Blogging Benedict: The Rule and the Bible

An immediate concern of many Protestants when they meet a text such as the Rule of St Benedict will undoubtedly be, ‘What about the Bible?’ First, as I observed in my post on the Rule of St Benedict’s last chapter, St Benedict does not believe that his little rule for beginners is the be-all and end-all of the Christian life, nor even the first or best place to look for instruction. He upholds, first and foremost, the Bible.

In fact, the Rule is saturated with the Scriptures. Benedict quotes the Bible on almost every page. Many of the rules governing the life of his monks are based directly on biblical precepts or principles. Some paragraphs include whole chains of biblical citations. Benedict is using the Bible throughout the Rule; it informs him at almost every turn.

Not only this, but he continually recommends reading the Bible and integrates it into monastic life. If you want to learn holiness, St Benedict will tell you to read your Bible. From what I can tell, the Bible is the main book read by Benedictines (and other sixth-century monks) during times of lectio. They are spending hours of every day reading and thinking about Scripture.

This emphasis on Scripture and it study will pervade the history of Benedictine monasticism in its various forms. Looking at the hand-list of Durham Cathedral Priory’s manuscripts (it is not a complete description of each manuscript’s contents so there are likely some commentaries I’ve missed), we find at least 69 manuscripts containing parts of the Bible; many of these are glossed, and an entire pandect Bible from the Middle Ages is rare; the Bible is huge when written by hand on parchment, even in minuscule hands. I also identify 33 manuscripts of commentaries and Bible reading aids; more are undoubtedly there, since I see many famous Bible commentators in the list, but I don’t have time to hunt them down.

From another approach, consider a few Benedictine types. The Venerable St Bede (672-735) is well-known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but most of his life was devoted to writing commentaries on the Bible. In the generation after Bede, Alcuin (735-804), besides working on correcting the biblical text of the Vulgate, wrote on Song of Songs and Genesis. Hrabanus Maurus (780-856) also wrote commentaries on the Bible. Or consider St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the famous Cistercian father — one of his most popular and famous works is a commentary on the Song of Songs. William of St Thierry wrote commentaries and aids to biblical interpretation.

Moreover, if you read the works of the Benedictine tradition that are not Bible commentaries, they demonstrate a strong familiarity with the Bible and are informed by biblical theology at every turn.

Besides these approaches to Scripture, Benedictines sing Psalms and have multiple Bible readings at each of the seven offices. The monastic life of the Rule is saturated in Scripture as a result. Indeed, I’ve always thought it grimly funny that in the Scottish Reformation, the Tironensians (a reforming order like Cistercians) of Arbroath were allowed to live out their last days in peace at the abbey so long as they didn’t sing the office! The office is approximately 90% Scripture if not more. The strict office of the Rule is one of the most Presbyterian things in the Middle Ages — a cappella Psalms, after all!!

So, fear not. One of the first pieces of wisdom to take from the Rule of St Benedict is: Read the Bible. Mark the Bible. Inwardly digest the Bible. Meditate on Scripture, pray Scripture, study Scripture. If you want to know the path to holiness, read Scripture.

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Monks and the goal of reading in the 6th century

I am reading Pierre Riché, Edcuation and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries. Of relevance to my ongoing posts about the Rule of St Benedict is his discussion of reading. First of all, Riché establishes that there was a common Latin Mediterranean monasticism and monastic culture in the sixth century. Then he discusses what monastic education would look like. It is all focussed on what St Benedict calls the ‘school for the Lord’s service‘ — education in asceticism. To that end, they have the Bible and the Fathers and the lives of saints read aloud to them, and they spend time reading these same texts. Not for intellectual growth nor even for understanding as we would think it:

To what end did frequent reading of the Bible and the other texts we have cited lead? Historians have taken quite different and even opposing positions on this subject, especially insofar as the beginnings of Benedictine monasticism are concerned. According to some, monks read the Bible without ever truly appreciating its meaning. Others claim that the monks abandoned themselves to learned study and portray Benedict as the ‘initiator of Biblical studies in the West.’

