Feast of Benedict March 2019

Feast of Benedict March 2019

I think that we all know that in recent years there has been an increased interest in monasticism in our country. Whether it’s in our chanted prayer, interest in particular ministries a monastery has embraced, or, as many of us believe, in Benedictine values or in the community life itself, many news media, websites and magazines have covered various aspects of this phenomenon for all to notice.

I would like to take a few minutes this afternoon to touch on three contemporary artistic expressions of monastic life that, I believe, may contribute, in their own way, to a greater awareness to our life as Benedictines.

The first example is the set of 20 historical Brother Cadfael murder mysteries written in Britain. They were written by Ellis Peters—but that was just a pseudonym for the real author, a woman: Edith Pargeter.

The setting for Pargeter’s series, and for the 13 BBC TV dramas that were made from them, is Shrewsbury Abbey—a Benedictine Abbey in 12th C. England. It is a time of a devastating civil war throughout England and the Abbey becomes an island of calm, a refuge and a place of clear thinking and non-partisan sides despite the calamities all around it. The homeless, soldiers and the locals themselves look to the abbey for refuge and help.

The “hero” is Brother Cadfael, the abbey herbalist and “peace & justice coordinator” before even the term was known! He is also a keen observer of the human condition, the equivalent of today’s spiritual director. In each episode he befriends the local sheriff and even the accused and often guilty parties, with whom he works to find justice for all. If all Benedictines were in the mode of Brother Cadfael, we’d be an envious community of people for sure.

All sides of community life are honestly portrayed here, including a wide variety of monks and leaders. Generally the abbey life is historically accurate and shown in a good light. A moral at the end of each episode, usually summed up by Brother Cadfael himself, makes sure of that.

The second very contemporary expression of our life is the 1990 work, The Rule of Saint Benedict, illuminations and calligraphy by Sister Mary Charles McGough of the Benedictine Sisters of Duluth, Minnesota. Nearly every chapter of Benedict’s rule is included, with beautifully attractive, often whimsical blue-robed and hooded monks going about the life that Benedict’s Rule addresses. Her full-page painting of wispy angels floating up a golden ladder at the beginning of Ch. 7 on Humility is a stunning visual of one of Benedict’s most often used images. Of the many editions of the RB we have in our library, this larger than life illustrated version is indeed a unique take on the centuries old document. The Sisters in Duluth have been very generous in sharing this outstanding piece of Mary Charles’ talent. We display ours in the gathering space of the chapel. Additionally, her contemporary icon of the young Benedict and Scholastica is arguably one of the most popular visuals of the two young saints in usage today.

I think that the stories of Cadfael and Mary Charles’ illustrative Rule show a picture of life—serious, yes…but very human and attractive. Very fine artists’ endeavor to share this rich and relational life with their viewers.

The third and final example that has struck me is the recent publication by Benetvision of A Little Rule for Beginners. There are so many things that are “attractive” about it:

First, there’s the size. At 5” by 4” it fits in anyone’s hand—purse—tote or pants pocket!

Secondly, unlike Mary Charles who stuck very closely to the words of the Rule, each chapter here is represented by only a couple phrases. Getting to the real core of the message.

Third, each chapter gets only one or two pages for commentary—commentary by Sister Joan. But at the end of the book a listing of all eight major books that Joan has written on monastic life is given. That Joan continues to have fresh and creative reflections on the life is amazing and inspiring.

Fourth, I appreciate the whimsical illustrations by Erie artist, Marcy Hall, a welcome addition to each chapter’s wisdom.
And, finally, I took copies of the book for every prioress who attended the LCWR assembly last August. I was told that many of them immediately ordered multiple copies for their sisters, donors, gift shops and beyond. This Little Rule is so popular that the second printing has just arrived.

So, despite the fact that we are the inheritors of a fifteen hundred year old tradition, we are also the beneficiaries of contemporary expressions of this tradition by the artists of our time.

I am sure that Benedictines in all countries and cultures around the world have their own artists and writers delving into the monastic tradition in our own time and producing similar inventive, creative and inspiring articulations of the values they find there.

We are all beneficiaries of their gifts.

Sister Anne Wambach, OSB, the twenty-first prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania is a native of Philadelphia. She moved to Mount St. Benedict Monastery in 1992 to respond to a desire to experience the monastic way of life. Previously a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Chestnut Hill, Sister Anne began the formal transfer process to the Erie Benedictines in 1993 and made her monastic profession in 1997.

Sister Anne has served the people of the Diocese of Erie as a teacher at St. Gregory's School in North East, Pa., from 1992-1995, and at the Neighborhood Art House in Erie, beginning as program director in 1995 and as executive director since 2005. She served on the Monastic Council from 2006-2010.