St Patrick’s Cathedral, Toowoomba, 11 July 2012
Proverbs 2:1-9; 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-7; John 15:9-17
“Listen, my son, to the words of the Master”: these are the opening words of that seminal text of Western Christianity, the Rule of St Benedict, whose feast we celebrate today. They are words with deep roots, reaching to the heart of Scripture where we hear the voice of the sage in the Book of Proverbs: “My son, if you take my words to heart….you will discover the knowledge of God…[and] understand the paths that lead to happiness”. The Rule is profoundly biblical.
Benedict’s was not the first monastic rule Christianity had known; others had appeared earlier in the East. Nor was his the only rule to appear in the West. There were others, but none of them survived the test of time, chiefly because they were too harsh. What marks the Rule of Benedict and what ensured its eventual triumph in the West was its moderation and its humanity.
The balance is beautifully caught in one of the wall-paintings in the church of the Sacro Speco in Subiaco, not far from Rome, where St Benedict began his mission. The saint is shown disciplining a wayward monk. In his right hand he holds a stick with which he’s beating the monk. But his left hand is placed gently and reassuringly on the monk’s right shoulder and there’s a look of genuine regret on Benedict’s face. His monasteries were to be radical schools of discipleship, but they were therefore to be homes of a culture that was deeply measured and humane.
Yet there’s one point in the Rule where Benedict abandons moderation and speaks with a quite untypical severity. He is describing the four kinds of monk, and he speaks approvingly of cenobites and hermits, both of whom live under the rule of an Abbot, one in community, the other in solitude. But then he lashes the free-wheelers he calls sarabaites and gyrovagues. These are the wandering monks who submit to no authority but their own and call holy whatever pleases them, moving from monastery to monastery and abusing hospitality to gratify their own desires at every turn. They are do-it-yourself monks who are a law unto themselves. In the terms we have heard in the Gospel of John, they do not remain in the love of Christ but stay imprisoned in the love of self which, according to St Benedict, is the way of perdition.
“Remain in my love”: these are the words of the Lord which Bishop McGuckin has chosen as his episcopal motto: “Remain in my love”. There’s an urgency to the command of Christ, just as there’s an urgency to the words of St Benedict. The Lord Jesus does not just invite but commands us to remain in his love because, if we do not, then there will be no love; and where there is no love, there is death. Jesus Christ crucified and risen is the fullness of love. In him there is found the infinity of divine agape, the self-sacrificing love which is God. We can find our way into love only by finding our way into him. Left to ourselves, cut off from him, we are quite simply loveless – abandoned to the brutal play of power where the strong always crush the weak and the lie always trumps the truth.
As a matter of urgency, then, we must find our way into Christ; and, according to St Benedict, the way into Christ is obedience, the surrender of self-will. Benedict echoes the words of the Lord himself who says: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love”. The call to obey takes us back to the Rule’s first word: “Listen!”, since to obey another is to listen to what the other says – not just to hear but to listen, and to listen with the ears of the heart.
The call of Christ, echoed by St Benedict, is crucial for all believers, but especially for Bishops. The Bishop’s first task is to listen to the voice of the Lord and to put into practice what he hears, to obey the commands of Jesus, whatever the cost of that surrender. Only then will he be truly equipped for the ministry which the Lord mercifully entrusts to him. Only then will he bear what Jesus calls “fruit that will last”. If a Bishop fails to listen to the words of the Master, he will prove to be a law unto himself, every bit as bad as the wandering monks, or worse since he is the shepherd of the flock.
For St Benedict, to remain in Christ’s love means to remain in the community where that love takes flesh, that is the Church. Jesus says, “Remain in my love”, and he means “Remain in my Church”. The love is all his, and so too is the Church. The Church belongs to Jesus, not to the Bishop. If we seek Jesus apart from the community of the Church, we end up with a Jesus who looks and sounds just like us. We end up like the wandering monks who are a law unto themselves, abandoning the way of obedience and love, searching for life where only death can be found. That’s why the deep and at times demanding communion of the Church mattered so much to St Benedict in his time, and why it matters no less to the Diocese of Toowoomba and its new Bishop at this time.
St Benedict lived in the chaotic times that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Life without the Empire’s ordering was almost unimaginable; and Benedict’s response to the chaos was to enter a cave in search of a new listening to the words of the Master, who alone could bring order out of chaos. In doing so, Benedict brought to birth not only a radically new way of being Christian, but a new kind of human consciousness and eventually a new civilisation.
Our own situation is different in many ways, but the Diocese of Toowoomba has known turbulence in recent times. St Benedict points the way forward – not just for the new Bishop but for the entire community of the Diocese. The way beyond all turbulence is a new listening to the voice of Christ at the heart of the Church, a new obedience to the Lord, which alone can guarantee that we remain in his love.
For the Bishop, as for Benedict, this will require a new solitude and a new asceticism – a solitude and asceticism which make possible a new experience of community, an ecclesial mysticism, which is to say a total immersion in the self-sacrificing love, the agape, which is the Church. This is the Church not disfigured but transfigured, the Church radiant with “the glory on the face of Christ”, to echo the words of St Paul. It is this Church to which Bishop McGuckin gives himself totally today, no less than did St Benedict long ago, the Church which is the Bride of Christ radiant with the beauty of the perfect love which has chosen her and which never ceases to speak to her heart.
This is the Church in which joy becomes possible, the joy of which Jesus speaks in what we have heard today: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete”. The Lord speaks not of fun or even happiness, but of that deeper experience we call joy. Jesus calls it “my joy”. The fullness of joy is proper only to the Risen Lord, and he wants to share that joy with us. This is the joy given to those who listen, who obey and who remain in the love of Jesus. It’s the joy which the Bishop is called to minister to his people in the name of Christ, the joy of Easter in a usually joyless world.
In his Rule, St Benedict gives this instruction to the Abbot: “Let him keep his own frailty always before his eyes and remember that the bruised reed must not be crushed. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared”. These are wise words not just for an Abbot but for a Bishop as well. Bishop McGuckin comes among you as one sent by Christ, as one to be loved not feared, as one who is frail, an earthenware jar as St Paul says, but whose frailty has taught him to handle the bruised reed with the tenderness of Jesus himself.
To the monks, St Benedict speaks words which may be applied to the faithful of the Diocese of Toowoomba with their long and deep tradition of loyalty to Christ and his Church. He says this: “Let them fear God and love their [Bishop] with sincere and humble affection; let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he lead us all together to life everlasting”. To which we may say, Amen.