We have only the texts with which to settle this debate — in particular, the regulae, which speak of lectio, especially of lectio divina and meditatio. But what do these terms mean? The intellectual vocabulary of the period was quite rich but rather imprecise. For example, meditatio, which for the Church Fathers often meant ‘prayer,’ [cites Jerome and Cassian] in the rules meant ‘study,’ especially ‘preparatory study.’ Meditari litterasmeditari psalmos meant to learn to read and to learn the Psalter by reading it aloud in order to become thoroughly familiar with it. [Benedict, Rule of the Master, Cassiodorus] Meditari was also synonymous with legere, which ordinarily meant ‘to read’; but when Benedict spoke of the lectio divina, did he not mean something more than simply reading? Lectio, for the grammarians, was the beginning of interpretation. ‘To read’ the Bible, then, could mean to study it intensively under the direction of the abbot. Was the abbot to explicate the hidden meaning of the Scriptures to the monks and to be, as was said of Achivus of Agaune, an ‘interpretator insignis?’ All that is certain is that the abbot was primarily charged with directing the spiritual and moral life of the monks. He was more a ‘physician for the soul’ than a teacher; a passage in the Regula Magistri portrays him curing an ‘illness’ with words and appropriate readings. I see no place for the establishment of ‘Christian learning’ as Saint Augustine understood it in the ascetic climate described by the regulae.

According to Cassian, who borrowed the thought from Evagrius Ponticus, purity of heart was preferable when learning when it came to delving into the meaning of Scripture. The cenobites of Gaul and Italy remained true to this advice. Caesarius said that humility, obedience, and charity were the primary conditions necessary for lectio and oratio, while Benedict, like Cassian, insisted on ‘puritas cordis.’ Cenobites, beginners in the art of asceticism,[Benedict] were apprentices under the direction of their abbot. Their final goal was real meditatio, the contemplation of God.[Cassian] Legere and meditari mean more ‘to taste’ than ‘to understand.’

Thus the monk’s religious culture was an exclusively ascetic culture. While there is no doubt that Benedict founded an original monastic organization, he was somewhat less original in the realm of religious culture. He compares in this respect more with the Eastern cenobites than with Cassiodorus. This monastic culture, which, as we have described it, was completely opposed to profane culture, was also proposed as a model for clerics. (120-122)

A quick note: This is explicitly a discussion of sixth-century southern Gaul and Italy, not the wider monastic culture that will grow up in Benedictine monasteries and which is described and studied by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

‘Let … a two-edged sword be in their hands’ (Ps. 149:6)

Every day at Lauds in the Benedictine tradition, you pray Psalms 148-150; these Psalms, in fact, give this office its name of Laudes. These Psalms begin ‘Alleluia!’ and are filled with exhortations to praise the Lord — Laudate dominum in Latin.

In the midst of the praise, at Psalm 149:6, we meet this:

Let the praises of God be in their mouth, / and a two-edged sword in their hands;

For some reason, this image always sticks in me. Maybe it’s the rhythm of Coverdale’s verse. Arresting as it is, it’s not exactly the sort of thing Christians today are comfortable with, especially when we read that the sword is for vengeance. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mainline liberal Psalters have quietly expunged it along with the end of Psalm 137 (like Canada’s BCP).

Now, I haven’t checked any of the Fathers or medieval exegetes on this, but — what do we think that two-edged sword is?

The patristic and, therefore, medieval principles of interpreting the Bible are that the Bible is always right. The Bible interprets itself. The Bible is always about Christ and/or His mystical body, the Church. The literal sense is never to be ignored, but we are called to dig deeper through allegory, typology, etc. And, which should be common to all Christian reading of Scripture: Jesus trumps all.

Attempting, then, to think like the Fathers, we should admit that executing vengeance is something many of them would be uncomfortable with. Are there clues in the verse as to what it means for Christians today? Unlike a modern(ist) reading, this verse cannot be left as a historical relic. It speaks today, to our situation.

Well, where else do we see a two-edged sword in Scripture? Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This immediately draws us to Ephesians 6:17, in the discussion of the full armour of God, where the Sword of Spirit is the Word of God. What we don’t always think on is Ephesians 6:18, which is what we are to do whilst wearing this armour:

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints

We’ll come back to this.

Revelation has a few relevant sword references:

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Rev. 1:16)

Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Rev. 2:16)

And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations (Rev. 19:15)

And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:21)

The Revelation verses are all about the two-edged sword coming out of the mouth of the visionary Christ, the Rider on the White Horse. It is not insignificant that the sword comes from his mouth — Christ is God the Word, after all. And our Ephesians and Hebrews verses refer to the word of God — in this case presumably Scripture — as being a sword.

What, then, is the two-edged sword of Psalm 149:6? It is the Word of God, being wielded by God’s people in battle against the Enemy — not men, but the world, the flesh, and the devil.

St Antony at prayer

And when do we take up this two-edged sword? According to Ephesians 6:18, in prayer. The battle for man’s soul (the Psychomachia) occurs on our knees. Do not forget Saint Antony (fourth-century) when he was confronted with all the denizens of Hell. He proclaimed Psalm 27:3:

Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear

John Cassian (d. c. 435) recommends saying over and over again Psalm 70:1:

O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.

