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.

Philokalic Friday: Encouragement from John of Karpathos

This season has not been the best.

This past Saturday I received a rejection letter from a two-year postdoc that was the position I most wanted this coming year. And yesterday I was rejected by a one-year postdoc that I also fervently desired. My current job ends at the close of August, so academic work is not simply a matter of building my career or living my dream but of survival for my family. This is not an easy season, Lent or not.

Lent hasn’t really been working very well, either. We were travelling the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, and I had a lecture to finish preparing and then to deliver that evening, so I missed any Ash Wednesday service. Besides the Lent Book Poll resulting in finishing off The Philokalia, Vol. 1, as my Lenten reading, I didn’t really pray or think about a discipline or abstinence of any sort. So I’ve felt a bit off to begin with.

This reading of The Philokalia has brought me to John of Karpathos’ writings encouraging monks in ‘India’ (apparently actually Ethiopia) who wanted to throw in the towel. So:

The demons try to undermine your inward resolution by buffeting your souls with an untold variety of temptations. Yet out of these many tribulations a garland is woven for you; Christ’s power ‘comes to its fulness in us in our weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). It is usually when our situation is most gloomy that the grace of the Spirit flowers within us. ‘Light has shone in darkness for the righteous’ (Ps. 112:4 LXX) — if, that is, we hold fast to our confidence and the rejoicing of our hope firmly to the end (Heb. 3:6). (Ch. 19)

When you are being tested by trials and temptations, you cannot avoid feeling dejected. But those who till the hearth of hardship and tribulation in their hearts are afterwards filled with great joy, tears of consolation and holy thoughts. (Ch. 30)

Whatever you’re facing, may you have strength to carry on today.

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 1: St Gregory of Nazianzus

Council of Chalcedon

One of the beautiful doctrines of the ancient church is the communicatio idiomatum, the teaching that everything about Christ’s divinity can be stated about his humanity and vice versa. It leads to startling statements like, ‘One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us!’ Philosophically, it is a means of maintaining the unity of Christ in light of the fullness of his humanity and the fullness of his divinity.

The doctrine is important because of the fact that Jesus is affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as possessing two natures but in a single person. This language of two natures is a fifth-century development, and it took a couple of centuries until St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) fleshed it out beautifully and magnificently after St Leo the Great’s use of such language in 448 had already rent the fabric of the church in two.

Nevertheless, there are hints of Leo’s insight already in the late fourth century. Thus St Gregory of Nazianzus (320-390):

Everything glorious in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His Deity, that nature in Him which is non-physical, far above sufferings; everything lowly in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His condition as the God who took our nature upon Him, humbling Himself for your sakes and was incarnate (we may as well sake ‘became Man’), and afterwards was glorified. (Third Theological Oration, 17, trans. Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers, 12 March)

St Gregory, however, is a bit subtler than Leo’s Tome. St Leo straightforwardly says that the humanity suffered, the divinity wrought miracles. St Gregory, on the other hand, posits everything about the humanity still to the divinity — in His incarnation as a human. And remember, St Gregory of Nazianzus is he who wrote, ‘What has not been assumed has not been saved,’ demonstrating that he believes in the fullness of Christ’s humanity.

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.

Philokalic Friday: St Diadochos of Photiki and the Name of Jesus

I am around seven pages from completing the next text in The Philokalia, Vol. 1: Diadochos of Photiki, ‘On Spiritual Knowledge’. Diadochos, a strong supporter of Chalcedon against its Mia/Monophysite opponents, died in the year 486 and was known to both Julianus Pomerius (d. 499×505) who wrote On the Contemplative Life and was spiritual father to Caesarius of Arles, and Victor of Vita, author of The History of the Vandal Persecutions.

Diadochos is usually mentioned as one of the earliest writers on the Jesus Prayer (a prayer that I practise and which features on this blog at times as a result). The prayer of that name we usually mention is, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ It contains all of theology. It is named in The Philokalia first by St Hesychios the Priest (7th or 8th c.); another early Philokalic writer who mentions it (but not in The Philokalia) is St Neilos, with whom we spent last week and the week before.

