Early Monastic Rules

In my discussions of The Benedict Option, the question of possible contenders with Benedict for adaptation today has come up, and rightly so. My argument is that, if we survey them all, we may very well find something more well-suited to our situation(s) than the Rule of Benedict — well and good for us as individuals. But more widely, Benedict’s will win for a few reasons, and I think that’s okay.

But if you were interested in other ascetic rules for living, where can they be found? Here are some English translations of some of them (I’ve not read all of these; I stumbled upon some in the library at work) that you might consider. Many are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I approve. I note alongside whether these were considered by St Benedict of Aniane in his Codex Regularum of the 800s. He was a fan of rigorist rules, but opted for Benedict on the grounds that its moderation would be more achievable.

Early Monastic Rules: The Rules of the Fathers and the Regula Orientalis, trans. C.V. Franklin, I. Havener, J. A. Francis.

This includes five monastic rules associated with the fourth- and fifth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt. They are all quite short, so may be flexible according to today’s needs. They are in Benedict of Aniane.

The Rule of St Basil in Latin and English by Anna M. Silvas

This is the fourth-century Rule of St Basil of Caesarea. In Benedict of Aniane.

Pachomian Koinonia, Volume 2, by Adalbert de Voguë

This includes the earliest rule for monks living in community, from fourth-century Egypt.

The Rule of the Master, trans. Luke Eberle.

This is a longer, more rigorous rule than Benedict’s, generally believed to have been used by Benedict as a source. It is probably from early sixth-century Italy. In Benedict of Aniane.

The Celtic Monk: Rules and Writings of Early Irish Monks, trans. Uinseann Ó Maidín

The rules of Ailbe, Comghall, Colmcille, Ciarán, the Grey Monks, Cormac Mac Ciolionáin, Carthage, Céli Dé, and Tallaght as well as an incomplete fragment and a selection of other short texts. The translator tells us the security of these attributions as well as probable dates of composition.

Columbanus, The Monks’ Rules, trans. G. S. M. Walker

The above links to an online version of Walker’s translation that was also published as a parallel translation with the Latin text of all of Columbanus’works. A new translation is forthcoming from Cistercian in a couple of weeks. Written by an Irishman living on the Continent around the year 600. In Benedict of Aniane.

Leander of Seville, A Book on the Teaching of Nuns and a Homily in Praise of the Church, trans. John R. C. Martyn

This is everything Leander (d. 601) wrote that survives. The former is his rule. In Benedict of Aniane.

The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute trans. Bentley Layton

This is the first attempt to gather Shenoute’s rules in one place. Coptic with English translation. Shenoute is possibly the greatest Coptic writer; he lived in the 400s.

There are others that have been translated into English, I have no doubt. But these would certainly make more than a good start for the curious.

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The Benedict Option, Chapter 3: A Rule for Living (and Norcia!)

This is my fifth post blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In Chapter 3, Dreher brings us into contact with both the content of Benedict’s Rule and the Benedictine community that currently inhabits Norcia (ancient Nursia), St Benedict’s home town. The monastery at Norcia first opened its doors in the Central Middle Ages. Napoleon closed them in 1810, and they were reopened in 2000 with an American abbot and an international community of monks.

I was hoping for more descriptions of what life looks like for the monks at Norcia than Dreher provided; he rather uses interviews with the monks to scatter their own personal experience throughout Dreher’s discussion of some of the more important features of the Rule of St Benedict for us today. I am glad he did this, since it gives the Rule something of a personal touch. It’s not just a 1500-year-old document, but a way of life that still impacts people today.

The Benedictine virtues that Dreher picked out are order, prayer, work, asceticism (mostly fasting), stability (perhaps the most countercultural for my generation), community, and hospitality. Each of these is ordered in Benedict’s Rule to direct us Godward into holiness. We must learn in community to bear with each other’s burdens. We must learn in hospitality to find Christ everywhere. We learn from stability how to face our problems and live through them, rather than running away.

Reading this chapter, it struck me that most of these virtues could easily be taught from most of what we might call ‘mainstream’ Late Antique ascetic and monastic writings — actually, even ones associated with extreme movements such as Messalianism and Encratism. This draws me to a question that Bill asked in the comments on my second post of the series — what other monastic rule would I put forward for the 21st century?

I still don’t have a great answer; I’d have to revisit the others. But I think in any such conversations with the wider church, unless you run in circles that are still vigorously promoting ‘Celtic’ (Insular) Christianty or you are Eastern Orthodox, the Rule of St Benedict is going to win. There are two reasons.

