On the Solemnity of St Benedict I was reading the newspaper in the common room of a Benedictine monastery when the abbot walked in carrying a comfortably large mug of coffee
Also in the room were some visiting nuns whose grey hair, shortened skirts and sharpened voices suggested that liberated generation of the sixties and seventies who often seem less concerned with liberty itself than with stamping out some imaginary tyranny.
Barely had the abbot sat down when one of them piercingly asked why he should have a larger mug than anyone else, and with such a challenge I suddenly realised that the whole foundation of Benedictine spirituality was being brought into question.
I never heard the abbot’s answer because my mind suddenly jumped to all the terrible things he might have said. He could, for example, have justified the size of his coffee mug simply by explaining that he liked large mugs, an excuse which at the time might seem innocuous enough, but which could eventually embroil him in a cosmic battle of unprecedented proportions with men and women fighting one another for the right to possess whatever they happened to like. Before his very eyes earth’s limited resources would be violently wrenched from grasping hands in a desperate drive to fulfil individual desires; and duels would be fought in competition over the relative size of coffee mugs.
Then again the luckless abbot might have answered this strident nun by claiming mere accident or pleading ignorance. But far from rescuing him from her accusing cry, such a claim would have brought down upon his head not only the order of his own community but all of Western civilisation as well, and perhaps the entire cosmos. By such a casual
comment centuries of Benedictine studies, the
Western belief in cosmic order and scientific
analysis, and the gathered knowledge of both
mediaeval and modern monks would be handed
over on this histor=. ;.,.. :~,;
Worse still he might ha,: ::. , ~. .:..~.~_ .i ‘.,_ m
unconscious oversight, not sensitive enough to realise that for many the size of coffee mugs can easily raise the spectre of human pride, the reminder of tyranny over the less fortunate and the perpetual oppression of the female sex by a brutal male chauvinism which for decades has relegated the demitasse and diminutive teacup to the weaker sex.
Rather than ponder such horrendous possibilities any longer, I began to rneditate upon the only answer the abbot could have given which would have been worthy of the Benedictine life. He could have explained that he did not have the largest coffee mug because he liked it or deserved it, nor out of sheer accident, but simply because he was the abbot.
Here would have been a dramatic assertion of the democratic process by which the largest mug went to the one elected by the community, not to the one who wanted or even earned it. By the symbolism of giant coffee mugs held aloft in the hands of our acknowledged leaders the grandeur and glory of mankind itself might be publicly proclaimed without wasting the world’s resources in providing giant mugs for all. The peoples of the earth might once again rise up in wonder and exhilaration at the sight of jewelled crowns and precious mitres and indeed giant coffee mugs.
I am well aware, of course, that giant coffee mugs can easily lead to terrible corruption even in the hands of Benedictine abbots. The history of Monasticism in particular and the knowledge of human frailty in general, are enough to teach us that abbots, like the rest of us, can talk themselves into thinking that they deserve the coffee mugs they get and are entitled to lord it over all those coffee drinkers less fortunate than themselves.
The achievements of the Benedictine Order and the grandeur of the civilisation built upon it have always needed that corrective heralded by the followers of St Francis with their little brothers and little flowers, and whose own superiors have carefully shied away from anything so grand or gross as giant coffee mugs. St Francis, standing naked before the judges of this world remains a constant reproof to all those who pride themselves on the trappings of civilisation., be they power or wealth or giant mugs.
Yet there can be no St Francis without St Benedict and no renunciation of wealth or power without some power and wealth to renounce. Order can lead to tyranny and pride, but the opposite of order is not humility and freedom but chaos and oppression.
John H Heidt