St Francis – Wild at Heart

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

So, the men’s Bible study I’m part of just discussed chapter 10 of Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I’ve always been skeptical about the book, but it gets helpful at chapter 6 when Eldredge moves beyond describing what he thinks a man should be and diagnosing our wound to discussing practical strategies for living in this world. Chapter 10 is called “A Beauty to Rescue.” As a chapter with some helpful tips for married men, this was good. One of the other guys observed, however, that if he were single he’d be pretty upset at the whole thing.

Indeed, this is one of the problems I have had with Eldredge — at times, he enshrines our own cultural attitudes as “real” masculinity. As someone with very dear and close friends and family who live full, healthy, spiritual lives and who happen not to be married, I take issue with the idea that every man has a beautiful woman to fight for. The preamble to the chapter shows that Eldredge needs to work through C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love as well as sort out some ideas about ancient literature. Like, is Helen really a damsel in distress there to be rescued? Not only that, but romantic love is not the driving force of the Iliad, honour and prestige on the one hand and male friendship on the other are instead.

Nonetheless, most men fall in love with someone or something, something to die for, live for. In the Middle Ages, when the whole dominance of romantic love began to take hold in western literature, the ideal was of a woman of higher social rank than you, to whom you were not married, and who was your domina, your lady in the feudal sense. We get a lot of stories such as Lancelot being told by Guinevere to prove his love for her by purposely losing in jousts; Menelaus or Achilles would never have done such a thing.

The history of this idea is traced in the aforementioned Allegory of Love. It is called courtly love, and it was a main theme of the troubadours. Troubadours were the classy type of singer-songwriter of mediaeval France. Courtly love was a Big Deal in the 1100s. I’ve already written on this blog about how I think Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is an antidote to this idea.

Another antidote comes a few decades after Aelred in the person of St Francis of Assisi. As a young man, Francis showed himself to be your average, normal Italian young man, joining local wars and suchlike. After recovering from his wounds, Francis was overcome by the Holy Spirit and had a powerful conversion experience wherein he rejected his wealthy, middle class upbringing and decided to become a hermit.

I won’t recount the whole story of St Francis (did that already). Francis, like most people in the broad-ish category of “monastic”, was a monomaniac for God. But he still had a beauty … well, not to rescue. It’s more like she rescued him.

Lady Poverty.

(Not Clare.)

St Francis and his band of little brothers (fraticelli) called themselves jongleurs de Dieu — jesters for God. Troubadours were the classy singer-songwriters. Jongleurs were not. They were common. So it was only fitting that these young men, many of them sons of wealthy merchants, sons of nobility, who have embraced Lady Poverty, would consider themselves and their preaching not as the artsy-fartsy troubadours but as the spiritual equivalent of the ribald jongleurs.

Poverty lay at the heart of Francis’ expression of the Christian faith. A complicated, sad story about mediaeval economics and human weakness will tell you about the Franciscans after his death. But while Francis lived, the ideal was that not only would no individual Franciscan own property, neither would Franciscan communities or the order.

The term we give for these friars and their comrades, the Dominicans, is mendicant. This is a word for beggar. In a world where wealthy men grew wealthier off the backbreaking labour of their unfree dependants, where merchants grew wealthy off charging unfair interest, where people went to war for the honour of their own city, where some lived in palatial grandeur while most lived in dirty hovels — in such a world, radical poverty such as St Francis modelled was a powerful statement of freedom from the world, the flesh, and the devil, a statement of the great freedom found only in Christ.

Embracing Lady Poverty was wild.

Bromance may save your marriage

So, in light of having recently led a study on Genesis 1-3 and what it means for men (hence my post Biblical manhood?) as well as my three-part series about St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship (part 1, part 2, part 3), I thought I’d finally write a thing that’s been inchoate in my mind for a long time, drawing on them both:

Bromance may save your marriage

Genesis – What is a human?

For this to make sense, we need to think first on what it means to be human. From Gen. 1-3, we learn (amongst many other things):

  1. Humans are made in the image of God, male and female (1:26)
  2. It is not good for the man to be alone (2:18)
  3. Living by the sweat of your brow is part of the man’s curse (3:19)

God is Trinity. Among the many things it may mean for us to be made in the image of God, many people believe that being made for communion is part of that. God is Three Persons. Human communions imperfectly reflect the consubstantial Trinitarian life. Metropolitan John Zizioulas goes farther and says that all of creation, in fact, rests on communion as its foundation — see his mind-bending but beautiful book Being As Communion.

