Blogging Benedict: Chapter 1

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In Chapter 1 of the Rule, Benedict lays out the different kinds of monks. What wisdom might we find for today here?

First, coenobites — monks who live in community — “are the most effective kind of monks” (p. 8). St Basil, who wrote his own monastic rules, was himself opposed to hermits. How can someone who lives alone fulfil the command of Christ to love others, to serve others? As Cassian observes, if you suffer the passion of anger, how will you ever overcome it if you never spend time with people to anger you?

For us — deep community matters. It can smooth our rough edges. It provides accountability. It gives a place to live out Christian virtues, to learn from others, to grow in grace.

Second, sarabaites. These are monks, so-called, if you will. I suspect (with no research into the question to back me up) that Benedict is taking a stab at aristocrats who claim to be ascetics but live on their villas with servi to take care of their needs. These people do not labour but rather live comfortably. Such as these are also a target of Cassian’s, and an example of what happens when people try to hold them to monastic strictness is in Gregory of Tours when there is a rebellion of aristocratic nuns.

Third, gyrovagues. Jerome and Cassian both oppose these as well. These are monks who just wander around from monastery to monastery. They have no stability. What they fail to realise is that perhaps the problem with all of the communities through which they drift is themselves — they bring their own problems with them wherever they go.

For us — this is a very Protestant phenomenon. Leaving one congregation or denomination for another whenever we disagree. Drums, preaching, music, the kind of ministry they do, how nice people are to us. What if we who leave were the problem in the first place?

The spirit that inspires these is the noon-day demon of akedia, I think. We become listless, despondent, discontented with our situation, our discipline, our community. We think that a change of scenery will help. Evagrius and Cassian deal with this, as does St Anselm in a letter quoted by Eadmer in the Life of St Anselm.

Fourth, hermits. Benedict himself, if we trust Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2, spent time as a hermit before becoming a coenobite. St John Climacus also spent time as a hermit. Because of what was said above about the virtues of coenobitism, one should only become a hermit after having grown much in grace. Cistercians have no place for hermits in their constitutions, much to the consternation of Thomas Merton, who so greatly desired that grace.

A thought on hermits: They are never alone. Indeed, the cloistered monks have a hard time keeping the world out. Even monks of La Grande Chartreuse (who are a community of hermits who never speak) have written books to minister to the world (I’m thinking of Guigo II, on whom I’ve blogged here and here). In Jerome’s Life of St Hilarion, the recurring theme is that Hilarion keeps getting found out everywhere he goes, and people come for spiritual wisdom and miracles, so the hermit moves along. Jerome attributes his discovery to demons who want to disturb his solitude. I like to think the opposite — God does not give people the fruits of contemplation to hoard them but to share them (see Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule on that one).

In John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints, he tells the story of Simeon the Mountaineer, a hermit who went off into the mountainous regions of Mesopotamia (Assyria?) to be alone. There he met people who had been baptised but not catechised and who had no priests. Thus he found himself wrenched from the eremitical life into the life of active service, preaching to them and bringing them to a true faith in Jesus who saves them.

Consider Richard Rolle, a hermit who was also a spiritual adviser to some nuns and wrote several books. Or, also in the 14th century, Julian of Norwich, who received visitors at her anchorhold. And, today, Father Lazarus, the anchorite who inhabits the Inner Mountain of St Antony the Great. St Antony went there to be a hermit, and a community followed him that exists to this day. Father Lazarus lives there, alone with his demons and prayers and Nescafé, but he receives visitors and even makes videos for the Coptic Orthodox youth!

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John Cassian in The Philokalia: On the 8 Thoughts

St. Antony and St. Paul
St. Antony and St. Paul

My brother and I have been slowly working our way through The Philokalia. The last part we finished was the selections from St John Cassian. Those of you who have put up with my musings long enough know that I wrote a Master’s thesis on Cassian’s reception of Evagrius’ demonology. He’s a character I enjoy, a teacher I appreciate, a spiritual teacher who challenges me every time I read him.

There are two selections from Cassian adapted by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios in The Philokalia, one from The Institutes and the other from The Conferences. These are Cassian’s two major works, written in Latin in Gaul in the first half of the fifth century — John Cassian has the distinction of being the only Latin author represented in The Philokalia.

The climax and crowning moment of Cassian’s Institutes is a discussion of the eight vices, adapted from his never-named spiritual father, Evagrius of Pontus (‘the Solitary’) who immediately precedes him in this Athonite anthology. This is excerpted in The Philokalia. I’ve blogged about the eight thoughts before. Today I’ll briefly summarise the version in The Philokalia with some of my own thoughts.

The ‘Eight Thoughts’ (precursors to St Gregory the Great’s seven deadly sins) are: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, self-esteem, and pride.

Gluttony

Frankly — more than just overeating. I’ve talked about this once before.

Unchastity

More than just sex (an idea I’ve talked about as well). Both of these first two logismoi, or thoughts, are battled by fasting. Cassian reminds us, however, that it is more than the bodily discipline that we need:

Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil, and manual labour. (p. 75 in Palmer, Sherrard, Ware translation)

Cassian tries to get at the root of the problem — the human heart.

Amidst the advice associated with this section is, ‘It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above.’ (p. 77)

Avarice

I’ve mentioned Evagrius and avarice here before. Cassian argues that, while some passions are natural to us, avarice is, in fact, foreign to our nature, so we must do our best to keep it from taking root in our soul. I found most of his advice on avarice unhelpful to the non-monk, unfortunately.

However, there is this good passage on the passions:

Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder. (p. 78)

Anger

As you may know, I sometimes struggle with anger, and have enlisted the Desert Fathers and Evagrius in the past. Anger is considered part of our nature, and is not of itself evil. It exists to help us fight against sin, temptation, the other passions. However, it can easily cause us to go astray, even when we are angered about things that it is right be angry about — gold leaves blind the eyes just as well as lead ones (p. 83).

Dejection

This is the one where we feel discouraged and blame everyone else for our own failings. Says Cassian,

A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. (p. 87)

That idea, in fact, comes from Stoicism and is very prevalent in Seneca.

Listlessnessaccedia

This is the vice of getting a bit bored and frustrated, then dissatisfied with your own work or monastery. It is called the noon-day demon in Cassian’s Latin original. It is cured by hard work and forcing yourself to stay put.

Some years ago another blogger related this vice with the modern evangelical tendency to church hop. An interesting thought.

Self-esteem

This is seeking to be recognised by other people for being good at something — for monks, obviously the question is virtue. For the rest of us, no doubt it is whatever our occupation is. A job well done is not reward enough. Recognition of the self must follow.

Pride

This is the most subtle and serpentine vice of all. It can only strike you once you are holy, but is enough to drive you to the pit. This is the over-weening belief in your own holiness, an awareness of goodness — or rather, a false awareness, that leads you to believe yourself better than others.

These eight are intimately linked. And they are best fought by the cultivation of virtue. It is easier not to overeat by eating moderately than by fasting excessively. It is easier not to lust by consciously reading the Scriptures than simply trying not to lust. And so forth.

Next time, Cassian’s thoughts on discernment and the goal of the monastic life as excerpted in the next section of The Philokalia. The question is: How can we apply this to ourselves as non-monks, as laypeople?