By Rowan Williams
“May God himself, the God of peace, make you holy though and through, and keep you sound in spirit, should and body, free of any fault when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. He who calls you keeps faith: he will do it.” (1 Thess. 5:22-24)
“God keep you sound in spirit, soul and body.” And the purpose of the consecrated life is, of course, the soundness, the health of the whole Church. It is undertaken in the conviction, unlikely as it may seem to secular minds, that health is as contagious as it’s opposite. And the soundness of the whole Body of Christ. “Sound”, says St. Paul, “in spirit, soul and body.” So what might that health be about – the health of spirit, soul and body – for a religious community, and especially for a Benedictine community?
Sound in spirit; sound in the air we breathe, sound in our lungs, you might say. And the air that we breathe, if St. Benedict is to be believed, is an air that carries the atmosphere, the ethos, of humility and trust. Famously, St Benedict has more to say about humility than almost anything else in the Rule. He spells it out in relentless detail, but it’s not simply something whose characteristics are listed and left, it’s something pervading the whole the Rule. And it’s something very clearly connected with that very remarkable and very distinctive feature of Benedict’s Rule which impresses upon communities the need for mutual listening and the need for attention to those you think least likely to be of use to you, especially in Benedict’s context, the juniors. So the healthy spirit is the listening spirit. The healthy spirit is a community environment in which a great deal of listening goes on, especially to the unlikely, especially to the marginal, in and out of the community – because they tell me that it can be possible to be marginal even in a community.
A spirit of listening to the young, not in a fashionable focus group kind of way, but a willingness to be taught by those who haven’t learned the wrong lessons of experience. God keep you sound in that spirit. Listening in attention to those who don’t usually get listened in and out of community. God keep you sound in that kind of humility, where the expectation is always that the other carries to you a word of Christ – indeed the Word that is Christ, so that the spirit of listening, the spirit of that sort of humility becomes the particular way in which the Spirit of Jesus of Christ is alive in you.
And what about soundness of soul? You will be relieved to know that I don’t intend to spend the next few hours discussing the theological differences of spirit and soul and the opinions of various Greek Fathers on this matter who never quite saw eye to eye with each other. I’m going to cheat slightly, and I’m going to take that definition of “soul” which says it is what gives form, what gives shape to the body. Soundness of soul is having a robust and durable shape, a sense, and a rhythm to the common life. And that sense and rhythm of the common life – of monastic life overall, but very especially of Benedictine life – has to do with the shape that the Psalms give to the day, the shape the Psalms give to the human voice and the human imagination. Health of soul is a healthy inhabiting of the world of the Psalms. And that is the world of praise, the world of lament, the world of bafflement, sometimes of protest and anger, a world of the naked. The soul that is the Psalms of David is a pattern of speaking with one another to God that allows all the areas of our human life and experience to be inhabited by God the Holy Spirit, that allows the voice of protest and anger and that carries the voice of praise and thanksgiving.
When St. Augustine wrote about the Psalms, as he did so extensively and so unforgettably, he reminds us of the varied tones and voices of the Psalms: of anger as well as praise, of protest as well as gratitude, those voices are all, so to speak, taken up into the one voice of Christ who has taken into himself the voices of all humanity so that they may be woven together in an offering to God the Father. Health of soul is to inhabit the voice of Christ in the Psalms, to let that voice be out, that is to know and recognize it in ourselves: those tensions and darknesses which drive human beings to anger, protest, and outcry, and to recognize in ourselves also those areas of the human heart that uncontrollably surge up in praise and thanksgiving, sometimes almost incoherent praise and thanksgiving, the great, chaotic outpourings of the Psalms of praise.
And soundness of body? Well it does no harm to be absolutely prosaic and pragmatic about that and suggest that religious communities ought to be places where people are health. But sometimes I look around religious houses and see little piles of pills by people’s places… I have a few questions. But much more deeply than that, the questions of any community, any community at all (and I’ll come back to why this is a particularly appropriate question to a Benedictine in moment), the question is: is this a healthy life? That’s to say, is its physical and material balance a great, coherent, settled one, or has that spirit of rush and anxiety that controls most of our civilization penetrated even here? “Surely not!” I hear you cry.
This morning some of the newspapers carried as their lead story the publication of a letter from a number of experts on childhood telling us what I think we might well know already: that the experience of children in our society is more and more catastrophic. More and more, children are being denied childhood by being denied space, air, freedom, patience. They are being corralled into tests and hoops to jump through, they are being confined physically in where they could play, and they are being pressured into the consumer culture. Next week there will in fact be launched a new project: a study of what makes for a good childhood, and this morning’s letter and this morning’s story will be very good press for that.
But, dare I say, that the health of a religious community is rather like the health that we’re seeking for a good childhood, that we are seeking to say to the world around something about health of body, a something that is quite different from the obsessive cult of health that turns one more screw in the ratchet of anxiety. We’re saying something that has to do with the balance of work and leisure, which has something to do with the connectedness to the ordinary physical rhythms of the world. We’re saying something in fact which in the Rule of Benedict has always been associated with the invitation to work and prayer, by which I don’t imagine that Benedict or anyone else meant simply that you should be constantly muttering devout invocations as you went about your business. But your work should be part of a sound life, a life with shape, with substance, a life that was not consumed by anxiety, over-excessive care, which knew about Sabbath rhythms that the Bible would endorse.
God keep you sound in spirit, soul, and body. Your vocation, dear brothers and sisters, is to hold up soundness for the sake of the Church, and to let that soundness leak out to the lives of others. It is the soundness – the health – that is about listening, that is about inhabiting Christ in the Psalms, that is about the Sabbath rhythm of work and recreation, the breathing out and the breathing in without which nobody lives sanely. So today we thank God for a century of soundness in this community, and we pray most simply that God will keep that soundness alive in this family, and that that soundness will attract, convert, and transfigure all those it touches: those who make their pledges and their commitments here and those who learn from a place like this what the soundness – the health – of the world is, those who will learn something of what the eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ purposes in the Holy Spirit for all his creatures. To that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, glory, praise, and thanksgiving now and forever.
The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams is the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. He preached this sermon at St. Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, Kent, an Anglican Benedictine convent, on September 12, 2006.