Monday, 14 March 2016

Seeking Wisdom: St Benedict and Universities, Ancient and Modern

‘The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4.18 AV)

‘But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? (Job 28.12 AV) Those are the questions that underlie the great Hebrew tradition of wisdom writing. The answer from the book of Proverbs is, in a nutshell, that, ‘The fear of the Lord is beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and understanding’ (Proverbs 1.7 AV). Proverbs is a book that restates that question and answer, and explores wisdom and her benefits and contexts. The question for the Christian is how far that wisdom tradition informs us today as those living in the hope of the gospel.

I want to use the Rule of St Benedict as a way into that and as a lens through which to see the pursuit of wisdom and the love of God, not least in the context of learning in Universities.

The Rule is laced with Biblical references, predominantly from the book of Psalms, with the next largest number of citations from the book of Proverbs. There is a clear relationship between the opening of Benedict’s Rule and Proverbs: from Proverbs: ‘Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding’; and from the Rule: ‘Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart’ (RB, Prologue, 1).

It’s not overstating it to say that St Benedict’s Rule is the conjunction and application of both the Hebrew wisdom tradition and the vision of Christian society. The pedagogy of both may seem remote from our times, laced with patriarchy, but The Rule is, at its heart, a practical and very pragmatic set of guidelines and instructions for living in Christian community, and some of the disciplines that go with that, centred on worship, hospitality and deep attention to God and neighbour. It is a powerful statement of finding wisdom in the heart and love of God.

Universities and collegiate foundations flow from and echo the monastic ideal: a resident, learning community that pursues wisdom (in the library or scriptorium); that eats together (in the refectory or hall); that ponders in company (in the cloister or quad); and that prays together (in the chapel or oratory). The survival and promulgation of learning and Christian teaching through the so-called Dark Ages has been attributed in large part to The Rule and those living it. They were faithful to the disciplines that go with the pursuit of wisdom, centred on worship, hospitality and deep attention to God and neighbour.

What Benedict advocates is a patient, unhurried pursuit of wisdom. For those pursuing wisdom, patient habit forming is at a premium. ‘Habit’ for a monk has a double meaning, the robe he wears and the formation in which he engages. So it is that Benedict states his aim of creating ‘a school for the Lord’s service’ (RB Prologue, 45) and this is about habit forming in the virtues and in wisdom. In emphasising, like Proverbs, the acts of hearing and attending as we pursue wisdom, Benedict’s Rule takes the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew scriptures and weaves it together with the New Testament and his deep conviction that the Christian should, ‘prefer nothing to Christ’ (RB 72.11).

In a hurrying world the ancient question uttered by Job still has a place: ‘where is wisdom to be found?’ Many things conspire against us: short terms for undergraduates, REF applications for academics, modern living and all hours’ social media. Whether we are monks or not, the disciplines that go with the pursuit of God’s wisdom, centred on worship, hospitality and deep attention to God and neighbour still matter but are still hard to pursue.

How we do that is in the forming of the habits of patience and attending to God are also shaped in those times and places where the hurry to a conclusion is not essential, and recognises that not everything concludes tidily anyway. Perhaps that’s why the Rule gives attention to the washing up in the monastery kitchen as much as to the cleaning of the vessels of the altar. Nevertheless, wisdom is rooted in God; a place like this is a witness to the divine patience where you are invited to stand on the threshold of God’s time: ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.

But we cannot do this alone. The pursuit of wisdom is relational and inter-generational, as Proverbs and Benedict know. Hence the reference to father and son, that extends out into understanding that the wise community is not simply a teaching community, but a learning one too, drawing on and interpreting that which is handed on to us.

This patient, relational wisdom comes out in Benedict’s use of verses from the First Letter of John. How should the monastery deal with the admission of those seeking to join them? Benedict answers quoting 1 John, saying, ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4.1). This isn’t the desperate, grasping anxiety to recruit and boost numbers, characteristic of our contemporary church. This is a sense that ‘trying the spirits’, what we might call discernment, which is not to be hurried or rushed, but to be right both for the community and the individual: an act of wisdom.

So, then, there are connections between Proverbs and attending to wisdom and our second reading which is a meditation on love and listening to God. The Rule of St Benedict starts the process of incorporating wisdom and practical daily living in Christian community: as he says, it is a Rule ‘for beginners’ (RB 73.8). Such is the nature of wisdom that there is a practical and prosaic dimension to it. The wise ordering of the community is one aspect, but also wisdom as the basis for our ethical thinking and acting. The Christian Gospel roots that in love; not as a soppy sentiment but in the redeeming, sacrificial love of God revealed in the cross, which is, as St Paul puts it, scandal to Jews and the polar opposite of wisdom to the Greeks (cf 1 Corinthians 1.18-25).

So where is wisdom to be found for you and me? The culmination of Benedict’s pursuit of wisdom in relation to life in Christ comes as he connects it to the way of humility, the way of the cross, and how that shapes practical wisdom and the living of the virtues. So, he says, ‘after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear (1 John 4.18)’ And he goes on to say that this can be exercised, ‘no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue’ (RB 7.67, 69). Benedict is alluding to the verses from 1 John which capture John’s theology, ‘he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God…Herein is our love made perfect…There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear…We love him because he first loved us’ (1 John 4. 16-20 AV).

That’s the task for us as Christian disciples, within and outside Universities, to continue to pursue wisdom in all that we pray and think, speak and learn and do, so that it may be said of us, ‘The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4.18). 

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

1 comment:

  1. On re-reading my own blog I realise I have made the more explicit connections with the ancient Universities. The next task is to connect that with Universities like Surrey where I currently serve. Any thoughts welcome!