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The ‘dangerous prayer’ of St. Benedict

The ‘dangerous prayer’ of St. Benedict

Wisdom of St. Benedict, from yesterday’s homily by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers at the Community Eucharist of the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church:


If you want to know what Anglicans believe, hear how we pray. Well, we just prayed, “Give us grace, following the teaching and example of thy servant Benedict, to walk with loving and willing hearts in the school of the Lord’s service.” It’s a beautiful prayer. I sure hope we meant it.

Benedict of Nursia came on the scene in 6th century Italy, when corruption had saturated the church. Even monastics were kind of doing their own thing, indistinguishable from the culture at large.

Faith didn’t change anyone, and it didn’t cost you anything. It was like the man in this morning’s gospel, the one who decided one fine day, “I’m building a tower” – even though he had no idea what it cost, what sacrifice he would bear. In Benedict’s day, people took on the name Christian, but had zero interest in bearing the cross and being transformed into Jesus’ people. Imagine that.

But Benedict wanted to be a Christian. He wanted Jesus to melt him, mold him, fill him and use him, and he wanted to be surrounded by companions who would hold and prod him through that change. So he founded a new monastic community, a “school for the Lord’s service” shaped by three commitments. They were – please join me in some Latin call and response – stabilitas, obedientia, conversatio morum. Let’s break it down:

Stabilitas: is stability, or sticking with your community. Obedientia: obedience, obeying the authority of the community and of God. And finally the commitment toward which everything else pointed: conversatio morum. It’s an untranslatable phrase that means something like committing to this rule, bearing the cross, embracing The Other, and trusting that God is working this out, using all this to convert, confound, transform and ultimately bless you.

That’s following the teaching and example of Benedict. Do we really mean to pray that?

I’m a textbook Generation Xer, so I’ve never been much for stability, even less for obedience. Up to 12 years ago, I was still wandering from church to sangha to fellowship. And when I found this body, I found you. I found so much that I had longed for, and plenty I never would have asked for and now can’t imagine living without. A table where Jesus lives, not in memorium but incarnate. A liturgy that still vibrates with the rhythms of the ancient ordo. A theological tradition that makes sense to me here, here and here. A vowed life as a priest, obedient to the church’s and God’s calling.

I love this church. It’s easily the longest committed relationship I have ever been in. My mom drove up last night from Kentucky, and I’m sure she’ll be standing at the back to thank all of you. The Episcopal Church has given me stabilitas and obedientia, and I know that my salvation depends on the conversion that God is working out in me right here with you. Thank you for that.

But if my Baptist mama drove all this way; if you, my church family, have actually gotten up for the second to last Convention Eucharist, then I have to be honest and tell you the rest of the story.

And what I have seen is, we love to pray these commitments, and we like to live them – as long as they don’t change us too much.

Want to test that theory? Benedict would point to hospitality. In his Rule, he wrote: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me.’” Benedict told his monks to offer prayers and praises when anyone arrives at the door, especially the poor and dishonored. Send the abbot, send the guest brother, send the whole community to bow and wash that guest’s feet.

And when you do, he said, remember this: you’re not just blessing them. This discipline is about you: you moving out to meet The Other, you being humble and stretched, you being converted and blessed by God. If you’re truly rooted in Christ, if you’re obedient to his commandments, if you have surrendered to the mystery of conversatio morum, you will receive Christ as The Other, you will be changed.

Throughout this Convention, we have prayed and proclaimed our desire to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to welcome emerging generations and cultures. Did we mean to pray that? Do we want the conversion that hospitality entails?

I pray that we do. Because right now, here’s what our legendary welcome sounds like: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. We’re so glad you’re here! Now, this is the Book of Common Prayer. Obey it. This is our musical tradition. Master it. This is our English heritage. Adopt it. This is our sense of order. Assimilate it. And the gifts from your home culture, your young culture, your lower-class culture? Would you leave them at the door and pick them up on your way out? They’re not quite Episcopal enough.”

