Blogging Benedict: A School for the Lord’s Service

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.

Before moving on to the first chapter of the Rule, I want to pause for a moment to consider this phrase and what it might mean for us today — our understanding of discipleship and our worshipping, witnessing communities.

Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici scola servitii.

The idea of the Christian community as school should help us shift our thinking about what the worshipping community is up to. For example, a few months ago a friend expressed his displeasure at a post that had done the rounds on his Facebook feed all about why Millennials aren’t going to church anymore. And, even if some of the criticisms were valid, the entire spirit of the piece was, ‘We don’t go to church because church isn’t doing things for us/the way we like it.’

Elsewhere, you’ll read about church growth tactics, using coffee bars to lure people back. Or manipulating emotions with lighting during worship (this is a thing I read in a catalogue from a supplier of church electronic equipment). We are told to make church relevant to the (felt) needs of congregants. To make worship an unforgettable, subjective (emotional) experience.

For monks, all of this is meaningless.

What do I know about what is good for me? Have I not sacrificed my temporal pleasure and temporal good for the Kingdom of Heaven? I have forsaken all to gain everything in St Clare’s Laudable Exchange. The monk has given up all rights to earthly materials, earthly goods, family, inheritance, social position. St Antony the Great made sure his sister had enough to live on, then completely abandoned his inheritance, giving it all to the poor.

Aren’t we supposed to be like that guy in the parable, who found a treasure in a field, so he sold everything and bought the field?

Forsaking everything for Christ means opening ourselves up to suffering. It means looking at church not as a place where we go to feel good or to have our needs met, but to encounter the risen Christ. It means enrolling in a school of the Lord’s service.

After all, Jesus’ followers in the New Testament are called disciples — an English word from the Latin discipulus, a learner, a student, an apprentice, translating the Greek mathetes. I remember how it startled me to recognition about the word in a Bible study with a Greek Cypriot friend who kept calling the disciples Jesus’ students.

What if all of the inward-focussed church programmes (so not evangelism or serving the wider community) took themselves seriously as a school for the Lord’s service — a school where we learn to serve the Lord Jesus Christ? I think that our churches would look different. And healthier.

And maybe, for a while, smaller.

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Spirituality, Trinity, and Tradition

A bit of visual heresy for you

I recently had a job interview with a small Christian liberal arts college, and when talking about my ‘faith journey’, the phrase I came up with was ‘historic orthodoxy’. I am committed to historic orthodoxy, having had my faith formed in my Anglican charismatic upbringing to have a live expectancy for God to show up and do stuff, a sacramental and liturgical orientation for worship, and a firm trust in the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God to the world. Sort of: charismatic, catholic, evangelical.

For some, the idea of ‘historic orthodoxy’ speaks of dry, barren traditionalism, of dusty doctrines, of incomprehensible theological jargon, of moralism, of a faith devoid of life, of a belief in mere intellectual abstractions and a form of Christian rationalism. For some, historic orthodoxy is a reductionistic attempt to tame the untamed God, to produce mystery-free religion with (so-called) accurate doctrines and a scientific approach to faith. It is fundamentalism. It is about controlling people’s minds and actions. It is dry. It is barren. It does not have the juices of the life of the living God coursing through its veins.

Not for me.

I think of this in light of Fred Sanders’ review of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. I admit that I have not read the book, so I dare not criticise it directly. But what Sanders accuses Rohr of doing is using some traditional language of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity to slip in a novel doctrine, mostly about something called ‘Flow’, and saying such things as each of us is the fourth person of the Trinity, and seeing Flow as circumscribing everything, including the Trinity. This view of the universe is, indeed, a bit New Agey, but also not surprising in light of the base doctrine of ‘god’ that most of us work with, as described by Matt Milliner in his splendid Byzantine art history lecture ‘Visual Heresy.’

