Benedict and the Desert Tradition of the Middle Ages

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

I am in the middle of writing about the Rule of St Benedict, and yesterday I began writing about his twelve steps to humility. Immediately, what came to my mind as a helpful addition to St Benedict was the distinction between perfect and imperfect humility in the anonymous, 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud makes an interesting distinction between the two. Imperfect humility arises when we look at ourselves, our sins, our frailties, our weaknesses. Perfect humility, on the other hand, is the result of looking at God and being overcome by his greatness, glory, and goodness.

Throughout my current work on Benedict’s Rule, I am trying to focus my attention on the Rule itself, the tradition that birthed it, or the tradition that grew out of it. This is an ample field from which to reap — not only John Cassian and the Rule of the Master, but the Desert tradition leading to Cassian (including Evagrius), and Benedict’s other “holy catholic Fathers” such as Pachomius, Basil, Augustine; not only pre-Benedictine monasticism but the sons and daughters of Benedict as well, such as Bede, Boniface, Anselm, Hildegard, Bernard, Aelred, the rest of the Cistercians, and even Thomas Merton.

But what about texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing? When I write about Lectio Divina, can I safely use Guigo II, a Carthusian? Or the Victorines if I feel the need? Obviously, any wisdom from any source should be welcome. But if I’m writing about the Rule of St Benedict, part of me wants to consider the influence that Benedictine life and spirituality has had. Can Carthusian sources be welcomed, then?

I am, in fact, leaning towards yes. The reasoning is not simply, “Wisdom is wisdom. Let us attend.” It also has to do with the nature of the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict is the most popular monastic rule from before 800 to after 1200 when the friars start appearing. Besides being used by multiple orders, the members of non-Benedictine orders had contact with the Rule, its sources, and their brothers following the path of Benedict.

For example, St Bernard was a regular visitor to the Abbey of St Victor, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion that there are links between some Victorine and Cistercian manuscripts. William of St-Thierry wrote works for Carthusians. Ivo of Chartres, not a Benedictine, studied at the monastic school of the Benedictine monastery at Bec alongside St Anselm under Lanfranc. Sons and daughters of Benedict rub shoulders with those in non-Benedictine orders.

Furthermore, the Desert tradition that nourished the Rule of St Benedict in many ways continues to be copied, read, and meditated upon — and sometimes lived — by those outside the Benedictine tradition.

Therefore, it seems methodologically sound to include sources from outside the Benedictine tradition when they represent the wider tradition of the Desert as it swept through western Europe in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity is a thousand-year meditation and recasting of Late Antiquity in different ways. Its interconnectedness should, therefore, inform our meditations upon it.

Some Benedictines

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Now, if you’re excited about the Rule of St Benedict, besides applying the lessons about prayer, community, and humility to your own life, you may be wondering where to turn next. After all, RB is pretty short. Where else within that tradition might one go? Well, of course, the fountainhead of all Christian tradition is never to be neglected; that is — read your Bible! (Like a Benedictine?1) Another alternative that I heartily endorse is to read St Benedict’s reading list and contemporaries — so John Cassian, The Rule of the Master, St Basil of Caesarea, as well as the likes of St Columba, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Julianus Pomerius.

The alternative I propose today, however, is to consider the tradition that flows forth from RB and those who live according to the Rule. This embraces more than those with O.S.B. (Ordo Sancti Benedicti) after their name, but also those who pre-date the organised congregations of Benedictine monachism as well as the other orders, such as Cistercians, who follow St Benedict’s Rule.

So, some Benedictines:

The Venerable St Bede (672-735). Bede was a monk here in the Northeast of England, at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, spending the last five decades of his life at Jarrow. Most famously, he wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People; well worth a read. In Penguin’s The Age of Bede, you can also read his Lives of the Abbots and his Lives of St Cuthbert (besides an unrelated text, The Voyage of Brendan!). If Benedictine biblical reading is your desire, he compiled/composed various commentaries, such as on Genesis,  Revelation; from Cistercian Publications, you can get the following in English: the catholic epistles, the Gospels, the letters of St Paul, and Acts. He wrote other biblical studies as well as a range of writings on computus and chronology. He is a Benedictine worth knowing.

