Fr. Abbot Addresses Parents Group

BrendanFor those of you who do not know me, my name is Fr Brendan and until recently I served as the Prior of the monastery. This last year I was away in Washington DC on sabbatical studying liturgy in the Catholic University. For reasons best known to themselves the monastic community here elected me as Abbot of this monastery on the afternoon of Saturday 13th of August.

I’ve been in the monastery eighteen years and in that time I’ve served as a teacher of Classics and Religion in the school, Junior Housemaster for a number of years and two terms on the Board of Management, including one term as Chairperson of the Board.

Fr William invited me to say something to you this morning about Benedictine education. The one thing I make no claim to be is some kind of expert on education. I can, however, say something about how a monastery can influence for the better the life and educational environment of our school.

St Benedict called the monastery “a school of the Lord’s service” and set forth basic values to shape community life and guide the behaviour and inner disposition of the individual monks. So reflection on the Rule can provide remarkable insights into the nature of education. Benedict of Nursia was born in 480 and, as a young man; he left Rome to seek the solitude of the caves near Subiaco in Italy. He lived there alone for ten years and gradually developed a reputation for holiness. After some years a group of monks invited him to be their abbot. This experience didn’t work out very well and it ended with the monks trying to poison their abbot! So if I should die under suspicious circumstances you know where to look for the culprits! Benedict learned from this experience to be more compassionate and flexible in dealing with his flock. Out of his experiences of living as a hermit and of living in community Benedict crafted the Rule as we know it.

The Rule was written in the sixth century as a guide for monks living in community. We believe that it provides our school with a foundational set of values for today’s world. Benedictine spirituality is grounded in the Christian search for God. This is the deep human desire to be united with God which provides the initial impetus for a spiritual journey towards God in the life of every monk.

It is conventional wisdom today that the focus of a school should be academic excellence. Undoubtedly this is very important and no parent would send their child to a school where they were not going to perform academically to their optimal level. There is nothing at all wrong with this, but it is not on its own, education.

Monastic wisdom would say that real intellectual growth expands the rather narrow view of education, where education equals academic excellence, in two ways. Firstly, our students learn such skills as accountability, how to work together, leadership, how to manage their time and how to become confident in their abilities from living in an environment informed by the Rule. This learning does not only happen in the classroom. It also happens on the tennis court, the rugby pitch, in student government, through relating with classmates or boys in the dorms, through music and art and so on. Secondly, the integration of the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual components is the desired outcome of a Benedictine education; just as a monk encounters God everywhere and not only in the church, so a student in our school encounters learning in classes, in friendship and in service to others. The Rule encourages students and staff alike to see the potential for growth in all areas of the school environment and beyond it. Education is about people and not about acquiring information.

The Rule teaches us that for monks the love of Christ is to come before all else. Because Christ is believed to be present in all of us, the mission of our school is to create a learning environment in which students and staff are deeply respected for who they are as human beings. This is fundamental to the Benedictine approach to life and to learning.

The very first sentence in the Prologue of the Rule asks us to listen with the ear of the heart. Obedience “ob-audire” in Latin, means to hear or listen intently to. Obedience is a desire not an obligation. By this we should understand that our listening cannot simply be an exercise of the mind, it must engage the whole person as it comes from a desire deep within the person. To really listen to what someone else is saying is one of the most difficult things in the world to do. For a monk this kind of intense listening happens in the daily process of what we call lectio divina, a prayerful reading of the Bible. The ability to listen carefully allows us to understand ourselves and the world around us. No real education can take place until we first learn how to listen.

Community living is also an essential part of Benedictine life. A number of years ago I was asked to speak with a transition year group from another school who were visiting the monastery. I gave them a little talk on what a monk was. At the end of my talk I made the mistake of inviting questions – always a fatal thing to do. One student asked, “What’s the hardest part about being a monk?” Before I had even properly thought about it I heard myself saying, “the other monks.” Community life is not easy, but it is essential.

The Rule of Benedict is clear “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” Benedict integrates a community-based spirituality with a deep respect for the individual person. For Benedict community is essential and non-negotiable. These interpersonal relationships are central to the key monastic virtue, humility. The Latin word for humility derives from the root humus, meaning “of the earth.” It is humility that makes us grounded as human beings. This awareness gives us the insight of our fundamental unity with other human beings. In every classroom there are people of different abilities, temperaments, talents and interests. Without this basic interest in and understanding of the individual, real education is not possible.

The Rule Benedict wrote which is a work of genius, distils monastic wisdom and makes it available to others. It is this Rule and the precepts of the gospel by which we live and it is this Rule which underpins the culture, philosophy and spirituality on which our school rests. Education here is seen as valuable and not simply utilitarian.

The years spent here in this place provide each individual with an alphabet from which each in his own way will learn to speak the “Word which is life”. What we are interested in here is success; success at sport, at exams, in life – but also, and much more importantly, real and lasting success, success beyond success. Because real success is neither fame, nor wealth, nor power; rather it is seeking, knowing, loving and obeying God, it is finding meaning to our very existence and our life. And when that journey which we call life runs its course, as it most surely will, may he bring us all alike to everlasting life.

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