Done Blogging Benedict: What now?

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

For the past several months, after I finished Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (through which I also blogged my way), I’ve been creeping my way through the Rule of St Benedict. Next week I’ll round up all the Benedict(ine) material on this blog. For now — what now?

There are many lessons we can take away from the Rule, many of which are thrown into sharper relief when considered alongside Scripture, the Rule‘s context, other monastic literature, and later Benedictines. My own lumping mind has tended to do this. If you want those in detail, enjoy.

But, having come to the end, what should we be doing now, with this mid-sixth-century rule for beginning monks, designed in central Italy to run a school in the Lord’s service that, due to several historical events in the text’s history, became the norm for western Christian monasticism from about 800 onward?

Some main themes that emerge for us non-monastic, layfolk of the 21st century:

  • Silence. Benedictines are encouraged not to talk. In that silence they engage in:
  • Prayer. Regular, routine prayer. Sort it out. Make yourself a little prayer rule. Join us at The Witness Cloud.
  • Scripture reading. Get on that, too. Figure out a rhythm of reading and studying the Bible regularly.
  • Work — usually physical, but maybe illuminating manuscripts or whatever. Seek how to glorify God in your work.
  • Community. This, for me, is always the hardest (at least in person). Find a way to invest in your church, the other Christians around you, your family, et al. Figure out how to go deeper, how to find that tantalising, elusive spiritual friendship written of so beautifully by the great Cistercian St Aelred of Rievaulx.

These are the biggest, I think. One could add: submission to fellow believers and church authorities. That would probably revolutionise our lives in ways we can’t imagine.

What is great about these, though, is that they point us not back to Benedict or to the history of Christian monasticism and spirituality, but back to Jesus, to the Most Holy Trinity, to the Body of Christ, the church. Let us set our minds on things above. This is what Benedict envisaged. It is a message as timely now as in the year 540.

But … if you do want more ancient monks, check out Benedict’s influences, especially John Cassian, and his contemporaries, such as the Greek fathers in The Philokalia, vol. 1. Then, maybe cross the Irish Sea and rest with St Brigid. And whatever wisdom you find there to apply, take it all to Christ. Enter more deeply and richly into the mystery of his love.

This is what the great mystics, contemplatives, preachers, ascetics, and others of the rich tradition of Christian spirituality would call you to.

Prefer nothing to Christ (The Rule of St Benedict, ch. 72).

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Blogging Benedict: More on abbots

Last time, I broached the subject of choosing the abbot towards the end of my discussion of rank in the monastery. The abbot should be chosen unanimously. I know a clergyman who has only even accepted a parish when the selection committee has been unanimous in its choice of him. Wisdom there, I think.

And what sort of man should be chosen?

The one to be appointed should be chosen for his virtuous way of life and the wisdom of his teaching, even if he is the lowest in rank in the community. (ch.64; p. 101 trans. White)

The only way for someone to cultivate the character of Benedict’s abbot is lots of prayer and Scripture. These are the two things the Benedictine life is most devoted to. Hopefully, then, a potential abbot has been well-shaped! In terms of modern application, we must free up our clergy who sometimes seem to me like administrators and undertrained psychologists who preach once a week rather than priests of God and shepherds of holiness.

Once appointed:

He [the abbot] should strive to be loved rather than feared. (ch. 64, 103 English)

Indeed, if you read the lives of the early Cistercians, Stephen Harding, Aelred of Rievaulx, Bernard of Clairvaux, you will see men well-beloved by their communities.

Finally, we circle back to the universal monastic virtue of discretion (discussed by Cassian):

Taking these and other examples of discretion, the mother of all virtues, let him be moderate in all things. (ch. 64, 103 English)

Blogging Benedict: Leadership (chapters 2-3)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict is all about what sort of man the abbot should be. This is Benedict’s ideal abbot. My brother Jonathan mused a while back about what it means to be a priest (a herder of cats?), and John Cassian brought him to the idea that a priest should be like an abbot, seeking to help his congregation grow spiritually, giving them the spiritual nourishment they need as students enrolled in the school of the Lord’s service (that’s me putting a Benedictine metaphor in his mouth).

Benedict’s abbot is a spiritual father. He is called to be a man of compassion and virtue. Yes, he punishes, excommunicates, disciplines the brothers. But he also loves them and cares for them and seeks their growth in the Spirit. I think about St Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), one of the great Cistercian fathers. He was mild in his punishment of brothers who deviated, and some people criticised him for this. Yet one of the brothers he treated with clemency made a complete change and recovery, if you will, becoming a holy and devout monk because of the mercy he was shown. The one who is forgiven much will love much, as Our Lord says.