First, as I said above, there is very little that is unique to this Rule. I imagine that Dreher knows this; he is a former Roman Catholic, now Eastern Orthodox. From his concerns and writing styles, besides the fact that he admits to having changed denominations twice, I suspect he is a former evangelical. Anyway, given the neo-Patristic bent of contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as the ongoing Philokalic renewal, and the fact that Dreher wrote a book about Dante, I think he’s decided that the focus should be on RB.

It’s a lot shorter than a lot of other texts. I think the Cassian Option might be nice, but the Institutes are already much longer and more rigorous than Benedict’s Rule, let alone the Conferences that are twice as long again or more. It’s a third the length of the Rule of the Master but less rigorous. Also less rigorous than either of Columbanus’ Rules.

The Rule of St Benedict is not the easiest read for the modern mind, but it easier than Evagrius Ponticus or most authors in the Philokalia or John Climacus. If we want to see a spiritual renewal that people can actually engage with, Benedict is actually a more realistic option than most of his near-contemporaries. In fact, its great promoter of the 810s, St Benedict of Aniane, came to this conclusion. He preferred some of the other rules, but felt that RB was just a more realistic option for most monasteries.

Second, it is more accessible. RB exists online in multiple places. There is a Penguin Classics translation, as well as the very cheap RB 1980 translation. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library has a translation with Latin text for $35 (USD). Availability helps. It is also accessible in terms of familiarity. Everyone at least recognises St Benedict’s name. But who ever heard of St Hesychios the Priest?

RB is a document people recognise, can get there hands on, and can rally around. It is a powerful cultural touchstone for western Christianity, being the foundational document for monastic life from the 800s onwards. The Order of St Benedict is not the only monastic order to use it; it is the rule of life for the Cistercians and others as well.

Thus, even once I think of a different text I may prefer, I don’t think any other text will be as successful. Besides, the Rule of St Benedict has time for reading Late Antique ascetic texts built in, anyway. So those who wish to see other texts in the mix should get them. In a couple of chapters, Dreher does recommend the Church Fathers more broadly.

Coming back to Dreher more precisely, this chapter is a good one, a soft introduction to the Rule and its living legacy in Norcia, discussing its relevance for today.

Ancient Religion got me into this mess, part 3: Devotion

For part 1 of the series, click here, and for part 2, click here.

My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.

But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.

It began in the Desert.

Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!

I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.

Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.

Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).

My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.

Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.

A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.

As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.

And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?

The Silent Ecumenism of the Mystical Tradition

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In his 2006 article for First Things, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, Pope Benedict XVI lists those things that united mediaeval Europe, East and West — Christianity, a belief in being successors of Rome, and monasticism. Of the last he writes:

The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.

Benedict is writing here from the perspective of society and culture, of course. And I cannot deny the major importance that the monastic and ascetic movement has had and still has across Europe. This paragraph makes me also think, however, of a phrase Diarmaid MacCulloch used in one of the lectures of his ‘History of Silence’: The silent (or quiet?) ecumenism of mysticism (or asceticism?).

As you can see, I don’t quite remember the quotation exactly (I’m notorious for that). Nonetheless, the point comes across.

Whatever differences may exist between power structures of western and eastern Christianity, whatever variations amongst our respective liturgical inheritances, whatever divergences in dogma and formal, confessional teaching of doctrine, the ascetic and mystical tradition of Christianity finds its common source in the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as the wellsprings of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Judaean deserts — and its different streams taste remarkably similar.

It is my experience, at least, that the main differences between the Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine/Russian spiritual writers and those from the west (primarily Catholic or Mediaeval) are of emphasis, but they are united in their experience of God. They are also united in their promotion of the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, contemplation — while steering us clear of illuminism. The goal of all of this, this entry into the Interior Castle (to borrow the term from St Teresa of Ávila), is to encounter the Giver, not His gifts.

And all of them (much to the chagrin of the Reformed) will speak in terms that are best understood by the word synergy. That the encounter with God, the quest for purity and the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity requires everything of us, requires much effort and labour on our part. Yet it comes, in the end, only because of the grace God. It is wholly dependent on God, yet we are required to seek to purify ourselves so that God will purify us. We are told to seek His face so that He will show it. I am thinking here of St Theophan the Recluse and St John Cassian, one at the end of the Russian tradition, the other at the beginning of the western.

Perhaps, then, Christians should spend more time praying together and more time praying alone. And then, having encountered the Most Holy Trinity Who is Himselves a Communion of Persons, we can find greater communion with each other.

Select Letters of St Jerome

Select Letters (Loeb Classical Library)Select Letters by St. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

St Jerome was a major figure in Latin Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Besides revising the Latin Bible, his greatest influence lies in giving power to the rising monastic movement in the Latin world. He came from Dalmatia on the Adriatic, spent time as a hermit, then went to Rome before spending years as a monk in Bethlehem.

