I was asked to write this article about the same time as the Copt 26 event was taking place. The book group that I belong to had chosen David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on our Planet’ as a gesture towards this event. When reading it, I found myself wondering what St Benedict would have made of it all.
Having lent the book to another member of the club, I cannot quote it exactly, but I do remember the main suggestions for the changes that need to be made and have found it interesting to pick out those sections of the Rule that relate to them.
- Reduce waste, both food and materials: The monk was to eat simply, sparingly, at set times and while attending to the reading of the day rather than what was on his plate. He was also to look after the monastery possessions while not regarding anything as his personal property. (see chapters 4:13; 4:35,36; 7; 31; 32; 39)
- Level up worldwide: At first glance, this would seem irrelevant for a monastery, where the emphasis is on one’s relationship with God, not international trade deals. However Benedict expected his monks to be aware of the world round about them and to look after the poor on their doorsteps. While the monk was not necessarily expected to be the poorest of the poor, he was to be content with whatever food and clothing was available. (see chapters 14; 34; 53; 55)
- End emphasis on perpetual economic growth – David Attenborough quotes economists as saying that the industrialised nations need to change the way in which they measure the well-being of each nation. The present system puts pressure on nations to produce more and more ‘things’ instead of concentrating on ensuring that everyone has the basics of life. Benedict would have agreed with the economists. As we have already shown, the Rule stipulates that monks should live simply; property is owned by the community, not individuals and must be looked after. Goods produced by craftsmen-monks should be sold at rather less than the market value. Benedict is not trying to undercut the opposition here but to prevent avarice and pride! (see chapters 33; 35; 57)
- The wealthy need to be willing to share, reduce their consumption: this is probably the most difficult aim suggested by David Attenborough as it demands personal sacrifice. Joe Bloggs is under pressure to ensure that his children have the same as their friends; that he is driving a modern car etc. Perhaps we oblates can set an example by refusing to join the ‘rat race’ and remembering that the Rule says that people should be chosen for specific tasks according to their personal merit, not their worldly status. It might also help to make decisions as a group – family, neighbours, community – where the common good might out-vote personal gain. (see chapters 2, 3, 21)
- Less meat-eating: the Rule is very clear on this – meat is only for the sick (see chapter 36)
- No pesticides or fertilisers: this was not an issue in Benedict’s day but he did approve of the monks getting their hands dirty. (see chapter 48)
- More roles for women: I had not been looking forward to the section in the book dealing with population control, expecting the promotion of abortion and sterilisation. Instead, the author took a more sophisticated approach. He pointed out a statistic that has been known for over 60 years but is seldom mentioned – when a nation’s material wealth improves, its birth rate falls. So all we have to do is to improve the standard of living in the poorer countries. I do not have the space to enumerate the factors at play here (or to discuss Catholic teaching on family planning!) but mention one used by the author – give women choices outside the home and they will have fewer children. One choice that Benedict would have approved of is to become a nun (see Ch4:63).
While Benedict and David Attenborough would have disagreed on the existence of God, I think that they would have found lots of common ground on how to care for His creation!
Jane Coll, Oblate of Pluscarden