Work is prayer

So I’m working on a sermon about ceaseless prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17: ‘pray without ceasing’). And I had this thought that the ancients never came up with any cop-outs for ceaseless prayer. You know, ‘St Paul means pray regularly’ or something. Or ‘ceaseless in Greek doesn’t mean the same thing when put in context.’

However, Origen almost does, as I learned doing my research for the sermon:

He prays without ceasing who joins prayer to works that are of obligation, and good works to his prayer. For virtuous works, or the carrying out of what is enjoined, form part of prayer. It is only in this way that we can understand the injunction, pray without ceasing, as something that we can carry out; that is to say, if we regard the whole life of the saint as one great continuous prayer. What is usually termed “prayer” is but a part of this prayer, and it should be performed not less than three times each day. … –On Prayer, 12.2, trans. John J. O’Meara (Ancient Christian Writers 19; pp. 46-47)

Perhaps, however, this is not a cop-out. When you read the Philokalia, fifth-century writers like Hesychios the Priest of Diadochus of Photike talk about constant vigilance and ceaseless prayer, and how stopping praying can harm your progress toward holiness and hesychia (silence/stillness).

It’s a grand ideal.

But I still have to make breakfast for myself and my sons, eat said breakfast, take a shower, “go to work”, change diapers, fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, maintain a healthy and human relationship with my wife and any other people I see during the day, buy groceries, help cook supper and lunch at times, bathe my sons, brush my teeth, and so forth.

Some of these acts I can pray during. Others I cannot, for they require my attention for one reason or another.

Origen’s approach, then, is to turn these non-prayer-acts into prayers. Work is prayer.

This is, in fact, an idea I found once in a book about Benedictines (possibly Esther de Waal, Seeking God?), that our work, especially in service to others, is itself prayer. As I empty the dishwasher, I often say to myself, ‘Work is prayer. Prayer is work. Service is love.’

Furthermore, if we commit ourselves more fully to undivided prayer when we do set aside times for seeking the face of God, prayer will begin to imbue our lives, and we will become a living prayer. At least, that’s what they say…

Benedictine Work and Human Dignity

Besides some excerpts from the Rule in history class, my first introduction to St Benedict was Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict. Taking up the theme of work from yesterday, here is a quotation from that book where the Benedictine belief in the worthiness of all work — manual, intellectual, spiritual — feeds into daily life:

The respect for people and the respect for the work they do and the things they handle interconnect and deepen each other. … The implications of this in modern terms are quite far-reaching. My own preference is for books rather than for petrol, to take an absurd example, which I am sure many others would reverse. And if I am totally honest with myself it means that I have, perhaps quite subconsciously, a greater respect for a writer or lecturer than for the man or woman who manages a garage and sells me petrol. If I take the Rule seriously, it frees me to notice this, and if I am trying to live by it, it forces me to re-think my attitudes. (p. 118)

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.

Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia – The Rule & Its Legacy

If you do a Google Blog search for ‘Benedict of Nursia’, you will get approx. 33,800 hits. A search of Everything gets you 221,000. St. Benedict is one of the most popular saints of western Christianity, unlike the other Italian notables covered by Pope St. Gregory’s Dialogues — so popular even in his own century that, rather than receiving a mere chapter in a Dialogue, he received an entire Dialogue devoted to his life.

Nonetheless, I have a feeling that Benedict’s popularity comes not just from his holiness of life and his miracles but mostly from his Rule, composed for the monks of Monte Cassino and the other monasteries under his care and used by the Carolingian Church as the monastic rule when they sought to regularise and standardise monasticism, a movement that went beyond the Frankish Empire and as far afield as Jarrow.

This Rule is, I believe, a fairly flexible one yet with definite structure, which is why the Carolingians chose it and why the Cistercians and their related order the Trappists (Cistercians of the Strict Observance) chose it as well. It is also used today by individual Eastern Orthodox monasteries, although they are not and have never been organised into religious orders as western monasticism.

The Rule of Benedict is so popular that I can think of seven translations off the top of my head, only one of which does not come with Latin text, as well as this online one. It is, then, one of what I like to call the “overtranslated” texts, such as Augustine’s Confessions or the Iliad or the Bible. There is so much to be said about it that the Sources Chretiennes edition is something like five volumes, despite the small size of the Rule itself.

So, what is this Rule all about? Why is it so popular?

When we consider the Rule, we have to remember that it is not born in a vacuum. Unlike Shenoute’s rule or the rule of the angel as told by Cassian, Benedict’s Rule was not the result of direct intervention from the heavenly realms. It is the product of generations of monastic life, (generations including rules by Pachomius, Augustine of Hippo, Basil of Caesarea, and the anonymous Rule of the Master as well as important monastic literature in the West, especially John Cassian’s Conferences and Institutes both of which are recommended by Benedict) combined with years of monastic experience by Benedict as anchorite and abbot.

