11 July 2020
Loving & Leaving
Prov 2:1-9; Acts 2:42-47; Mt 19:27-29
Today we solemnly celebrate the Feast of St Benedict. Unlike with other saints, today is not the date of his passing from this life into eternity. But because his death was on March 21 which is in Lent and from time to time becomes part of Holy Week, the celebration of his feast is moved to this date- the day that his remains or sacred relics were transferred from the Monastery of Monte Cassino where he died in 543 to Fleury Abbey in the mid-7th century, more than a century after his death. So let us come together to glorify God in giving us St Benedict, the father of Western Monasticism, showing us the way to totally surrender our life for the love of Christ. And we begin by acknowledging our sinfulness as we beg for God’s mercy.
How much love can compel someone to leave behind what one has already loved? Benedict’s life may well be characterized by two words — loving and leaving.
In his youth, Benedict’s love for knowledge enabled him to leave his beloved family and hometown of Nursia to study in Rome. Years later, as a young man, his love for righteousness urged him to leave the tumultuous life of the declining city of Rome. Tagging along his elderly nursemaid, he pursued a quiet rural life. Then, again, his awakened love for solitude urged him to seek God more radically in austerity and so stole away from his dedicated nursemaid. He headed for the wilderness and settled in a cave by a cliff in Subiaco where he met the monk Romanus from the monastery above the cliff. He guided Benedict in the ways of prayer and garbed him with a monastic habit and regularly lowered a food basket for his sustenance. In three years, Benedict grew in intimacy with God. Yet again, in this love, he had to abandon the austere solitary life as followers began flocking around him. He formed them into several small communities of 12 members each. Later, he established his largest community in Monte Cassino where he finalized the Monastic Rule. It may not be his intention but his monastic community preserved the Christian life uninterruptedly, and as many historians observed, so much benefitted the whole of the European world. The monastic life ordered by a balance of prayer, work, study, and community life proved to be an advantageous model for a stable society in a world torn by constant wars.
The Rule of Benedict which opens with the words culled from the Book of Proverbs that we have for our First Reading today, continues to guide the monastic life all over the world. “Listen, my child, with the ear of your heart…”. The Monastic Rule evolved through the years as Benedict grew in the monastic journey. He did not come up with a collection of impositions overnight. Mainly based on the Sacred Scriptures and the earlier Rule of the Master, each stipulation speaks of Benedict’s own monastic journey of seeking and loving God that compelled him to leave not only his family but all that is familiar in favor of all that God offers. Peter’s declaration to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you,” may well be gleaned in the Rule of Benedict that echoes this with the exhortation, “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” We may say that this is the basic framework with which Benedict built the Monastic Rule that proposes a way of life by which to live in the love of God. Benedict insists that the love of Christ must come before all else, and that it must find expression in the love of others in the dynamics of community life as a school of charity and service, where there is mutual obedience and care in all humility, as is described in the Acts of the Apostles. This way of life that puts into action Christ’s love benefits all and not only those within the walls of the monastery, for the Gospel of love is for all.
The challenge we face in this fast-evolving world as all systems shift with the rampaging coronavirus and the global climate change, remains as it had been, “how are we able to constantly love and leave behind the familiar and one’s personal preferences for the sake of new expressions of this love?” No matter how effective former ways are, we are urged to embrace the new ways that God invites us into: new ways of praying, of working, of relating with one another, of using the resources that God has surrounded us with, or just simply, new ways of doing things. But everything, always for the sake of loving. For only then can leaving the familiar behind and embracing the newness of life make sense.
Benedict shows us the way. He felt the urge to leave behind the familiar in pursuit of love. He had the strength and courage to do so only because he loved first. He loved God.
Just observe how a toddler leaves the comforts of the crib, then abandons the comforts of crawling to walking, then soon discovers the joy of running and jumping and climbing. It’s never about just abandoning the comforts of the familiar to venture into the vague emptiness. It’s always about the greater love that beckons.
May we continue to love and be open to leave and go forth. Through the intercession of St Benedict, may we truly prefer nothing to the love of Christ and be ever ready to leave. Like through all this Covid-19 pandemic, may we emerge, as always, into the newness of loving God and each one as did Benedict through all the turmoils of his time.