Blogging Benedict: Entering the monastery

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

According to the Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58, entry into the monastery goes as follows:

  • A few days at the guest house for the persistent
  • Two months as a novice
  • Read the Rule. Can leave if they don’t like it.
  • Six more months. Read the Rule as above.
  • Another four-month testing period.
  • Finally admitted

The three central (famous!) vows:

  • Stability
  • Poverty
  • Obedience

In making these vows, the new monk is stripped in the oratory and clothed in monastic garb. Thus everything he was is gone and everything he is is now invested in the community. He has not even his own clothing. He has no money to provide for himself. He has vowed not to leave. And he has vowed to surrender his own disordered will to that of the community under its abbot.

This is a radical commitment.

Few non-monastic Christian communities today have such radical commitment. Varieties exist in some Anabaptist communities, of course. Most of us don’t belong to those. Most of us belong to congregations that would barely notice if we were gone.

What if we were to invest in stability? This is certainly part of the Benedictine freedom of simplicity, isn’t it? Force yourself to stick with your local church, not merely in spite of the people who annoy you or the preaching that you dislike for one reason or another or the hymns/songs that aren’t your favourites, but specifically to fall in love with those people, that preacher, and find Jesus in that music.

That would take humility, as opposed to just leaving. Not that we should never go, but that we should more often stay instead.

What if we were to invest in the ideal of poverty? This one is possibly harder. Imagine that all your goods belong to the whole Christian community (cf. Acts 2). Then give cheerfully in the collection plate. Share with others. Look for opportunities to do good. Have people over to your house in rich hospitality. Living like that (which I certainly don’t do!) would probably revolutionise how we love others.

What if we were to invest in obedience? This one is probably hardest for our culture. Obedience has been abused, certainly. But Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, makes the point in his chapter about service that choosing to serve others means they can’t walk all over you because you have already willed your act of service. Their own evil hearts may seek to abuse you, but you cannot be abused, for you already wish to serve. That said, I actually do believe in boundaries; if your acts of service for others are harming your family life, for example, you need to find new ways of serving.

What if we were this radically invested in our churches?

Would it make us into better disciples? Would it make more disciples? These are the two questions I am now considering as I read through my notes on Benedict.


The Four Kinds of Monks

When I blogged about Benedict, Rule ch. 1, I had forgotten that John Cassian (subject of my MA dissertation!) had also discussed the different kinds of monks (Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism has reminded me). As you will recall, Benedict lists the four kinds of monks as coenobites, anchorites/hermits, sarabaites, and gyrovagues. He gets this from the Rule of the Master, and the Master (not a Timelord) gets it from Cassian about a century before.

Here’s John Cassian, Conferences 18.4, in the old Victorian translation:

Wherefore you should first hear how or whence the system and beginning of our order took its rise. For only then can a man at all effectually be trained in any art he may wish, and be urged on to practise it diligently, when he has learnt the glory of its authors and founders. There are three kinds of monks in Egypt, of which two are admirable, the third is a poor sort of thing and by all means to be avoided. The first is that of the Cœnobites, who live together in a congregation and are governed by the direction of a single Elder: and of this kind there is the largest number of monks dwelling throughout the whole of Egypt. The second is that of the anchorites, who were first trained in the Cœnobium and then being made perfect in practical life chose the recesses of the desert: and in this order we also hope to gain a place. The third is the reprehensible one of the Sarabaites. And of these we will discourse more fully one by one in order. Of these three orders then you ought, as we said, first to know about the founders. For at once from this there may arise either a hatred for the order which is to be avoided, or a longing for that which is to be followed, because each way is sure to carry the man who follows it, to that end which its author and discoverer has reached.

Cassian (in the guise of Abba ) goes on to discuss these three types of monk in turn. Coenobites are obvious, it seems to me, as are anchorites/hermits. Sarabaites are a bit harder to pin down. They are basically ‘monks so-called’ when you consider Cassian’s description in Conf. 18.7. They settle where they please and do what they please — so long as it is loud and clear to everyone that they are monks. That is, they are vainglorious about their monastic profession but fail to live by the monastic way in actual fact.

If I remember correctly, besides real references to Egypt, Cassian has in his sights (as argued in Richard J. Goodrich, Contextualizing Cassian) those Gallo-Roman and Italian aristocrats who retire to their villas to lead the contemplative life, but are still served by their slaves and hang out with their aristocratic friends to have deep conversations. As monasticism becomes more regularised in Gaul, aristocratic monks and nuns prove a problem because they resist the spiritual headship of their abbots and abbesses, especially if they or their families had been donors to the monasteries before making solemn profession. (This is a recollection of mine from Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks.)