We are made for connection — this is part even of the message of 1:26, where we are made male and female together, thus reflecting the image of God as male and female, not as solitary individuals. (I got that idea from Father John Behr somewhere.)

Fallen relationships

The problem is, we live in a fallen world (hence Gen 3). In many cultures, men live out the curse of Genesis 3 by overidentifying with their work. In our culture, as an ongoing outworking of the ill-health wrought by the curse and human sinfulness, by the world, the flesh, and the devil, men tend to have superficial relationships with each other.

This is typified by “bro culture”, the fullest version of which I have never been ushered into, having an aversion to a. locker rooms and b. sports. Without a hint of caricature, drawing on Peggy Orenstein’s article in The Atlantic, The Miseducation of the American Boy, bro culture seems to be a superficial realm of existence, where men relate to each other in a series of games of oneupmanship, mocking those who show ‘sissy’ emotions, and speaking ill of women. And speaking of doing ill to women, in fact.

Many young men find that they can only open to other young women, not their bros.

I am sure the variations are legion.

Now, it is worth pausing to note a salutary aspect of late modern life, which is that many men consider their wives their best friend. This is a good thing. If you read works from even a century ago, it was clear that to many intelligent, educated men wives were interesting creatures worth loving, having around, procreating with, and so forth. But having an intellectual conversation about religion, politics, art, poetry, or anything else like that — well, that was what the club was for, right? Thankfully, not all men have always been like that, and it seems fewer are today.

Yet the problem that I see arising is that our male-to-male friendships, even if not the perversions of Orenstein’s study, are shallow. We talk sports or movies or video games or art or even politics and religion. But our deepest hearts, our fears, our loves, our true hates, our dreams in shimmering gossamer — these precious selves we hide away. Our emotions don’t come into play.

Except, perhaps, with the wife.

What ends up happening, I think, is that all of our emotional burden is laid on our wife’s shoulders. There are no male friends to help with it. She carries it all. And it is too much to bear.

Spiritual Bromance

Bromance, then, is a way forward. That is to say, find a man whom you can trust, with whom you have things in common. But instead of only talking about how excited you are that Star Trek: Picard begins to air this Thursday, or the Superbowl or whatever it is normal guys talk about, you also talk about your real life — your hopes, fears, and dreams. Your struggles.

This is like an accountability partner, but with more than just, ‘Did you do your devotions? Did you look at naughty pictures?’ It is also about the bigger walk with Jesus.

This is where Aelred comes in — you have to test the waters, to see if someone has the character to be trusted with your secrets, to be loyal to you when you do wrong, to grow upwards with you. And to simply be compatible. If our non-spiritual conversation doesn’t move because I like Star Trek and my bro likes boxing, perhaps we should just be friends and find true bromance elsewhere.

Now, I’d like to have some of this in my life.

Wouldn’t you?

Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 3

The first main discussion in book 3 of St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is about love, and what sort of love is suited to the building of spiritual friendship:

The source and origin of friendship is love, Although love can exist without friendship, friendship can never exist without love. Love develops either from nature or from duty, from reason alone or from affection alone, or from both together. We are bound together by a special affection from nature, as a mother loves her child. From duty, when introduced and accepted by reason. From reason alone, as we love our enemies, not from a spontaneous inclination of the mind but by the constraint of the commandment. From affection alone, when someone wins the love another because of such physical qualities as beauty or strength of eloquence. 3. From reason and affection together, as when one whom reason persuades is lovable because of his meritorious virtue enters another’s spirit through his sweetness of manner and the charm of a purer life. Reason is so joined to affection that love may be chaste through reason and delightful through affection. (3.2)

The final kind of love is that which is best suited to the sort of friendship under discussion in this dialogue.

Aelred says:

In a friend, a certain four qualities should be tested: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. (3.61)

Loyalty, argues Aelred, is at the heart of friendship. There is no betrayal, no revealing secrets, no belittling of one’s friendship, and there is freedom from suspicion. Much of Book 3 discusses what sort of person should be chosen for this truest of friendships, with the warning ‘not to set our hearts too quickly.’ (3.40) If, however, you admit into friendship someone who has some of the forewarned vices and who commits a grave sin, be patient. If this person proves to be unsuitable, do not cut off the relationship quickly, but just slowly drift away.

