Gentle Counsel

A column in the Church Times recently caught my attention:

Deliver us from the sources of the Evangelical Takeover, by Angela Tilby

I enjoy her insightful columns and almost always have my perception broadened by her writing. This column, which became the most viewed column by online subscribers, has caused quite a stir. She is looking at the Church of England’s initiative Thy Kingdom Come and raising her concerns. I really don’t have enough experience of the varied landscape of the Church of England or the initiative to be able to comment on her concerns, but what did resonate with me is her final paragraph.

The abandonment of traditional religion, with its respect for privacy and the slow nurturing of the person through unconsciously memorised texts and gentle counsel, has left a hole in the heart of society which is too deep for words.

It is the middle section of this quotation which interests me as I think that I find here a very good description of monastic life.

Visitors to a monastery are more than likely to encounter a respect for privacy, as this is written into the Rule of St Benedict. St Benedict is very clear that only those whose job it is are to approach guests.

No one is to speak or associate with guests unless he is bidden; however, if a brother meets or sees a guest, he is to greet him humbly, as we have said. He asks for a blessing and continues on his way, explaining that he is not allowed to speak with a guest.

Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 53

While this might appear a little cold, it is actually a safeguard and a wisdom. For monastics living within the enclosure a similar respect for privacy exists. Silence plays a major role in this.

Monasteries are places where the Word of God gives shape and form to all that happens during the day. Monastics gather several times a day to sing the Psalms and to listen to the Scriptures. Monasteries certainly are places of slow nurturing. Hearing the Scriptures daily is often likened to water dripping on a stone. Over time, a change occurs; a deep and lasting change of the heart. As the years pass, you find that you have indeed memorised some texts and these stay with you for the rest of your life. This is just one of the gifts that comes from trying to be faithful to the daily rhythm of prayer.

There is much about the Rule of St Benedict that speaks to me of gentle counsel. St Benedict has as a deep understanding for the weaknesses of human nature and speaks of his monastery as a ‘school of the Lord’s service’ (Prologue v. 45). While there is some debate about how we might understand the Latin schola, the image suggests to me an environment where there is the potential for counsel to be taken and life-long learning to occur.  But perhaps the verses of the Rule that speak to me most strongly of St Benedict’s attitude of gentle counsel come in vv. 46-47 of the Prologue:

In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.

Trying to force people to behave in a particular way rarely works in any walk of life. Whatever our experience of monastery life, organised religion, family life or the workplace it is worthwhile being open to those moments of gentle counsel.