by Dominic Bellenger
The most resilient form of the religious life in the Western Church has been the Benedictine. From the early communities of Southern Italy in the sixth century to the great modern monasteries, the "Rule of St. Benedict," modified and sometimes distorted, has formed an abiding guide for religious reformers in every age.
Last year was probably the 700th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Bernard Tolomei, Sienese nobleman who sought in the desolate hills south of his birthplace an escape from the materialism of Italian urban society and found in the simplicity and balance of the Benedictine inspiration a completely new life.
Although Blessed Bernard himself is a rather shadowy figure his impact was considerable. From his desert retreat has developed not only the great .bbey of Monte Oliveto Mauiore which stands there today but also the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation with its 24 houses and several hundred members.
Each house of the Congregation has evolved its own character. Originally Olivetan houses existed only in Italy, but now they are found the world over and have been pioneers in many. of the fields which the modern Church has particularly emphasised. The present Abbot-General of the Congregation was previously Superior of one ot several Olivetan foundations made in
the developing countries.
The venerable Abbey of Sec in Normandy, which in its medieval heyday gave three of its monks to be Archbishops of Canterbury, has in its re foundation and under its present Abbot, Dom Paul Grammont, become a spearhead of the eetimenical and liturgical movements.
Dom Constantine Bosschaerts, who had been Pope John's secretary in Bulgaria, and founded the English Olivetan Priory of Christ the King at Cockfosters, was one of the earliest to take up Pope Pius XI's appeal or 1924 for the Benedictines to foster Christian Unity.
The Cockfosters house has always been interested in ecumenism and publishes One in Christ, the leading Catholic ecumenical review in English.
The main work of the priory at Cockfosters is, however, in serving a parish of over 1,000 people. It may seem a long way from the austerities of the plague-ridden wilds of medieval Italy to a prosperous North London suburban parish, but the Prior, Dom Edmund Jones, is convinced that the monk has
alidnefitricie role in the parochial ministry. He feels that it keeps the monks firmly on terra firma and emphasises the essentially apostolic element of the Benedictine rule. The monk should be as much a missionary as a mystic.
The success that Dom Jones and his community have had in producing an effective pastoral liturgy, in staging some most successful exhibitions, in restructuring parish life and in moulding an informed laity -gives substance to the basic Olivetan contention that "monastic life is simply living the Gospel" and that a monastery does not need to he enclosed to be spiritual.
The work of the monks at Cockfosters is closely complemented by the community of 13 nuns who live in the adjoining priory of Our Lady Queen of
Peace. The ideal of this multinational community (five i nationalities are represented) s to provide, "one ideal of charity whose flower is peace and whose fruit is unity".
The nuns of the Vita et Pax Congregation are especially devoted to Christian urtity but arc perhaps best known for the beautiful artwork tapestry, embroidery, book-illustrations which they produce and distribute all over the world.
The Mother Prioress told me recently that she saw it as 'an essential part of the Benedictine rule to foster beauty. The whole of their priory rebuilt in 1966 is a splendid affirmation of that desire. It achieves with simplicity and basic use of colour a beauty which many much greater buildings lack.
The multi-faceted labours of the Cockfosters Olivetans emphasise a frequently neglected aspect of the religious life -the fact that the Religious seeks not so much to disengage from the world as to follow more closely the Gospel pattern of life in a true-alternative society. The work of prayer and inner life which is at the heart of Benedictine monasticism can be as much the "soul Of the apostolate" as an end in itself.
The rule of St. Benedict seeks to transform this world to conform with the next. If nothing is to be put before "the work of
God'', everything is nevertheless given a value and beauty of its own. This lesson is brought home with force by the monk in the parish. If to work is to pray, then even the most tiresome and routine task can become a Sursuth Cords!