This idea draws me to the idea in Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) that canon law is a remedy. The regulations surrounding medieval ecclesiastical life and the monastic lifestyle, in an ideal sense, are meant to heal us of the disease of sin. Or, as DC Talk once put it, ‘the disease of self running through my blood, it’s a cancer fatal to my soul.’ Canons and penances are not, ideally, punitive but healing and restorative.

And they are to be applied to all equally — Benedict’s abbot does not play favourites. In fact, Aelred runs counter to Benedict here. Benedict says that you should not play favourites unless someone proves himself a better monk. Aelred, on the other hand, gets in trouble for seeming to favour his wayward monk. Yet this apparent favouritism was the right remedy. This is the value of discretion or discernment, one of the most prized monastic virtues of Late Antiquity (on which I’ve blogged here).

Of course, all this is well and good for the ideal abbot. But we know that this ideal rarely exists. Do we really want to trust the lives of so many souls to live in absolute obedience to anyone in a post-Jonestown world? This is a hard question to answer. I do think there is a way to think on the virtues of obedience in our own lives separately from how much authority we give an individual leader in our worshipping community. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Chapter 3 of the Rule makes it clear that the abbot is not meant to rule as a tyrant. Benedict writes:

Whenever any important matters need to be dealt with in the monastery, the abbot should gather the whole community together and set out the agenda in person. (p. 14 English)

The goal here is a balance between control and inclusion. The monks are included in the decision-making process, their voices are sought and heard. The abbot weighs their opinions and decides. After the decision is made, the monks must obey and not dispute with the abbot in public.

I wonder if they can respectfully dispute behind closed doors?

The concept of absolute obedience is very difficult for me to imagine…

However, what I wonder is, could there be room for a ‘Presbyterian’ monastic governance? That is, no absolute obedience to anyone. Remove the abbot and replace him with the deans. Make everyone mutually submissive to a commonly chosen rule. Decisions are made corporately and democratically by the ‘kirk session’. Or, even more radically, no monastic elders at all — monastic Quakerism? All decisions require unanimity and consensus.

My closing question, then: Do you, dear readers, know of intentional communities (besides local churches!) with either a ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Quaker’ kind of leadership structure? I’d like to hear about them.

The Cistercian World, selected and translated by Pauline Matarasso

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth CenturyThe Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century by Pauline Matarasso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my Lent reading for 2016. It is the second Penguin Classic translated by Pauline Matarasso that I’ve read, the first having been her superb The Quest of the Holy Grail. This volume is an excellent anthology in readable English of selections from some of the most important figures in the twelfth-century Cistercian movement. It moves chronologically from the founding of the abbey at Cîteaux to the close of the century.

Matarasso gives a handy introduction to the origins of the Cistercians and their move away from some of the decadence of contemporary Benedictine abbeys, especially many associated with Cluny. Cistercians sought to return to the original letter and spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. Cistercian spirituality is a spirituality based on simplicity of life, dress, manners, art, architecture. It is based upon Scripture and the Fathers, and Cistercians sought through their patristic, scriptural simplicity, to attain union with God through contemplative prayer in the midst of the opus dei, the liturgy of hours. To further assist the reader in interpretation, each text has its own introduction, and there are endnotes.

Cistercians included in this volume are Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, Amedeus of Lausanne, Aelred of Rievaulx, Isaac of Stella, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, and Adam of Perseigne, as well as an anonymous description of the abbey and selections of exemplary stories about Bernard and other early Cistercians.

These men are aware of their own finitude in the face of the transcendent God. However, equipped with love, with the Scriptures, and with the power of prayer, they set out to clarify their knowledge of the divine and enter into God’s loving embrace, encountering the bridegroom of the human soul.

Some of St Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs are included here, and they are mightily inspiring, reminding us of the different kinds of love and how we can fulfil the commands. Also inspiring for me were the Meditations of William of St Thierry, who demonstrates the heart of the contemplative. Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship is important for us to think over as we live in relationship with others—what sort of friendship is to be cultivated, and how to use friendship to attain spiritual heights.

This is the sort of book that makes you want to pray more and engage in ascetic endeavour. I am a most imperfect example of someone who fulfils that desire, however. Nonetheless, I have copied out some of the passages of the book for private meditation and hope to reread the whole anthology again someday in order to further deepen the grace God gives through his servants. Finally, I would urge anyone interested in the Christian mystical tradition to read this book and see what our forebears in the faith said, thought, and did, and also to be reminded (if you know of the eastern tradition) of the silent ecumenism that links mysticism across time and space and ecclesial boundaries.

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