Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The rabbit hole that led from Atheist Delusions to The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.

RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.

As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues in Gregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.

Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century

The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).

Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:

Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)

This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.

That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul.  I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.

Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic  legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.

Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.

Sixth-Century Italy

540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.

What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).

Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.

But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.

In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.

In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).

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The Benedict Option: Why history matters and 6th-century monasticism

I’m blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In my first post, I set out my reasons and credentials and then considered some of my problems with Dreher’s broad-stroke history of fifth-century Rome. Today, allow me first briefly to explain why the history matters in a book like this, and then to start to look at three more historical issues raised for me in Chapter 1: monasticism, post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’. Note also that I’m shamelessly self-linking to old ‘saint of the week‘ posts today.

Why history matters here

There is a sense in which books that seek to apply the spiritual lessons of the Rule of St Benedict today need not worry about the fifth- and sixth-century Italian context of the Rule. What matter are the timeless lessons of Benedict and Benedictine spirituality, as applicable today as they were at Montecassino in 540, at Wearmouth and Jarrow in 731, at Cluny in 900, at Citeaux in 1140, etc. I don’t recall if Esther de Waal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict gives a historical introduction or not; but that fine book doesn’t need one for the lessons of the Rule to affect your life.

For The Benedict Option to have full force, however, there needs to be some understanding of how today’s society, culture, politics, look like that of the 500s. The point of this book is that we are in a similar crisis of civilisation, and so we can apply the lessons of St Benedict to our current situation to help our religious and cultural institutions survive and maybe even thrive in a new, post-Christian world.

If the parallel fails, the book doesn’t necessarily fail. But its import and power weaken.

So I’m not just nitpicky because I am a pendantic academic (mind you, I am a pedantic academic) but because history is crucial to the matter of this book.

Monasticism

The early Middle Ages (once upon a time, ‘Dark’) owe a lot to the monasteries. This is true. Dreher states it thus:

In these miserable conditions, the church was often the strongest — and perhaps the only — government people had. Within the broad embrace of the church, monasticism provided much-needed help and hope to the peasantry, and thanks to Benedict, a renewed focus on spiritual life led many men and women to leave the world and devote themselves wholly to God within the walls of monasteries under the Rule. These monasteries kept faith and learning alive within their walls, evangelized barbarian peoples, and taught them how to pray, to read, to plant crops, and to build things. Over the next few centuries, they prepared the devastated societies of post-Roman Europe for the rebirth of civilization. (15)

This is not strictly true.

Yes, as the paragraph before this states, western Europe became much more greatly impoverished at this time, in terms of cultural production and long-distance trade. Bryan Ward-Perkins, in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, has some famous images of early Anglo-Saxon pottery and late Roman pottery from Britain, as well as size comparisons of cattle. Mediterranean pottery disappears from the British archaeological record. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that they sometimes have trouble telling whether settlements in Wales are Stone Age or Post-Roman. So, yes, the economic decline led to cultural decline in many parts of western Europe after the loss of Roman imperium.

We must, however, see Benedict in the world of Italy in 540 first, before sending him out to Gaul, Spain, Britain, Germania. Italy in 540 was five years into the decades-long war between Justinian’s eastern Romans and the local Gothic regime. Campania, where Benedict lived, had probably suffered a great deal as a result of war strategies of both Goths and east Romans. Perhaps people were drawn to Benedict’s monastery on Montecassino as a refuge from war and poverty. Likely enough.

But in Italy beyond Rome, the political problem was not that the church was the strongest or only government, but that there were two governments who were very strong, but neither quite strong enough, both vying for control.

Anyway, the biggest problem I have with paragraphs like this is that they conflate a few centuries of monastic history into a single, Benedictine moment. Frankly, Benedict was not a big deal during the Byzantine-Gothic war, and in the places that best fit the ‘fall of civilisation’ model of post-Roman history, even if monks are highly significant for the survival and endurance and spread of Christianity and culture, they are not Benedictines yet, not at this crucial cultural moment that is imagined to parallel ours.