Funny how these things go.

Anyway, what of Benedict’s gyrovagues? It should be clear from the above that since Benedict and the Master are using Cassian as a source, they do not have the Irish in mind for any of this, since Cassian pre-dates both Palladius and Patrick, even if early to mid-sixth-century Italy was aware of Ireland and wandering Irish monks (which I sincerely doubt; we overplay the importance of the Irish on the continent before Columbanus and even then overplay Columbanus’ importance).

Cassian doesn’t mention gyrovagues. He and Germanus, in fact, look suspiciously like gyrovagues. He does give us a fourth kind of monk (18.8), but these are false anchorites — monks who joined a coenobium but were too proud and hardheaded and hardhearted to submit to the community and the abbot, so they left on the pretence of needing to become hermits. But their hearts are not truly those of solitaries.

Elsewhere, Cassian warns against seeking the solitary life because you don’t get along with people. He points out that you will bring along your own dark heart when you go. If your great demon is anger, you cannot think you’ve progressed in virtue by not being angry when there is no one to anger you. You must overcome such passions only by living amongst others.

Benedict’s gyrovagues come from The Rule of the Master. As summarised by Peters, the Master says of gyrovagues:

They take advantage of others’ hospitality by eating sumptuous meals and abusing charity, acting as if they are faithful monks whose journey has been hard and are therefore worthy of gracious hospitality. They feign humility and essentially act as thieves, robbing the hosts to satiate their gluttonous habits. (p. 62)

If Irish exile/pilgrim-monks had made their way to Italy, I admit the possibility of them being the Master’s target. There is probably also a local kind of abuse going on here, though. Over the fifth and sixth centuries, monasticism became a regularised feature of life in the western Mediterranean. Why not become a wandering ‘monk’ and enjoy the hospitality of the various monasteries rather than settle down and live the hard life of obedience to a rule?

Obedience to a rule, to an abbot, or to a spiritual father (‘abba’) is a common feature of early eastern and western monasticism. The gyrovagues and Sarabaites lack this. I find it unsurprising, then, that Cassian, the Master, and Benedict reject these monks.

St Cuthbert: Action & contemplation in Northumbria

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

Today is the Feast of St Cuthbert. Not only is my office a two-minute walk from the tomb of the Venerable Bede (d. 735), it is also about the same distance from that of St Cuthbert (d. 687),* whose life Bede wrote a few times — once in verse, once in prose, and once as part of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. So before my thoughts on contemplation and action really get biblical, they’re going to be historical.

I’ve blogged on St Cuthbert before, and I’ve had an accidental (providential?) tendency to follow him around. St Cuthbert started his contemplative career as a monk of Melrose (which I’ve visited), and one of his duties while holding office in the monastery was preaching in the countryside. It is extremely likely that the country folk of what is now southern Scotland in the mid-600s were still practising whatever Anglo-Saxon paganism was.** So evangelism was part of his monastic career from fairly early on.

Remember that the professed goal of monasticism is to go off and spend time in intentional community (or entirely alone) and pray, seeking purity of heart and freedom from the passions so that you can get to know God better. What’s interesting is how few monks ever get to spend all that time alone; too many of them end up helping others. Indeed, the missionaries of Britain from both the Continent and Ireland were monks. Monk missionaries are a thing.

Worth contemplating. 😉

Later, St Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, which was the episcopal see for the Kingdom of Northumberland. His job was the care of souls as well as the management of the monastery on Holy Island. He oversaw the introduction of the Rule of St Benedict on Lindisfarne. His life of contemplation remained wedded to a life of service and action.

Even later, St Cuthbert became a hermit on an island called Inner Farne and had little desire to spend time with anybody but the local birds and Jesus. The hermit’s life is meant to be a life of single-minded devotion to Jesus and cultivation hesychia, or peacefulness/stillness. People still brought their problems to him, though.

St Cuthbert is Northumbria’s biggest hit. He was so popular that, when local unrest and a few Viking raids made the monks leave Lindisfarne, they brought St Cuthbert (and King St Oswald’s head) with them, eventually depositing him in their new cathedral on the rocky peninsula that is Durham. Lots of miracles of one sort or another are attributed to his relics and to visions of him and suchlike.

In 1104, the tomb was opened and a very laborious inventory made, described by Symeon of Durham — including St Cuthbert’s undecayed body.

Anyway, for us today, we should consider this dual life of St Cuthbert — the preaching and praying. The contemplation and action. The monasticism and mission. The evangelism and eremetism. I believe that this sort of radical commitment to the love of God through prayer and meditation, coupled with love to neighbour through preaching and acts of mercy, is what will fuel the new evangelisation of Europe.

