Quick review of Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism

The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of LifeThe World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life by Gert Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a comprehensive, technical yet readable, survey of 1000 years of monastic history, arranged broadly chronologically. Melville introduces and assesses the different forms of religious from the late antique Desert Fathers and Mothers to the varied communities of mendicants and hermits of the later Middle Ages.

As the book progresses, the focus becomes increasingly on the structural systems of the orders, from the first limping towards an order by Cluny, to the first real order of the Cistercians, to the complex systems created by the Dominicans. This aspect of the story is not always highlighted well, but Melville brings it out and discusses why certain types of structure proved more successful as well as considering how institutions evolved over the centuries.

The primary goal of all of these forms of religious life was a total commitment to Christ and a full abandonment to living by the Gospel, whether we are thinking of a hermit alone in the wilderness, a Benedictine with his brothers in a dormitory, a Franciscan preaching in a market, or a Dominican teaching in a university.

How they represented challenges and opportunities to those in positions of power — secular nobles, bishops, popes — is also a part of this story, and Melville carefully brings this to the fore, helping dismantle along the way some ideas that ‘secular interference’ was necessarily detrimental to the achievement of a community’s original goal. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.

Moreover, Melville refers to the primary and secondary literature throughout. Since this is translated out of German, the secondary lit is often German, so that will not be helpful to the non-German-reading reader, but the primary sources are also often referred both to the Latin and to an available English translation.

My own disappoints are small and do not detract from the qualilty of the book — eastern monasticism disappears in the High Middle Ages. Some of my favourite figures — Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich, for example — do not appear. But the focus of the book is mostly western, as one has come to expect, and not every interesting person from the history of monasticism could expect to be covered.

If you want to get your mind around the history of monasticism and situate the various strands, this book is for you. And if you are a Christian, you will find your own commitment to Christ and the ways you live that commitment challenged along the way — and that’s a good thing at any time.

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Lectio Divina update

Last night I had the opportunity to lead my small group from church in a little discussion of lectio divina followed by a guided time of meditation on John 6:35-37, as mentioned here.

I started with asking whether any of them had heard of lectio divina before Sunday’s sermon, and if they had any engagement with any other Christian meditative practices. Turns out that this is not the first time that our minister has talked about lectio divina, and that he had even led all the small groups in lectio divina himself once.

But none of us was a regular practitioner of the discipline — and the whole point of our minister bringing it up on Sunday and having it our focus on Thursday was to help us get into this way of reading the Bible.

I then talked a bit about the practice and its goals, noting that although we often associate it with monks, the practice of praying through Scripture as described by Martin Luther is basically the same thing (Tim Keller discusses this in his book Prayer). That is: meditative and prayerful reading of Scripture with an openness to the movement of the Spirit is for all Christians.

I then had to give my little ecclesiastical historian spiel about the practice and how we actually have very few details on method before, say, Guigo II around 1180, but that what we’re doing is in the same spirit as people like St Augustine or St John Chrysostom or St Anselm, even if the exact details may not match up.

Finally, before leading the actual meditation, I shared the following foundational principles for lectio divina laid out by David Foster in Reading with God:

  • Scripture is the inspired Word of God
  • Jesus is the key to the meaning of the scriptures, as of all existence
  • The Word of God is alive because of the power of the Holy Spirit speaking to the community of the faithful
  • The word also addressed personally to each of Jesus’ disciples
  • Scripture brings us into fellowship with God and with all other Christians ‘who gather round Jesus and listen to his word’
  • Lectio divina draws us into an encounter with the Church and with Jesus Christ, and therefore also into the life of the Holy Trinity

And then we used the guide sent out by our minister, which he adapted from J. Linman (2010), Holy Conversation: Spirituality for Worship (p. 35). This approach has three readings as the initial read, for which ‘the usual Bible study rules apply’. Then four more for meditation, prayer, contemplation, and incarnation. We shared our insights on the passage., which is as follows (NIV):

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

We all got something out of it — insights such as the comfort that Jesus will never drive us away. There is also a personal challenge — we come to Jesus as children with great readiness, but somehow it gets harder as we get older. And the reminder that Jesus is all we need to be satisfied spiritually.