Anyway, unless the Jesus Prayer as known turns up in the next seven pages, Diadochos does not mention it. He is, rather, an advocate of the Holy Name of Jesus — or, to cite a splendid booklet by Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name. Of course, as a teacher of hesychia and the spirituality associated with The Philokalia and the Jesus Prayer, St Diadochos certainly belongs here. Chapter 7 of ‘On Spiritual Knowledge’:

Spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness and complete detachment, while wisdom comes through humble meditation on Holy Scripture and, above all, through grace given by God. (p. 255 in English)

Diadochos mentions the recollection of Jesus or the Divine Name on several occasions:

If the intellect (nous) … is remembering the Lord Jesus attentively, it easily destroys the enemy’s seductive sweetness and advances joyfully to do battle with him, armed not only with grace but also with a second weapon, the confidence gained from its own experience. (ch. 32, p. 262 English)

When we have blocked all its outlets by means of the remembrance of God, the intellect (nous) requires of us imperatively some task which will satisfy its need for activity. For the complete fulfilment of its purpose we should give it nothing but the prayer ‘Lord Jesus’. ‘No one,’ it is written, ‘can say “Lord Jesus” except in the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:3). Let the intellect continually concentrate on these words within its inner shrine with such intensity that it is not turned aside to any mental images. Those who meditate unceasingly upon this glorious and holy name in the depths of their heart can sometimes see the light of their own intellect. For when the mind is closely concentrated upon this name, then we grow fully conscious that the name is burning up all the filth which covers the surface of the soul; for it is written: ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Deut. 4:24). Then the Lord awakens in the soul a great love for His glory; for when the intellect with fervour of heart maintains persistently its remembrance of the precious name, then that name implants in us a constant love for its goodness, since there is nothing now that stands in the way. This is the pearl of great price which a man can acquire by selling all that he has, and so experience the inexpressible joy of making it his own (cf. Matt. 13:36). (ch. 59, pp. 270-71 English)

See also chapters 61, 73, 81, 85, and 88.

I want to pause on the second of the passages above. This is not what any of us will hear on Sunday from an evangelical Protestant pulpit. I am not entirely certain that I buy all of Diadochos’ interpretation and application of Scripture here. Nonetheless, rich blessings can be found by thinking on passages such as this.

First: Jesus is the Word (logos) of God, with God from the beginning as we read in John 1 (even though there is no beginning or end with God, as St Gregory of Nazianzus reminds us). God the Word became incarnate as a person with the name of Jesus, God saves (as Matthew tells us). At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow (Phil. 2:10). Is there not a fittingness that the name, the word, that we use to denote the Word of God incarnate would have power?

Second: If we accept a sacramental worldview, as I do (as does the BCP and the 39 Articles), the grace of God can be manifest and intermediated in any number of ways to us. We don’t always like this, of course. As Chris R Armstrong argues in the introductory chapter of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, anglophone evangelicals don’t want any intermediaries ever between us and God. We want immediacy. So the idea that simply by saying, ‘Lord Jesus’, God can be mediated to us — that sticks in the throat. But — well, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hear that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

Is not, then, ‘Lord Jesus!’ as a cry, as a prayer, as a remembrance, an act of recollection, from the Holy Spirit as Diadochos argues from 1 Corinthians? And why should God not choose to honour that as a most eloquent prayer? Elsewhere in this treatise, Diadochos notes our inability pray properly, which is why the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings (Romans 8:26). So perhaps, ‘Lord Jesus!’ is all we need.

Not only this, but is this not the very Name of God Himself? Why should it be bereft of power and grace and mercy? Why should God choose to visit us in a piece of bread, a sip of wine, the water of baptism, the text of Scripture but not in His Own Name?

Third: ‘Lord Jesus’ contains within it all of Christology. Here are two words worthy of meditation! Only God is Lord, we know this from the Old Testament. The shortcut logic (if you want all the history and logic up to Chalcedon, read A. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 1, or c. 300-381, R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God), but the shortcut logic is: Jesus must be God. Jesus is also human. Jesus is the Godman. Bow down and worship.

Think on this. Meditate. Love Jesus. Pray through these words.

How could God not communicate his grace to us through these two words?