Although Jerome was a controversialist, little of his polemic is visible on the surface in this selection of letters. Occasionally, you can see him making oblique reference to people who might possibly criticise him for some things, and there is a devastating caricature of his erstwhile friend Rufinus in one letter as well. Furthermore, we read here Jerome’s version of the First Origenist Controversy.

For the most part, though, this selection is Jerome the ascetic, not Jerome the polemicist. We see his ideas about how to be a good monk, a good nun, a good widow, or a good clergyman set down. We see his instructions on how to educate a young girl in Christian discipline. Much is worth thinking on, chewing on, mulling over, and much is also quotable.

We also encounter Jerome here as a source for the Later Roman Empire. Basically, he reads in these letters as though the world were on the precipice, if not already falling into the abyss. Sometimes I know he is being hyperbolic, at other times it is a trope (‘She’s lucky death spared her seeing the world invaded by barbarians’), but at other times there is genuine feeling behind it. Jerome is keenly aware of the catastrophes of his age, but is this because they were that much more acute or because they serve his rhetoric well? I reckon that it is a bit of both.

This selection is well worth reading as an introduction to Jerome and his thought.

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Lay piety – Augustine and Dallas Willard

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

Last night I was reading the Introduction to Kate Cooper and Julia Hillner’s volume, Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, 300-900, and learned one of the developments in Augustine scholarship of the 20th century was R A Markus’ work that presented a development in Augustine’s thinking in the 390s through the bishop of Hippo’s reading of St Paul. In this view, significantly also followed by Peter Brown (and if Brown and Markus say so, who am I to argue?), Augustine rejects the image of a two-tiered church — a decidedly anti-Manichaean move — and re-evaluates the place of the married faithful, ‘arguing that the ascetic elitism of a Jerome or an Ambrose could only be counter-productive.’ (Cooper & Hillner, 10)

They quote Markus, who says that Augustines asserts:

Both sorts of faithful belong within the one Church and both are called to serve God in faith and love. All who seek to follow the Lord are within his flock: ‘and the married are certainly able to follow His footsteps [vestigia], even if their feet do not fit perfectly into the footprints, yet following the same path’. -R A Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 46

This runs counter to the popular view of Augustine as a not-fully-recovered Manichaean who promotoes spiritual elitism partly out of guilt over his own sexual deviance. Augustine certainly sees celibacy and the committed ascetic life as better than lay married life, but, as in On the Good of Marriage (De Bono Coniugali), the difference is between two goods:

Therefore, just as what Martha did was good when she was busy attending to the saints, but what her sister Mary did, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his words (Lk 10:39), was better, so too we praise the excellence of Susanna in her married chastity, but value more highly the excellence of the widow Anna, and even more that of the virgin Mary. Those who attended to the needs of Christ and his disciples, and did so out of their own resources, did something good, but those who gave up all their possessions, in order to follow that Lord without that encumbrance, did something better. With each of the two good ways of acting, both in the latter case and in the case of Martha and Mary, the one that is better is not possible without forgoing or abandoning the other. -8, 8, trans. Ray Kearney (as The Excellence of Marriage)

I am not saying I agree with Augustine, but it is important to attempt at least a balanced view of his teachings. He is not solely responsible and even, I imagine, helped mitigate ascetic elitism through the wide success of his writings (contra Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism). Unfortunately for the subsequent history of Christian discipleship, even if marriage was esteemed and encouraged by the church as a good thing where virtue can certainly be cultivated, not even Augustine’s teaching went far enough to stop the creation of a two-tiered spiritual world — a world promoted to a greater or lesser degree by the teachings of Jerome and Gregory of Nazianzus and Ambrose, for example.

One result of this two-tiered world, a result lamented by Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, is that the really good handbooks for the disciplined life of piety were all written for monks. Preaching to the laity has tended to lean simply towards basic doctrine and inculcating Christian morality and virtue. The disciplined life was sequestered off in the cloister — or practised by odd-ball mendicants (although the Franciscans tried to help out with the Tertiaries).

Therefore, Willard recommends the great monastic texts for those who wish to lead a more disciplined life. It’s true that for non-celibate married folks with jobs, some of the recommendations are simply not practical, feasible, or desirable. But many of them are. Askesis is training for virtue and holiness, and it’s not just monks anymore.

Chrysostom: The monk’s habit is the garment for the Wedding Feast

14th-c Russian icon of this parable

The other night I read the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1-14, just before bed. Then I decided to think about it. I sort of understood most of it, but the end is not as straightforward as we all like to think the Bible is:

And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment; And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Mt 22:11-14 KJV)

I wasn’t so much concerned with ‘outer darkness’ and ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ as with ‘many are called, but few are chosen’.