Not choral evensong. Not the latest light show on the stage. Not ‘relevant’ sermons. Not making church feel less ‘churchy’. Not more gospel tracts. Not better gospel tracts. Not contemporary Christian music. Not organ concerts. Not serving fairtrade coffee after church.

Contemplation and mission.

*Actually, in terms of straightforward proximity, I am closer to Cuthbert than Bede, but because one enters Durham Cathedral from the back, and Bede is buried near the narthex but Cuthbert in the amubulatory, Bede is closer in terms of walking distance.

**We know very little because, although they loved writing almost as soon as they converted to Christianity, Anglo-Saxons did not love writing about their pagan past. And, since the Old Norse Eddic poetry and sagas are about as far in time from St Cuthbert as St Cuthbert is from Jesus, they are actually less helpful than you’d think.

Blogging Benedict: Humility vs Arrogance

Chapter 57 of the Rule says:

But if one of them [the craftsmen] becomes arrogant because he is skilled at his craft, believing that he is benefiting the monastery, he should be removed from that craft and not allowed to resume it until he has shown humility and the abbot tells him he can. (trans. White)

Apply this to your own work, particularly if you are good at what you do. Remember, whatever we do/create at work, at home, in leisure, is meant to work together with everything for the good of all, and not for our own self-aggrandisement.

The suffering of the impassible God 2: Julian of Norwich

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

I have a friend who once noted that all theology is ‘practical’ theology. The communicatio idiomatum, discussed last time as that doctrine whereby everything about Jesus’ divinity can be posited about his humanity and vice versa, is not without practical, pastoral applications. One of the difficulties that the human mind has with transcendence, for example, is the fact that our finitude makes us falsely imagine that a transcendent God is inaccessible and uninterested in us, that he is, perhaps, like one of those WWI generals who sent people to the front lines without getting into the muck of it all himself.

This is not how transcendence works in classical theism, fear not. I recommend this post at Eclectic Orthodoxy to start, although you’ll find much more on the topic over there if you keep looking.

Part of the implications of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity as the man Jesus, caught up in the doctrine of communicatio idiomatum, is that we can see the full suffering and anguish of the man Jesus as happening to God the Son. God is not aloof from our suffering, in other words. He has been there. He can thus comfort all who mourn.

Julian of Norwich (c. 1395) puts it beautifully:

Thus it was that I saw our Lord Jesus languish a long time.  For the union in him of Godhead with manhood strengthened the latter to suffer for love’s sake more than the whole of mankind could suffer.  I mean, not only that he suffered more pain than they, but that the pain he endured for our salvation was more than the whole body of mankind from the beginning to the end of time could experience or imagine.  We have only to contrast the worthiness of the most high and revered king, with his shameful, scandalous, painful death: he that is the most high and most worthy was the most fully humiliated and most utterly despised.  For the fundamental thing about the passion is to consider who he is who has suffered.  I began to think about the majesty and greatness of his glorious Godhead, now united with his precious, tender body; I also remembered how we creatures loathe to suffer pain.  For just as he was the gentlest and purest of all, so too would the strength of his sufferings be greatest of all.

He suffered for the sin of every one who is to be saved: and seeing the sorrow and desolation of us all himself was made sorry through his kindness and love.  Just as our Lady grieved for his suffering, so too he grieved for her sorrow—and more, of course, since his own humanity was by its nature more worthy.  All the time he could suffer, he did suffer for us, and sorrow too.  Now that he is risen and is impassible, he still suffers with us.

By his grace I saw all this, and saw that the love which he had for our soul was so strong that he chose to suffer quite deliberately and with strong desire, enduring what he did with meekness and long-suffering.  For when a soul that is touched by grace can see it in this way, it sees indeed that the pains of Christ’s passion surpass all our pains; that is to say, all those pains which, by virtue of that passion, will be turned into supreme and eternal joys. –Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 20, trans. Clifton Wolters (London: Penguin, 1966).

I thought I would share these two passages with you yesterday and today since they came up in close succession to one another in my varied devotional readings this Lent.

May Christ comfort all who mourn today and suffer alongside you.

Happy Feast of St Gregory the Great

With my office under two minutes’ walk from the tomb of the Venerable St Bede, my mind tends towards thinking of Gregory the Great (Bishop of Rome, 590-604) as the man who sent missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons in 597. This, indeed, was one of the many ways in which St Gregory is a major figure of his day. Through the mission of Augustine and his comrades at Canterbury, the Christianisation of southern England and its Anglo-Saxon inhabitants began. Britain was reconnected much more strongly with the Mediterranean world than hitherto. Anglo-Saxon culture began to take on its great fusion and synthesis that makes it so attractive, bringing with it elements of its own Germanic origins, the Mediterranean culture of the Roman missionaries and Roman Christianity, and the Celtic culture of its own neighbours and their missionaries who would become settled more permanently in English soil in a few years.

This triple fusion is, in my opinion, eminently demonstrated in the Lindisfarne Gospels (715-720).

This alone would make St Gregory great and worthy of recognition.

My research, on the other hand, makes me turn to Gregory’s voluminous correspondence. At a conference in honour of his retirement, early medieval scholar Tom Brown (author of Gentlemen and Officers), said that the first task he was assigned as a graduate student was the study of Gregory’s correspondence. Here he found a window into the social world of the Early Middle Ages unparalleled anywhere else. Indeed, Gregory the Great has over 800 surviving letters, more than any preceding pope. The greatest corpus of papal letters before Gregory is Leo the Great with 173.

In his letters we gain access to the workings of the papal machinery, to the growth and development of canon law, to the theological issues of the day, to early Byzantine politics, to the world of Byzantine Italy and the Lombard invasions. Worth reading, indeed.

My interest in Benedict, of late, makes me think on St Gregory’s life in two further ways. One, of course, is the second of his Dialogues, our only near-contemporary life of St Benedict, upon which we rely for any details about the author of the Rule and founder of Montecassino. The other is Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule, which details the ideal bishop but could easily be applied to an abbot or parochial priest — anyone with the care of souls.

Elsewhere, Gregory shows us the union of the active and contemplative lives, drawing on ideas expounded by Julianus Pomerius a century before. He praises the usefulness of images for instructing the illiterate. He sought to reform the singing of the liturgy in Rome, whereby a Sacramentary and a style of plainchant now bear his name (even if they are not, properly speaking, his).

He is worth knowing, this (potential) last of the Latin Fathers, latest of the Four Great Doctors of the Western Church, poised between antiquity and the Middle Ages.

I don’t know where to direct you first in this exhortation, though. Perhaps Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, for those with time to read a whole book! Here’s the most ancient life of St Gregory. Enjoy.

Blogging Scholastica (the sister of Benedict)

Since I’ve been passing through several Benedictines along with the Rule, in honour of International Women’s Day, here is a selection from Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2.33, that features St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict:

GREGORY. What man is there, Peter, in this world, that is in greater favour with God than St. Paul was: who yet three times desired our Lord to be delivered from the prick of the flesh, and obtained not his petition? Concerning which point also I must needs tell you, how there was one thing which the venerable father Benedict would have done, and yet he could not.

For his sister called Scholastica, dedicated from her infancy to our Lord, used once a year to come and visit her brother. To whom the man of God went not far from the gate, to a place that did belong to the Abbey, there to give her entertainment. And she coming thither on a time according to her custom, her venerable brother with his monks went to meet her, where they spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk: and when it was almost night they supped together, and as they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, and darkness came on, the holy Nun his sister entreated him to stay there all night, that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven. But by no persuasion would he agree unto that, saying that he might not by any means tarry all night out of his Abbey.

At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The Nun, receiving this denial of her brother, joining her hands together, laid them upon the table: and so, bowing down her head upon them, she made her prayers to almighty God: and lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their head out of door: for the holy Nun, |95 resting her head upon her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears upon the table, that she drew the clear air to a watery sky, so that after the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed: and her prayer and the rain did so meet together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began, so that in one and the very same instant, she lifted up her head and brought down the rain. The man of God, seeing that he could not by reason of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return back to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain of his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?” to whom she answered: “I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me, I have desired our good Lord, and he hath vouchsafed to grant my petition: wherefore if you can now depart, in God’s name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone.”

But the good father, being not able to go forth, tarried there against his will, where willingly before he would not stay. And so by that means they watched all night, and with spiritual and heavenly talk did mutually comfort one another: and therefore by this we see, as I said before, that he would have had that thing, which yet he could not: for if we respect the venerable man’s mind, no question but he would have had the same fair weather to have continued as it was, when he set forth, but he found that a miracle did prevent his desire, which, by the power of almighty God, a woman’s prayers had wrought. And it is not a thing to be marvelled at, that a woman which of long time had not seen her brother, might do more at that time than he could, seeing, according to the saying of St. John, God is charity and therefore of right she did more which loved more.

PETER. I confess that I am wonderfully pleased with that which you tell me.

-Translation as at