough: the mission of the Church is bound up with the common life and with the readiness to share with everyone and anyone the goods that are received. And while not every missionary has to be a monk, Bede clearly has a vision of clergy who have learned enough from the monastic environment to model something of the same radical poverty and mutual dispossession so that the apostolic model may come through in its full converting force.
- In short, what changes hearts, in Bede’s understanding, is the visible demonstration of new possibilities for life together – a life without acquisitiveness, a life not ashamed of depending on the generosity of others, inside and outside the community, a life unified by prayer. The bishop belongs within such a pattern of life, not apart from it or above it. And it is a way of life deeply shaped by monastic commitment. It is significant that in England, alone among the major European nations, many of the cathedrals continued until the Reformation to be Benedictine houses – as if the centrality of the apostolic and monastic vision in the life of the Church could find expression in setting community life visibly at the centre of a diocese. Of course, many of these houses were, like others, liable to become wealthy, self-absorbed and spiritually slack – though any reader of that great memoir of one pre-Reformation community known as The Rites of Durham, will be impressed by the standards of devotion and austerity that survived in some settings. And in the post-Reformation period, it is striking that – against expectation and often against explicit policy – the cathedrals remained committed to the solemn public celebration of the Divine Office and to some residue of common clerical life. No less striking is what happened on the other side of the Reformation split, with the reconstituted English Benedictine Congregation supplying so many missionaries—and martyrs—to Britain, sustaining the small persecuted Roman Catholic communities for three centuries and more. It was one such missionary monk, Augustine Baker, who, in the midst of the pressures of ministry both in Britain and abroad (as a convent chaplain for some of his career), produced the seminal writings on the contemplative life edited and collected under the title of Holy Wisdom. And even when the conventual life of the houses of the English Congregation was most disrupted by the demands of ‘the mission’, the tradition of prayer as expounded by Baker was maintained, and a contemplative formation was still preserved. For many generations of English Benedictines, the pressures and multiple activities of the mission, in parishes and schools, served as a way of experiencing something of the ‘poverty’ of monastic witness, even when outward circumstances were not particularly austere.
- But to return to Bede for a moment: the idea that apostolic witness is in itself a means of mission suggests that we misunderstand mission of we think it is a matter of persuading people to accept certain ideas. The truth of any ideas or doctrines is something that becomes apparent in the light of the sort of life that those ideas make possible. To see a common life of unconditional mutual generosity, sustained by the sanctification of each part of the day in God’s honour, is to grasp that the defensive and self-referential habits of the world at large can be decisively overcome by grace. The ‘promise’ of Christian teaching, the hope of heaven, becomes credible when earthly life is transformed. And perhaps this is where we should begin in thinking about mission: what does a ‘promising’ life look like? The life that Augustine, Aidan, Hilda and others lived was one that offered a new future to those around – a new level of mutual care, but also a new language in which to address God, the language of Christ himself. As I have noted elsewhere, the language of the Psalms is, in early Christian thought, very much the speech of Christ, the divine speaker taking on the words of humanity even in their suffering and confusion. A life built on the recitation of the Psalms is one in which it is possible to understand all daily human experience as capable of being taken up and transformed by God in Jesus.
- The monastic paradigm is one which embodies two major counter-cultural themes. First is the idea that all of time can be sanctified – that is, that the time we may instinctively consider to be unproductive, waiting or routine activity, is indispensable to our growth into Christian and human maturity. How we spend the time we think is insignificant is important. It is not only the well-know Benedictine union of laborare and orare, but the wider commitment to a life under ‘rule’, a life which takes it for granted that every aspect of the day is part of a single offering. The second theme is that of dependence: these are communities in which no-one is without some sort of dependent relation to others, including even the most junior and inexperienced, and which also depend in some degree on the generosity of others. These are counter-cultural today, and perhaps in every age, because of the sharp disjunction we regularly make between labour and leisure—the time in which we do something productive and the time in which we indulge ourselves—and because of the way we are repeatedly seduced by visions or promises of autonomy as the greatest imaginable human good.
