Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
In this period of gradual unfolding,
when we are slowly coming out of our year-long lockdown,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short time,
let us put our worldly cares aside,
close our eyes and imagine ourselves
to be in our places of worship,
surrounded by members of our beloved community,
and be together, if only virtually,
for this short hour.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Cliff Reed
We light this chalice
to bring light to our minds,
wisdom to our souls, and
warmth to our hearts:
light to show us the Way,
wisdom to walk it truly,
warmth to enfold our fellow
pilgrims with compassion.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
as we begin to come out of lockdown,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
We hold in our hearts
all those who have helped us
to come through this difficult time,
and all whose lives have been touched,
in whatever way,
by painful events, in their lives,
and in the wider world,
of which we are all a part. Amen
Reading: Via Media, The Middle Way of Measure and Discretion from Order of St. Benedict website
Compared with the tradition and especially with the Rule of the Master, Benedict legislates for a monastic life that has rhythm, measure, and discretion. His monks are not overdriven by austerities in fasting and night vigils. They do not own anything personally, but they have enough to eat and to drink (even wine when it is available) and to clothe themselves. They work with their hands about six hours a day but they also have leisure for prayerful reading and common prayer. Their sleep is sufficient and they may even take a siesta in summer if needed. The young, the sick, and the elderly are cared for with compassion and attention. The abbot, while he directs all aspects of the common life, must seek counsel from the monks; and the Rule makes provision for his limitations and failings. In short, the Rule of Benedict arranges for a monastic life in which the monks may seek God in prayer and reading, in silence and work, in service to guests and to one another.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading by Stephen Lingwood, from The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and the Present.
For me, the essentials of Unitarianism are summarised in the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas that sound something like, “The Kingdom of God is within you and all around you.” The Kingdom of God – the divine, the Truth – is within me. I do not need anyone to mediate between me and the ultimate Truth. I, as an individual, have access to the most important religious Truth. No one can tell me what to believe, no one can claim to know better, religious authority is with me, the individual.
And yet, the Truth is not just within me, it is also all around me, it is in all other people as well, just as much as it is in me, and maybe some truth can only be revealed in relationship and through dialogue. That is why we need community. As a Unitarian I have an obligation to listen to my inner self, the voice of God within me, and also to listen to the voice of God in all other people. I have to listen to the voice of God speaking in other people in my congregation as well as all people I come across in my life.
I am an individual-in-community, and it is only by respecting both poles of individuality and community that I can form a genuine, truth-seeking, life-giving faith.
Prayer Partakers of the Divine by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
we are products and partakers of the Divine,
whether we like it or not,
as are all things that live, all things that exist.
with our minds we explore the mystery that is Divine,
seeking light in darkness
and darkness in light.
As our souls seek communion with each other
in love and fellowship,
so they seek and find the Divine.
We cannot see God face to face,
yet we encounter God all the time and everywhere,
if we have eyes to see and ears to hear,
senses to connect with what is around us –
and spirits to reflect.
The Divine is the Great Mystery
we can never really know, and yet
the Divine is no mystery at all.
May we have the clarity and humility
to realise it.
Reading A stoic’s prayer by Eusebius
My final reading this morning is not a Unitarian one; in fact, it pre-dates Unitarianism by over a thousand years! I don’t know where I found it – it’s in my common place book at home. I love it because for me it sums up humankind at its best.
May I be no man’s enemy, and may I be the friend of that which is eternal and abides.
May I never quarrel with those nearest me: and if I do, may I be reconciled quickly.
May I never devise evil against any man: and if any devise evil against me may I escape uninjured and without the need of hurting him.
May I love, seek, and attain only that which is good.
May I wish for all men’s happiness and envy none. May I never rejoice in the misfortune of one who has wronged me.
When I have done or said what is wrong, may I never wait for the rebuke of another, but always rebuke myself until I make amends.
May I win no victory that harms either me or my opponent.
