Quick review of Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism

The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of LifeThe World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life by Gert Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a comprehensive, technical yet readable, survey of 1000 years of monastic history, arranged broadly chronologically. Melville introduces and assesses the different forms of religious from the late antique Desert Fathers and Mothers to the varied communities of mendicants and hermits of the later Middle Ages.

As the book progresses, the focus becomes increasingly on the structural systems of the orders, from the first limping towards an order by Cluny, to the first real order of the Cistercians, to the complex systems created by the Dominicans. This aspect of the story is not always highlighted well, but Melville brings it out and discusses why certain types of structure proved more successful as well as considering how institutions evolved over the centuries.

The primary goal of all of these forms of religious life was a total commitment to Christ and a full abandonment to living by the Gospel, whether we are thinking of a hermit alone in the wilderness, a Benedictine with his brothers in a dormitory, a Franciscan preaching in a market, or a Dominican teaching in a university.

How they represented challenges and opportunities to those in positions of power — secular nobles, bishops, popes — is also a part of this story, and Melville carefully brings this to the fore, helping dismantle along the way some ideas that ‘secular interference’ was necessarily detrimental to the achievement of a community’s original goal. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.

Moreover, Melville refers to the primary and secondary literature throughout. Since this is translated out of German, the secondary lit is often German, so that will not be helpful to the non-German-reading reader, but the primary sources are also often referred both to the Latin and to an available English translation.

My own disappoints are small and do not detract from the qualilty of the book — eastern monasticism disappears in the High Middle Ages. Some of my favourite figures — Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich, for example — do not appear. But the focus of the book is mostly western, as one has come to expect, and not every interesting person from the history of monasticism could expect to be covered.

If you want to get your mind around the history of monasticism and situate the various strands, this book is for you. And if you are a Christian, you will find your own commitment to Christ and the ways you live that commitment challenged along the way — and that’s a good thing at any time.

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Lectio Divina update

Last night I had the opportunity to lead my small group from church in a little discussion of lectio divina followed by a guided time of meditation on John 6:35-37, as mentioned here.

I started with asking whether any of them had heard of lectio divina before Sunday’s sermon, and if they had any engagement with any other Christian meditative practices. Turns out that this is not the first time that our minister has talked about lectio divina, and that he had even led all the small groups in lectio divina himself once.

But none of us was a regular practitioner of the discipline — and the whole point of our minister bringing it up on Sunday and having it our focus on Thursday was to help us get into this way of reading the Bible.

I then talked a bit about the practice and its goals, noting that although we often associate it with monks, the practice of praying through Scripture as described by Martin Luther is basically the same thing (Tim Keller discusses this in his book Prayer). That is: meditative and prayerful reading of Scripture with an openness to the movement of the Spirit is for all Christians.

I then had to give my little ecclesiastical historian spiel about the practice and how we actually have very few details on method before, say, Guigo II around 1180, but that what we’re doing is in the same spirit as people like St Augustine or St John Chrysostom or St Anselm, even if the exact details may not match up.

Finally, before leading the actual meditation, I shared the following foundational principles for lectio divina laid out by David Foster in Reading with God:

  • Scripture is the inspired Word of God
  • Jesus is the key to the meaning of the scriptures, as of all existence
  • The Word of God is alive because of the power of the Holy Spirit speaking to the community of the faithful
  • The word also addressed personally to each of Jesus’ disciples
  • Scripture brings us into fellowship with God and with all other Christians ‘who gather round Jesus and listen to his word’
  • Lectio divina draws us into an encounter with the Church and with Jesus Christ, and therefore also into the life of the Holy Trinity

And then we used the guide sent out by our minister, which he adapted from J. Linman (2010), Holy Conversation: Spirituality for Worship (p. 35). This approach has three readings as the initial read, for which ‘the usual Bible study rules apply’. Then four more for meditation, prayer, contemplation, and incarnation. We shared our insights on the passage., which is as follows (NIV):

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

We all got something out of it — insights such as the comfort that Jesus will never drive us away. There is also a personal challenge — we come to Jesus as children with great readiness, but somehow it gets harder as we get older. And the reminder that Jesus is all we need to be satisfied spiritually.

Everyone said they liked it, and we’re going to try practising lectio divina on our own using the text from Sunday and see how it goes.

And then word got back to our minister, and he wants to know if I’ll lead three monthly seminars on lectio divina soon. We’ll see if I have time…

The richness of St Anselm’s prayers

I am slowly reading The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm (in Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation), as you may have surmised. I am trying to read them as St Anselm recommends, and not simply blitz through them (as I do so much of what I read). The prayers are a lot longer than what we are used to. This is because they are not meant to be prayed through from start to finish in a single go. And they are not meant for public worship, either.

They are meant to stir up our hearts and draw us to our own prayers, enrichening our own encounter with God and providing us with fuel. St Anselm says you can start anywhere you please and use them to good effect.

St Anselm’s prayers are rich and sometimes ornate. But they help show us an internal world we may miss if we’re not careful. I mentioned this once before here, but we have a tendency to view St Anselm only as a pre-Scholastic, or even a Scholastic, perhaps as a logic-chopper, as the primus inventor of the ontological argument for God and the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Given how few people are convinced by the former and how many people are currently rejecting the latter, this view of the man and his achievements misses out so much.