Everyone said they liked it, and we’re going to try practising lectio divina on our own using the text from Sunday and see how it goes.

And then word got back to our minister, and he wants to know if I’ll lead three monthly seminars on lectio divina soon. We’ll see if I have time…

Lectio Divina!

Aelred of Rievaulx (he practised some of lectio divina)

This Sunday, our minister preached about learning about the practice of lectio divina helped him go deeper with the Scriptures, enjoy them more, and profit more from his reading — more so than the advice he had been given over and over again, ‘Read your Bible and pray’, which he found singularly unhelpful. Anyway, he didn’t actually give any details as to how on earth one does this, but…

Our Bible studies are based on the sermon! And I, not knowing this would be the topic and for reasons entirely unrelated, volunteered to lead this week’s study for my group.

So now I get to lead my small group in a discussion about lectio divina as well as a guided session of reading.

As a trained ecclesiastical historian and enthusiast about pre-modern Christian spiritual practices, I don’t know what to do.

For example, is it really worth talking about how the set procedure we (post)moderns call lectio divina isn’t what even St Benedict meant? That, out of Christians who write in Latin (and thus may have used the pair of words lectio divina), most of them before the High Middle Ages used the phrase to mean sacred reading in a broad sense, including prayerful and meditative reading as well as what we today would distinguish as ‘study’ and sometimes not reading the Bible at all but commentaries on it or spiritual writers of acknowledged richness?

The fact is, if I do say that, it may not really affect the way any of us in the room practise the reading of sacred Scripture. The procedure our minister has outlined for us in preparation for Thursday will help us ruminate upon the word in a quiet, prayerful manner, and, even if it is not absolutely and precisely ancient has its roots in ancient Christianity.

Then again, I feel like history matters. The modern practice of lectio divina is itself part of tradition as a living thing. We are seeking the same God with the same Scriptures, and we engage with the practices of our predecessors in making something like this, something that does utilise ancient and medieval beliefs about Scripture and about how God talks as well as about prayer and the relationship between the individual Christian and Scripture and whatnot.

But I am excited about trying something different from standard Bible study group fare. I am not the most generous person, and I often find the takeaway from Bible studies fairly low. There are times I would rather have read a commentary on my own and simply had coffee with my Bible study people. Okay, so it’s not yet been bad at this church, but this week will only be my fourth time making it to Bible study.

I am also excited about getting people into any of the older spiritual practices. This one is a good entry point — something about Scripture (evangelicals rightly love the Bible) with ancient and medieval roots, tweaked for today’s Christian. It’s probably an easier sell than St Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise or 100 communal Jesus Prayers.

Theology and mysticism

St. Gregory of Nyssa

I have found, drifting around the Internet, that sometimes an opposition can appear between something called ‘theology’ and something called ‘mysticism’ or ‘contemplation’. This opposition is a false dichotomy, for, as Andrew Louth notes in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, theology and mysticism and inescapably bound together. I think we need both approaches to the Holy if we are to be healthy.

That is, this is a modern take on Evagrius in the Chapters on Prayer — If you truly pray, you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you truly pray.

His concept of theologos is not ours, but the idea has merit even today.

Let us take theology as the attempt of the rational mind to articulate in some logical manner the truths about God and the world in relation to God that have been apprehended through revelation, reason, and experience. Seems a safe definition.

Let us take mysticism as the attempt of the human soul to sit in silence and quiet and thereby encounter God. Or, even better, to encounter Him even when not in silence and quiet but, rather, live an existence shot through with an awareness of Him. This usually involves time set aside for silence and quiet.

These need each other. (They also need community.)

The first without the second can easily become dry intellectualism, or being rigidly doctrinaire, or mere pedantry. The danger of doing theology is that you will mistake your doctrine of God for God Himselves.

The second without the first can easily become emotive experientialism, or, as Thomas Merton calls it, illuminism, questing after special experiences or imagining that whatever you feel or imagine or find evocative is a true window into the divine. The danger of doing mysticism is that you will mistake your experiences about God for God Themself.

These two worlds are, in fact, not dichotomies, as I like to point out. A recent reminder of this (besides St Anselm) was Sarah Coakley’s lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology this Autumn, where St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great mystical theologians driven by the Holy Spirit. He is also, as it turns out, what, in technical terms, one might call a dogmatic or systematic theologian. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer and Scripture helps inform his reasoning, but his catechetical works are still theology as I defined it above.

