Blogging Benedict: More on the primacy of prayer

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

We have already seen some of Benedict’s discussion of prayer, as well as reflecting on the daily office as he describes it. As we progress through the Rule, we encounter more of Benedict’s regulations concerning prayer and its primacy in monastic (Christian!) life.

In chapter 50, distance from the monastery or travel are no excuse. When the hour for prayer comes, stop what you are doing and pray. Get off your horse and pray. If the bell for prayer rings and you are out in the garden, kneel in the dirt. Pray.

For us today: Holidays are no excuse! A lot of us get our prayer disciplines out-of-whack during holiday seasons. Some people stop making it to church when they move out to their cottages. Others choose not to go to church when away from their home city. Benedict would not approve. Just because our secular work is on holiday doesn’t mean our prayer lives are!

Chapter 52 highlights the extreme importance of prayer in the Benedictine world, urging that oratory be put to not purpose other than prayer. No idle conversations. No roughhousing. No badminton (I know a minister who wants to take the pews out of his church so they can play badminton). Making certain places special, set aside for prayer and holiness, helps make all places special.

There is an argument from contemporary neo-Celtic spirituality that there are ‘thin’ places. I am not sure if a. this is actually something Insular Christians of the Middle Ages believed or b. it’s true, anyway. In fact, there is an argument that places people often consider ‘thin’ are not literally, objectively more so than anywhere else — whether we say Mount Athos or the chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto or wherever — but rather that the activities we engage in while at such places make us more attuned to God.

The goal for us, when we leave ‘thin’ places, is to make our whole lives in every place ‘thin’, permeated with the Kingdom of the Heavens. For, as Christ says in Matthew 4:17, the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand.

Prayer is the opus Dei in the life of the Benedictine monk. It is the work of God. It runs through the fabric of every day. I find it no surprise, then, that some of the great pray-ers of history and writers on prayer have been from the Benedictine traditions. I think immediately of two from the Middle Ages, St Anselm in the opening prayer of the Proslogion or his Meditations and the Cistercian St Bernard of Clairvaux and his rich spirituality, expressed in his sermons on Song of Songs.

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Philokalic Fridays

Since I’m going to try and make a dent in the second half of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, this Lent, I’ve decided to share with you some of the wisdom I’ve found each Friday because I enjoy the alliterative title ‘Philokalic Fridays’. That is, I’ll be sharing on Fridays specifically because of alliteration. I missed yesterday because my social calendar was full of visiting some truly awesome people. I’ll be sharing at all because, although not wise myself, wisdom is worth sharing.

And what is wisdom?

Well, I’ve already come across some prodding on that question in The Philokalia this week, as it turns out! I am reading St Neilos of Ancyra’s ‘Ascetic Discourse’. He is discussing how both Jewish and Greek quests for wisdom fail in different ways, and he gives a definition of philosophy (philo-sophia, love of wisdom, literally), writing:

For philosophy is a state of moral integrity combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality. Both Jews and Greeks fell short of this, for they rejected the Wisdom (sophia) that is from heaven and tried to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both His life and His teaching. For by the purity of His life He was the first to establish the way of true philosophy. … (201)

Wisdom!

Let us attend!

And the winner is …

Thanks to those of you who voted in my Lent book poll. The results are in, and the winner is The Philokalia, Vol. 1, with 6 votes. Runner up is Living Wisely with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall with 5 votes. Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer only got one vote, which tells you something about the audience of this blog, I guess.

I am also interested in reading all three recommendations, each different in its own way:

Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

In 2018, setting aside what I read for work, I’m trying only to read books I own and not buy new ones, and I don’t own any of these or need them for work (although I could probably justify Boersma’s at some level), so, d.v., they’re on hold for 2019!

Let’s see what wisdom I meet in the rest of The Philokalia, vol. 1.

Blogging Benedict: Food

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

It is fitting that today, the second day of Lent, I am blogging about food. For most people, Lenten discipline involves food in some way — giving up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or all sweet treats; fasting once or twice a week. In the Rule of Benedict, chapter 39, the abbot is to have discretion about the quantity of food to give the monks. They are to avoid over-indulgence.

The idea of discretion is in John Cassian, where it is considered foundational for the ascetic life. Many ascetics go too far and make themselves ill, for example. This is not merely theoretical or exemplary but a historical fact. John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi all damaged themselves through excessive fasting. Possibly Anselm of Canterbury as well, but I’m not sure (I forget).

For most of us, however, the danger is not excessive fasting but overeating, or, in Cassian’s vision, gluttony, which includes not just too much food but the wrong food or food at the wrong time. Hence why so many of us give up some delectable treat for Lent.

