Canterbury Pilgrimage

Canterbury Meditation 9th June 2012

When I think of St Alfege the first thing I remember is that he was a Benedictine monk. This great inheritance, already over six hundred year old when he was alive, the child of the whole Church East and West, flowering in so many different ways across the world and in different churches is one of the things which truly unites us. It is good to remember that, when his body was brought back to this place on June 8th 1023, it was not just to the city he had tried to defend but to the monastic community of which he had been a part as one brother among others.

St Alfege was part of the great Benedictine reform which did so much to establish the shape of the Church in this country, but I connect his story most of all with that of the Benedictine monks of a small monastery in the Atlas mountains killed during the Algerian conflict between the government and opposing forces nearly nine hundred years later, as portrayed in the film ‘Of Gods and Men’. Their commitment to stay where they were in a situation of increasing violence reminds me very much of St Alfege, who whilst not actively seeking martyrdom, died out of loyalty to three things: loyalty to his own community; loyalty to the deepest principles of justice and morality, and loyalty to the reconciliation to be found in Christ, who, in the words of Ephesians chapter 2 is our peace, breaking down the dividing wall between us. Both Alfege in Canterbury and the monks in the Atlas mountains found themselves living under the pressure of circumstances they did nothing to choose. These very pressures led them into a deeper reflection of their common life and monastic vows.

Above all, I think of his and their loyalty to the Benedictine vow of ‘stabilitas’, by which they were required to stay with their community through thick and thin. In the course a life time’s practical struggle to remain obedient to this vow in constantly changing circumstances, St Alfege’s ‘stabilitas’ ceased to be an outward requirement and became an inner virtue by which he could be firm and at the same time gentle, humble and at the same time unshakeable. This was exemplified most of all in his determination not to meet violence with violence, either in word or action, his willingness to serve the best interests of those he had not chosen as companions, whether these were the brethren of his own monastery, the frightened people of his own city, or his enemies in whose company he spent a year of his life as a hostage. We see it in his determination not to place a value on his own life above theirs, his balancing of the demand for truth with that of forgiveness, meeting force with gentleness, leaving no-one to final condemnation. This was the way he worked out his vow to remain stable in his lyalty to Christ in confused times in some respects like our own. The establishment of his shrine here in Canterbury after his death became one of the means by which bitter enemies were reconciled and past crimes forgiven. This would not have happened had St Alfege not exemplified the power of reconciliation in his own fervent adherence to his monastic vows.

Achieving community is not something which happens automatically. That is why St Benedict places such a high value on stability in his rule. It is much easier to give up, move on or persuade yourself, falsely, that you can find God one your own. You have to work through your hatred and fear of those you regard as a threat, your jealousy of those who are more fortunate, more noticed or less blamed than you think yourself to be. It is only achieved by painful and honest dialogue with God, yourself and those around you. There are no final answers. Periods of serenity are followed by periods of renewed conflict and fatigue. But out of this struggle stability as an inner virtue is formed. And with stability comes the ability to be a reconciler forgiving others and being able to receive it oneself, watering the fields of a common life rather than relentlessly ploughing one’s own.

So much of Alfege’s own life was taken up in dealing with recalcitrant brethren and rulers, the complexities of public affairs in deteriorating circumstances and bloody conflict. I wonder how aware he could have been of the eternal value of his witness. But in contemplating his life we discover what unites us within and beyond our differences, the richness of our common inheritance and its origin.

May God through Christ in the power of the Spirit make us as he did St Alfege, captives in his triumphal procession.  Amen.

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