Benedict, Mary, Meditation, and the Marginal (Part 1)

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This article was first published in the Australian edition of the ‘Newsletter of The World Community for Christian Meditation’, June-July 2023.

In chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel, we find the mission statement of Jesus. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus announces:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favour. (Lk4:18-19)

Here we have what Jesus was about. Who were the poor of Jesus’ time? They were the beggars, the crippled, the sick; they were widows and orphans. And the sinners of Jesus’ time: the tax collector collecting money for Rome, those not following the Judaic law, the uneducated, basically anyone who deviated from the guidance of the scribes and Pharisees[1]. It was a time when the many were culturally and psychologically cut off from the love and acceptance of God.

As disciples of Jesus, as Christians, we are invited to also be with the poor and marginalised. The more we encounter the healing Spirit of Jesus, the more his mission can itch in us. How can we, in our own ways, in our own lives, be people for the poor, the oppressed: the socially and economically marginalised of our time?  

The WCCM also has a mission statement:

To communicate and nurture meditation as passed on through the teaching of John Main, in the Christian tradition, in the spirit of serving the unity of all.

In the life of a Christian meditator, how might these two mission statements, that of Jesus and of the WCCM, combine? How might an oblate of the WCCM engage this mission statement of Jesus, making it somehow our own?

Being an Australian Christian, and a Benedictine oblate, I find myself looking towards two others in answering this question, two people who in their own ways and time attempting to engage this mission statement of Jesus: Benedict of Nursia and Mary MacKillop. How might their lives and mission help us as meditating Christians?

First a bit of context.

Benedict of Nursia (480-547), went to Rome in his teens for study[2]. The Rome Benedict went to however, was in the grip of two crises: the continuing disintegration of the Roman Empire and a debate about the nature of Christ[3]. Around 498 (probably when Benedict was still in Rome), the theological crisis blew-up into the election of two Popes: Symmachus and Laurentius. It is likely that Benedict sympathized with Laurentius, however Symmachus (a hardliner) was eventually recognised as Pope. So, Rome’s disintegration, and Symmachus’ recognition, were both likely factors that caused Benedict to leave Rome and his studies.    

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), was born into a poor Scottish immigrant family in the colonial settlement of Melbourne. Melbourne had only been settled in 1837. It, like European Australia generally at the time, had a great disparity between the rich and the poor. Those who did not come from Europe with the necessary resources were often waylaid and marginalised[4]. There was no welfare system and little education.

In 1866, Mary and the priest Julian Tenison Woods founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Their first focus was education. However, by the time of Mary’s death in 1909, as well as schools, the Sisters had opened refuges, orphanages, and houses for the aged and infirm throughout the east and south-east of the Australian continent, and New Zealand[5]. Writing to her community in 1900, Mary said “Let St. Joseph’s true children remember their mission to seek first the poorest, most neglected parts of God’s vineyard[6].”

[1] Jesus Before Christianity, Albert Nolan (see chapter three). This book, first published in 1976, has stood the test of time as a great introduction into who Jesus of Nazareth was (before he also became the Christ of Christian faith). The book was republished in 2022 with a forward by Sister Helen Prejean.

[2] Saint Benedict In His Time, Richard Newman (2013). This is a wonderful little book to read if you want to know who Benedict was and his influences. Very well researched. Much of the information about Benedict and his times for this article comes from this book. 

[3] Gregory The Great’s classic spiritual biography of Benedict, The Life Of St. Benedict, really only touches on Rome as the centre of a falling empire and the moral challenges this held for Benedict.

[4] The Unmapped Place, Joan Healy, RSJ, P.9, 1994.

[5] Think Of The Ravens: The Sisters of St. Joseph in Social Welfare, Marie Therese Foale, RSJ, 2001.

[6] Quoted in Mary MacKillop: A Window Of Hope, Monica Cavanagh RSJ, 2010.