Blessed Alcuin of York (735-804). The great Carolingian scholar from England wrote widely and helped revise the text of the Vulgate Bible. I’ve read a number of his prayers in Sister Benedicta’s anthology Christ Beside Me, as well as some of his verse. I’d like to read more, such as his letters.

St Anselm of Canterbury and Bec (1033-1109). St Anselm, from Aosta in Italy, spent his monastic career at Bec in Normandy before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He is a towering figure of medieval theology whose devotional work reveals the spiritual heart of all he does. My acquaintance with his writings is from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, which you can read in a translation by Sister Benedicta Ward, and Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, including his MonologionProslogionWhy God Became a Man (or, Why the God-Man? — Cur Deus Homo), and others of penetrating philosophical and theological insight.

St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). St Hildegard is a famous mystic and female writer of the Latin Middle Ages. She was an abbess who had episcopal authorisation to preach and who corresponded with the famous churchmen of her age. She had visions from a young age which are recorded in her Scivias; she also wrote abundantly on a great many other topics and composed some beautiful music. The Scivias and the music are my main encounters with St Hildegard. Look her up on Spotify.

Cistercians! A great entryway into High Medieval spirituality is The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, translated for Penguin by Pauline Matarasso. This includes selections from Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, and more. Worth your time.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). St Bernard is considered by Cistercians as the Last of the Fathers. Besides the anthology above, I’ve read from his Homilies on the Song of Songs. So much of St Bernard is so good, and so much exists, it is hard to know where else to point.

Jean Leclercq (1911-1993). Dom Jean Leclercq OSB was a scholar-monk, like de Vogué, of the highest calibre. I cannot recommend too highly The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Trappists are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and Thomas Merton is probably the most famous of them. His posthumous The Inner Experience from early this millennium had a strong impact on me, and many speak highly of New Seeds of Contemplation. I also found some random selections from his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain challenging and inspiring (I found a copy lying around my parents’ house while in undergrad and dipped in and out unsystematically).

Adalbert de Vogué (1924-2011). Dom Adalbert de Vogué OSB was an academic scholar-monk who wrote extensively on the monastic tradition. For our purposes, I recommend the English translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.

Important Benedictines of one order or another whose works I’ve not read: Benedict of Aniane (the second Benedict; I skimmed his list of monastic rules once), Hrabanus Maurus  St Peter Damian, St Odo of Cluny, Blessed Peter the Venerable, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, Gertrud the Great of Helfta. Once I’ve read some of his theology, Lanfranc of Bec/Canterbury may also be recommended on this blog.

In closing, one reason why we should concern ourselves with St Benedict’s Rule is not, perhaps, that it is the greatest or the most original monastic text. It probably is not. However, a rich tradition of theology and spirituality flows from it to our own day. This is reason enough to get to know it.


1. Personally, I’ve not read any books devoted solely to Lectio divina, but Enzo Bianchi, Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives has been recommended, and I like the look of Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading

Final thoughts on the Benedict Option — take the initiative!

So, whether you accept all of Rod Dreher’s grim view of the future in The Benedict Option or not, I think the book has a lot of good ideas to help us get our churches, families, and lives more rooted in Christ and the tradition, more resilient for whatever may come our way, more disciplined. I guess, in a way, that’s the point.

My final jab at him re St Benedict of Nursia: Much of what is discussed in this book takes little or no inspiration from the Rule of St Benedict or Gregory the Great, Dialogues II. Rather, it takes its inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre’s call for a new, doubtless very different, Benedict in our day and age. And then Dreher imagines what it would take to keep Christianity vibrant and alive in the years to come.

