Counter Culture Leonie Caldecott
Lnen his book, St Benedict and St Therese: The Little Rule and the Little Way, Dwight Longenecker recalls how, as an Anglican priest from American fundamentalist background, he had to overcome a huge weight of prejudice and misunderstanding in order to begin to appreciate the "Little Hower", who is so often sunk under swathes of sentimental misunderstanding. It was the same, he writes, for his appreciation of monastic life, which he had assumed was somehow cold and monolithic, until he actually witnessed the multiplicity of individuals and the warmth of community life in Benedictine monasteries.
Longenecker goes on demonstrate how the doctrines of both of these great saints, separated by many centuries, as well as by gender and cultural background, are in fact very far from abstruse, theoretical, sentimental or pietistic. Both the great monastic founder and the obscure modem Carmelite are supremely down to earth, concerned with living the Christian faith in the here and now, as though Heaven could almost be touched through the veil of material existence. Each was concerned with sanctifying the seemingly trivial elements of daily life the neighbour in need of assistance, the daily grind of domestic work necessary to create an environment of peace, in which love can be expressed at its most incarnate.
I thought of all of this a fortnight ago, as the Countryside Alliance brought off its triumphant "Liberty and Livelihood" march. The variety of people who attended, and who behaved in what looked like a dignified and civilised fashion, was a testament to the central point of the protest. That we should learn to live and let live, to appreciate that others may have different priorities from ourselves, that we do not necessarily have the whole picture, that there are cultural traditions which we trample on at our peril. It does seem ironic that the so-called "liberal establishment" should make a great song and dance about, say, aboriginal peoples and their longestablished customs, whilst scorning the very same elements closer to home on, say, the other side of the Pennines or the M5.
I hold no strong views on foxhunting one way or the other (my father hunted, I did not). But one thing is for sure. It takes a certain kind of courage and courtesy to be willing to understand the priorities of communities different from one's own. These qualities are manifest in the saints, especially in souls like Benedict and Therese. The connection of the former with the countryside is fairly obvious: for centuries, the sons and daughters of St Benedict manifested the intrinsic relationship between stewardship of the land, and the Christian faith. It was the great monasteries of the Middle Ages which kept civilisation alive, through the promotion of learning, whilst locating themselves at the heart of the rural economy, ministering concretely, as well as spiritually (which is of course also concretely!), to the rural community gathered about the great abbeys. I imagine there were a number of ghostly habits amidst the crowds at Westminster yesterday, even if those they came to support no longer remember the good fathers who before the dissolution of the abbeys played such a central role in rural life.
And on the more "modem" side, I also like to think that Therese was present. Because at the root of the crisis of the countryside is surely a spiritual crisis. Modern man has lost the simplicity, the groundedness which allows for the slow growth of any harvest. The bullish young turks of the political and economic capitals all over the world want results fast, lest "confidence" should waver and the economy, or the polis, collapse into the void of illusion, the shifting sand of public opinion, on which the edifice is sadly based. The heart of any wholesome civilisation is that realism at which Therese surely excelled, and for which she has been made a Doctor
of the Church. This is not the cynical, modern version of realism, but rather one based on divine realities. At its heart is the burning perception of God's overwhelming love and concern for all his children, and a desire to emulate that love and concern. If we had truly absorbed this message, the countryside would not need to come to London. London would go to the countryside, to ask: how may we truly be of assistance to you, how may we honour our fathers, on whom our present wealth is built, and indeed, the Father of all, without whom there is nothing of lasting value.
St Benedict and St Therese: The Little Rule and the Little Way, by Dwight Longenecker, is published by Gracewing at £10