I do not think we mean to be unkind or unwelcoming. I think we love what we have received and the most natural thing in the world is to share it with others in that very form. I think we are afraid that opening to two-way transformation with The Other could shatter or simply erase the foundations of our Episcopal identity.

Benedict would say this is not so. To be Christian is to engage in a dance. To be Anglican is to engage in a dance. Stabilitas keeps us anchored, holding fast to what is holy and true. Conversatio morum makes us free to say, “Here is the way we have known Jesus. May this path bless you. How have you known him? What song sounds like God to you? What dream has the Spirit whispered to you in your ear? I am confused, I am scared. But I embrace this dying and rising, this sacrifice and blessing, this transformation into the fullness of Christ. And, I embrace you.”

The prayer to be like Benedict will shatter our well-drawn boundaries, it breaks our hearts, it grows our capacity to love and to fail, and sends us humble as beggars into the arms of Jesus and the arms of the stranger. It is a dangerous prayer. Pray it anyway. And then watch out. God might just give you what you prayed for.

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Andrew Adamson

I echo Holly's comments.

I have come in the past couple of years to be more and more convinced that Benedictine spiritual discipline (a foundation of our Prayer Book) holds promise for the work we have ahead of us.

What I found lacking in the Rev. Spellers' sermon was any reference to several of those "hard" teachings of the Rule. Namely, that aspirants must have the Rule read to them (more than once), agree to abide by it in its fullness, to memorize it and the Psalter. Are aspirants not turned away at first with a few days of knocking at the door? Are they not presented the community's life--in word and deed--for a period of time prior to their vows?

There is a distinction between the guest and the aspirant. Both are to be treated as Christ, but the aspirant seeks to be made part of the community. Such a relationship has to "stick-together" and suggests some degree of coinherence.

Arguments such as we are presented in this sermon seem to confuse hospitality and incorporation, a symptom all too present in our parishes and in the governing structures of the Episcopal Church. We bend over backwards not to seem rigid or fundamentalist or whatever other bogey word we think of other Christians, when this is not necessary.

The greatness of the rule is that is both radically hospitable and radically formative. The weak have nothing to fear and the strong have something to strive for, to paraphrase St. Benedict. It is what has helped this manner of life thrive and influence all levels of the church for centuries.

The point is not "change". The point is not hospitality as a wedge issue to reform the church into whatever holds sway in our day. The point is conversion of life--to be conformed to Christ, which is something altogether different.

And as Christ is the foundation of our church, how is it that Christ (as Other) would shatter or erase the foundation, since he himself is the only foundation? He will remove accretions (as St. Paul might say) even by fire, but her phrasing here leaves me uncertain as to what is to be swept away.

There is some good to be found in the sermon, but I do wish she would have presented the Rule more faithfully in all its fullness and complexity. I wish also that the conclusion or moral of it was not so predictably familiar.

I hope she keeps praying and reading the Rule. Because if one thing is for certain, it is dangerous!

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Holly

Oops, sorry.

Holly McIntyre

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Holly

This is a beautiful statement of who we Episcopalians should be. I believe that we can only be enlivened by welcoming the perspectives and traditions of others. And yet....it saddens me that too often this is interpreted as necessitating giving up our own Anglican-based forms of worship. If we are engaged in a dance, should we not teach ours as well as learn others? I am unashamedly high-church, or, at least, moderately high-church. I find comfort, and strength, and food for my soul in these forms. I think others might also. I yearn for a church that says "let's share, let's learn from one another, here's this AND this", not "this OR this."

Holly - please sign your name next time you comment. Thanks ~ed.

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GrandmèreMimi

Beautiful homily. Thanks for posting. Some of my fondest memories of GC2009 are the Eucharists.

June Butler

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Leslie Scoopmire

there are very wide implications for us in this statement: "In Benedict’s day, people took on the name Christian, but had zero interest in bearing the cross and being transformed into Jesus’ people. Imagine that."

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