The Re-Emergence of Saint Benedict

All around me in my local landscape, in my parents’ garden, a persistent three-leafed plant. Wood avens (Geum urbanum), otherwise known as colewort, Herb Bennet, and St Benedict’s Herb. My mum wants me to get rid of this common ‘weed’ but, like with the cleavers and the nettles, I give it a small patch as it provides nectar for the bees and is the food plant of the grizzled skipper caterpillar.

I do not know how wood avens came to be associated with Saint Benedict. Only that it was considered to drive off evil spirits and was used to treat the poisonous bites of snakes and rabid dogs. It has been suggested its three leaves and five flowers are reminiscent of the trinity and the wounds of Christ. Whatever the case, it seems like a good plant to have around in a time of pandemic. Its leaves make a tasty addition to salads and it’s possible I’d try using its roots to flavour soup.

Interestingly, with the emergence of Saint Benedict’s Herb into my life, my awareness of the influence of the Order of Saint Benedict in my locality and what feels like either past life or ancestral memory has been growing stronger.

I’ve long been fascinated by the Benedictine Priory which was located next to St Mary’s Church on Castle Hill in my home town of Penwortham. It was founded in the 1140s as an obedience of Evesham Abbey, dissolved in 1539, rebuilt as a mansion, then demolished in the 1940s to make way for housing.

On my daily walks I’ve been repeatedly drawn to St Mary’s Church and the Benedictine Monastery in Bamber Bridge. The latter was founded by the Order at Ampleforth Abbey in 1780 and closed in 2016.

I’ve felt the Benedictines, with their motto of ora et labora ‘pray and work’, and their slow prayerful way of life organised around eight offices of prayer a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), Compline (bedtime), has something important to say to a world in lockdown due to coronavirus.

This feeling was confirmed when I learnt that the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fidélité de Jouques in France had released six days of their Gregorian chants of the offices in Latin for free via Neumz for Holy Week to help people in isolation. Their singing and the sound of the bells and organ is beautiful and calming and the perfect antidote to the stresses of this turbulent time.

The re-emergence of Saint Benedict has brought back to the forefront my own monastic leanings. A couple of years back I really wanted to be a nun but could not reconcile the demands of living by a rule with my own unruliness or the renunciation of worldly pursuits with sharing awen as an awenydd. I also felt uneasy adopting a lifestyle originating from the Christian religion, which played a major role in extinguishing British pre-Christian beliefs and demonising my god, Gwyn, and his spirits.

Yet my craving for a life of prayer and work has not gone away but has grown stronger. Since the beginning of the year, when I stopped drinking alcohol and thus having drunken evenings and lie-ins and going to the pub, my life has been structured around prayer/meditation/journeywork, writing and study, physical work in the house and outdoors, and exercise including a martial art.

Since the lockdown the biggest changes have been the cancellation of my volunteer work parties with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, my Taekwondo classes, my monthly drumming circle with the Way of the Buzzard, and the Damson Poets event, and not being able to see friends. I’ve dealt with this by replacing my practical conservation work with gardening, practicing my Taekwondo moves and patterns alone in the garden, participating in the Way of the Buzzard online drumming circles, and keeping in touch with friends and the other members of Damson Poets by email and text message.

Slowly I’ve been developing a semi-monastic routine based on my natural rhythms and my duties to Gwyn and the gods and spirits of Peneverdant rather than the rule of a Christian saint. It is helping me stay focused through these days of isolation and to build a deeper relationship with my land and my gods.

5.30am – Dawn prayer and breakfast
6.00am – Morning prayers and practice
7.00am – Writing, study, blog
10.00am – Housework/shopping/cooking/gardening
11.30am – Dinner
12 noon – Noon prayer and study
1.00pm – Housework/gardening
2.00pm – Exercise (walk, run, or cycle, Taekwondo)
4.30pm Afternoon prayer and bath
5.00pm – Tea
5.30pm – Emails and news
6.00pm – Housework and water plants
6.30pm – Evening prayer and meditation in garden
7.00pm – Study
9.30pm – Night and bedtime prayers
10.00pm – Bed

12 thoughts on “The Re-Emergence of Saint Benedict

  1. Bogatyr says:

    I wouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss the solitary like. Being a nun isn’t just a Christian thing: here in China, there are Buddhist and Daoist nuns. However, I wonder whether what you’re looking for is being a hermit, rather than a nun, per se. An American, Bill Porter, aka Red Pine, wrote the definitive book on Chinese hermits. I met him once here in Bejing; lovely guy. There’s an interview here: https://tricycle.org/magazine/the-chinese-hermit-tradition-an-interview-with-red-pine/

    I think you might also like this documentary on YouTube, also about Chinese hermits: https://youtu.be/yifuuLJCFlc

    Unfortunately, the authorities have recently begun to clamp down on them, but then that’s as old as the Chinese state itself.

