The settled life

Daily Reading for July 7

In a recent essay on Benedictine holiness, Professor Henry Mayr-Harting describes it as “completely undemonstrative, deeply conventual, and lacking any system of expertise.” Perhaps the most important thing to emphasize is the “deeply conventual”: the holiness envisaged by the Rule is entirely inseparable from the common life. The tools of the work are bound up with the proximity of other people—and the same other people. As Benedict says the end of chapter 4, the workshop is itself the stability of the community. Or, to pick up our earlier language, it is the unavoidable nearness of these others that becomes an extension of ourselves. One of the things we have to grow into unselfconsciousness about is the steady environment of others.

To put it a bit differently, the promise to live in stability is the most drastic way imaginable of recognizing the otherness of others—just as in marriage. If the other person is there, ultimately, on sufferance or on condition, if there is a time-expiry dimension to our relations with particular others, we put a limit on the amount of otherness we can manage. Beyond a certain point, we reserve the right to say that our terms must prevail after all. Stability or marital fidelity or any seriously covenanted relation to person or community resigns that long-stop possibility; which is why it feels so dangerous.

At the very start, then, of thinking about Benedictine holiness, there stands a principle well worth applying to other settings, other relationships—not least the church itself. How often do we think about the holiness of the church as bound up with a habitual acceptance of the otherness of others who have made the same commitment? And what does it feel like to imagine holiness as an unselfconscious getting used to others? The presence of the other as a tool worn smooth and grey in the hand? The prosaic settledness of some marriages, the ease of an old priest celebrating the Eucharist, the musician’s relation to a familiar instrument playing a familiar piece—these belong to the same family of experience as the kind of sanctity that Benedict evokes here; undemonstrative, as Mayr-Harting says, because there is nothing to prove.

From “Shaping Holy Lives” by Rowan Williams, an address given at the “Shaping Holy Lives” conference on Benedictine spirituality at Trinity Wall Street, New York, April 2003, and quoted in The Oblate Life, edited by Gervase Holdaway OSB (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2008).

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