Blogging Benedict: A Wake-Up Call

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The Prologue to the Rule of Benedict is not so much a setting out of what will follow as it is a call to wake up, although it does touch on one of the most important themes of the Rule, one that is distasteful to our modern ears: obedience. Let us begin with the wake-up call (avoiding Petra references).

“Let us open our eyes to the divine light and listen carefully to what the divine voice tells us to do…” (p. 2 English)

As the verse says (Ro. 13:12), “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” Or, as my mother felt the Lord say once, “Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity.” What are we doing now about salvation? Christianity is not an exercise in passivity. It is a matter of finding the truth and living it.

For Benedict, the truth is found in the Scriptures, it is found in Christ, it is found the writings of the Fathers. We cannot be slack or lazy or put off to tomorrow the holiness to which we are called today. Christians in many (all?) ages have been tempted in two ways: cheap grace or legalism. Sometimes (for example) I think it is easier to be a teetotaller or someone who drinks to excess than it is to drink in moderation. Benedict will read to many people like legalism, even though he is far more lenient than some of his contemporaries. And the thing that we will chafe under most is obedience.

Very quickly, it is worth here reminding ourselves of the modern notion of freedom as the pure, unrestrained activity of the will of the human individual. Or nation-state, at a higher level. Anything that conflicts with my desires is seen as necessarily bad. This vision of freedom is in direct contrast with the pre-modern West, where true freedom was found by living according to your own nature, or the nature of the universe (Stoicism); it was found by seeking the summum bonum (Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas), or the beautiful (Plato’s Symposium) and then living in accord with that. It is choosing to restrain our wills to something bigger and better than the fleeting pleasures of a moment.

What we tend to consider ‘freedom’ today is really just slavery to the passions. We should instead seek to be freed from the passions, or seek to rule them and guide them in accordance with nature, reason, the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one (Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). If we do not control the passions, do not subvert them to the greater good, we are not free, for we cannot choose rightly.

While many Christians would agree with all of this, there are still concerns about obedience as Benedict lays it out. The Benedictine monk is to give absolute obedience to the abbot. This, in fact, is common to many Late Antique ascetic/monastic texts, whether in Sinai with John Climacus, Egypt (Palestine?) with Mark the Monk, Luxeuil with Columbanus, Monte Cassino with Benedict.

Our concern about giving any human such obedience is not ungrounded. We live in the age after Jonestown, after all. We have seen what personality cults can do in a less murder-suicide manner, anyway. Nevertheless, for Benedict, responding to the call to holiness starts with obedience.

Here, in the Prologue, obedience is first and foremost to Christ. Let us keep that in our mind when we consider other parts of the Rule and the rest of obedience. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not the abbot. But our disordered wills should perhaps submit to the wisdom of our elders in the faith. Otherwise, is it not like undergraduates determining pedagogy, as though 18-22-year-olds know what’s best for them, how best to educate themselves?

At the root of both ethics/morality and discipline lies the reality of God as creator and sustainer. He knows best because he is best. He is Aristotle’s summum bonum, as discussed by Anselm’s Monologion. Therefore, we willfully submit to God’s will and God’s commands in order to flourish. Our lives, as St Paul says, are not our own. We were bought at a price. Let us ever keep scriptural obedience in mind in our reading of Benedict.

We find God’s commands in Scripture. We also, sometimes, add disciplines. There is an important difference between discipline and morality. Discipline is the voluntary activity in which we engage to grow spiritually, but it is, morally, optional. Ivo of Chartres makes this important distinction in the prologue to his canonical collection around 1100.

Discipline is askesis, the word for training an athlete. We need to train ourselves for the fight for holiness in our lives, against the passions and the demons and the external temptations of life.

And so, as we steer clear of the Scylla of cheap grace, which is what Benedict’s Prologue is calling us to do, we feel like perhaps we are veering into the Charybdis of legalism or what Presbyterians call ‘works righteousness’. But what about ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12)? The sheep and goats of Matthew 25? Faith without works is dead — the epistle James. Holiness is a calling that we pursue. God acts in us as we act for him.

The ancient and medieval ascetics are thus helpful for us in our simultaneous fear of cheap grace and legalism. They sought to radically train themselves to live in holiness. Even if we are saved by grace, holiness usually seems to arrive after some effort. I saw this as an Anglican, thinking beyond the ancients to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. I’ve blogged on the latter before. Both of these writers, without denying the necessity of grace, believe in the disciplined life. One of the points made by Taylor, and reproduced as an appendix in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is the fact that specific disciplines are not necessary to all Christians — that each of us needs to train for holiness in the way that works for our soul.

And so, finally, when we think on obedience and discipline and the serious call to holiness, we cannot forget grace. St Benedict believes in grace, intimately united to duty:

Those who fear the Lord and do not allow themselves to become proud because of their good works realize that the good that is in them does not come from their own abilities but from the Lord. (p. 4)

Brothers, we have questioned the Lord about the person who lives in his tabernacle, and we have heard his instructions about living there, but it is for us to fulfil the obligations of those who live there. And so we must prepare our hearts and bodies to fight by means of holy obedience to his instructions. If our natural abilities do not allow us to do something, we must ask the Lord to grant us his grace to assist us. (p. 5)

All the great ascetic writers acknowledge the union of grace to our effort — that we cannot be holy without God making us so, that we cannot even performs virtuous acts of ascetic labours without grace. This union of God’s grace with our discipline is found in Theophan the Recluse (19th c. ), Prosper (On the Call of All Nations), Augustine (variously), Mark the Monk, and Cassian (Conference 13) in the fifth. Mark the Monk writes:

First of all, we know that God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good; and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. -‘On the Spiritual Law’, 2, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 110.

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. -‘No Righteousness by Works’, 18, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1

In ‘No Righteousness by Works’, St Mark goes into this discussion more extensively. He also has high expectations of his ascetic readers.

We have been called out of the darkness and into the light. We have been shown by the Scriptures what holiness looks like. Christ and the apostles fasted and prayed. The apostles searched the Scriptures. They performed acts of mercy. They called us all to obedience to God as well as mutual submission to one another.

“And so, clothed in faith and the performance of good works, let us set off along his path using the Gospel as our guide.” (p. 3)

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