Friday, 13 July 2012

Benedict's Saintly Sister

This week saw the Feast Day of the brilliantly beautiful St. Benedict (480 - 543), founder of Christian monasticism. There are so many things I could say about Benedict - he wrote down 'The Rule' around which many Christian communities choose to live their lives today.  St. Benedict founded over 40 monasteries with no long term intention to create an 'order' as such. He just sought that individual simplicity through which individuals and individuals living in common could seek the presence of God. And, well, people liked his ideas and followed him.  Here is one of his prayers: 

Gracious and holy Father,
please give me:
intellect to understand you;
reason to discern you;

 diligence to seek you;
wisdom to find you;
a spirit to know you;
a heart to meditate upon you;
ears to hear you;
eyes to see you;
a tongue to proclaim you;
a way of life pleasing to you;
patience to wait for you;
and perseverance to look for you.

My favourite story about St. Benedict though, is not really about him. It is about his twin sister, Saint Scholastica. You wouldn't want to mess with Scholastica, even if you did found a religious order. Benedict established his monastery at Monte Cassino, and Scholastica founded a convent in nearby Plombariola, about five miles south of her brother. The convent is said to have been under the direction of her brother, thus she is regarded as the first Benedictine nun.

The siblings were close. However, the respective rules of their houses prohibited either entering the other's monastery. They met once a year at a house near Monte Cassino monastery to catch up and talk about the things which most interested them, mostly prayer and God, but other things too, one imagines. The last time they met, Scholastica and Benedict had been at one of their yearly meetings together, and had spent the day together. As nightfall approached Benedict made to leave, but Scholastica asked him to stay and continue their chat.  Benedict sternly refused because he did not wish to break his own rule by spending a night away from Monte Cassino. He was a very serious and holy man. Scholastica was a holy woman too though, and she loved her brother. She responded to her brothers' determination to leave by crying openly, laying her head upon the table, and praying that God would intercede for her. As she did so, a sudden storm arose. The violent rain and hail came in such a torrential downpour that Benedict and his companions were unable to depart.

"May Almighty God forgive you, sister" said Benedict, "for what you have done." (I told you he was serious)

"I asked a favor of you," Scholastica replied simply, "and you refused it. I asked it of God, and He has granted it." (Touche!)

After his return to Monte Cassino, Benedict saw a vision of Scholastica's soul departing her body, ascending to heaven in the form of a dove. She died three days later. He placed her body in the tomb he had prepared for himself, and arranged for his own to be placed there after his death. The two siblings loved each other very much, but it was Scholastica was the one who saw clearly that God loved the love that was between them.

Simplicity is the key to St. Benedict's Rule. With that in mind, I have to offer a simple vegetarian meal in his honour. It celebrates the humble carrot. I was grieved this week to hear that in the UK root vegetables cannot be harvested because the fields are too wet, flooded in some cases. Too much of our national food will rot in the ground this year, and as a consequence, no doubt we will be importing the produce we eat. Perhaps, perhaps, if we all lived a little more simply we would help to reduce the effects of climate change that  have been seen so clearly recently. Maybe we all need to live a little more of the simple life.

Afgan Carrot Hotpot (Qorma e Zarak)
(Serves 4 - from Veggiestan)

2 medium onions
oil, for frying
2 - 3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 scotch bonnet chilli
1 cm of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
pinch of ground cloves
600g baby carrots (make them local)
300g yellow split peas
1 teaspoon tomato paste
3 large tomatoes, chopped
salt, to taste
2 teaspoons vinegar
500ml vegetable stock
Really tasty naan bread

Fry the onions in the bottom of a big saucepan, and add the garlic, chilli and ginger. When the onions have started to soften, add in the spices, carrots and split peas, followed by a couple of minutes later by the paste and fresh tomato chunks. Sprinkle in some salt, add either the vinegar, and then add enough water to cover all the ingredients. Bring to the boil and then set to simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the carrots and peas are cooked through. 

Serve with yogurt and bread (you could have rice too).

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