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In the path of St Benedict

As part of my spiritual journey since being ordained to the priesthood, I have been inspired by the Rule of St Benedict. With various degrees of success (and failure) over the years, I have endeavoured to shape my own life by the principles that are enshrined within it. However, so often in our spiritual life, things that have nourished us deeply can begin to feel a bit stale, or the discipline of a certain practice becomes formulaic, and we set it to one side. Then, just as certainly, something will happen in our life that reminds us - a conversation or a situation, perhaps that rekindles our memory of past experience. God's Spirit prompts us from deep within: maybe it is time to revisit that which you set aside. So it has been for me recently, and the Rule of St Benedict. In this month's blog, therefore, I'm going to share something of what has brought me back to its pages, resolved afresh to learn from this fifth century Italian saint.

Do you find it funny the things that prompt you to think a certain way? We can sometimes become very "holy-sounding" if we talk about God speaking to us; a phrase often used in the Bible describes how a person was "led by the Spirit" (for example, Jesus in Matthew 4.1 or Simeon in Luke 2.27). If you want to know what led me to turn afresh to the Rule of St Benedict, you need look no further than the Facebook algorithms. Now that certainly isn't particularly holy! A simple Facebook memory came back into my newsfeed (for those of you not familiar with Facebook, this is when Facebook reminds you of something you wrote on the same day in a previous year). On this particular occasion, I had written:

Each time this reading on Chapter 57 of the Rule of St Benedict comes around, it makes me pause to reflect: "Without the artist to show us what we ourselves do not see of the beauty of the world around us, we lose sight of the beauty of God as well...The function of the artist in the monastery - and in the life of us all - is to make the transcendent visible; to touch the soul in ways that match the soul; to enshrine beauty so that we may learn to see it; and to make where we live places of wonder." (Chittister)

The first reminder was of how I used to read an excerpt from the Rule every day, a practice that faded some years ago and I feel inspired now to restart. Beyond that, these were also just the words of encouragement I needed to read. At a time when so much of my artistic endeavour has had to be set aside while I deal with more pressing matters, it has been easy to feel disillusioned. Have I really given so much over the past year to building up this artistic ministry only to see it so diminshed that it feels as if I will be starting afresh? Is my belief in art as an essential part of our quest as followers of Christ to seek Divine Beauty in the world misplaced, such that I am being called to set it aside? Joan Chittister's reflection on Chapter 57 of the Rule calls me back to myself, back to who God has indeed called me to be and to the shape of ministry God has prepared for me. Chapter 57 concerns itself with "artisans in the monastery", calling on them to exercise their craft with humility. It reminds us that art and creativity do truly have a place in the service of God. Aristotle wrote, "The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." This is what excites and energises me, at the very heart of my being - that ability of an icon or a piece of sacred art to stir our soul and communicate something of the Divine, speaking in a language that connects with our innermost self. There have been people over the past year who have asked me in all earnestness: "So are you retired?" My answer is a most definite "no". I am the modern-day "artisan in the monastery", exercising my role as priest to communicate the Gospel afresh to each generation (words that are used in the ordination service) and calling a society fixated on outward appearances to pay attention instead to inner grace. This is a full-time ministry of word and sacrament reimagined.

Yet, it was not simply the appearance of a Facebook post that led me to St Benedict. As has been my experience before, something was already stirring within me - God was already speaking to my heart, if you will - before I was caught pondering a post on social media. Following the Rule of Benedict on my daily path has always drawn me to one particular aspect of the Benedictine way more than any other - the call to stability. The Rule sets out three foundational principles for living in the monastery: stability, obedience and daily conversion. For me, I have always tried to hold an awareness of what it is within my spiritual life that is providing stability. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a priest. At any given moment, there are calls on my time and energy and presence. There are seasons of life that require me to be in multiple locations, travelling from here to there and back again at a rate that makes me feel as if my soul cannot keep up with my physical body; these are the times when you wake up and you are not sure where you are, your few hastily-chosen clothes in an open suitcase at the side of the bed. How do we cope in times like these? For me, I remind myself of where lies my stability. In the midst of the chaos, the turmoil, when so much of my usual routine is disrupted and I am being asked to hold so much, St Benedict gives us this simple discipline - to focus on our point of stability.

For me, right now, I have a simple answer: the Eucharist. While I have tried to be at my home church each Sunday since this current season of craziness began, it has not always been possible. However, I have made my communion with Christ every week, somewhere. Kneeling at the altar, opening my hands and my heart to Christ seems like such a small thing yet for me, right now, it is everything. It is the still point, the moment when the world stops turning, where my thoughts stop whirring; when there is nothing asked of me but to be present, in that place, for that time, and to receive. It is a safe place, a place of Divine encircling.

One previous occasion of such turmoil in my life was in 2011, in the months leading up to my ordination to the priesthood. It was then that I wrote the words of a poem, "Encircled", words that were later set to music by my friend, composer Will Todd. As we reach the end of this blog post, I encourage you to listen to Will's beautiful music (link to YouTube below) and perhaps reflect on all that is going on your life right now, or cast your mind to a time when you were under particular pressures. Where do you find your stability, your place of stillness? Is there anything God might be inviting you to do to reconnect with something you have set aside or forgotten? For me, I'm off to reread the Rule of St Benedict.

Stillness interrupted, kneeling, waiting For the coming of Your presence. A melody drifts in, over, on the wind Until the notes rise up in my very soul. The eyes of my heart see You take Your place, Encircling protection, hand in hand, All Three in a holy dance, looking in On me, guarded in divine safety. Your steps quicken, my heart reaches out, Open to Your indwelling as Your Unity cedes space To this little one. You call me Your child, and No longer kneeling, I join Your dance. We are One.


I am still working as much as I am able to ensure that current commissions are completed. If you are interested in commissioning new work, or inviting me to speak to your community or group, please do still get in touch and we can work out together what is possible based on the timeframe involved.

I am looking forward, I hope, to a more extended time back in my studio within the next month, and to some exciting new ventures after that. You can find more details of what I am working on currently on my website here.

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Thank you Catherine, I have been keeping you in my prayers. I trust all is ok with the wider family. I remember talking with you about St Benedict a few years ago (gosh, where does the time go) I l00k forward to seeing your progress both spiritually and artistically in the near future. God Bless. Take care.Valeska x

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