Chrysostom from Ayia Sophia

Since I am myself, I turned naturally to St John Chrysostom (d. 407), that great Doctor of the Church. I didn’t reallly find the answer to what v. 14 means exactly, although the short version is, ‘Sure, we Gentiles are all called. But just because you trusted in God at some point and got baptised doesn’t mean you have no responsibilities to live a holy life now.’

The orator bishop says:

Then in order that not even these should put confidence in their faith alone, He discourses unto them also concerning the judgment to be passed upon wicked actions; to them that have not yet believed, of coming unto Him by faith, and to them that have believed, of care with respect to their life. For the garment is life and practice.

And yet the calling was of grace; wherefore then doth He take a strict account? Because although to be called and to be cleansed was of grace, yet, when called and clothed in clean garments, to continue keeping them so, this is of the diligence of them that are called.

The being called was not of merit, but of grace. It was fit therefore to make a return for the grace, and not to show forth such great wickedness after the honor.

You can read this section of Homily 69 on Matthew here, beginning at the fourth paragraph on p. 932. As you proceed, it will be much as you expect — he berates the congregation for being too worldly-minded, for not living by Christ’s commandments, for caring more about who became governor of which province, for …

not being monks.

Unexpected, but not surprising.

Chrysostom pulls out some of his golden* prose for the ensuing description of life in the desert-made-city.** St John Chrysostom was a former monk, so he had first-hand knowledge of what life was like for the average fourth-century monk. And Syria, where he had been a monk before joining the ranks of the ‘secular’ clergy, was a hotbed for weird and wooly monasticism — some of the more extreme examples of Late Antique ascetic piety arose there.{See footnote ***}

I quote the beginning of his ensuing oration on monks:

3. Wilt thou that I show thee them that are clad thus, them that have on a marriage garment?

Call to mind those holy persons, of whom I discoursed to you of late, them that wear garments of hair, them that dwell in the deserts. These above all are the wearers of the garments of that wedding; this is evident from hence, that how many soever purple robes thou wert to give them, they would not choose to receive them; but much as a king, if any one were to take the beggar’s rags, and exhort him to put them on, would abhor the clothing, so would those persons also his purple robe. And from no other cause have they this feeling, but because of knowing the beauty of their own raiment. Therefore even that purple robe they spurn like the spider’s web. For these things hath their sackcloth taught them; for indeed they are far more exalted and more glorious than the very king who reigns.

And if thou wert able to open the doors of the mind, and to look upon their soul, and all their ornaments within, surely thou wouldest fall down upon the earth, not bearing the glory of their beauty, and the splendor of those garments, and the lightning brightness of their conscience.

For we could tell also of men of old, great and to be admired; but since visible examples lead on more those of grosser souls, therefore do I send you even to the tabernacles of those holy persons. For they have nothing sorrowful, but as if in heaven they had pitched their tents, even so are they encamped far off the wearisome things of this present life, in campaign against the devils; and as in choirs, so do they war against him. Therefore I say, they have fixed their tents, and have fled from cities, and markets, and houses. For he that warreth cannot sit in a house, but he must make his habitation of a temporary kind, as on the point of removing straightway, and so dwell. Such are all those persons, contrary to us. For we indeed live not as in a camp, but as in a city at peace.

‘Thebaid’ by Fra Angelico, Uffizzi, Florence. Ascetic Egypt = Chrysostom’s paradise

This moved me (go on, read it to the end!). I am, admittedly, frequently moved by tales of monks and the lives of holy men and women in their quest for God — whether mystics, monastics, or missionaries.

But what are we up to? Are we clothing ourselves in the garments necessary for the banquet? Are we ready to feast with the King?

I am not here talking about justification or grace or any such thing.

I am talking about daily life.

Do we live as the pagans around us?

Come, let us get on our knees and pray. For there is no better place to start getting dressed.

*Pun on Chrysostomos (lit. ‘Goldenmouth’) intended.

**Hm … stealing from Derwas J Chitty or Athanasius/Antony?

*** Because everyone likes to read about this sort of thing: Simeon the Stylite on his pillar (d. 459; English trans of Syriac Life of Simeon the Stylite), this one guy who wore an iron belt under his clothes that was wearing away his flesh (see Theodoret’s History of the Monks of Syria), people who lived off wild herbs and had no shelter (boskoi in the Greek), several guys who never lay down to sleep, I think Simeon lived in a well before the pillar. It’s been a while since I looked at this material, sorry there’s not more.