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22 January 2008

Becoming a Benedictine

Last week we followed Ani Rinchen Khandro's life as a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This we

By Catherine Wybourne

Becoming a Benedictine takes a lifetime. The idea of continual becoming — in religious terms continual conversion — is so fundamental that it is even the subject of one of our vows, conversatio morum, usually translated as “conversion of life”. I think it was this that first attracted me to the monastic way of life.

My family was not particularly religious but I was sent to a convent school where I was impressed by the humanity of many of the nuns. They were warm and funny as well as strict disciplinarians. They clearly believed everything they taught and were prepared to argue and be argued with. From them I learned that Catholicism is a reasonable religion, deserving serious study and intellectual endeavour. I cannot honestly say that this had any appreciable effect on my behaviour, but at some point in my teens I decided that Christianity was either true or false, and if it was true, I needed to do something about it. So, I began to read and think for myself and one day found myself in the school chapel saying, rather reluctantly, “God, I think you exist.”

It was not exactly Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus stuff, but it did mean that at Cambridge I spent as much time reading theology as I did history (my official subject). I first read the Rule of St Benedict for one of Margaret Bowker’s supervisions in medieval history. My comments on it betrayed the fact that most of my reading had been done in the five minutes waiting outside her door, so very quietly, very methodically and with devastating effect, she gave me to understand that not only would I never understand the history of medieval England, I would never understand contemporary western civilization unless I grasped the significance of those seventy-three short chapters.

My second reading of the Rule made me decide to do a Ph.D in monastic history. I was lucky enough to be able to spend three years in Spain, working on Cistercian history, and it was during this period that I fell under the spell of St Bernard of Clairvaux. By the time I had finished his collected works, so full of hope and encouragement, I was uncomfortably aware that I was more interested in living monasticism than studying it. I therefore did what any sensible woman would do, took myself as far away from all things monastic as I could and embarked upon a career in banking, where it was my ambition to make as much as money as I could and enjoy myself into the bargain.

It worked — for a while; but I could not shake off my old habit of church-going and reading The Blackfriars Review under cover of The Investors’ Chronicle. I became very involved in pro-Life work, which I believed then and believe still more today, to be of supreme importance for our future as human beings. I also began for the first time to try to pray and discovered that the formal meditation methods we had been taught at school were impossible for me. I read Walter Hilton and The Cloud of Unknowing and suddenly, it all began to make sense. God stopped being a theoretical construct and became a deeply mysterious, compelling being whom it was possible to know, but not in the way I had previously attempted. “By love may he be gotten and holden, but by thought never.”

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Although I did not realise it immediately, the life of a Benedictine beckoned.

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