preached in the Abbey Church by our Oblate Father Rod Cosh.
Thank you Father Abbot for inviting me to preach. It is a fearsome honour. As I promised you I will not preach for more than 40 minutes. We have agreed that if Dom Giles feels the sermon is going on too long he is at liberty to get his sandwiches out.
Talking to an older person the other day in the Deanery, I said that I had been asked to preach at Alton today, to which she replied, ‘What are you preaching at Alton Towers for?’
This rather took me aback. I’ve only ever been to Alton Towers once some time ago. I remember we went as a family with friends who lived nearby. The kids loved it, I suffered it, and Pam held the coats.
One of the rides there is called ‘Oblivion’. This is what Alton Towers says about the ride: ‘Face your fears. You know you shouldn’t look down, but you won’t be able to stop yourself taking a peek at the colossal vertical. Oblivion is the world’s first vertical drop roller-coaster, it will thrust you on a journey to discover your real self. As it plunges you face forward 60 metres into the depths of hell, you will ask yourself why you are there?… and will you come out of the other side? … a physical and psychological rite of passage has been completed!’
Ring any bells?
Today is a day of celebration, when we give thanks for our Holy Father Benedict and his simple Rule.
Of course, Benedict is not only the Father of modern monasticism but also the patron of Europe. Benedict wrote his rule at a time when there was whole scale instability in our Continent: the Roman Empire was crumbling the Vandals were at the gates of Rome and civilisation was falling apart. Quietly and almost imperceptibly, at first, Benedict drew men around him who were looking for a simpler and more predictable life compared with the social chaos that they experienced in the wider world. What Benedict achieved through his rule was a sense of Stability from which people could explore the God-givenness of life.
In our first reading from Proverbs we hear: 3 if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; 5then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. It was this desire for insight and a deep penetrating cry to experience the very presence of God which drew people into Community with a common purpose. This, Benedict understood and through it he carefully crafted his rule. In the Prologue Benedict says, quoting the Psalms and Isaiah: Let peace be your quest and aim. Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me, I will say to you: Here I am.
This seems to me to be the essence of the Benedictine way, and one that this Community commits itself to daily. A God-centred existence where conversatio morum (living the monastic life with fidelity) leads, step by step to conversio morum (the conversion of life). Conversion of life is a large and sweeping concept which embraces a life time even unto eternity for some of us. Benedict was far shrewder than that, and that is why he uses the term conversatio morum, a term of faithfulness in small things. How can any of us convert our lives if the process is not in the minutiae of our daily actions?
It is about the conversion process taking place in the day to day actions, words and thoughts of living in community. It is well known that we can’t choose our family but we can choose our friends. For the monk I think it is the reverse. They choose the family they wish to live in holy obedience with; but their friends are, after the Rule, everyone who knocks on their door. This is the expansive love which is offered by the Benedictine Rule, and which I believe this community follows faithfully.
For me it is a humbling honour to be an oblate of a community and, in some small way, to enrich the conversion of my life by following the Rule in my daily life. But the question I want to ask you is: what draws us to this place? What is it that is so attractive about those who choose to live this way of life? It is certainly not their sense of haut couture or their ensuite washing facilities. It may be the genuine and warm welcome, which exudes from the heart of the Community.
For some though, there may be a sense of the romanticism: of monks floating around in black habits singing beautiful plainsong which attracts. What we have to remember is that this place is not about frail romanticism; the Religious Life is hard and challenging; rather it is dedicated to passion. It is through their walking with Our Lord and entering into his passion that they are able to find the compassion that is called for to sit beside us in our darkest moments.
It was C. S. Lewis when asked was he ‘high’ church or ‘low’ church replied : ‘No. I’m deep church’. And this place is one of the deepest you will come across. Because, all the day to day rhythm of community life is undergirded with prayer and an immensely profound sense of the presence of God. Here, in those depths, the Community is called to explore the very heart of Christ.
As St Paul says in our second reading: 17that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. This is the steady and constant aspiration of those who commit to the Religious life.
So many of us pop in and out at various times and if you are anything like me you will always feel better for doing so. But just as we ask the monks to pray for us and the various situations we hold dear by leaving prayer cards on the board at the back of the Church, there is a danger that we might leave our own spirituality here in their safe keeping: after all, they are better at it than we are surely?
As much as I know that the Community holds my intercessions before God they cannot live my spiritual life vicariously. It is mine and I must own it in all its tatters and frailty. This deep place is not here to simply palliate my soul but it does refresh me as I drink from the deep wells of faith and love that are revealed through the community and its conversion to life through small things.
Like Oblivion, that 60 metre vertical drop into ‘Hell’, Alton is a place that at its best we can plunge into the unfathomable depths of God. In truth I would go as far as to say that Alton Abbey is to the Spiritual Life what Alton Towers is to the vestibulars.
The Benedictine life in the 21st century is not very dissimilar to that of the 5th century when it all began. The world seems to be in as much chaos and instability as, quietly and faithfully, groups of men and women get on and live by a simple Rule. As, then, so much of the world sees this way of life as irrelevant, even pointless. But it is this way that can anchor us in the chaos and business of our lives.
If we really believe in this way of life, even if we cannot commit entirely to it as the Community have done. Shouldn’t we ensure its continuation and support it as wholeheartedly as we can? Today, let us give all praise to Christ the source of our redemption and who calls this Community to himself. Let us give thanks to Benedict for his wisdom, which has inspired so many over the centuries to follow his Rule, and let us renew our commitment today to support this way of life, so that this house may continue to witness and be a still point in this chaotic world. Amen.