What’s the alternative to going ‘transactional’?
In a previous post, I wrote in favour of a model of public service based not on a transaction, “service-user” model, but on selfless commitment to one’s neighbour. It is surely to be lamented that such an ethos has disappeared from so much of the public sector (with, certainly, notable exceptions).
I recently took the opportunity for some time away from my parish, staying for a few days as a guest of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, an Anglican Benedictine women’s religious community who have just moved into a beautiful new convent in the East Midlands countryside.
The Community was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century to undertake missionary and social work in the London docklands, and began life in a parish adjacent to my own across the Thames. As time passed, however, the sisters discerned that God was calling them to a life of greater withdrawal and contemplation, and this led to the adoption of the Rule of St Benedict, a document written in the sixth century and of fundamental importance to many religious orders and communities today.
We may be familiar with what are termed the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience, according to which the members of religious communities order their lives. However, the Benedictine monk or nun in fact vows something else: obedience, conversion of life and stability.
These five values might, I believe, find beneficial application in wider and secular life too. After all, the monasteries have been modelling community for many hundreds of years, and arguably were responsible for the preservation of the ideas of civilised society through the most turbulent periods in Western history.
Benedictine monasticism is centred on the opus Dei, the “work of God”, the work of prayer and contemplation. The sisters with whom I stayed gather together for prayer eight times a day. Few outside the monastery, including other Christians, are likely to be able to incorporate this discipline into their daily lives; however, the point of the opus Dei is, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has remarked, to embody the idea ‘that all of time can be sanctified.’
Work and prayer are united in Benedictine thought, and the “commitment to a life under ‘rule’… takes it for granted that every aspect of the day is part of a single offering”. This runs counter to contemporary “work/life” distinctions, which cannot but alienate us somewhat from our work, and so from the idea that our professional undertakings can contribute to our own personal development. Such distinctions undermine any sense of professional vocation, which is surely a concept to be recovered if public service is to move away from today’s disastrous transactional model.
The Archbishop also sets the monastic paradigm against the contemporary obsession with autonomy. The five monastic values are primarily about enabling life together.
Poverty, in the Benedictine experience, does not usually mean destitution. Rather, it is about ensuring financial parity between community members, and about locating wealth collectively rather than individually, whereby it is used only to enable and support work rather than to demarcate individuals. Financial resources are understood less as rewards than as means of maintenance.
Chastity, although often thought of in exclusively sexual terms, is in fact about personal integration, and right relation to others. It is a means of tempering the temptation to engage in human relationships on the basis of manipulation or exploitation. By attending to self-integration, one arrives at a view of human personality which precludes the treatment of others as means. The parliamentary expenses scandal and the continuing Leveson Inquiry demonstrate the need for personal integrity to underpin the healthy functioning of institutions.
Obedience again reforms the nature of human relationships, premising them upon mutual service rather than self-advantage. It is not about servile deference, but instead encourages us to understand our relationships with others primarily in terms of what we can do for them, not in terms of how we might benefit, or in ways which reduce others to the status of means by which to achieve targets or secure recompense. Public service is not so-called for nothing.
Conversion of life is an acknowledgement that change is more an attitude than an act. Central to the Protestant Reformation was the maxim, Ecclesia semper reformanda est (‘The Church is always is need of renewal’); Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. However, effective change also requires a stability that exposes the severe limitations of technological immediacy, and reminds us to live in “the here and now”, attentive to present needs.
These values form a sort of matrix within which community life is lived, and personal development is enabled. They inform one another: for example, attention to the present facilitates self-integration because it involves an honesty about one’s own shortcomings and weaknesses; so too, the sanctification of the day gives value to the entire spectrum of our undertakings, and aids us in cultivating a view of ourselves and others which endorses the inherent value of the human person.
Above all, Benedictine monasticism rests on the belief that the good of the individual is bound up inextricably with the good of the community. It is a philosophy of self-effacing self-development, which says that the more readily one thinks of the other, the greater ultimately will be the benefit to oneself. A piece of pre-Benedictine monastic wisdom states that if you see someone ascending to heaven by himself, catch him by the heel and bring him down to earth: we do not achieve our own good without the good of those around us. The monastic paradox is that the monk is monos – an individual, or alone – but can only fulfil this vocation in the school of community-living.
The popularity of monastic retreats has never been greater: but there may well be something to be said for taking the values of the religious life back with us into the wider world.