When we find ourselves in the mood to pooh-pooh those ‘airy-fairy’ charismatics and contemplatives (as I sometimes do) or to reject theology as ‘dry and rigid’, let us find humility and seek the Giver of both types of gift.

Glorious Now, Behold Him Arise: King and God and Sacrifice

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi from Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi (1310s)

The most popular English-language Epiphany hymn is, of course, ‘We Three Kings.’ This was certainly one of my absolute favourites as a kid. In this hymn, John Henry Hopkins articulates the traditional typological/allegorical significance of the Magi’s gifts:

2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.

4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The final verse makes it abundantly clear:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies.

Now, it is highly unlikely that the magi actually thought that Jesus was God and a sacrifice. The fact that they worship Him in Matthew 2 is attributable to the fact that that’s how you treat a Persian King. Frankincense certainly has uses beyond the worship of deities, and myrrh beyond the preparation of corpses for the stone-cold tomb. Both are also of high importance in desert cultures.

Nevertheless, when you look back at Matthew 2 and the magi, and their encounter with the Christ Child, when you remember that Epiphany isn’t just about some nice, little story that inspires some great art and singable songs, but about the revelation of the Messiah to the nations, about the fulfilment of Isaiah 60 where the nations come to Israel who is their light. (Isaiah 60 is an intertext of Matthew 2.)

So, in fact, history suddenly becomes allegory, for Jesus the Christ, enthroned on His Mother’s lap is King and God and sacrifice.

Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter’s, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)

The richness of St Anselm’s prayers

I am slowly reading The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm (in Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation), as you may have surmised. I am trying to read them as St Anselm recommends, and not simply blitz through them (as I do so much of what I read). The prayers are a lot longer than what we are used to. This is because they are not meant to be prayed through from start to finish in a single go. And they are not meant for public worship, either.

They are meant to stir up our hearts and draw us to our own prayers, enrichening our own encounter with God and providing us with fuel. St Anselm says you can start anywhere you please and use them to good effect.

St Anselm’s prayers are rich and sometimes ornate. But they help show us an internal world we may miss if we’re not careful. I mentioned this once before here, but we have a tendency to view St Anselm only as a pre-Scholastic, or even a Scholastic, perhaps as a logic-chopper, as the primus inventor of the ontological argument for God and the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Given how few people are convinced by the former and how many people are currently rejecting the latter, this view of the man and his achievements misses out so much.

Related to this is a mistaken view that ‘western’ Christianity is not mystical or poetic.

Another mistaken view is that systematic theology, the logically-defined articulation of doctrine, the application of reason to matters of the divine is inimical to the true life of the Spirit. This is something that annoys me, given that our ancient theologians who wrote theology in this way were very often ‘mystics’ or ‘contemplatives’ as well — St Augustine (as I’ve blogged), St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and others! And many ‘mystics’ embraced the catholic Church’s articulations of doctrine, such as Richard Rolle, St Bernard, William of St-Thierry, St Hildegard, St Thomas of Kempen, St Catherine of Siena, St Francis of Assisi.

Anyway, these are the prayers of a soul that clearly had a rich love for and encounter with God. St Anselm seems to have to use his whole life for God — thus, the rational part of him writes the logic and theology, the affective part of his soul writes these prayers, and his moral self seeks to live rightly in the midst of the Investiture Controversy.

I encourage you to use these prayers yourself so that your own prayers can be kindled to a greater love for God.

Here’s some St Anselm to close us off:

Most merciful Lord,
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends towards this —
that by remembering and meditating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.

-The Prayer to Christ (trans. Ward, p. 94)

Alcuin on the Psalms

A quote from Alcuin of York (735-804) that reminds me a bit of St Athanasius:

If you come to the psalms with a serious mind, and look with the spirit of understanding, you will find there the word of the Lord incarnate, suffering, risen, and ascended . . . you will find every virtue in the psalms, if you deserve to find the mercy of God in revealing to you their secrets.

Hrabanus Maurus (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right). Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, saec. IX 2/4)