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Obituary: Sister Benedicta Ward SLG

10 June 2022

The Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth writes:

SOME historians are admired and treasured because they can give you a vivid sense of what you would have seen or heard if you were transported back to another age. Others are admired because they give you a sense of what a man or woman of that age would have seen or heard around them — what it was like to inhabit a pre-modern sensibility.

In the study of church history and medieval society, writers including Peter Brown and the late Dom Jean Leclercq belong in this latter category; and it is no accident that they were among those whose friendship and encouragement helped to shape Sister Benedicta’s work. Her students would all have said that one of her greatest gifts was to take you into the heart of an apparently alien world and help you to learn to see with other eyes.

Florence Margaret Ward’s training as a historian began with undergraduate studies at Manchester in the 1950s. This period brought the most important development of all in her life: this daughter of a Methodist family from the north-east, born in 1933, turned to Anglicanism and to the strict discipline of a contemplative religious vocation. At the time, the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God, which she entered in 1955, observed very strict enclosure; but they also valued intellectual stimulus and encouraged exploration of the full range of inherited monastic wisdom, Eastern and Western.

By the early ’70s, there was a willingness to experiment with allowing some members of the community to pursue academic work outside the cloister. In 1972, Sister Benedicta began research for a D.Phil. at Oxford under the direction of Richard Southern. His standing as the foremost English scholar of St Anselm no doubt played its part in prompting her first extended venture as a translator; her version of The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm appeared as a Penguin Classic in 1973.

The focus of her research, though, was how early medieval writers and their public experienced and thought about miracles — a very characteristic topic, showing the commitment already noted to penetrating what it was like to be a medieval Christian. The terminus of this study (published in 1982 and reprinted since) was the early 13th century: she was always more at home in the pre-scholastic world, and it is not surprising that her weightiest contribution to the study of the later Middle Ages was her work on Julian of Norwich, that notably un-scholastic thinker.

Along with Jean Leclercq and scholars like him, she considered that, for good or ill, the intellectual revolution between 1150 and 1250 had largely displaced a complex, sophisticated, and coherent monastic culture; and, as a contemplative monastic, she was in no doubt that this was where her home territory lay.

The study of the roots of classical monasticism produced in 1975 what is perhaps her most popular and durable book, her lucid, lively rendering of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, still the most accessible and dependable introduction to the subject. Several more translations and studies of desert spirituality followed, as well as brief and insightful monographs on Bede and Anselm, and anthologies of spiritual writing from Anglo-Saxon England.

Her community had generously recognised her need for a more flexible discipline, and, from the mid-’70s onwards, she was based mostly outside the enclosure, while never severing her connection with the convent. This allowed her to blossom as an outstanding undergraduate teacher, and to become actively involved from 1991 onwards in the life of the re-endowed and revitalised Harris Manchester College.

For many younger scholars, she was an inspiring, unfailingly generous friend; beyond Oxford, her reputation spread widely and rapidly, both in continental Europe and in the US. She would not have appreciated being called “charismatic”, I suspect, but that was how countless students and colleagues experienced her. The soft and precise voice, the sometimes acerbic wit, the ready personal warmth and sympathy, and, above all, the manifest priority for her of the contemplative imperative made her a wholly distinctive figure.

She was not entirely at ease in the Church of England as it evolved in the past thirty years, and retained her scepticism about the rightness of women’s ordination to the end. And she was not enthusiastic about the way in which much of the traditional culture of the religious life was allowed, as she saw it, to evaporate.

But her loyalty was unshakeable. Her last years were spent in close proximity once again to the convent, where her rapidly reducing mobility was a painful challenge. The end came swiftly, after advanced oesophageal cancer was diagnosed not long before Easter. With typical self-possession and orderliness, she informed friends and said her goodbyes, and prepared for death calmly and prayerfully.

She was deeply loved, and is deeply mourned: a unique, authoritative voice that brought the tradition alive for generations of enquirers.

Sister Benedicta Ward SLG died on 23 May, aged 89.

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