The Rule of St Benedict for August begins by talking of monks who have to travel, rather ironic in today’s society where we are only just coming out of an unprecedented ban on travelling. Yet, the Rule had a very negative attitude to travel and St Benedict saw in it many dangers. The ideal was stability of place in order to concentrate on the essentials of life – preferring nothing whatever to Christ. We have all been given an opportunity to practice this lifestyle recently. I hope that you have been more successful than me!
Two topics have dominated my life recently – pilgrimages and plagues. I am the secretary of a group re-establishing the medieval pilgrimage route between St Duthac’s Chapel, Tain, Ross-shire and St Magnus’Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. So I have been busy with agendas, minutes, information for a website etc. The great irony of this is that I have also been living under lock-down because of the latest plague. Far from being able to visit sites on our route, consult local landowners and many other details, I have been coping with virtual meetings, watching Mass rather than participating in it and, most difficult of all, communicating with grandchildren by phone instead of daily cuddles.
There is a close historical link between pilgrimages and plagues. Pilgrims have always travelled to holy sites. They are mentioned in the Rule of St Benedict ‘And to all let due honour be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.’ (ch 53) and ‘Let the Abbot’s table always be with the guests and the pilgrims.’ (ch56). Medieval pilgrimages, such as ‘my’ one, owed their popularity partly to the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century. In the wake of this plague, which killed over 1/3 of the population of Europe, people went on pilgrimage to give thanks for their survival or to pray for the repose of the souls of loved ones.
One surprisingly relevant story that I came across recently concerned the Ark of the Covenant. It had been captured by the Philistines and taken to Ashdod but the inhabitants came out in boils and died in great numbers. So the Ark was moved to Gath but these inhabitants were also covered in boils and died. It was moved again to Ekron but the same thing happened there. Eventually, the priests solved the problem (see 1 Samuel ch 5,6). Today, we can see that the disease was being carried by the people moving the Ark but then everything was interpreted as the will of God – they were being punished for having captured the Ark of the Covenant and the problem was only solved when the priests devised a plan for working out what God’s will for it was.
Modern science claims to have replaced these ancient superstitions – but were they really so far off the mark? We see in Europe today that politicians are having to balance the need for public safety against the need to keep the economy moving. It is also clear that international travel greatly accelerated the spread of the virus yet we are being encouraged to return to flying around the world for our summer holidays just to keep the tourism industry alive. Have we simply replaced one God with another? Is the current epidemic at least partly due to our materialistic lifestyles, our neglect of the environment, our lack of concern for our neighbours?
There are always positives in any situation and this can be seen today in our Covid-dominated society where suddenly people are looking out for vulnerable neighbours, acknowledging the work done by the caring services and realising that science cannot provide all the answers – God is still there and has not given up on us. Plagues are part of the natural cycle and have always been with us but so has God. We need to be more like the priests in 1 Samuel 6 and plan our lives according to what God wants us to do, not what will make us richer or give us a better sun-tan. Studying the Rule of St Benedict is a good place to start!
Oblate Pluscarden Abbey