Anyway, what I’m thinking is that the view that Sanders’ review claims the book upholds (which, not having read the book, I cannot verify as accurate or not) is one that would consider ‘historic orthodox’y as promoted today in the way described above. Rightly, Rohr wishes to reinvigorate our understanding of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity and connect the Christian doctrine of God with our own spirituality. But, again according to the review, in the process there is a statement that between the Cappadocian Fathers and William Paul Young’s The Shack, the Trinity was not really alive in the thoughtlife of the church.

Take it here, of course, that ‘the church’ means Latin, western, Catholic and Protestant. Nevertheless, it is shocking to see St Augustine’s wonderful writings on the Trinity excluded, as well as a Franciscan leaving out Bonaventure’s Trinitarian mysticism. It must be an erroneous representation of Rohr, either in the book or by the review.

Anyway, where I want to go is this: Mystery and Trinity and contemplation and mysticism and transcendence are part of historic orthodoxy, and historic orthodoxy is richer than its caricature.

To take an example, I am reading Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination right now. Here is a book that seems, so far, entirely ‘orthodox’ in outlook, reading various English poets for their theological insights. I’m not far into it, but Guite rightly observes that pre-Enlightenment Christianity was very happy with the poetic mode, that the ambiguity and fraught edges of language are exactly what we need when we encounter the utterly transcendent yet immanent God. You could look at poetry theologically in the entire tradition of Christian verse, from the Phos Hilaron (not that he cites this poem, it just came to me as one of the earliest Christian poems) to T.S. Eliot (Guite draws our attention up to Seamus Heaney, in fact). Guite’s investigation of theology via poetry, or poetry as a medium for theological thought, begins with The Dream of the Rood, on which I’ve blogged before in relation to the Ruthwell Cross, and then does not stop in the pre-Enlightenment poets such as George Herbert and John Donne (both of whom I love) but goes through Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Seamus Heaney.

Poetry and the visual arts (and, I guess, novels, music, architecture, drama) can bring us to places that strict propositional theological thought does not. Guite, thankfully, does not reject the endeavour of reasoned, critical theology, but sees the two modes of theological thought as happily co-existing. This is proper; Ambrose and Aquinas both wrote propositional theological treatises and poems. But we have neglected the poetic, the evocative, the ambiguous — the mystery of God needs to tread these borderlands of our consciousness. I would argue that this is why we need liturgy, symbol, ritual.

So let me come back to the doctrine of the Trinity. Our spirituality and our theology are healthy if they can embrace story and song, philosophy and proposition. Romanos the Melodist is important; so is Bonaventure. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote powerfully philosophical theology; he also wrote poetry. The tradition of Evagrius, Cassian, and the Cistercians is important. The tradition of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin is as well.

I think that a simple and sound understanding of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, outlined in the Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, and Athanasian Creed, is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). He is transcendent and beyond all creation, therefore immanent and everywhere in creation. He is an incomprehensible mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, every analogy of which probably gets us into heresy.

But understand this: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God and God is love. That is why God exists in Trinity, for therein can be found the fulness of love (I’ve blogged on this before). By his triune essence, God is perfectly fulfilled and perfectly love. When we come to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity in prayer, we are approaching Someone(s) Who Is richly, deeply, and powerfully love, Whose outflowing and expression of that has manifested itself in creation, in redemption, in salvation — and in indwelling our own hearts.

We meet the King of Love in our own hearts, a Deity Who is beyond all our longings yet found at their centre. As John Zizioulas arges in Being As Communion, an exegesis of the Cappadocian Fathers, God is Communion, and He is the ground of all being, all existence. Thus, we are meeting with a real person, not a superhuman in divine form like Zeus, but a person nonetheless (Zizioulas also demonstrates that our understanding of person lies in the history of the doctrine of God), who loves us, who is Communion, and who chooses communion with us out of His/Their Own outpouring of divine love.

