Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at St Mary’s, Garsington on 10th September 2017.
Readings: Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20.
Some of the funniest and most memorable moments I have had whilst staying as a guest at a Benedictine monastery have been in some way connected with food. As you probably know Monasteries take their food and the manner in which it is eaten, very seriously. Supper is in silence whilst a designated lector reads from a book, sometimes it is religious and sometimes not. I learnt more about Betty Bothroyd’s early political life on a week’s retreat once than I ever thought possible. Then there is the skill of trying to catch someone’s eye and to ask for something to be passed to you without using words. It’s amazing how difficult it can be to communicate with just a pointed finger and the variety of ways in which you can cause confusion. However, there is something that no Benedictine I have known seems to take seriously, and that is the universal sign for no more, thank you. I have often succumbed to their habit of hospitality and sadly returned home inevitably a number of pounds heavier.
Yet lying just beneath the reverent act of eating is still the very human temptation to burst into giggles. When I was staying at Alton Abbey once, sadly it all went horribly wrong. Supper was coming to a close and we were on the desert section. In the middle of the table was an enormous bowl of fruit which one of the monks duly started to hand around. Like some great culinary game of jenga, each person carefully removed an apple or a banana. Then it came to my turn and very carefully I picked out a small Satsuma which I was sure wouldn’t disturb this fragile edifice. Alas, I was wrong and the moment the fruit was in my hands, an apple from the top slowly rolled off and plopped into the milk jug nearby. I went bright red with embarrassment, but the monk who sat opposite me started to go purple as he tried to hold in the inevitable giggle. Needless to say his attempts failed miserably.
As someone who was brought up in a more humanist environment where food was to be appreciated but essentially eating was the forum and spice for conversation and discussion, the Benedictine rituals of the refectory have always seemed strange. And yet it is often through the situations that are most different to our own that we begin to learn and understand new ways of being. Talking and sharing round a dinner table with good wine, fine food and stimulating company is one of the joys of life. But so is the freedom not to speak, to focus purely on what you are eating and being aware of others in a way you never thought possible before. For, as Benedict teaches, the refectory is as much part of the school for God’s service, as is the oratory or the scriptorium.
This was brought home to me the other day when I was sitting at home simply eating an apple. As you know, at the bottom of our garden we are lucky enough to have an orchard which has about nine trees in it of various English types of apple. For the last few years we have been inundated with the amount of fruit these trees have produced. There was far too much for us to eat or freeze and we often left a box at the bottom of the drive with a notice inviting all passersby to help themselves. However, one year things were different. We hadn’t had a single apple all summer and when I went to see if there were any to harvest in the autumn all I could find was a handful of rather sorry looking miniature Bramleys, the rest of the trees were virtually bare except for a few withered and rotten buds. So that year as I sat and ate my apple which I had bought from the supermarket and been shipped from half around the world, strangely I was reminded of the Benedictine refectory and their reverence for all the things which we so easily take for granted. In my years of abundance, I had forgotten the sanctity and gift of eating an apple. Only then when the harvest had failed and in my paucity could I once more perceive with gratitude the divine in the ordinary moments of our lives. For it seems to me that this is what lies at the heart of Benedict’s little rule.
Strangely, Benedict does not write a text to stir the heart into mystical contemplation or a guide for the spiritual road and all its twists and turns. Rather he writes a very practical book which is about ordinary life, when to eat, what to wear, when to get up, not so much to instil a holiness into it but to enable the hidden presence of Christ within every moment to be revealed and experienced. This is brought out very clearly in chapter 31 of Benedict’s rule where he describes the qualities that the Cellarer must have to perform his duties. In many ways he is describing a Joseph figure, the man of wisdom who perceived the significance of Pharaoh’s dreams regarding the Harvest. Like Joseph, the cellarer is put in charge of the provisions of the monastery. He must be wise, mature, temperate, and frugal in himself; someone who knows the difference between needs and wants and is able to respond to requests with fairness and kindness. He is to have compassion on the sick, respectful of his duties and not tardy in carrying them out. Essentially, he is to live the Old Testament call to wisdom and the New Testament command of loving service, so that the words of the gospel may leap off the page and become those living words which turn the most humble of duties into an act of love, and the utensils of daily life into sacred vessels.
In many ways Benedict’s rule is about going back to the basics of living a Christian life. Writing at a time of hedonism and corruption, Benedict asks the question in his Prologue do you ‘yearn for life and desire to see good days’. If the answer is Yes, then his rule has something to say to you. However, whilst we may want to respond to his clarion call, Benedict’s rule and lifestyle is often perceived to be purely for monks and about monasteries, holy people, special people, set apart to live the ultimate life of holiness and prayer, of which we cannot or do not wish to be a part. But this is not true, talk to any monk and you will soon find that they are battling which the same stuff of life as the rest of us. The stuff of living in community with others whom we have not necessarily chosen as our friends but whom God has chosen as his church. Benedict’s rule is about living the Gospel wherever you may find yourself, with whom you find yourself and his principles have been shown by modern commentators to have as much relevance to those who live in the community of the monastery as those in a home. Over the last few weeks I have been adding simple sentences from Benedict’s rule to our Benefice Notes which speak to us about living in our Christian community well. I hope, in the words of Benedict that when you read them you will attend to his rule with the ear of your heart so that you may come to see once again that our life together in all its mundane and ordinary ways is shot through with the presence and love of God. So that others may look at us and say ’truly they love their neighbour as they love themselves’ through the grace and mercy of Christ. Amen.