Besides that, many of the good ideas in this book are found elsewhere in late ancient Christianity. I almost called my post about the chapter on education ‘The Cassiodorus Option’, because much of what he discusses there makes far more sense at sixth-century Vivarium with Cassiodorus than Monte Cassino with Benedict. I’ve blogged about Cassiodorus and Christian education before, FYI.

Anyway, regardless of how much in this is directly inspired by St Benedict, when we look at the wider Benedictine tradition, from Monte Cassino to Wearmouth-Jarrow to Durham to Citeaux to Gethsemani (Kentucky) to the rebuilt monastery at Norcia, there is something in the spirit of this wider Benedictine movement throughout this book.

And one thing that runs throughout, something this blog is a little piece of, is to take the initiative yourself, like Benedict did in a cave and then with a community on a mountain, or like the founders of Citeaux, or the re-founders of Norcia. Don’t sit around waiting for your pastor or your denomination to make the changes in your life, church, community that you believe are crucial for the survival and spiritual health of Christianity.

Approach them, of course. Volunteer to use Benedict Option ideas at your own church. But don’t wait — take the initiative. Get up off your butt and do something. Lay a brick for Jesus.

A (pre-schism) western hymn for Orthodox Pentecost

It’s not cheeky if it’s pre-schism, right? 😉 The following hymn, ‘Now Christ had mounted to the stars’ (Iam Christus astra ascenderat) comes from ‘New Hymnal’, which is a Carolingian replacement of the ‘Old Hymnal’. These hymnals originated from the incorporation of hymns at the canonical hours being incorporated into the Benedictine office.

The New Hymnal took the Old Hymnal’s place everywhere during the course of the 800s and 900s, save in Milan. Walsh & Husch argue that it originated in France. Its first appearance in England is in Durham in the mid-900s. The Pentecost hymn I have chosen was divided into three sections for Terce, Sext, and Nones. The translation is that of Walsh & Husch, 100 Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, number 56 (pp. 185-187).

Now Christ had mounted to the stars,
returning to his former home,
the Holy Spirit to bestow
as promised by the Father’s gift.

That solemn day was dawning now
to which the globe had circled round
seven times its mystic number seven,
denoting now the blessed time.

On all, when that third hour had come,
the world in sudden thunder broke,
according to the apostles’ prayers
announcing God’s arrival here.

So downward from the Father’s light
the beauteous, fostering fire descends,
to fill the hearts that trust in Christ
with the burning impact of the word.

Men’s hearts are full, and feel the joy
as holy light is breathed on them;
their diverse voices harmonize
and tell of God’s glorious deeds.

From every race is gathered there
the Greek, Latin, barbarian,
and to the astonishment of all
they speak in universal tongues.

The unbelieving crowd of Jews
being then possessed by lunacy
together shout: “Christ’s fosterlings
are belching, reeling with new wine!”

But Peter, wielding signs and powers,
confronts them, teaching them the truth,
that they are faithfless, telling lies,
with Joel his witness giving proof.

I enjoy this poetic retelling of Pentecost, especially with its emphasis on the missional empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s Apostles. Growing up in the charismatic segment of Anglicanism, the emphasis I have often heard has been that of the spiritual gifts bestowed on them. This hymn certainly acknowledges the supernatural power of the Spirit upon the Apostles — ‘Peter, wielding signs and powers’ — but also, and importantly, upon the missional aspect of these gifts.

The Apostles were not given charismata of the Holy Spirit solely that they could walk closer with the Most Holy Trinity (although I do not doubt that such was the effect; Christ calls Him the Comforter in John, after all) but also so that they could bring many, of every tribe, tongue, and nation, into the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church.

I am also struck by the Carolingian love of … puzzles, of significances hidden in what we would consider insignificant details. Pentecost is fifty days after Easter. That, to the modern mind, is a matter of simple, straightforward mathematical fact. But to the Carolingians, mathematics was part of the mind of the God who ordered and sustained the universe. Pentecost is very nearly 7 times 7 days away from Easter — the perfect number squared. The mystical significance is that God does all things in his kairos, at the fullness of time.