And then we realise that we are ourselves richly blessed with love when we enter into communion with others. Yet others are themselves impenetrable mysteries. And so we find ourselves at the frayed edges of existence and consciousness in seeking God wherever He might be found, whether in contemplative prayer, the Eucharist, or fellowship with other humans. He is there, and the simple doctrine of the Athanasian Creed can help us remember his characteristics, while the verse of John Donne or Ephrem the Syrian, or the mystical theology of Evagrius Ponticus can bring us to approach him not as a list of characteristics but as a real person.

We do not need to jettison historic orthodoxy to have an encounter with the Divine or a rich experience and love for God. This is what my Anglican charismatic upbringing taught me, and I continue to see it as I study the history of Christ’s church here on earth.

Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The rabbit hole that led from Atheist Delusions to The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.

RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.

As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues in Gregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.

Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century

The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).

Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:

Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)

This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.

That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul.  I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.

Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic  legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.

Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.

Sixth-Century Italy

540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.

What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).

Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.

But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.

In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.

In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).

Final thoughts on the Benedict Option — take the initiative!

So, whether you accept all of Rod Dreher’s grim view of the future in The Benedict Option or not, I think the book has a lot of good ideas to help us get our churches, families, and lives more rooted in Christ and the tradition, more resilient for whatever may come our way, more disciplined. I guess, in a way, that’s the point.

My final jab at him re St Benedict of Nursia: Much of what is discussed in this book takes little or no inspiration from the Rule of St Benedict or Gregory the Great, Dialogues II. Rather, it takes its inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre’s call for a new, doubtless very different, Benedict in our day and age. And then Dreher imagines what it would take to keep Christianity vibrant and alive in the years to come.

Besides that, many of the good ideas in this book are found elsewhere in late ancient Christianity. I almost called my post about the chapter on education ‘The Cassiodorus Option’, because much of what he discusses there makes far more sense at sixth-century Vivarium with Cassiodorus than Monte Cassino with Benedict. I’ve blogged about Cassiodorus and Christian education before, FYI.

Anyway, regardless of how much in this is directly inspired by St Benedict, when we look at the wider Benedictine tradition, from Monte Cassino to Wearmouth-Jarrow to Durham to Citeaux to Gethsemani (Kentucky) to the rebuilt monastery at Norcia, there is something in the spirit of this wider Benedictine movement throughout this book.

And one thing that runs throughout, something this blog is a little piece of, is to take the initiative yourself, like Benedict did in a cave and then with a community on a mountain, or like the founders of Citeaux, or the re-founders of Norcia. Don’t sit around waiting for your pastor or your denomination to make the changes in your life, church, community that you believe are crucial for the survival and spiritual health of Christianity.

Approach them, of course. Volunteer to use Benedict Option ideas at your own church. But don’t wait — take the initiative. Get up off your butt and do something. Lay a brick for Jesus.

Technological Humanity (almost done The Benedict Option)

In this final chapter of main content in The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher discusses technology. Technology, he argues, is not neutral. Yet he does little to demonstrate this thesis at large outside of the fact that social media technology and the barrage of information (not really ‘knowledge’) on the Internet are probably bad for our minds and our ability to concentrate and engage in what is called deep reading.

Of course, technology may be bad. Or it may be neutral and used for bad purposes. If you aren’t paranoid about nuclear energy, for example, the same technology is useful for electricity for our homes as well as for blowing stuff up and killing thousands of people. Take your pick.

But the most important takeaway is, of course, our use of information technology.

This distracts our minds and fragments our attention. Fragmented attention makes sustained thought, meditation, contemplation, deep reading, difficult. This is no new discovery — hence my recent post quoting Burchard of Worms, c. 1000. C. S. Lewis complained that the radio — the radio — hampered his ability to do sustained reading and writing.

Our distractions have grown even more invasive and pervasive. We read brief posts and articles online, sometimes even good ones, and follow hyperlinks wherever they lead. We passively allow the Internet to set our agenda, while at the same time carefully crafting echo chambers where conservatives and liberals can avoid each other, except (of course) when they go trolling.

And when we’re done with social media, news outlets, and whatever else the Web has to offer, we can further numb our minds with Netflix.

I’m as guilty as anyone.

