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The Way of St Benedict, by Rowan Williams

13 March 2020

This is a valuable study of St Benedict, says John-Francis Friendship

ALTHOUGH Rowan Williams is not a Benedictine, this book clearly emerges from a life of prayer, wisdom, and the love of God. It offers “an invitation to look at various current questions through the lens of the Rule and reflect on aspects of Benedictine history that might have something to say to us”.

This is done through a series of “studies” — “Shaping Holy Lives”, “A Perspective from England”, “The Future of Europe”, and “A Benedictine on Mysticism: Abbot Cuthbert Butler”, etc. Some appeared in previous books, which are listed.

The scope of Williams’s knowledge is remarkable, and the varied chapters reveal insights that would be of value to a wide audience. Some offer a detailed, speculative theological approach, requiring the reader to recall St Benedict’s opening injunction Ausculta, “Listen!”

While little mention is made of Benedictine worship, there is an important study on the relationship between mission and contemplation which should be compulsory reading for those involved in church growth. “What draws people to the faith is poverty and prayer,” he writes. “Church is not primarily a place where agendas are the focus.”

Monastic life — centred on the Word, worship, and apostolic living — witnesses to the primacy of these things, a context in which Williams questions how often we think of the church “as a natural place for honesty where we need not be afraid”. Some whose experience of being “honest” has resulted in their being hounded, abused, rejected, or just ignored might find difficulty with that statement.

The study on the future of Europe, of which Benedict is a patron, is extremely pertinent, given that we are separating from the “civilised vision” of a continent united in a project for the common good and human flourishing, where “Culture has to be more than the round of producing and being entertained.” We need Benedict’s invitation to “ausculta” to his “undramatic but transformative Rule”.

I would have valued a working definition of spirituality in Williams’s chapter on “Mysticism”, and was saddened that no mention was made of the existence of Anglican Benedictines or their contribution to the life of our Church, despite the likes of Dom Gregory Dix. That said, this book offers scholarly reflections that will repay careful study.

The Revd John-Francis Friendship is a senior team member at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction.


The Way of St Benedict
Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £10.99

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