May I reconcile friends that are angry with one another.
May I, to the extent of my power, give all needful help to my friends, and to all that are in want.
May I never fail a friend in danger.
When visiting those in grief, may I be able by gentle and healing words to soften their pain.
May I respect myself. May I always keep tame that which rages within me.
May I accustom myself to be gentle, and never to be angry with people because of circumstances.
May I never discuss who is wicked, and what wicked things he has done, but know good men and follow in their footsteps.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Approaching Divinity by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps (adapted)
Creator Spirit, within our hearts and moving among the stars,
we approach you with the powers and capacities you give us.
We approach you whenever we invigorate the understanding by seeking truth,
whenever we invigorate the conscience by following it, rather than our passions.
We approach you whenever we receive a blessing gratefully,
bear a trial patiently, or encounter peril and scorn with courage,
whenever we perform an unselfish deed or lift up our hearts in true adoration.
We approach you whenever we resist the habits and desires that are
in conflict with our moral principles,
whenever we speak or act with moral urgency and devotion to duty.
So may your Divinity grow strong within us, and the religion we profess
blend seamlessly with the life we lead.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address St Benedict and his Rule
You may be wondering what on earth the writings of a 6th century monk have to do with our busy, secular lives in the 21st century. This morning I’m hoping to show you that the Rule that St. Benedict formulated is far from irrelevant today; its underlying spiritual values can speak to us still, in our busy lives. Because although we may resist living our lives according to a Rule, all of us still need some underlying moral compass to guide us through life. Perhaps even more so now, in the 21st century, when we have so many conflicting influences in our lives. So that, in Cliff Reed’s words, “the religion we profess [can] blend seamlessly with the life we lead.”
According to a biographical sketch by James E. Kiefer, “Benedict was born at Nursia in Umbria, Italy, around 480 CE. He was sent to Rome for his studies but was repelled by the dissolute life of most of the populace and withdrew to a solitary life at Subiaco. A group of monks asked him to be their abbot, but some of them found his rule too strict, and he returned alone to Subiaco. Again, other monks called him to be their abbot, and he agreed, founding twelve communities over an interval of some years. His chief founding was Monte Cassino, an abbey which stands to this day as the mother house of the world-wide Benedictine order. He died in 547 CE.
Benedict drew up a rule of life for his monks, a rule which he calls ‘a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to order nothing harsh or rigorous.’ The Rule gives instructions for how the monastic community is to be organized, and how the monks are to spend their time. An average day includes about four hours to be spent in liturgical prayer (called the Divine Office), five hours in spiritual reading and study, six hours of labour, one hour for eating, and about eight hours for sleep. The Book of Psalms is to be recited in its entirety every week as a part of the Office.”
To my mind, Benedict’s great achievement was in the formulation of a Rule for monastic living which is so moderate and balanced. Although Benedictine monks and nuns live in a highly-regulated community, Carl McColman points out that “[St. Benedict’s] overall message is grounded in a positive spirit of reconciliation – he always has the welfare of the overall community in mind.” He also comments that “what makes the Rule of St. Benedict so attractive to the ordinary Christian is … the spiritual values that it champions: hospitality, humility, perseverance, silence, kindness towards those with special needs, discipline, and an optimistic sense that salvation and sanctity are to be found in the ordinary, everyday tasks of living.”
Today, many men and women living in the world choose to become Benedictine oblates. The Benedictine website explains that they are “Christian individuals or families who have associated themselves with a Benedictine community in order to enrich their Christian way of life. Oblates shape their lives by living the wisdom of Christ as interpreted by St. Benedict. Oblates seek God by striving to become holy in their chosen way of life. By integrating their prayer and work, they manifest Christ’s presence in society… Today, throughout the world, there are thousands of oblates praying and working in spiritual union with Benedictine men and women of various communities and receiving spiritual strength and inspiration from their association as oblates.” Julie, the Director of the Encounter course in spiritual direction which I undertook a few years ago, is a Benedictine oblate and her faith shone through her life and words.
The text of the Rule of St. Benedict is available online. Reading through it in preparation for this service, I was struck over and over again by two things: firstly, that the Rule attempts to encompass all aspects of the monks’ lives, and secondly, that if a monk does transgress from the Rule, every opportunity is given to him to repent his wrongdoing and be received back into the community. For example, Chapter 46, Of Those Who Fail In Any Other Matters, reads: “If anyone whilst engaged in any work, in the kitchen, in the cellar, in serving, in the bakery, in the garden, at any art or work in any place whatever, committeth a fault, or breaketh or loseth anything, or transgresseth in any way whatever, and he doth not forthwith come before the Abbot and the community, and of his own accord confess his offense and make satisfaction, and it becometh known through another, let him be subjected to a greater correction. If, however, the cause of the offense is secret, let him disclose it to the Abbot alone, or to his spiritual Superiors, who know how to heal their own wounds, and not expose and make public those of others.” It is this sense of justice tempered with mercy, of discipline tempered with compassion, which flavours the whole Rule, that I find so appealing to me, a 21st century Unitarian woman. It is an approach to community living from which we could learn much, if we would.
Today we live in a society very different to that which St. Benedict knew. Nevertheless, it is still a society – we are not just individuals, living in splendid isolation from each other. As Stephen Lingwood wrote in my second reading, “the Truth is not just within me, it is also all around me, it is in all other people as well, just as much as it is in me, and maybe some truth can only be revealed in relationship and through dialogue. That is why we need community. As a Unitarian I have an obligation to listen to my inner self, the voice of God within me, and also to listen to the voice of God in all other people. I have to listen to the voice of God speaking in other people in my congregation as well as all people I come across in my life. I am an individual-in-community, and it is only by respecting both poles of individuality and community that I can form a genuine, truth-seeking, life-giving faith.” I would like to think that St. Benedict would have found nothing to argue with there.
As I see it, our job as Unitarians, as human beings, is to be constantly aware of the “divine influences” around us, in the world, in our fellow human beings, and to recognise that there is that of God in everyone, and that we are all connected to each other, on a very fundamental level. The words of Eusebius, which formed our final reading, are full of good advice on how to live in community, how to be in relationship with the rest of humankind, with the rest of creation.
We are all human beings, we are all members of many communities – our families, our friends, our colleagues, our church – and we are all members of the human race. What difference can we, as individuals, make to those communities? We need to be aware that we are in a living relationship with the rest of the world, and that our words and actions can influence the fate of that world and its inhabitants, our fellow human beings, not to mention all the other living things. Whether our influence is for good or ill is up to us. Although the Benedictine Rule was formulated in the 6th century and we are living in the 21st, reading the examples it contains and seeing how St. Benedict recommended his monks to act in particular situations can help us to apply true spiritual values to our interactions with the rest of the world.
Unitarian minister Philip Hewett wrote, “Asking whether human nature is good or evil is like asking whether water is hot or cold.” The answer is that it depends. And in our case, it depends on us. He also says that “one person who stands at the point of intersection where many positive relationships meet may induce their intersection at other points as well, and thus strengthen the living and loving of others. … This view of human nature and conduct demands a fresh and creative response to each new person and each new situation.” It means being alert, being aware, being conscious of our part in the world, and our possible influence on it, not just on Sundays, but every day of the week, every minute of the day. Quite like a monastic in fact! It is a challenge, but we can do it, if we truly want to. A faith worth its name is about not only professing certain beliefs, but also about putting them into action in our lives. Otherwise, it is hollow and empty.
I would like to leave you with the uplifting advice of George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends:
“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
to the society we live in,
so that we may recognise our inter-connectedness,
with all peoples and the rest of creation,
so that we may live our lives in right relationship with others.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley