Practicing the Benedictine, spiritual discipline of stability

Dear families, students and staff,

Welcome back to you all. I hope you had a restful break. While we would have hoped to have all our students back on campus, the reality with the current lockdown is now very different.

To say that we are disappointed and upset not to be back together is an understatement. The current situation we all find ourselves in is perhaps even more difficult than the last lockdown. Last time at least we knew that all of Australia, most of Europe and parts of Asia and the US were locked down with us. Collectively across the world, we worked out ways to connect with each other via Zoom and WebEx and, here at Melbourne Grammar School, our students and staff embraced creative ways of online teaching and learning. With the rest of Australia and most parts of the world opening up, there is now a visceral sense of disappointment, frustration and sadness around Melbourne.

While it is wonderful to have our Year 11 and 12 students back on campus, we feel for our other students and staff at Wadhurst and Grimwade House and for all the citizens in greater Melbourne who are now forced back to the confines of their homes. The idea of facing another minimum of six weeks apart from each other is, and will be, difficult to handle, not least economically but also psychologically and emotionally. We are made for relationships and communion, and we miss each other. However, there is nothing we can do about it. We have to accept the time we live in and the situation we find ourselves in, and then try to make the most of it.

Last week on the second day of lockdown 2.0 on Friday 11 July, the Church celebrated the feast day of St Benedict of Nurcia, which is in today’s Italy. St Benedict was born into a troubled and unstable time in the year 480 AD, 70 years after the fall of the Roman Empire.  According to St Gregory, Benedict was born into a wealthy family. He went to Rome to study liberal arts only to abandon his studies and retreat to a cave in the mountains near Rome where he lived in prayerful solitude for several years. Many people joined Benedict and twelve small monasteries were established in a nearby valley.

After some years, probably in year 528 AD or 529 AD, Benedict went south with some of his monks to Monte Cassino in the Apennine mountains where he remained to his death in March 547 AD. To instruct his many followers on how to live the monastic life, St Benedict wrote one of the most famous and influential spiritual texts in Western Christendom called ‘The Rule’.

Within a century or two after Benedict’s death, Benedictine Monasticism spread throughout Europe and over the next thousand years Western Christendom and European civilization was largely shaped by Benedictine Monasticism and St Benedict is therefore aptly named the patron saint of Europe and of all students.

At the heart of the Benedictine Order lies the commitment to a simple, balanced life of study, prayer and work. The motto of the Order is ‘Ora et Labora’ which, inspired by Benedictine spirituality, is also our motto at Melbourne Grammar. Upon becoming a Benedictine monk or nun, one has to take three vows: to be obedient to the Abbot (the leader of the monastery) and to Christ; to practice stability (staying in one monastery) and to seek to be continually transformed throughout life.

Last Friday on St Benedict’s feast day when we had just entered lockdown 2.0, I kept thinking about the Benedictine vow of stability. While none of us in this community have vowed to stay in one place for the rest of our lives, it seems that the Benedictine emphasis on living a stable, simple life of study, concentration, simplicity, prayer and work has become even more pertinent now that we are locked down again. After all, as privileged global citizens, we are used to being able to travel wherever we want to, consume however much we want, and to some extent do whatever we want to do. Now, with the new restrictions, we are again asked to give up our wanderlust and cease from constant activity and instead seek to live more simple, quiet lives at home. While it is not going to be easy and many will struggle, the invitation from our Western, Benedictine spiritual tradition to embrace a quiet, simple and balanced life is there for all of us to learn from.  

While many of us may be rejecting the first lockdown’s endless activity ideas to be creative and learn new things, perhaps lockdown 2.0 now comes with an invitation simply to accept ourselves and to learn to love and take care of ourselves. Perhaps this winter lockdown is more about sitting with our disappointment and accepting our frailty, confusion and fears. Maybe the Benedictine call to stability is inviting us during this lockdown to sit gently with whatever is really happening in our soul and allow it to emerge rather than seeking to fill our days with endless tasks, beyond that which are required of us. If we yield to the present circumstances and find a balance in our daily routine, perhaps we might emerge a little more centred and a little more accepting of ourselves and each other’s frailties.

If you are interested in learning more about Benedictine Monasticism, I recommend you read Esther De Wall’s brilliant text, Seeking God. It is a short book that introduces the reader to all the main themes of Benedictine spirituality.

I’ll leave you with one of Michael Leunig’s Prayers from his book, The Prayer Tree, which speaks into what this current lockdown might be inviting us into:

God help us to live slowly:
To move simply:
To look softly:
To allow emptiness;
To let the heart create for us. Amen.

I look forward to keep communicating with you this Term and I pray that you all stay safe and healthy.

Rev’d Hans Christiansen
Senior Chaplain