Prayer and Thought in Monastic Tradition: Essays in
honour of Benedicta Ward
Santha Bhattaharji, Rowan Williams and Dominic Mattos,
Church Times Bookshop £67.50 (Use code
THIS well-presented book is a collection of essays in honour of
Sister Benedicta Ward on her 80th birthday. The roll call of its
contributors is tribute to the respect and affection in which she
is held, especially in Oxford, where she is a member of the
Fairacres community and taught medieval history and Christian
spirituality in the university for many years.
She and I were, in fact, doctoral students there together in the
1970s, and reviewing her festschrift has brought back many happy
memories - not least of a wholesome oscillation between the
Bodleian Library and the cafés and bars near by (nuns included . .
A helpful and succinct introduction by Santha Bhattaharji sets
the book's scene. It could have been just a disparate collection of
contributions dealing with aspects of the development of monastic
thought and prayer from early Syria to 18th-century England.
Instead, a golden thread emerges of the foundation of the monastic
life in prayer, and of the way in which that life and prayer then
refuses to remain cloistered either within its precinct or our
That makes reading this book a refreshing experience, as we
explore hinterlands that might easily be missed. How the Synod of
Whitby's famous debate about the date of Easter was embedded in
deeper theological disputes about grace and salvation. How the
sayings of the desert fathers (translated by Benedicta) are not
archaeological time capsules of pristine eremitic life, but
carefully curated post-Nicene artefacts, hiding an earlier monastic
deposit in Syria and Mesopotamia (poignantly so in the present
Or how the influx of friars into the new universities of the
13th century was not selling out on their mission, but reflected
the need to deploy them to give parishes the teaching they lacked.
As the introduction puts it, "The monastic world emerges not as a
sealed-off area of mediaeval life, but one with influence and
effects far beyond the cloister."
Refreshing, too, is that the special hinterland of the book
itself means that its contributors reference their own life of
faith more than usual, and, more importantly, give full weight to
the living faith of their subjects. We are not offered in
vitro specimens here but in vivo stories, which are a
fitting response to an honorand who herself "inhabits the realms of
both vowed monastic life and the modern academy".
Essays on St Anselm, for instance, are at the heart of the book
(Sister Benedicta contributed a translation of his prayers to the
Penguin Classics series), and we are helpfully shown, for instance,
how the strong passion of those prayers and the cool logic of
Anselm's treatises are part of one single picture.
There is much more to explore. But the book's inclusive approach
turned my own thoughts and prayers to how the monastic tradition
might better make an impact on church life, and an episcopal
ministry, today. Three starters come to mind.
Prayer first. Spiritual rootedness is obviously critical.
Bishops, the book reminds us, as it looks back to ancient Edessa,
have often been brokers between the cloister and the city. What
might that look like in a diocese today, and how could it help us
go deeper? How do we gain access to prayerful theological resources
as we tackle big issues.
Then ministry. Minster is the same word as monastery. Can
minsters, which are rather fashionable now, be something like
monasteries, too: spiritual powerhouses, mixed communities sharing
a rule of life and reaching out in mission, contexts where new
shapes of ministry can be explored? Perhaps bishops should even be
And mission. The prayer, the study, and the common life are good
in themselves, but are given for the good of the world in which
they are set. And it is when we speak out of them that our
contributions to the common good have gravitas. What sort of
cellular life should our churches have - bishops included - if we
are to keep ourselves in good shape?
And any resemblance between these three thoughts, the
quinquennial goals of the Archbishops' Council, and the Archbishop
of Canterbury's own declared priorities, is not entirely
coincidental. We are all in this together.
The Rt Revd Dr David Thomson is Bishop of Huntingdon and
Acting Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich.