As many of you may know St Benedict was the one who wrote the widely used rules for the monastic life. No, it is not the Pope I am talking about, although there may well have been a certain affinity that led Cardinal Ratzinger to choose this name. I am talking about St Benedict of Nursia. He lived from the 5th to the 6th century in Italy. His sister, Scholastica lived in a convent not far from Saint Benedict.
One day Benedict visited her, and towards the end of the visit she asked him to stay the night with her. This was a very unusual occurrence, but Benedict refused because of the prayers he had vowed to say. Scholastica quietly prayed and a sudden heavy storm came which made it impossible for Benedict to leave. When he went on his way the next morning a dove flew past him and he realised that this was his sister’s soul, for she had died after he left. Then he was sad that for the sake of vows he did not want to spend time with his sister, and it was only the storm that kept him there.
I came across this story when I was looking for something else, and it taught me a lot about the handling of rules. We tend to think of Lent as a time when we make vows and choose rules to keep for the duration of this period. We try to give up sugar, wine, chocolate or coffee; or we try to eat sensibly and lose weight until Easter. Like St Benedict we make vows of some kind or another. Two different results frequently occur: one is that the attempt is abandoned after two weeks or so; the other may be that we become so inflexible that we cannot distinguish anymore between the occasions where we need to keep the rule and where to relax.
What does that say about our love for God? Do we love her less because we cannot keep our promise for a time? Does She care? It makes me think that this being we call God may have no concerns about whether we keep or break such a promise. In the Gospels there are a number of examples where Jesus breaks the Sabbath rules, and so teaches something extraordinary.
At the beginning of chapter twelve of St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus and the disciples are hungry while he walks through the cornfields on a Sabbath. So they pick ears of grain and eat them. Of course, as so often, the Pharisees do not like that and criticise them. Jesus concludes this exchange by stating that mercy is more important than sacrifice. This story is immediately followed by a similar one where they challenge him, in front of a man with a withered hand, whether it is acceptable to heal on a Sabbath. Jesus confronts their hardness of heart by stating that everyone would save a sheep stuck in a ditch on the Sabbath. He here asserts that a human person is worth more than a sheep and heals the man’s withered hand. For Jesus it is more important to care for women and men than to keep strictly to rules which should help and not hinder living together for God’s glory.
Thinking about what is acceptable in dealing with God I also remembered the story of King David when he danced before the Ark of the Covenant when it was brought back to Jerusalem. He got so carried away in his excitement and love for God that he became too indecent for Michal, the daughter of Saul, and she criticised him. David took his stand and Michal remained childless all her life (2 Sam. 6:14-23).
In ‘The Power of Myth’ Joseph Campbell puts this attitude in a different way: “You have to let go of the image of the [sacred]. Such an image of one’s god becomes the final obstruction, one’s ultimate barrier. You hold on to your own ideology, your own little manner of thinking, and when a larger experience of God approaches, an experience greater than you are prepared to receive, you take flight from it by clinging to the image in your mind. This is known as preserving your faith ...”
I would like to put forward the notion that I found with my ‘friend’ Professor Jürgen Moltmann. He suggests that the act of ignoring the generally accepted rules by Jesus point to a certain environment and occasion in eternity. In that state of reality there is no more difference between the holy and profane, but the whole of existence is included in and illuminated by the grace of God’s Love.