If one who was a friend seeks to do you wrong, you should put up with that person’s behaviour patiently and lovingly, with regard to the former affection. Respond so lovingly and reputably that disgrace falls on the other person, not yourself.

However, it is always preferable to avoid the above through testing a potential friend, letting someone into your confidences and trust little by little.

The monks say that this is all well and good, but does not Aelred himself embrace many people who would make unsuitable friends? He responds:

With all affection I embrace many whom I do not admit into the intimacies of friendship, which consists especially in communicating all my secrets and aspirations. (3.83)

He gives the example of Jesus Christ, who loved everyone, but who still had some disciples closer than others, let alone the great crowds that followed him.

Having tested a potential friend, what do we do now? Aelred has quite little to say here, actually. He believes that such friendships will purify each other. Throughout, it is the sharing of confidences and the praying for one another that seem to do the trick. Having chosen a person of similar enough character who is also pursuing virtue and Christ, you can share with him (or her) your deep secrets, your fears and weaknesses as well as your joys and strengths. Because of the trust in this relationship, you know that your friend will not mock you or heap scorn on you for your weakness or be jealous of your strength, but give advice and pray for you as well as praise God for your victories.

So, besides whom you choose, what seems to set Aelred’s spiritual friendship apart from what most of us experience, is the intentionality. You and your spiritual friend discuss spiritual things. You have a strong relationship that you can accept criticism from each other — Aelred speaks of how a look from one of his close friends was able to calm his anger and keep him in check.

Most of us do not go deep with our friendly acquaintances, whom we have never tested, whom we have never considered going deeper with. I suspect that if we did, we would find that human intimacy leads to divine intimacy, as St Aelred recommends.

Whom might you choose as a spiritual friend, then?

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship Book 2

Book 2 of Spiritual Friendship is the shortest of the three books of St Aelred’s guide to making friends and growing spiritually. In the drama of the dialogue, a few years have passed, and Aelred has gained new dialogue partners, his original interlocutor having passed away. We have a recap of what went before, and then discussion of the importance of friendship.

Basing his discussion in Scripture, Aelred sees friendship as one of the highest goods in a person’s life. Without friendship, we are like wild animals. Furthermore, friendship provides a foundation for the virtues. Friendship is medicine. One elegant passage runs:

Consequently, friendship for the rich is a glory, for exiles a country, for the poor remission of taxes, for the sick medicine, for the dead life, for the healthy a benefit, for the weak strength, and for the vigorous a reward. (2.14)

… One truth surpasses all these: close to perfection is that level of friendship that consists in the love and knowledge of God, when one who is the friend of another becomes the friend of God, according to the verse of our Savior in the Gospel: “I shall no longer call you servants but friends.” (2.14)

Such wonderful friendship, though, such friendship that brings excellence and lays the foundation for virtue, exists only among the good. To be more precise, Aelred says that it exists perfectly among the perfect, but has its origins among the good and progresses as they themselves progress in perfection.

Pre-modern Christians have no qualms in stating outright that if we are less holy, we will enjoy the benefits of life less fully.

Nevertheless, the argument as it sits in Aelred, with his descriptions of what friendship is, makes sense. Friendship is a unanimity of mind, a deep bond of harmony. It is the foundation for virtue and a balm in distress. Moreover, and this is a vital point first made in book 2, friendship is a pathway to Christ. It only stands to reason, then, that we will enjoy its benefits more the more we become like Christ.

Consider as follows. Let’s say I suffer from the passion of anger, due in part to my own prickliness, in part to my own selfishness, in part to my own pettiness as I judge others. This will limit the number of deep, true, spiritual friendships I have, and limit the depth of any friendship I form. But if I am able to acknowledge that I have such a weakness, and profess it to a friend — well, my friendship has become a stepping-stone to becoming more like Christ.

Moreover, my friend can pray for me about this problem, and I can pray for him. As I overcome my own anger and the selfishness whence it comes, I will be better able to listen to my friend’s weaknesses and to take his concerns to Christ in prayer. As I pray for him, and as he prays for me, we both become holier. Our mutual growth in holiness will stir us up to become even holier.

But if I remain petty and selfish, judging my friend for the ways in which he is unlike me, neither will I have the vulnerability to open up to him, nor will I have the magnanimity to take his own concerns seriously.

This is just my own imagining. Nonetheless, I think it true. So let’s find someone at least as good as ourselves to be vulnerable with, to pray with, and to be friends with.

This will be a path to Jesus and the heart of God.

St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1

I just finished reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1 (Aelred d. 1167). You can read the introduction through to the end of book 1 for free as a publisher’s preview from Liturgical Press (the Benedictines who now publish [or at least distribute] Cistercian Publications) if you like. I thought I would share a few reflections on Book 1 here.

The whole of Spiritual Friendship is a dialogue, and Book 1 consists of an abbot named Aelred conversing with a monk named Ivo on the question of friendship. For a starting point for the discussion, they take up Cicero’s definition from On Friendship 6.20:

Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity. (Aelred, 1.11)

From here it is pondered whether this is attainable outside of grace and of Christ. As they proceed, three kinds of human relationship that might be called ‘friendship’ emerge:

  1. Carnal friendship: Simply enjoying things, mostly sin, with another person. Like Augustine’s friends and the pears, or like a band of thieves.
  2. Worldly friendship: Maintaining a relationship with someone else for personal gain. They mostly discuss wealth, business, and the like, but we can imagine ‘career advancement’ or, in their own 12th-century context, ‘advancement at court’, being the same basic thing.
  3. Spiritual friendship: Friends who are friends simply for the sake of each other’s company.

This third friendship is not charity (caritas), for charity embraces both friend and foe, whereas in spiritual friendship you can entrust everything to each other. Moreover, this friendship is between people with ‘agreement in things human and divine’, so it differs from caritas since caritas is to be given to all, friend, foe, stranger.

To distinguish it from the other two friendships, Aelred says:

Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired not with an eye to any worldly profit or for any extraneous reason, but for its own natural worth and for the emotion of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself. (1.45)

An important idea that emerges is the statement that friendship is part of human nature — therefore, it is good, and it has been there since creation. Evidence for this comes from Genesis, where it is said that it is not good for the man to be alone, so the woman is created out of him. This is also, for those who have an interest, used as evidence that male and female by nature are equals.

Friendship, however, was corrupted at the fall by cupidity, avarice, envy that brought in contentions, rivalries, hatreds, and suspicions. This is the state of the world we live in. But true, that is, spiritual, friendship is still possible.

As the book draws towards its end, Aelred also makes a provocative statement:

if you weigh these teachings carefully, you will discover that friendship is so close to or steeped in wisdom that I would almost claim that friendship is nothing other than wisdom. (1.67)

Ivo disputes that, and as part of his wider explanation, Aelred says:

Since in friendship, then, eternity may flourish, truth light the way, and charity delight, see for yourself whether you should withhold the name of wisdom where these three co-exist. (1.68)

Some thoughts arising from this very brief account of only a few points in Aelred’s text.

First, not having read Cicero’s On Friendship and so speaking second hand, it seems that from texts such as that and from what Aelred says, that in the ancient mindset, life was a contest — so most friendships were of the ‘worldly’ kind at best. What Aelred has not imagined in this part of the book is that kind of friendship that arises between persons of mutual interests but where the relationship ultimately does exist for its own sake but will never progress to the kind of spiritual friendship that I understand the second and third books discuss.

What do we do with this? Do we see it as a foundation for true friendship that cannot be realised in the unregenerate outside of the grace of Christ? That said friends, if converted, would find themselves strengthened even more?

Second, I think this text was important in Aelred’s day for much the same reason as in our own. St Aelred is writing in the same era as the troubadours of France, the same era as courtly love, of Chrétien de Troyes, of Marie de France, of others. This is an age where a secular literature emerged of ‘true’ love being the highest good, rising (in literature) even higher than that of the Christian God, where ‘true’ love is erotic and not bound by marriage but often of necessity found only in adultery.

We may no longer esteem adultery so highly, but we are not so far from the courtly ethic of love and its power and its importance as might be though.

