Looking back, a young student’s decision to visit Worth Abbey for an Easter retreat in 1980, based on no particular connection, was life-forming.
Over three days I was immersed in something different from anything else I had experienced. The psalms, the interweaving of communal and personal prayer drew me in, and I wanted more.
It planted a seed that has grown in different directions and yielded many fruits. The Lay Community became the lifelong ‘schola’ of prayer and friendship that Benedict described in his Rule; although in a particular form he had not imagined, I am sure he would recognise it.
The affinity has grown and strengthened as the chapters of his Rule have opened out Benedict's way of living the Gospel. My attraction is less to the august, bearded patriarch atop Monte Cassino; more to the drop out student who felt a call, and went with it, away from the structures of Rome into the darkness of a remote cave, until he was ready to emerge with something to share. First with the most local and least educated shepherds, then with whoever would listen to his call to renunciation, and a different way of life.
The final achievement of Monte Cassino, I think, misleads us. From Norcia to Rome, to Affile, to Subiaco, to Vicovaro, back to Subiaco, and the gradual establishment of twelve more communities: Benedict’s life is a story of displacement as much as stability, moving on as the Spirit led him to the next challenge, to hone further his calling and his leadership. Inevitably his initiatives clashed with the social and political storms unfolding around his houses.
Benedict is focused on the Divine Office rather than his own office. It is the ripening of the inner life that drives him, the fire and the goal to which he keeps returning. Surely the resonance his own call finds in others gives him the confirmation and courage he will need to persevere.
He has found Christ deep within himself, and understands that a community of men or women can arrange a durable way of life that puts Christ at its heart, and enables every member to live through seasons of discouragement as well as times of inspiration. He has run many paths by the time the Holy Spirit leads him to write down in his Rule the wisdom he has earned through his faithfulness and tenacity, woven into Scripture.
Original linocut of the Aniene valley at Subiaco by Peter Nash
I feel less than qualified to say much about the details of the Rule when I don’t follow them in a daily pattern, but the two outstanding moments of genius for me in the context of Benedict's time are the attention drawn very early (in Chapter 3) to respect for the validity of the outlook of the youngest member of the community, and the revolutionary setting aside of any advantages of birth or wealth, or even priestly status, when it comes to community life. The only status in seniority comes from time lived in the community. Benedict's recognition of the desert tradition as the true foundation of his Rule shows his humility and his wisdom.
A Thin Place
I feel very blessed to have spent some time at Subiaco. What happened there in the 490s left an indelible mark. There are remarkable and beautiful buildings and stunning frescos and views to admire, but the memory that rises above them all for me is the early morning walk down from the site on the cliff above -- where Benedict’s priestly mentor who equipped him with a habit, bread and the date of Easter must have lived -- to get to the cave itself, for the earliest prayer of a new day.
The soil, the trees, the rocks speak of the formation that Benedict left us; less visible, perhaps, but even stronger and more enduring than the river that flows at the bottom of the ravine. It knits prayer into each and every day, in season and out, connecting me, with so many others, thanks to the brother and sister from Norcia who stand at the root of a many-branched tree.
Michael Woodward, June 2023
Retired from several things, but still leading retreats and pilgrimages here and there.
With the Lay Community of Saint Benedict since 1980.
Married to Nora and living the vocation in hilly Wales.
Currently completing a diploma in Spiritual Direction in the Carmelite Tradition based at Boars Hill; it's like finding unknown cousins!
Apprentice grandparent, but getting the hang of it.