- So a life in which these themes appear is one that challenges assumptions about the character of our humanity. For the Anglo-Saxons who first encountered the apostolic life of Augustine and his companions, the monastic witness must have signified that physical labour and dependency (the marks of social inferiority) were not after all evils to be overcome, and that the human ideal was not the aristocratic mastery prevailing in the royal warbands. Leisure and power are not (after all) the guarantors of human significance; and whether this is discovered in Anglo-Saxon Kent and Northumbria or in twenty-first century Europe or America, the radical character of the discovery is the same.
- But we can take the point a stage further. A humanity serving God in steady engagement with the material world and in mutual giving and receiving is a humanity shaped by Christ. The style of life exemplified in Augustine’s community was not only apostolic but it was also incarnational. Christ’s human life is open to the divine at every moment; it is not that God the Word deigns to take up residence in those parts of our lives that we consider important or successful or exceptional. Every aspect of Jesus’ humanity and every moment of his life is imbued with the divine identity, so that if our lives are to be images of his, they must seek the same kind of unbroken transparency. Likewise, Jesus lives out in his humanity a complete dependence on God as Father, the eternal dependence of the Word on the divine Source, and is thus also capable of living a human life that is not anxiously in search of the highest degree of autonomy: he receives gifts, receives friendship and hospitality. A life that values every dimension of experience, including the routine, the repetitive and prosaic, one that assumes mutual need and invites generosity at the same time as offering it in hospitality – this is a life that is not merely apostolic but Christlike and illustrates the freshness of what the Gospel makes possible.
- Such a style of life thus fleshes out what it is that Christians are required to believe about Jesus Christ. As suggested already, the Church’s doctrine concerning Christ is not a speculation to be explained: it simply spells out what the Christian life implies as it is experienced and prayed. The new life of the Body of Christ carries within it the implicit understanding of who and what the Saviour is. To communicate who and what he is, the life must be lived: if this life is now possible, what must it be that makes it possible? And to repeat a point made in other contexts, it may be that Christology becomes difficult to explain precisely when the difference and radicality of Christian life has become dulled. Monasticism is in this regard a significant defence against the absorption of the newness of the Gospel into the familiarity of this or that cultural environment; and in this way, monasticism is a necessary part of any truly theological strategy of mission.
- So often, when we think about strategies of mission, especially strategies for the evangelization or re-evangelization of our historically Christian countries, we are tempted to overlook this dimension of the converting power of the apostolic life. It is not just that people are attracted by lives of virtue and service, true as that undoubtedly is. We are speaking of the converting power of poverty and vulnerability, of silence and praise, of labour and fidelity. Especially in a world in which strong bonds between people are hard to find – whether it is the world in which Benedictine monasticism began, the world of a dissolving empire and a violent and chaotic social environment, or the world we know today, the praying community shows how people can be bound together in work and contemplation. The connection with the material world that is lived out in daily, prosaic, necessary, but not in the obvious sense ‘wealth-creating’ labour teaches perspective and patience. We are not gods; we need the world around, and we need sane and sustainable relations with the world around. The mutual dependency of the community teaches realism and generosity (the generosity of the receiver as well as the giver). But above all, the discipline of worship, sanctifying the entire day, teaches that the world in all its variety can be given meaning and that our final destiny is simply to be held in the delight of God’s presence.
- The apostolic life is thus more than a ‘good’ life in the conventional sense, but a life that exhibits how God is different, that explains what we mean by transcendence. It shows that the world can be seen at one and the same time in its wholeness and in the light of a presence that is everywhere and nowhere. And it points to worship as the culminating and fulfilling form of self-dispossession or self-giving. It is about joy in the routine and everyday – not simply a persistent human happiness but a pervasive confidence that God’s beauty is there waiting for our homecoming. It certainly is not that monastic communities unfailingly exemplify all this; only that this and this alone makes sense of the monastic life as a ‘sharpening of the focus’ that exists in all Christian life.
