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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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.

Blogging Benedict: Reading and suchlike

Benedictine monks are meant to be literate. Eventually, it will come to pass in the Middle Ages that such a creature as the ‘choir monk’ will exist — someone who can sing the offices in Latin but does not know Latin. But originally, in the Latin-speaking world of Late Antique Italy, it was expected that they would memorise the Psalter and offices both orally and from books, in a language that they understood. Indeed, in the language that they spoke every day.

Throughout the Rule of St Benedict, there is a lot of reading and listening to people read. When Benedict discusses the different offices within the monastery, we learn about the ‘weekly reader’ who reads at meal times (chapter 38). The rest of the monks sit in silence while the reader reads; they use sign language at the table when they need someone to do something. No moment for edification is lost for the Benedictine.

After supper, there is time to read collationes or the Lives of the Fathers — the latter probably being the Desert Fathers (chapter 42). This is not the time for reading Old Testament history, because it might excite some of younger brothers’ imaginations, and then they’ll have trouble sleeping. In the twelfth century, the books for reading at collatio at Durham Cathedral Priory were:

  • Lives of the Fathers
  • Diadema Monachorum (Crown of Monks by Smaragdus of St-Mihiel)
  • Paradise of Ephrem with Lives of the Egyptians (that is, Desert Fathers)
  • Speculum (I do not know which one)
  • Dialogues (presumably Gregory the Great’s, which are Italian saints’ lives)
  • Excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule
  • Isidore of Seville, De Summo Bono
  • Prosper On the Contemplative Life
  • The Book of Odo (of Cluny, I suspect; he wrote a work called ‘Collationes’)
  • John Cassian
  • Decem Collationes — awkwardly, this is a title of a work of Cassian’s

In chapter 48, we read about the daily round in the Benedictine monastery. The day is divided between times of work and times of reading, besides the set hours to pray the office.

Reading is called lectio divina at the start of this chapter; Carolinne White translates that phrase as ‘biblical study’. What exact process of reading, and whether it refers specifically to Scripture, is less clear than many would make you think. Pierre Riché, in Education and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries, interprets lectio divina generally to mean the study of Scripture for the end of devotion and religion, as opposed to a more scholarly or academic pursuit. What techniques or meditation on Scripture are involved is less clear at this stage. Sometimes, though, it does seem that lectio divina includes scriptural commentaries as well as Scripture itself.

In the early Middle Ages, the tendency was more towards commentaries like Bede’s that are a bit more practical and down-to-earth, or Gregory the Great’s that are more geared for monastic life than the sort of commentaries that seek to unpack thorny problems of interpretation like you’ll find amongst scholastics or that are more literary like Cassiodorus.

Every monk is given his own special book to read during Lent. In a largely oral world, the monastery becomes one of the refuges of culture — but that culture in the Early Middle Ages is almost entirely religious. These monks are not consciously ‘saving’ western culture from drowning in a sea of ‘barbarism’. They preserve great works of literature as well as rhetoricians and grammarians to better enable them to read and study the Scriptures and the Fathers as they approach God. Western culture is, at this stage, a by-product of Christian devotion. (See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.)

So, since it is Lent in a week, let’s think about orienting our reading towards God. And our eating. And our working. Everything we do should be done to the glory of God.

Blogging Benedict: Service

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In chapter 35 of the Rule, St Benedict writes:

The brothers should serve one another and no one should be excused from kitchen duty, unless he is sick or is busy with something particularly important, for by serving one another the brothers gain a greater reward and become more loving. (p. 60, trans. White)

This is, I think, something vitally important in our communal life, in homes, churches, workplaces, other communities. No one is above works of service. Service is love.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a monk who visited one of the monasteries, and they invited him to join them in their manual labour, and he remarked that he was there simply to pray. They took him to his cell and left him there. Eventually, after several hours, he grew hungry, and he was wondering when they would eat, for no one had come to get him. Growing curious, and a bit concerned, he left his cell to seek out the abbot and asked him about when supper was. The abbot remarked that they had not called him for supper, since he was so spiritual that he did not need to work with his hands, clearly he did not need to eat carnal food, either.

There is more to say about manual labour in RB later, of course. But no one is exempt from the service of others in the Rule. One of the reasons why St Basil the Great (of Caesarea) favoured communal life over hermits was because how can you fulfill Christ’s commands to love and serve each other if you are hermits?

In our communities, this means that elders, wardens, pastors, priests, deacons, deaconesses, et al., take their turns in the mundane aspects of church life. My minister in Edinburgh was often invisible in the kitchen at events. In Durham, my minister helps set up and take down equipment before and after services. Growing up, my dad (a priest) spent a lot of time at the food bank that ran out of our church unloading and distributing food.

Whether you hold an official post in the church, service, which leads to humility and is an act of love, can (and should!) be part of your Christian life. Wash dishes, cook food, take care of babies in creche, organise Sunday School storage cupboards. This all serves the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blogging Benedict: Property

Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, a Ferengi for those who don’t know what a Ferengi is

When one enters a monastery, there is an expectation to give everything up — family, career, bank account, life insurance, land, houses, cars, boats, combs, clothes, shoes. Everything. In some of the extreme forms of religious life, such as early Franciscans and related enterprises, there was even an attempt for the community as a whole to own nothing — not even the land where there housing was located.

The biblical inspiration for this is found in several places. Here are two:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Mt 19:21 ESV)

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14:33 ESV)

The first of these inspired St Antony to abandon everything and take up the ascetic life.

Yet humans, like Ferengi, have a tendency to be greedy. You would think from some of the stories of monastic life that one of the rules of the cloister was Rule of Acquisition 21: Never place friendship above profit. John Cassian tells of monks who had abandoned everything to dwell in the desert, only to come to grief and anger over a comb.

A comb.

Greed, as Rule of Acquisition 10 says, is eternal.

Benedict is aware of the Ferengi side of humanity. Thus, the cellarer (chapter 31) is to be a man of good character who does not treat the monastery’s resources as his own. There is to be no private ownership in the monastery (chapter 33), inspired by Acts 4:32:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (ESV)

In such a situation, you must trust God more than your material goods. What about the future? Isn’t it prudent to set a little aside? We all say, ‘Yes.’ The monks of old say, ‘No.’ I honestly don’t know.

What is certain is that Benedict is certainly correct to have grumbling over material goods a grave offense that leads to ‘strict discipline’ (chapter 34).

Somehow we need to discover in our own consumeristic world where we accumulate all manner of stuff how to hold these things lightly and break free from the acquisitive nature of society around us. We need to be Benedictine, not Ferengi, in our out look on material goods.