Saint Benedict, who said it was good for spiritual people to live in community
Picture this: seven devotees of Krishna, all in white robes and yellow clay forehead markings, discussing practical spiritual community development with black-robed Benedictine monks. It’s a scene that would gladden the heart of any black-and-white photographer. We are all in a jolly mood and there is a sense of kinship despite the diametric differences in our attire. I think we get on very well because our lives actually have a lot in common, both philosophically and practically.
I am at Buckfast Abbey in Devon with seven leaders from Bhaktivedanta Manor. We’re making a short visit here on our way to a remote farmhouse where we will have two days of discussions on the forthcoming year at the Manor and the multitude of projects that take place there.
The Benedictines have a daily routine sadhana of prayer, physical work and study. It’s a balanced formula that their founder, the father of western monasticism, Saint Benedict (480-547 AD), thought would ensure the essential combination of personal spirituality and communal sustainability. He wasn’t amiss in his calculations, as this order has endured for almost 1500 years.
It’s a tough one that – living in community. There are certainly immense benefits to be gained from living together in the same building with ten or twenty others who follow the same path. And there are immeasurable rewards when you sacrifice personal ownership and practise a sharing of all goods and tasks. These monks have taken vows of Stability, Obedience and Chastity, and you really do need some tough personal disciplines like that to help you make the subjugation of ego required to live in community. I was a monk for eight years and sometimes, on a bad day, there’s nothing you want to do more than scream in frustration and put a great distance between you and your brothers. But you reach a point – just before you explode – where, if you’ve actually learned anything about spiritual life at all, you understand that your anger stems from a deeply held desire to enjoy and control, coupled with a great appetite for the respect and love of others. And of course you do not always get that in community – and it hurts. But through that pain comes change and transformation of the heart.
Perhaps that is one benefit of living in the Big Brother House. By a number of people being together in close physical proximity, sharing tasks and trying to understand each other, they all have an opportunity to grow spiritually. Not that I’m a fan of the Channel 4 television programme, you understand, but the location of that much-observed temporary community is only two miles from my house in Hertfordshire, and of course, people do talk about it – rather a lot.
The Vedic scriptures refer to our times as the Age of Kali, the Age of Quarrel and Hypocrisy, when human beings can be propelled into violent outbursts by the slightest of provocation. We owe it to ourselves, whether our community is monastic, business, family or televised, to learn the techniques of tolerance, respect and service. Whether it is Brother Andrew and Brother Thomas, Rama Das and Krishna Das, or Jade and Shilpa, we all have to learn the spiritual techniques of how to live, work, and move toward the ultimate destination – together.