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

Penwortham Priory and the Rule of Saint Benedict

You wouldn’t know it had ever been there if wasn’t for the street names Priory Lane, Priory Close, Priory Crescent, Monk’s Walk, and the names of Priory Park Care Home and Penwortham Priory High School (where I was educated between 11 and 16 and from where I tried to escape as often as possible!).

Castle Hill, the pen, the prominent headland, which puts the ‘Pen’ in Penwortham has been the town’s central religious and defensive site for thousands of years. The castle mound remains along with St Mary’s Church and graveyard, but Penwortham Priory and its black-robed monks are long gone.

St Mary's Church

Penwortham Priory was founded in the 1140s when Warin (de) Bussel, a Norman Lord who was the first Baron of Penwortham, transferred St Mary’s Church to the Benedictine abbey of Evesham in Worcestershire. The abbot funded the building of the priory and sent a prior and three monks to serve.

The priory was an ‘obedience’ of Evesham Abbey and had no independence of its own. Because it was replaced with a mansion after the dissolution we do not know what it looked like. Alan Crosby suggests it is was a ‘monastic grange with a chapel… built around a quadrangle in some form of cloister.’

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Penwortham Priory rebuilt as a mansion

The priors and monks were often sent from the larger and richer abbey (where there were sixty-seven monks, five nuns, three clerks, and sixty-five servants) as a punishment. This bleak north-western headland, overlooking Penwortham Marsh and the tidal Ribble, must have been cold and wet and probably felt like the end of the world in contrast to Evesham.

We know little about Penwortham’s monks and priors. The priors’ names are listed from Henry in 1159 to Richard Hawkesbury, who withdrew before the dissolution of the priory in 1539. Those whose lives have warranted comment are a ‘good-hearted’ Prior Wilcote who fed his monks up after periodical blood-letting (this disturbingly suggests he was the exception) and a notorious prior called Roger Norris.

Norris was described as ‘a glutton, wine-bibber, and loose-liver’ who could nevertheless through eloquence and courtly manners put on a show of learning. After betraying his brethren at Christ Church, Canterbury, and being imprisoned, he escaped through a sewer. Richard I made him abbot of Evesham and he ‘dissipated its revenues until the monks were reduced to a diet of bread and water… for lack of decent clothing many of them could not appear in the choir or chapter house.’

Norris was eventually removed from his position and instead made prior of Penwortham where he continued in his excesses, being deposed then reinstated until 1223, when he died refusing to be reconciled to the abbot of Evesham and withholding certain revenues that belonged to the abbey.

Although there are no records of the everyday lives of the monks of Penwortham Priory we can gain insights into their routine and religious values by examining the life and rule of St Benedict and the Benedictine movement.

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Benedict was born in Nursia, in Italy, in 480. He was sent to Rome to study but, disappointed by the immoral lives of his companions, he decided to leave and become a hermit. He departed for Enfide and, on his way through a narrow valley, met with Romanus of Subiaco, who lived in a monastery on the cliff. Subiaco gave Benedict his monk’s habit and counselled him to live in the cave beneath the cliff.

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Between the summit and the clear blue lake beneath Benedict lived alone for three years with Romanus bringing him food. Afterwards, when the monks of another nearby monastery asked him to become their abbot, he reluctantly agreed, but because of their ‘diverse manners’ they did not get on and attempted to poison him. Benedict prayed a blessing over the poisoned cup and it shattered.

When he returned to his cave a jealous priest called Florentius tried poisoning him with poisoned bread, but he prayed another blessing and a raven flew down and took the loaf away. When Benedict attracted his own followers Florentius tried to seduce them with prostitutes and failed.

To avoid further persecution Benedict left Subiaco and established 12 monasteries nearby. In 530 he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino where he died of a fever on the 21st of March in 543 or 547.

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Benedict originally wrote his Rule for autonomous self-governing communities. Its 56 chapters form guidelines regulating the daily offices of prayer, work, sleep, meals, clothing, possessions, and behaviour.

After his death Benedictine monasticism grew rapidly in popularity throughout Europe and was brought to England by Saint Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory I to Christianise the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He founded the first Benedictine monastery in Canterbury and became its abbot in 597.

Saint Wilfrid, the first English Christian to visit Rome in 658, enforced the Roman method for calculating Easter and introduced the Rule of Saint Benedict in his monasteries at Ripon and Hexham. Wilfrid was granted lands ‘iuxta Rippel’ ‘by the Ribble’ at Preston (Preosta Tun ‘Priest Town’) across from Penwortham. The parish church was dedicated him and he became the town’s patron saint. However, there is no evidence that Wilfrid set up any Benedictine monasteries in the local area.

Evesham Abbey was built by St Egwin between 700 and 710 after a swineherd called Eog experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. Thus its link to St Mary’s in Penwortham is of interest.

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The Order of Saint Benedict was founded in 910 by the abbot of Cluny and this is when it became centralised.

152 Benedictine monasteries and 52 nunneries were established across England. They became important seats of learning and literature and sanctuaries for holy relics and works of art. It was partly because of their wealth and power that King Henry VIII dissolved them between 1536 and 1541.

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From the Rule of St Benedict we can guess the monks of Penwortham performed 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). They would have performed no less than five hours of manual labour. Eating the flesh of four-legged animals was banned. The usual fare was a pound of bread and quarter litre of wine (which I imagine was supplemented with seasonal fruit and vegetables and fish from the fisheries and panneries). They lived by strict vows of obedience, stability, and chastity, and the renunciation of all worldly possessions.

I have often wondered what led them to becoming monks. The call of God? The promise of a life rich in religion and art? The guarantee of safety and stability in a harsh and war-torn world? Did they find God, Jesus, Mary, here on this lonely hill as the rain poured and fires burnt low in the grates?

Did any of them sense the presence of the ancient goddess of the hill, the marsh, the healing well, or the otherworldly god and his spirits who would later be seen marching in a fairy funeral procession?

As an awenydd I can understand the appeal of leading a life of prayer in community in devotion to one’s god(s). However, I cannot imagine wanting to be part of an Order founded on the elimination of a multitude of local variants of Christianity, which in turn eliminated a multitude of local variants of paganism.

When I visit the sites of priories and abbeys I often feel a combination of yearning and sorrow. The yearning to be a part of something big, to participate in shared devotion, to find and wonder in the same god. Yet I also feel saddened by the weight of destruction that has brought this hegemonic religion about. All the gods and spirits and the diverse sets of beliefs that have been crushed, wiped out.

Whilst I long for a devotional community I could never join a Christian monastery or a pagan, polytheistic or druidic order that is based on or even inspired by Christian monastic ideals and principles as it these very things that have cast out and demonised the gods and spirits within the landscape.

Thus I remain a solitary devotee of those deities within the land, beneath the church, beneath the roads and street names that mark where the feet of monks once trod and where they tread no longer.

Monks Walk


SOURCES

Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, Carnegie Press, (1988)
Saint Benedict, Rev. Verheyen Boniface (transl), The Rule of Saint Benedict, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1923)
William Farrer and J Brownbill (ed.), ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Penwortham’, A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2, (London, 1908)
Benedict of Nursia, Wikipedia