Related to this is a mistaken view that ‘western’ Christianity is not mystical or poetic.

Another mistaken view is that systematic theology, the logically-defined articulation of doctrine, the application of reason to matters of the divine is inimical to the true life of the Spirit. This is something that annoys me, given that our ancient theologians who wrote theology in this way were very often ‘mystics’ or ‘contemplatives’ as well — St Augustine (as I’ve blogged), St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and others! And many ‘mystics’ embraced the catholic Church’s articulations of doctrine, such as Richard Rolle, St Bernard, William of St-Thierry, St Hildegard, St Thomas of Kempen, St Catherine of Siena, St Francis of Assisi.

Anyway, these are the prayers of a soul that clearly had a rich love for and encounter with God. St Anselm seems to have to use his whole life for God — thus, the rational part of him writes the logic and theology, the affective part of his soul writes these prayers, and his moral self seeks to live rightly in the midst of the Investiture Controversy.

I encourage you to use these prayers yourself so that your own prayers can be kindled to a greater love for God.

Here’s some St Anselm to close us off:

Most merciful Lord,
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends towards this —
that by remembering and meditating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.

-The Prayer to Christ (trans. Ward, p. 94)

Alcuin on the Psalms

A quote from Alcuin of York (735-804) that reminds me a bit of St Athanasius:

If you come to the psalms with a serious mind, and look with the spirit of understanding, you will find there the word of the Lord incarnate, suffering, risen, and ascended . . . you will find every virtue in the psalms, if you deserve to find the mercy of God in revealing to you their secrets.

Hrabanus Maurus (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right). Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, saec. IX 2/4)

Some books from 2018

In 2018, I finished 56 books. Those that were either my chosen spiritual/theological/devotional reading or ended up having some such impact are:

  • Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite
  • Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth
  • Modern Orthodox Thinkers from the Philokalia to the Present by Andrew Louth
  • Robert Grosseteste by R W Southern
  • The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters
  • The Philokalia, vol. 1, trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware
  • Five Books on Consideration, by St Bernard of Clairvaux
  • The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite trans. John Parker
  • On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian trans. Kenneth P Wesche
  • Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 2, part 1, by Aloys Grillmeier
  • With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray
  • A World Transformed by Lisa Deam
  • Money, Sex and Power by Richard Foster
  • A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love by Alan Jacobs
  • My friend’s book about John Chrysostom
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Dayspring MacLeod
  • The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville
  • On the Thirty-nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity by Oliver O’Donovan

Some of these I read for work, but when work involves reading theology and the history of theology, one’s own thinking cannot remain unchallenged. Some of these will be re-read; many have lessons that need to be applied to my life.

The most ‘normal’ book I read, it seems, was Richard Foster, Money, Sex and Power. I am currently working through St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations. Maybe next I’ll read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren — hop on the bandwagon late (as usual); I got it free and exclaimed, ‘Hey, a Brian McLaren book from before he was a heretic!’

More St Anselm

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

This past week in Bible study, our minister arranged a sort of potpourri study. We studied two short Scripture passages and, unexpectedly, a prayer of St Anselm (another of which I blogged a couple of weeks ago)!

Lord, because you have made me,
I owe you the whole of my love;
because you have redeemed me,
I owe you the whole of myself;
because you have promised so much,
I owe you my whole being.

Moreover, I owe you as much more love than myself as you are greater than I,*
for whom you gave yourself
and to whom you promised yourself.
I pray you, Lord,
make me taste by love what I taste by knowledge;
let me know by love what I know by understanding.

I owe you more than my whole self,
but I have no more,
and by myself I cannot render the whole of it to you.
Draw me to you, Lord, in the fullness of your love.
I am wholly yours by creation;
make me all yours, too, in love.

This comes from Meditation 3, ‘On Human Redemption’. Thematically, it is linked to the previous Anselmian prayer — that we are called to love God with a most superexcellent love, but our love for him is paltry.

I like the close of the third section as printed here, ‘Let me taste by love what I taste by knowledge; let me know by love what I know by understanding.’ The Latin is elegant:

Fac precor, domine, me gustare per amorem quod gusto per me reddere totum. Sentiam per affectum quod sentio per intellectum. (ed. Schmitt, vol. 3, p. 91)

St Anselm is, of course, famous for the motto, ‘Fides quaerens intellectum’, faith seeking understanding, adapted from St Augustine (as I’ve blogged on before). Here we see it turned a bit on its head — he is seeking the union of the mind with the heart. For those of us who study theology, whether professionally or personally, these lines are of vital importance for our spiritual health, I’d think.

One of my favourite prayers (from St Anselm)

At the back of my Book of Common Prayer I have this Post-It note:

It says, for those with difficulty reading text of images:

Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (trans. Benedicta Ward from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm)

I cannot tell you where in St Anselm’s prayers and meditations this is to be found. I found it originally for Evensong one year when I was precenting and it was the feast of this Archbishop of Canterbury (although he wrote this when still a monk at Bec).

Nevertheless, it has been a go-to prayer of mine ever since, and I am glad that I stuck this Post-It in the back of my prayer book — the expectation was a single use, but grace decided otherwise. I hope it can similarly inspire you.

Do you have any favourite prayers? I’m thinking of sharing some others here over the coming weeks.