In chapter 40, alcohol also comes up:

We read that wine is not a suitable drink for monks, but since monks nowadays cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to excess, because wine causes even sensible people to behave foolishly. (p. 67, trans. White)

Interestingly, this is close to what Odysseus says about wine in Homer’s Odyssey, that it makes wise men say foolish things. Anyway, this is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes, for those of us with something of a straight-laced past for whom discovering ancient Christianity and the wider tradition has been liberating, alcohol can be a danger. I know some post-evangelicals who say things like, ‘I’m an Anglican because we can drink!’ Well, I’d have hoped the BCP or the poetry of John Donne or something like that would be better reasons to be Anglican. And sometimes, people not only drink to excess but start swapping the same ridiculous stories as those ‘in the world.’

I occasionally wonder if moderation is the harder route, and if it is easier either to be a lush or a teetotaller. Perhaps I’m too hard on everyone else?

Anyway, let us remember the words of Benedict about wine, as well as the Bible, which does, after all, call wine a mocker and strong drink a brawler. Christian freedom includes alcohol. Christian holiness restricts its amount.

Monastic life is always Lenten

For Ash Wednesday, I give you selections from the Rule of Benedict, chapter 49:

The life of a monk ought at all times to be Lenten in its observances but because few have the strength for this, we urge that in Lent they should maintain a life of complete purity to make up, during these holy days, for all the careless practices throughout the rest of the year.

In other words he must cut down on food, drink, sleep, talkativeness, joking, and should look forward to holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing. (trans. Carolinne White)

May you have a holy and blessed Lent as we look forward to Easter.

Don’t forget my Lent book poll!

Which book do you think I should read this Lent?

‘Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand!’ (Mt 4:17)

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I discovered today that the Latin Vulgate gives paenitentiam agite — Do penance! — where English Bibles usually give, ‘Repent!’ in Matthew 4:17. The Greek is metanoeite; the automatic instinct is to opt for the English. The Latin would seem to tend towards simply performing some sort out outward act, mere ‘works righteousness’ without a related renovation of the heart. Or perhaps a purely sacramental version; confess to a priest and perform the penance assigned.

Certainly, it could be read that way. It has been used that way.

For Ivo of Chartres, who has come up on this blog a few times lately, paenitentiam agere may better be, to carry out penitence. It is interesting what happens with the switch of verb and the switching out of one English derivative from paenitentia for another. Ivo is insistent in his letters that just because a person — be he king or bishop — has performed some outward act of charity or discipline does not mean that true paenitentia has occurred.

Paenitentia involves the inward workings of the human heart. These are visible to God alone. However, for Ivo, as for medieval culture more generally, the inner person will manifest itself in outer deeds. Thus, to carry out penitence will necessarily involve both true contrition for sin and behaviour that shows a desire, a willingness, to change.

Today’s Protestant is probably still wary of this question of the outer behaviour.

For Ivo, as represented in the Prologue that he wrote for his canon law collection (the Decretum — a title it shares with many other canon law collections!), the canons of the church are remedies for sin. These canons include the order for administering penitence. I am not going to get into the concept of temporal penalties for sins in mediaeval theology for two reason: 1. I don’t feel like offending any Roman Catholic readers; 2. I am not sure what it’s development looked like in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, whether someone believed that penitential acts could get them time off Purgatory, Ivo’s argument is fairly simple: they help you become holier. That is, with the aid of the grace of God working in you, your penitential actions will help make your soul healthier (remember the medical imagery he uses) and thus more able both to perform virtuous deeds and resist temptations to sin.

This, I think, carries with it a fuller understanding of repentance than our usual English translation of metanoeite in Matthew 4:17. Is it biblical? Well, I hope so. Here is a brief thought on metanoia: it is a word used in various situations to refer to a changing of directions — perhaps changing sides in a war, for example. To risk the etymological fallacy, it seems to have something to do with changing your nous, your mind/intellect/heart/however you wish to translate that word. In that case, Jesus is referring to changing the direction of your life and heart to live in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

To effect that change — well, here we fall back on St Paul’s various lists of virtues and vices, of fruits of the Spirit, and his exhortations to pray, to worship God, to rejoice in the Lord, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It strikes me that what Ivo is doing is trying to find specific applications of St Paul’s general principles for the health of those Christians who write him letters or who use his canon law collection.

And one last thing — Ivo’s Christian is not alone, not sitting about performing penitential deeds in isolation. Ivo’s Christian, clerical or lay, is part of the militia Christi — the army of Christ. He or she is a communicating member of the local Church, having received the sacrament of holy baptism and partaking of the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion. He or she is a hearer or reader of God’s word, whether in sermon or from a book.

This is the context of ideal mediaeval penitence — the real life of the church as lived in community by real people.

Bibliography:

Christof Rolker, Canon Law and the Letters of Ivo of Chartres

Ivo of Chartres, Prologue, in Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 132-158.