Let us, then, take up this two-edged sword in our hands, and get on our knees and fight.

Blogging Benedict: Tools for good works (chapter 4)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 4 of The Rule of St Benedict (RB) is about the ‘tools for good works.’ We have already set aside concerns about legalism, so hopefully we can read Benedict for wisdom about discipline — about being disciples, students, in the Lord’s service, and seeing these tools as the means by which we grow spiritually and become truly virtuous. Much of this chapter is simply a catalogue of commands, some moral, some more ascetic/disciplined.

A few for reflection, then.

“put a high value in fasting.” (p. 16 — page references to the Little Black Penguin translation by Carolinne M. White)

In the churches I have attended, the only two disciplines regularly discussed are read your Bible and pray every day. They are probably the two most central. The ancient ascetics always bind in this third — fasting. And, indeed, our Lord fasted. John the Baptist fasted. St Paul fasted. Esther fasted. Fasting has been an integral part of Christian discipline, east and west, Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the whole history of the Church. Well, until recently. Not being a historian of the modern church, I don’t know when the change occurred. But I know that it was practised and advocated during the Reformation and by such figures as William Law and John Wesley.

In our food-obsessed culture (see my post on gluttony), fasting can be truly counter-cultural. It can also challenge us to re-think our priorities. As Benedict says in this chapter:

“Do not be guided in your actions by the values of this world, and do not value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” (pp. 16-17)

That, of course, includes fasting. Fasting, recall, is a tool, not an end in itself. To use these tools wisely, we need discretion, we need purity of heart, we need to cultivate what Hesychios the Priest (fifth-century) calls ‘watchfulness’ in The Philokalia. RB:

“As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ.” (17-18)

This not only draws my thoughts to St Hesychios but to St John Cassian as well, whose allegorical reading of Psalm 137, which advocates infanticide, I have blogged about. Twice, in fact. Cassian’s reading says that the Babylonian children are to be considered our vices; C. S. Lewis gives the same reading in Reflections on the Psalms.

Watchfulness as advocated by the ancients is almost impossible. How can we actually pay attention to every single thought we’re having? Thinking about thinking is really weird, isn’t it? In this regard, one non-Benedictine discipline that may help is the Examen, a Jesuit practice whereby you prayerfully go through the day and examine your heart. Where was God? Where did you sin? I’ve not read extensively on this discipline; Richard Foster treats it in his book Prayer.

When Benedict closes his discussion of these moral and ascetic tools, he writes:

“These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. … The workshop where we diligently work at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery, in the stability of the community.” (p. 19)

We see here some truly Benedictine ideals, particularly stability and community. Too many of us — myself often included — try to go it alone. No wonder we fail. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’ (Gen. 2:18) And when things get tough in one circumstance or community, we often leave, rather than wonder if the problem includes ourselves. You will never be able to outrun your own sweat.

Philo on Psalm 23

I am reading the chapter on Philo in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, so it warmed my heart during devotions with my wife last night to see the Middle Platonist, Alexandrian Jewish exegete in the Mosaic Holy Bible readings for Easter, Week 4 — with the BCP readings, 1 Pet. 2:19-26 and John 10:1-30, and, of course, Psalm 23. I hope you enjoy his words as much as I do. Philo says:

Indeed, so good a thing is shepherding that it is justly ascribed not to kings only and wise men and perfectly cleansed souls but also to God the All-Sovereign. The authority for this ascription is not any ordinary one but a prophet, whom we do well to trust. This is the way in which the Psalmist speaks: “The Lord shepherds me and nothing shall be lacking to me” (Ps. xxiii, 1). It well befits every lover of God to rehearse this Psalm. But for the Universe it is a still more fitting theme. For land and water and air and fire, and all plants and animals which are in these, whether mortal or divine, yea and the sky, and the circuits of sun and moon, and the revolutions and rhythmic movements of the other heavenly bodies, are like some flock under the hand of God its King and Shepherd. This hallowed flock He leads in accordance with right and law, setting over it His true Word and Firstborn Son Who shall take upon Him its government like some viceroy of a great king; for it is said in a certain place: “Behold I AM, I send My Angel before thy face to guard thee in the way” (Exod. xxiii. 20). Let therefore even the whole universe, that greatest and most perfect flock of the God who IS, say, “The Lord shepherds me, and nothing shall fail me.” Let each individual person too utter this same cry, not with the voice that glides forth over tongue and lips, not reaching beyond a short space of air, but with the voice of the understanding that has wide scope and lays hold on the ends of the universe. For it cannot be that there should be any lack of a fitting portion, when God rules, whose wont it is to bestow good in fullness and perfection on all that is.