- And so to think about how monastic life works within the process of evangelization is to ask how this kind of common life can best be made visible so as to embody for the world a conviction that our humanity can be different. Of course, there are communities that express this difference in ways that are not identical with traditional monasticism, such as the Iona Community in Scotland, a ‘dispersed’ community including the single and the married; but it is very important that part of Iona’s enormous influence in English-speaking Christianity has to do with the way it has developed a quite distinctive style of worship and music, along with its profound commitment to social transformation. The importance of such a style of worship alongside the same social vision is equally evident in Taize and other new residential communities, including the Communautes de Jerusalem. The mistake we have to avoid is to suppose that first we get the ideas sorted out and win the arguments and then we find a form of worship appropriate to the needs of our converts. It would be far more true to say that, for many people, especially the young, on the edge of discovering faith, what happens is that they find an identity in liturgy and then seek words and forms of life that will do justice to this.
- In the Church of England, one area of quite unexpected growth in recent years has been attendance at cathedral liturgies, not least by younger people. As noted already, cathedrals have continued to treasure their heritage, often though not exclusively Benedictine, as places where the daily office is performed solemnly, and have increasingly offered models of excellence in worship at the Eucharist. In the light of all that has been said so far, this is not some sort of ‘luxury’ added to the bare bones of Christian witness; it is an intrinsic part of that witness, insofar as it is a witness to a comprehensively new style of human living, inseparable from mutual service and the giving and receiving of gifts (our cathedrals are not normally supported by public funds). It is not the same as the simplicity and vulnerability of a monastic environment committed to the full ‘apostolic’ enterprise, but it is a clear reflection of it, which makes very plain to many in the Church of England that our mission must include a seriousness about worship in community. It must – to put it in very blunt terms – convey something of why it might be desirable to hope for heaven as the context where our vocation to praise and contemplate will be fulfilled. And this is not in any way an appeal to an elitist audience. One of the most damaging assumptions we can make is that people from a culturally different background, people with less conventional educational attainment or whatever are somehow less capable of absorbing the message of the apostolic life and the worship of a dedicated community. Many different kinds of excellence and beauty are involved here, and the challenge is always to find what is authentic to the community itself, without being too much distracted by worries about what will ‘communicate’.
- To sum up, the history of Benedictine mission in England is a history – at best – of how the apostolic life as Bede understands it, a life of simplicity, mutual dependence and service and committed worship conducted with thoughtfulness and imagination, has served to focus the evangelizing work of the Church. It does so by presenting a new model of humanity, a model at odds with functionalist, anxious, impatient, would-be autonomous paradigms, offering a vision of the kind of humanity that finds its fulfilment in reciprocal service and shared joy. The monastic life represents in an intense way the Christological focus of the new humanity, holding together dependence and liberty, labour and contemplation. A truly integral programme of evangelization will give priority not so much to explanation or winning arguments as to this displaying of the new humanity. The rising popularity in the USA of experiments in a ‘new monasticism’ as part of the ‘emergent church’ network of initiatives reflects just this awareness of how the dedicated life, in traditional as well as non-traditional forms, can again become central to the Church’s mission.
- Yet the one great qualification remains to be made. The missional witness of the dedicated worshipping community exists because people fall in love with God, not because they are told that it is part of a strategy for evangelization. In all that we say about monasticism and mission, we have to keep first in mind the root of the monastic life in the plain sense of a calling into intimacy with God through life lived with brothers and sisters, nothing more, nothing less. There could have been no Gregorian mission to England had not Augustine and his brothers first sought the Lord for his own sake. We may rightly reflect upon how the contemplative vision draws others in, in search of the experience of the new creation. But contemplation does not begin by calculating its results. As has often been said, Benedict did not begin his life of dedication in this place in order to save European civilization! To be too self-conscious of the missional impact of monastic life is to invite an element not exactly of falsity but of strain – and perhaps too of giving God less than his due. And given that we cannot successfully struggle self-consciously against being too self-conscious, what will save us from functionalizing the life of service and contemplation? Nothing, of course, but the overwhelming consciousness of Christ. ‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way, says chapter 4 of the Rule: “the love of Christ must come before all else.” And, “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ”, declares chapter 72. It is the only place from which a fully transforming mission can begin.