Rector's Reflections - 24 April

Rector's Reflections

Wednesday 24th April 2024

A Benedictine Approach to Well-Being

In yesterday’s reflections, I wrote about how, for Benedictines, our Well-Being is dependent above all on our worship of God. For Benedictines, worship is something we do together, as a Christian community. The more regularly and frequently we come together in worship, the greater our Well-being will be. But there is much more to Benedictine spiritually than simply a focus on worship.

Benedictines are often great readers, and every Benedictine monastery will have a library. This is because for Benedictines, reading has an important role to play in our spiritual lives. Reading helps to nurture our spiritual lives, and it often leads us into prayer.

What sort of books do Benedictines read?  Well, to start with, for most Benedictines, the book above all books is, of course, the Bible. There is a long history of reading the Bible in a deliberately slow and careful manner, which allows time to savour the spiritual significance of particular words and phrases. Such a way of reading is often called lectio divina  , from a Latin phrase which means reading a text in a spiritual way.  In the modern world, we like to master and control the texts we choose to read. The point of lectio divina  is that it encourages us to read texts, especially religious texts, in a completely different way: we surrender ourselves to the text, so that instead of us reading the text, the text reads us.

But Benedictines read a whole range of books besides the Bible. They will read anything which has something to say- anything which is worth reading. This will include the classic works of Western literature, but also works from other cultures and civilisations as well.  And they are not adverse to reading the latest works of fiction or non-fiction, providing that the book might have something to say about God or about God’s world, or provide a starting point for prayer.

Benedictines usually read their books in private, but there is also a tradition of having a book read out loud during mealtimes.  Everyone sits quietly eating their meal, while one of the community reads a passage from a chosen book.  I have experienced this for myself, on a visit to Elmore Abbey some years ago. I found it profoundly satisfying: the food was feeding my body, and the words of the reading were feeding my mind. I can still remember the reading – it was a passage from a book about contemporary life in the Church of England. The passage itself was neither striking nor particularly spiritual, but there was something about the experience which has stayed with ever since. I think it was something about the experience of shared listening, which expressed and enriched a sense of Christian community.  

As I write these words, the following passage of scripture comes to mind: 

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. “ But he answered, “It is written, ”One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.   {Matthew Chapter 4)

I wonder: how are we feeding our inner selves?  What are we reading? How are we drawing spiritual nourishment from the books we read?

The Benedictine tradition teaches us that worship, even regular and frequent worship, will not be enough by itself to ensure our Well-Being. We need to feed our souls as well, especially through the practice of daily spiritual reading.  What is spiritual reading? Benedictines would emphasise the importance of the Bible, but they would not limit spiritual reading to biblical texts. We can draw the spiritual sustenance we need from a wide range of books. The key thing is that we are finding food for our souls.  For the words of Jesus are profoundly true:”One does not live by bread alone”.

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