That is to say, if we are concerned about how monasticism helped preserve western civilisation, it is not immediately to Benedict that we should look. Dreher knows that Benedict’s Rule was one of many (I think), noting that it ‘is a more relaxed form of a very strict earlier one from the Christian East.’ (15) I don’t know which Rule Dreher has in mind; Benedict is, more properly, a shortening and remix of the Latin Rule of the Master, itself from Italy a bit before Benedict, with some wisdom taken from John Cassian. Perhaps he has Cassian in mind, but I don’t know.

In the 500s and 600s, then, if we are concerned with the preservation of Christian spirituality and the transmission of western culture, Montecassino is still only a small part of the story. We need to note the many independent/inter-related movements within the history of monasticism, sprouting such texts as the Rule of the Master, the rules of St Caesarius of Arles (470-542), the Rule of St Columbanus (543-615) in northern Italy, and others.

We need also to look at the movement of monastic mission in Ireland and Britain, classically epitomised by St Columba (521-597; saint of the week here), Apostle to Scotland and founder of the monastery on Iona, as well as St Aidan (d. 651; saint of the week here) a monastic evangelist who founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. Alongside (and at times in competition with) them is St Augustine of Canterbury (mission, 597-604; saint of the week here) who probably did not use the Rule of St Benedict, despite having been sent by St Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604; saint of the week here), one of St Benedict’s biggest fans.

In fact, the preservation of texts and culture, while Montecassino plays a role, is, off the top of my head, more in evidence in the Irish monasteries, in Columbanus’ monasteries such as Luxueil and Bobbio, and in Cassiodorus’ villa-turned-monastery at Vivarium than in the original Benedictine moment. Benedictine monachism is only concerned with the preservation of texts inasmuch as they are related to the interpretation of Scripture and the spiritual life. Cassiodorus (485-585), on the other hand, wrote his Institutions of Secular and Divine Learning as a full educational programme for his monks.

That is to say, that if monasteries are broadly what Dreher describes them as being, the phrase ‘thanks to Benedict’ is false. The monastic movement of the sixth and seventh centuries is not yet Benedictine. Benedict does not found an order. The ascendancy of Benedict’s Rule will come much later as a result of its ascendancy in Britain, and then the missional efforts of British mission-monks like Sts Boniface (saint of the week here) and Willibrord (saint of the week here) in Germanic lands in the eighth century. Thus, Charlemagne (d. 814) will favour it over all other monastic rules and solidify its place in Christian spiritual life.

But in 540, or even in 600, this is not what Benedict’s Rule is doing or even trying to do.

Happy Feast of St Benedict!

Monte Cassino, site of St Benedict’s original monastery

Today is the feast of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547) of the Rule of St Benedict fame, which is the backbone not only of the Order of St Benedict but of the Cistercians and their descendant order the Trappists (the two most enduring mediaeval reform orders), as well as being the rule of life for certain Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox monasteries.

Lots of people and blogs are going to be posting about him today, so, rather than add to the noise, I thought I would direct your internet journeys to Benedict instead.

Because all blogs are essentially narcissistic, you can start here at the pocket scroll:

Posted in time for the feast, Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet for St Benedict.

If you’re looking for fresh and brief tastes from this saint, there is the selection of posts of passages from St Benedict at Enlarging the Heart.

Also at Enlarging the Heart are the (more numerous) selections from St Bernard of Clairvaux, the paragon of mediaeval Cistercian spirituality (and saint of the week here).

At the heart of Benedictine spirituality (imho) are Lectio Divina and the Liturgy of the Hours. Here’s a video on the former, from Father Matthew:

A good resource for the Liturgy of the Hours can be found at Bosco Peters’ site, Liturgy as well as at the website Universalis.

Finally, if you’re new to Benedict, here’s a five-minute video telling the story of his life:

I encourage you to spend time with one or two of the links or videos above today, remembering Benedict, and then to draw near to the Christ Benedict points us all towards. He would wish to remembered thus best.