In such a context, to find a great, high, and magnificent ideal in friendship is powerful. And then to find in friendship a pathway to Christ through those humans around us — this is a message that we need in our age that is at once more connected and more lonely than ever, our age of sex without intimacy, and online ‘friends’ we’ve never met.

Let’s see where the next two books will take me…

The Patristic Middle Ages

It is only natural for the Anglican who becomes interested in pre-Reformation Christianity to turn to the writers, art, customs, liturgy, etc., of medieval England, or of Britain more widely, even encompassing Ireland. Many are thus drawn in the world of Bede and Cuthbert, or of Anselm and the scholastics. The great soaring cathedrals, ars anglicana embroidery, reliquaries, liturgical practices from England are used as aids in devotion.

Even if we restrict ourselves to writers, there are many great specimens from the English Middle Ages. Aldhelm, Alcuin, Aelfric, and Aelred spring to mind. Many are no doubt proud of the English origins of Alexander de Hales (d. 1245 at Paris). Alexander drives the mind to scholasticism and Robert Grosseteste. Aldhelm reminds us of the early days of English Christianity, and thus St Bede the Venerable.

The mystically-minded find themselves devouring The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle. Some even read Margery Kempe.

If not with Bede, many Anglicans seeking older roots find themselves in happy company amongst Celts — Columbanus, Columba, Adamnan, Brigid, Brendan, and more, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

But if we want to nourish ourselves on pre-Reformation English fare (porridge, mostly, I imagine), we should be aware of the nourishment the English themselves had — and that nourishment, whether we are thinking about Aldhelm (d. 709) or Grosseteste (d. 1253), was (besides sacred Scripture, of course) the Church Fathers.

This fact is seen, of course, in their writings themselves. I am at the moment looking at the transmission and influence of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (compiled in late 700s). This homiliary consists of patristic homilies organised according to the liturgical calendar, and it was definitely used in England — passages were used in the Old English homilies of Aelfric (and others; Aelfric d. c. 1010), and it influenced Cistercian homiliaries, and hence the works of Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167). We have multiple copies of homiliaries descended from that of Paul the Deacon from English monasteries.

Robert Grosseteste, an early scholar at Oxford, wrote a commentary on Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy. Much of Bede’s commentaries on Scripture is quotation from the Fathers. If we wish to claim Anselm (who did most of his writing either before he was Archbishop of Canterbury or in exile in Italy), he is heavily indebted to St Augustine of Hippo (Giles Gasper has done work on Anselm’s wider patristic sources in Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance).

The manuscripts tell the same story. Looking through the handy (if sadly imperfect) list from the Durham Priory Library Recreated project, of books known to have been in the priory library, citing by where the appear in the list, we have works by:

  • Gregory the Great (many)
  • Boethius (I always think he should be included)
  • St Benedict of Nursia (both Latin original and English translation)
  • Jerome (many)
  • Isidore of Seville (several)
  • Augustine (many)
  • John Chrysostom (several)
  • Cassiodorus (I think he goes with Boethius)
  • the anonymous Opus Imperfectum in Mattheum
  • Origen
  • Didymus the Blind
  • Eugippius
  • John Cassian
  • the Vitae Patrum, which is largely lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Prudentius
  • Fulgentius of Ruspe (they also have the mythographer, but he’s someone else)
  • Ennodius
  • Julian of Toledo
  • Peter Chrysologus
  • Lactantius (mind you, this is a printed book from 1509)

In that list are many ‘etc’s, some of which are patristic. As well, there are many canon law books, which are largely topically-arranged excerpts from patristic-era canon law documents, such as the canons of church councils, papal letters, and writings from major church fathers like Augustine. There are also works of Peter Lombard; his Sentences are themselves by and large topically arranged patristic excerpts, and much of his Bible commentaries is chains of quotations from the Fathers (if I remember correctly). The ‘Omeliarium’, of which Durham has two volumes, is the patristic homiliary of Paul the Deacon, mentioned above. I see another two-volume set of homilies — not sure which. The Bibles are also very frequently glossed with commentary from the church fathers in the margins.

In other words, if you want to nourish your faith in a manner consistent with the English Middle Ages, I recommend reading the church fathers as well as Aelred and Aelfric. They certainly did.

Coming up soon: The interconnected Middle Ages.

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).

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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