    Regarding Benedict, I’m not sure if you’re aware of Rod Dreher? Although he himself is Russian Orthodox, he wrote a book about translating Benedict’s vision to the contemporary world. Two of his articles you might find interesting are:

    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/paul-kingsnorth-st-benedict-dark-mountain/

    and https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/sunday-with-st-benedict/

    If you work your way through that, you may find that the role of a hermit is not to hide from the world, but to withdraw in order to contemplate more clearly how one should live according to one’s values… and to then re-emerge, to share the insights gained with fellow-thinkers. It’s entirely compatible with Druidry, imho.

    • lornasmithers says:

      Maybe it’s hermit as I don’t belong to a particular order or community? Thanks for the links. I enjoyed the article on China’s living hermit culture (we just don’t have one here!). I hadn’t heard of Dreher but see the goal of his ‘Benedict Option’ is ‘to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture. ‘ I do question the ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude of this when we’re all in this together though. It was good to read his piece on Benedict’s land and see the photos.

  2. Yvonne Aburrow says:

    I would have thought that ancient polytheist religions had some form of dedicated lifestyle similar to monasticism. Certainly there are a number of contemporary Pagans and polytheists following a monastic path.

    • M.T. says:

      My working theory for a while has been that, apart from the renunciation of sex and possibly separation from family, the pagan priesthoods of antiquity were more like Christian monastics than Christian clergy.

  3. Aurora J Stone says:

    I did my MA on monastic history and in seminary, as a project for my spirituality class, devised a rule and framework for an order. I even designed the ‘logo’. In the MA work I traced the idea, ideal and icon of voluntary poverty, regarding the latter stating that Claire was the living icon of Lady Poverty for Francis of Assisi.

    Your schedule of the day is a healthy balance of work and prayer, action and stillness, inward and outward work. I know you have struggled with the whole monastic thing for a long time, and maybe for you the gift in all the current situation is to find a way to have this sort of structured way to live become real for you. The challenge will be how to translate this sort of framework when the externally mandated restrictions are lifted. It is harder when there is no mega structure providing support – financial and otherwise.

    All that said, I am glad you are getting the opportunity to live your own monastic way, for it has integrity and honours all of your commitments.

  4. Greg Hill says:

    I have Wood Avens all over my garden and I don’t think I could get rid of it if I tried. My Flora says that the association with St Benedict is because it was called herba benedicta (‘blessed herb’) in medieval Latin.

    Your routine reflects a good balance between prayer and other activities. Solitary practice allows individuals to find the balance that it right for them. I was once told by a monk on Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire, that the daily life of the monastery not only meant following a set routine but also the more difficult business of getting along with the other monks and matching a personal sense of vocation with the community life.

    • lornasmithers says:

      Thanks for sharing this. I can imagine the community aspect would be something I’d really struggle with in a monastic setting. Bogatyr’s response and this lead to think I’d be better suited to a semi-hermitic rather than a semi-monastic life. I just prefer the word ‘nun’ to ‘hermit’ for some reason. Maybe because I can’t shake the image of the old bloke with the stick… the hermit as male and other…

      • Bogatyr says:

        Heh – watch the documentary I linked to, and you’ll see female hermits, Isn’t ‘being other’ the whole point of being a hermit (or nun), though?

      • Greg Hill says:

        I don’t think there is a female version of ‘hermit’ though there are several references in the middle ages to ‘anchoress’ as a female ‘anchorite’. But I seem to recall that they withdrew from the world by walling themselves into a narrow cell with an opening for food to be passed in but otherwise spent the time completely alone. This doesn’t really have the appeal of Myrddin Wyllt in the wildwood, however hard a life that was.

      • lornasmithers says:

        I guess I’m endeavouring to to have the best of both worlds… time in nature… my ‘cell’ of a room to retreat to. I’d definitely find being an anchoress too claustrophic and being Myrddin too cold!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.