But if we want to get into habits of deep reading, deep thinking, rich prayer, silence, quiet, solitude. If we want to be able to stand against a world we perceive as corrupt and corrupting, we need to unplug.

We need the Desert.

This is why, after one final post about this book, I’m going to take a 1-week break from personal blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and then see how I do when I resurface. I may return to this blog but not Facebook for a while after that… Technofast, here we come!

Eros and Anthropology (more on The Benedict Option)

St Teresa in ecstasy by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome (my photo)

I’m approaching the end of these posts about The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The penultimate chapter of the book is about sex because this is one area that our culture is particularly confused about and contrary to traditional Christianity, and because it is an area that touches biblical, traditional anthropology deeply. I essentially agree about the core thesis of this chapter, especially that we need to grasp Christian anthropology properly if we are to live by Christian sexual ethics and teach it to our children.

In a culture that believes that any sex act between consenting adults is good, with an easy and high divorce rate, that is challenging the biological foundations of the family and gender, it is not enough for us to simply teach a historic Christian moral code. Eros and Venus need to be rooted in the wider philosophy of Christianity, and rooted in what Scripture and tradition teach us about the human person. Simply telling teens, ‘Don’t have sex before marriage,’ isn’t good enough anymore — it may never have been in the first place.

According to the moral code of Scripture, as properly interpreted through the methodology and lens of traditional moral theology, sexual activity is meant for a man and woman in a monogamous union. This, I realise, is a conclusion and not an argument. Nonetheless, it is also a foundation in its way. Human beings are made in the image of God. Whether you take Genesis 1-3 literally or not, this is one of the major takeaways from those chapters of the Bible, one of the things that they teach us about ourselves.

And a remarkable thing, as Fr John Behr points out (in a video I can’t find just now), is that God says, ‘Let us make man [adam/anthropos/homo – generic but singular, thus inexpressible in current English idiom] in our own image,’ and then makes — plural — male and female. Man and woman together, united, are the image of God. Our view of sex must be rooted in our view of humanity, our view of God, our view of marriage.

My friend Tim recently remarked that simply teaching the moral code won’t ever make our congregations moral.

He argued that instead we need to help people reorient their desires.

If your greatest eros is God (who is the actual most beautiful and most good being striven for in Plato’s Symposium, itself an exposition of eros), then you will be willing to live as he recommends, even if it is very hard. This is something that I think Dreher’s chapter on sex could have emphasised more.

Sex, food, material goods, family, community, work — all of these are good desires. Yet all should be subordinated to our desire for God on the metaphysical, ontological grounds not that God wants us to do so (for then He is merely a superhuman despot) but because God actually is worthy of such desire. Having rightly ordered any of these desires for God, we will no longer declare, ‘Confusion is sex,’ but realise that the eros that unites man and wife is good and is beautiful and is itself subordinate to something else so intimate that the Bible keeps expressing it in marital images.

In fact, this is a natural realisation of the western mystics. Most famously, St Teresa of Ávila, but also Julian of Norwich, use erotic language of metaphysical ecstasy. C.S. Lewis once had a mystical experience, and the thing he could best compare it to was sex.

Orient your eros to learn agape.

Sex will take care of itself.

Benedictine Work and Human Dignity

Besides some excerpts from the Rule in history class, my first introduction to St Benedict was Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict. Taking up the theme of work from yesterday, here is a quotation from that book where the Benedictine belief in the worthiness of all work — manual, intellectual, spiritual — feeds into daily life:

The respect for people and the respect for the work they do and the things they handle interconnect and deepen each other. … The implications of this in modern terms are quite far-reaching. My own preference is for books rather than for petrol, to take an absurd example, which I am sure many others would reverse. And if I am totally honest with myself it means that I have, perhaps quite subconsciously, a greater respect for a writer or lecturer than for the man or woman who manages a garage and sells me petrol. If I take the Rule seriously, it frees me to notice this, and if I am trying to live by it, it forces me to re-think my attitudes. (p. 118)