October 2023

Benedict’s Rule provides insights for living through times of impasse

The Church, and in particular religious life, is living in a reformation time, characterised by both great upheaval and a great opportunity to draw deeply from the roots of faith, tap into the inner joy of the Holy Spirit and await the unfolding, said American Benedictine Sister Laura Swan during her recent visit to Australia.

By Debra Vermeer

Laura, who is a Sister of St Placid Priory in Washington State and a well-known author and spiritual director, was in Australia during August and September to give a series of retreats and presentations, first at Jamberoo Abbey for the Benedictine Sisters and then an eight-day retreat for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at St Joseph’s Retreat Centre, Baulkham Hills, including Sisters, Oblates and others.

Monica Dutton, Spirituality and Mission Animation Leader for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, said Laura’s retreat was on the Wisdom of the Beguines and Desert Mothers.

“It was a silent retreat, with two sessions of input from Laura each day. The morning session was on the Desert Mothers and the afternoon session was on the Beguines,” Monica said.

“We came together every day for morning and evening prayer and again for the Sunday Vigil Mass with Father Michael Kelly OSB.

“The rhythm was really quite lovely, with these times of excellent input and communal prayer, followed by our own time for personal reflection. It was a wonderful opportunity.”

Following the retreat, Laura, who was visiting Australia for the first time, stayed with the Sisters at Glebe, attended a reception with the Sisters at Admiralty House, and saw the sights of Sydney Harbour.

“I felt very much at home and yet enjoyed your local varieties,” she said, including the kookaburras, a cockatoo at Glebe, beautiful artwork at the retreat house, and a kangaroo roaming near The Abbey at Jamberoo.

While in Sydney Laura also filmed two videos on the Desert Mothers and the Beguines and delivered a presentation at Glebe outlining a Benedictine view of the current situation of the Church and religious life.

During that presentation, Laura said that both in the Church and in the wider culture, “we are really, truly in a reformation time … which is why there is so much upheaval”.

“For some reason, God is not afraid of chaos,” she said. “And so, chaos is running through our faith communities, but it’s also running through our cultures.”

Laura said this time of reformation has also been called a time of “impasse”.

“And I feel like impasse is that time when the Holy Spirit is doing deep underground work in human life in religious communities; all the ways that we gather with one another and we just aren’t seeing yet what the fruits of those deep roots are,” she said.

“So, we’re living in a shadow time when we’re called to journey close to God, listening deeply for the Spirit’s movement and to draw close to love and to tap into our inner joy as we await the unfolding.”

The Rule of Benedict offers insights for living through times of impasse, Laura said. Indeed, St Benedict’s times (480-547AD) were much like the current age, characterised by gang warfare, invasions by other nations, inequality in the distribution of wealth, and unknown diseases wiping out populations.

“There was a lot of cultural upheaval in his time,” she said. “There are these periods in human history of major upheaval.

“I believe that we are in an age yet again when God has expressed dismay at our choices and has been taking the divine tiller and ripping up our attitudes, our bigotries, especially the ones we don’t even know we have, our assumptions, our addictions … and unhealthy social and Church structures.

“It can be very uncomfortable and even painful to live through a time of chaos. If we don’t have the hope, tapped into the joy to realise there’s going to be something beyond that, and that it will be very, very good.”

She said Benedict drew on deep roots of faith and discernment to deal with the challenges of his own age.

“The Rule is immersed in discernment as a way of life. Discernment is the ground of our dwelling,” she said.

“And what is the first word in the Rule of Benedict? Listen. Benedict calls his followers to listen. We are being called today to listen to one another, especially those who might hold differing opinions from me, even within Christianity.”

Laura said Benedict’s teachings on mutual obedience, hospitality, humility and purity of heart all carried wisdom for people struggling with the upheaval of modern times.

“It’s this willingness to learn and to journey with others. It’s our deep connections to one another. Can we model healthy community, make an effort to create community in our different neighbourhoods, our different publics, within our family, but beyond our family?” she said.

“How do I sit and talk with people who are different from me while maintaining permeable boundaries, not rigid boundaries?

“How do we as Benedictines speak? How are we using words? Is it true, is it helpful, is it supportive? Is it honest? It’s about dreaming how the world might be and envisioning the results.”

This includes focusing on the importance of prayer; becoming aware of God’s presence in our midst; keeping a sense of humour; becoming lifelong learners; mentoring others; attending to those who form your community; tapping into the joy of the Holy Spirit; cultivating empathy and compassion; limiting time with social media; and cultivating gratitude.

“Benedict calls us to draw close to the essentials,” she said.

Speaking afterward, Laura said she believes the Rule of Benedict continues to speak to people in each generation, both in religious life and in the broader community, evidenced by the way that Oblates are taking up the Rule and living by it according to their own circumstances.

“I began as an Oblate before entering the monastery and I’ve enjoyed watching how Oblates make the Rule and Benedictine spirituality ‘their own’,” she said.

“I see Oblates involved in anti-racism work; immigration work; bringing Benedict into their parishes; and using their gifts to benefit the community around them. Especially the call to peace – I see Oblates as peacemakers in so many ways.

“It’s the flexibility in the Rule that allows each generation to live out the Rule in the way the people of God need them to.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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