XIII. Magnificent is the call to holiness sounded by the psalm just quoted; for the man is poor and incomplete in very deed, who, while seeming to have all things else, chafes at the sovereignty of One; whereas the soul that is shepherded of God, having the one and only thing on which all depend, is naturally exempt from want of other things, for it worships no blind wealth, but a wealth that sees and that with vision surpassingly keen.-De Agricultura or ‘On Husbandry’ 50-54, Loeb translation by F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker

Loving the Book of Common Prayer 4: Beauty

Baskerville_titleOne of the (chief) reasons many people love The Book of Common Prayer is the beauty of its language (I have already blogged about catholicity, ‘Protestantism’, and theology). This past Thursday, this beauty was in full force at the evening Eucharist at my local Anglican church, as the clergyman’s rich voice read out Cranmer’s Preface for Whitsuntide (as in 1662; very different text in Canada’s 1962 BCP!):

THROUGH Jesus Christ our Lord; according to whose most true promise, the Holy Ghost came down as at this time from heaven with a sudden great sound, as it had been a mighty wind in the likeness of fiery tongues, lighting upon the Apostles, to teach them, and to lead them to all truth; giving them both the gift of divers languages, and also boldness with fervent zeal constantly to preach the Gospel unto all nations; whereby we have been brought out of darkness and error into the clear light and true knowledge of thee, and of thy Son Jesus Christ. Therefore with Angels, &c.

Beauty and theology! It is beautiful, catholic, and deeply theological. This preface encapsulates all that is best in the Prayer Book, I think.

I first found myself truly entering into the Prayer Book in Lent 2004. My Lenten observance that year was the praying of Compline every night before bed. Compline is not one of Cranmer’s or 1662’s offices, but it is in the Canadian BCP on page 722. I do not actually know where the service originated; I imagine it is Victorian.

Whatever the origins of this service of Compline, it is written with the same beauty of language as Cranmer/1662. The traditional Compline hymn, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, is presented in J. M. Neale’s translation:

Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world we pray
That with thy wonted favour thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
From nightly fears and fantasies;
Tread under foot our ghostly foe,
That no pollution we may know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
Through Jesus Christ, thine Only Son;
Who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
Doth live and reign eternally.

This is a wonderful, rhythmic Englishing of the hymn, and it is eminently memorisable — my wife and I often pray it aloud before going to sleep. One aspect of the sort of beauty found in the BCP and other, older English texts designed to be read aloud is their attention to the cadence and rhythm of the English language. This makes memorisation easier.

Now, I don’t want this series on the BCP to simply become a clash of liturgies. Other liturgies have their glories and their place. I am especially fond of the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great, myself, and I’ve blogged here before about some of the Late Antique and Early Medieval offerings that have touched me.

Nonetheless, if we are drawn to the beauty of the Prayer Book, this is because said beauty is often what other liturgical books lack. A few years after Neale’s ‘Before the ending of the day’ was embedded in my heart, I was browsing a Roman Catholic book shop, and I picked up a book of hours, flipping to Compline. What I found … oh! the horror! I do not now recall which book it was, but given that Neale is public domain, they should have stuck with the Anglicans in Englishing the Breviary. If not this actual translation, it was similar to the one in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

Before we reach the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
That in your mercy you will keep
A guard around us while we sleep.

As we to end of life draw near,
Console us Lord, remove our fear,
May we with light and grace be blessed
And find in you eternal rest.

Most loving Father, hear our plea!
You rule the world with equity,
Together with your only Son,
And with your Spirit, three in one.

I’m not saying this is bad. It’s just not as good, largely on aesthetic grounds, although the content of the two is remarkably different.

In a world stripped of beauty, where the natural world is turned into a moonscape in search for oil, where contemporary architecture is vapid and utilitarian and ugly, where people graffiti (and non-artistically!) all the time, where Naples is falling apart before your eyes, where unbeautiful and ugly and painful things occur — cancer, terrorism, earthquakes — beauty is an imperative.

Beauty is redemptive, even.

Christ came that we might have life, and life abundantly. (John 10:10) Beauty is abundant living. It is a reflection of the Creator Who is Himself Beauty in all His glorious Oneinthreeness.

And remember, ‘Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.’ (Psalm 96:9 BCP [Coverdale] & KJV)

Pentecost: ‘A fire goes before Him and burns up all his enemies’

The destructive force of fire at Fort McMurray

On Sunday, the minister preached about fire, about the Holy Spirit as fire, recalling some of the famous biblical images of fire, such as Elijah’s chariot of fire (2 Kings 2), the fire burning in the hearts of the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35),  and the ‘fire’ of love that the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts. I do not dispute any of what was said, nor its significance. Nonetheless, I was drawn to fire of a different sort.

When I was a teenager, the song ‘The Lord Reigns‘ by Bob Fitts was very popular amongst youth in the Anglican Diocese of Calgary. One of the verses runs:

A fire goes before him
And burns up all His enemies
The hills they melt like wax at the presence of the Lord

If we think on the Psalms that inspired that song, such as Psalm 97, the allegorical reading of the Psalms as described by John Cassian (d. 430s; see my posts Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2) allows us, as Christians, to consider the enemies in question as not human but spiritual (like the Babylonian babies in Psalm 137:9) — sins, vices, demons. The enemies that the Lord’s fire consumes are within us; in the language of Cassian’s spiritual master, Evagrius of Pontus, these are logismoi; they are also the passions when disordered — but most importantly, they are sin when the logismoi and disordered passions incarnate themselves in our actions.

My thoughts were next drawn to the words of another song from my Albertan Anglican youth, by fellow Canadian Brian Doerksen, ‘Refiner’s Fire‘. I loved this song back in the 90s, and I still agree with its sentiment and the cry of the charismatic heart from which it issued. In Doerksen’s words, thousands of us have prayed for God to purify our hearts, to make us holy, to cleanse us from our sin (deep within) — using the image of a refiner’s fire, to make us pure like gold and precious silver.

I can only imagine that a refiner’s fire, and the crucible that rests in it, must be very, very hot.

And painful.

One of the facts about fire that was brought forth on Sunday is its destructive force, as in the recent wildfires in northern Alberta, most notably at Fort McMurray. We have all seen images in the past few weeks of these fires in action, and now photos of the devastation are starting to come in.

Doerksen’s prayer never made me uncomfortable when I was a teenager. Often, but neither always nor everywhere, the charismatic movement has been more interested in such purification as being comforting, as the warmth you feel in moments of ecstatic contemplation. And it can be. And it is.

But not always.

My readings in the ascetic and mystical tradition as an adult have made me realise that if we wish to enter a crucible (refiner’s fire) so as to emerge as gold (pure gold), or if we want, to quote another song from the Vineyard, ‘more love, more power, more of [God] in my life’, we will struggle for it — the dross wishes to remain. Our sin, the disorder of fallen passions, and the temptations of logismoi fight back at every turn. The daily battle with temptation and long, slow progress in holiness prove this.

None of this is to say that my minister and the charismatics are wrong. Rather, it is to see the purifying flame of the Holy Spirit from a different angle. One of the Desert Fathers says that prayer is struggle to your last breath. Another says that if you are not being tempted, this is because you are already sinning. The modern Athonite mystic Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex (d. 1993) says, in His Life is Mine, that living as a Christian will always mean struggle.

Our hearts are fickle. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and destroy the Lord’s enemies in our lives; we need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and melt us and burn away the dross in our hearts. And this will hurt as the Spirit burns away our tendencies towards gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory, and pride (to cite Evagrius’ and Cassian’s Eight Deadly Thoughts/logismoi, later shifted into Seven Deadly Sins by Gregory the Great).

Truly becoming holy will require struggle as we stand guard over our hearts. The fifth-century Egyptian monk St Isaiah the Solitary writes:

I entreat you not to leave your heart unguarded, so long as you are in the body. Just as a farmer cannot feel confident about the crop growing in his fields, because he does not know what will happen to it before it is stored away in his granary, so a man should not leave his heart unguarded so long as he still has breath in his nostrils. Up to his last breath he cannot know what passion will attack him; so long as he breathes, therefore, he must not leave his heart unguarded, but should at every moment pray to God for His help and mercy. -Ch. 15 of ‘On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts’, in The Philokalia Vol. 1, p. 25, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.

It will require struggle.

But it will be Good.

This is the path to holiness and freedom, and the Holy Spirit will not only purge but warm — the Paraclete will come alongside us to comfort us. As Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) reminds us, while we need to do this work ourselves, it is precisely in the Spirit’s power that we are able to do it. Therefore, let us be of good cheer as we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit to burn up all the Lord’s enemies and purify our hearts this Pentecost season. Yes, this burning flame will hurt — but it is the pain of a doctor curing a wound. We must not let desire for comfort and a life of cheap grace stand in the way of holiness and life abundant.