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St Benedict, Patron Saint of the Environment: A Celebration

I recently visited the National Gallery’s Franciscan exhibition and came away refreshed and grateful. The star of the show is of course St Francis, the quintessential eco-saint – ‘a pious pin-up for our times’ in the words of Ann Wroe who has written so movingly of him in ‘Francis: A Life in Songs’.

One small thing caught my attention: friars wear sandals or go barefoot, which allows for a life of movement. The feet make a statement. By contrast Benedictines wear shoes, for a life rooted in the soil, earthed, in the words of Thomas Merton in ‘one good place’. Here is a commitment to staying in a relationship to the land, cultivating and enhancing it for future generations in the years to come. When they farmed their property they did so responsibly and carefully with a long perspective in view. Ought we not therefore to celebrate St Benedict as the patron saint of the environment?

Stability, the cornerstone of the Rule, brings a sense of belonging to place which however can never be static since it is held in tension with the commitment to conversatio morum, which carries the meaning of being open to the new. There is mention in the Rule of a mill, a recent invention, and by the twelfth century the Benedictines were showing skill and inventiveness in many areas, not least in water management and hydraulic engineering – think of the brilliant work of Prior Wibert at Canterbury. For manual labour in Benedictine life was no longer associated with slavery but had become something honourable –as we see in depictions of the labours of the months in illuminated books or on church portals.

Underlying this were the attitudes of reverence and respect, shown to both the human person and to matter and material things. Everything matters. Everything is to be handled with care. The cellarer gives us a portrait of how each one of us should behave, considering the utensils and work tools of our daily lives as though they were the sacred vessels of the altar. The Latin conspicat means to look sharply, to gaze at something in order to see its depths, its inner essence. So I handle with care and look with wonder on what I hold in my hands.

Should monks possess anything as their own? Here the translation of the Latin habere is important for it means to consider. Again St Benedict is giving us the attitude, and it is something that he feels so strongly about that he says any attitude of possession must be torn out by the roots. He knows that once avarice gains a foothold it is insatiable. In the chapter on harvesting we are shown how the necessary tools are handed out, but it is clear that they are only on loan, to be returned after use at the time of harvest, or when a task is completed, brought to its fulfilment.

Sufficit is a word that appears often in the Rule, and it describes the moderation or simple life style that so many are seeking today. St Benedict is describing a primary asceticism that is within reach of all of us, no excess, no wastefulness. And this rules out competition. That beautiful phrase with which the Prologue ends ‘may he bring us all together’…This life is corporate, not competitive.

When I lived beside a garden, with an orchard and a waterfall I tried consciously to listen to the voice of the land. When St Benedict opens the Rule by telling us all to listen he is facing us with something of paramount importance. Melvyn Bragg tells us that as the years pass he listens and watches and thinks. So I tried not to impose but to handle with respect this patch of ground which was in my keeping.

Putting this all together we find here a wisdom which is as relevant today as it was when St Benedict first wrote the Rule. Here is ancient wisdom ever new: for he is teaching us attitudes with which to approach the environment. He never dictates but helps to shape the disposition of the heart. Here is something foundational, universal. I remember being in Africa and talking about the Benedictine approach to the land and the response was you have shown us a charter of what we have always known! Here then is a gift to be received and shared. It is not surprising that I want to celebrate St Benedict.

Esther de Waal

Esther de Waal is a scholar in the Benedictine and Celtic traditions and has published extensively in both fields. Since writing “Seeking God” in 1984, Esther has inspired generations of people of all ages and backgrounds to discover the timeless inspiration of the Rule of St Benedict. In numerous writings, she has established an extensive oeuvre as the pioneer lay commentator and teacher on the Rule.

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Jul 08, 2023

Ester writes 'Here is ancient wisdom ever new' -- and so it is. As ever Ester brings brings her words of wisdom and comfort to us. And, we are the better for it.

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