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Best of 2012: Catholic and Aboriginal 'listening revolutions'

  • 10 January 2013


Worlds die. Although not like us. We have our little exit stage left scrawled once, somewhere in our life. A world dies more like a tree; creaking, snapping, falling, thudding, lying and then decaying, importantly decaying.

Possibilities then spring up. In a dark little cavity bugs huddle around the warm glow of the Book of Kells. Across a wet expanse of timber a centipede carries a printing press on its back. A moth takes flight (it actually flies) while tiny green shoots start to awake.

St Benedict of Nursia knew a thing or two about living in a dying world. He was born about 25 years after the Vandals sacked Rome and died only months after the Ostrogoths had their turn. He watched with his contemporaries as old certainties quite literally went up in flame. As existing institutions were hollowed out or winnowed completely, Benedict started a revolution.

Not that his life tracks like a revolutionary. He was not ignited by his studies but abandoned them, nor was he drawn to the centres of power but lived on the periphery. His great work, The Rule of Benedict has more in common with an IKEA construction manual than The Communist Manifesto, plodding systematically forward the way it does. After three years of solitude he became an Abbot, a founder of monasteries and then, according to tradition, died standing up.

Again, not textbook revolutionary stuff. Yet the man is honoured in the Catholic Church as an architect of a new civilisation. Which raises the question, with apologies to Aristotle, do 12 monasteries a new civilisation make?

Well, only if you understand what Benedict was really doing. With each monastery he founded, he essentially planted a new, stable community into the dead tree of Imperial Rome. In an era characterised by rupture and division, between Byzantine and the West, Romans and Ostrogoths, the old order and the new political vacuum, Benedict was knitting disparate individuals into communities, making things whole.

The Rule of Benedict was the glue. The IKEA jibe is not altogether unfair as The Rule of Benedict is self consciously a user's manual. It was designed, according to the writer Judith Knighton, 'to give his motley collection of serfs, scholars, shepherds, and