I hope that you, too, enjoy this hymn! And a Happy Pentecost to my Eastern Orthodox friends!

Saint for now: St. John Climacus

Things are busy with writing my own papers and marking other people’s papers right now, so no saint went up last week. So today, since I have time on Sundays, last week’s saint will come up this week; whether this week will have its own saint remains to be seen. And on to our saint, a mystic, John Climacus (who is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox Church today).

St. John Climacus (c. 579-649 and thus a contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor) was a monk of the monastery of Sinai, at the foot of the Mount of God, the mountain which Moses ascended and where the Lawgiver entered the Cloud, saw the back of YHWH, and received the Law of God, from which Moses descended with shining face from his encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The spot is pregnant with meaning.

At this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, John, aged sixteen, took preference for the semi-eremitic life — a life halfway between the ‘total’ seclusion of the hermit/anchorite and the total community of the ‘coenobite’ (most Western monastics — e.g. Cistercians and Benedictines are ‘coenobites’ living in a coenobium). All three forms of monasticism were practised within the walls of this monastery, founded by Justinian (556-57).

In this middle way, one pursues the monastic life of prayer and stillness under the supervision of an elder; John’s was one Abba Martyrius. Abba Martyrius, after John had demonstrated his worthiness over a few years of pursuing the monastic vocation, took John up the Mountain of God and had him tonsured, admitting him into the fullness of the monastic life.

Shortly thereafter, Abba Martyrius died, and John pursued the life of the hermit, entering into seclusion to enter hesychia and the stillness of God’s presence. He retired to Tholas and spent 40 years there, admitting the occasional visitor who came for spiritual guidance.

At the end of his 40-year stint he was elected to be abbot of the coenobitic community. In good monastic form, he resisted (one also typically resists being ordained priest or consecrated bishop if a monk), but was overcome by the brethren. He lived out the rest of his life as abbot of the monastery at Sinai. Whilst abbot, he wrote down his famous work Scala Paradisi, The Ladder of Paradise.

As with our last mystic (Bonaventure here), it is not the exterior as found in these details but the interior that matters; it is the mystic’s encounter with God and the things of God that really matters.

From John’s Ladder we learn of the ascent of the soul to God. As with many mystics, this ascent is gained through askesis, or asceticism, through the training and labours undertaken by the one seeking God in order to purify the soul/mind/heart so that union with God and the vision of God are possible, so that the contemplative can see Him clearly (though never in His fullness or essence, as God is ultimately incomprehensible).

The thirty steps of the ladder’s ascent unto God are divided into three sections (this is also common, as we saw Bonaventure’s six levels divided by two into three; it is at least as old as Origen — cf. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition 58-59).

The first seven steps are about acquiring general virtues that are necessary for the ascetic life (cf. Origen’s ethike or ethics). These days, I think few Christians are inspired to climb any higher than these seven. I believe that we need to reclaim holiness and see a life beyond simple virtue. John Climacus can help.

The second series of steps runs from 8 through 26. These nineteen steps are about even greater ascent in virtue as the ascetic learns to overcome the vices and acquire virtues in their place. Indeed, cultivation of virtue is the only way to fully extirpate vice and cleanse the soul so that we can draw near to God and theosis, deification.

The final steps are the higher virtues. How many in our day even draw nigh to these virtues? I know not. I think they tend to be those imperturbable people who seem to radiate peace, calm, and a certain gentleness of spirit. They are also often wise. If you haven’t met such a person, it is your great loss.

At the top of the ladder, we go beyond everything we do, everything we know. We encounter the living God. He is far beyond anything we could ask or imagine. And he alone is all we want and all we need.

NB: I haven’t yet read John Climacus (I wanted to, but the copy in the library is missing), so if there are any inaccuracies, I gladly welcome critique in the comments! 🙂