The Rule distills much of this tradition and experience into a compendium for how to run a monastery and live in community. From the Prologue to ch. 7 (less than 1/3), Benedict discusses spiritual matters, while the rest of text is about the practical application of spiritual ideas in the monastery. Such weight of space for practical matters is not uncommon; how can one begin to explain the road to contemplation? Indeed, is not the road to Christ, holiness, and visions of glory found in the daily existence of the life of prayer and work?

This is what Benedict provides. The times and pattern for communal prayer are set out, as also are the times for work. Benedict’s monks are not like some of the other ascetics of the fifth and sixth centuries who settled on their country estates and lived the ascetic life in the villa spending all their time reading books and talking to their friends (Paulinus of Nola comes to mind). Benedict follows in the tradition of Cassian who was harshly opposed to this sort of monastic life which he viewed as soft and not a true renunciation. His monks leave behind the world, submit in utter obedience to their abbot, and live lives of hard work and hard prayer. Work is prayer and prayer is work.

A good distillation and application of the Rule‘s wisdom for today’s Christian is found in Esther de Waal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. She invites the reader to join her and Benedict by looking the themes from the Rule about listening, stability, change, balance, material things, people, authority, and praying. The Rule helps us look at all of these things.

It also, as I learned in my first encounter with the rule in a course on Mediaeval Society at the University of Ottawa, lays down for the monks how much beer they can drink, and that wine is to be consumed only sparingly, for “too much wine can make even the wise go astray.” Even at its most practical, in those moments about shoes and tunics and drinks and food, the Rule can produce for us a brief glimpse of spiritual wisdom. Praktike and theoretike, to use the terms of the Evagrian system, are never fully divorced as we continue our lives.

Here is an example of praktike and theoretike meeting in Chapter 36, “On Sick Brothers”:

Care should be taken for the sick before all and above all, so that they should be served as indeed Christ would be, because he said himself, “I was sick and you visited me”

Even while the monks eat, they are to encounter the spiritual as they listen to readings. After Compline, when they have finished the toil of the day, they are to listen to a brother read from Cassian’s Conferences or from the Desert Fathers. The goal of the monastic life is purity of heart sought through prayer and meditation, and the Rule of Benedict provides a structure for such a life.

The legacy of the Rule is great. People really liked it, and other monasteries adopted it in the years following Benedict’s death, although there were about two dozen others in active use. As I mentioned above, due to its versatility and popularity, it was chosen by the Carolingians in the eighth century to be the basis for a standardisation of the monastic movement. It has inspired other monastic orders over the centuries and has brought spiritual benefit to those of us completely unconnected to monasteries of any sort.

As the years continue, the Rule shall continue to provide spiritual direction for those seeking an ordered life and a way of meeting Christ in the everday.

The Ascetic Revival Begins Today

funnelbuttMy apologies for not warning you.  Put down that burger!  Lower the Slurpee!  Don’t even think about eating candy!  Flex your knees and get ready to pray!  Turn of the TV!  Rearrange your Internet schedule!

The ascetic revival has begun!  To read about the environmental benefits of asceticism, click here.

I’ve decided to take seriously the books I’ve read about simple living, prayer, and self-denial.*  I’ve read a lot of them.  But reading doesn’t mean learning.  A person could read the entire corpus of ascetic and spiritual literature and conceivably come away unchanged.  Or a person could simply hear the Gospels read once a week and be transformed from the inside out; or, like Abraham, someone could hear the voice of God without having any spiritual instruction or access to Scripture.  Palladius writes:

Words and syllables do not constitute teaching — sometimes those who possess these are disreputable in the extreme — but teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct, of freedom fro injuriousness, of dauntlessness, and of an even temper.  To all these add an intrepidity which produces words like flames of fire. (The Lausiac History: Letter to Lausus 2, trans. Robert T. Meyer, ACW 34)

Therefore, a simpler life dawns.

I shall pray morning, noon, and evening.  Morning shall follow the daily office and sometimes noon and evening as well.  The flexibility will allow me to spend time using different forms of prayer.

I shall fast once a week.  You won’t know which day, and this isn’t the bragging Christ warns of.  It is, rather, an exhortation that we should all fast at least once a week.  They say it accrues much spiritual benefit.

My eating shall be moderate.  This includes no pop or Slurpees save in time of celebration.  I guess that’s the old rule surrounding wine, but I’m already too cheap to drink wine.  This also includes avoiding overeating and snacks between meals — this latter is practised by monks who follow Augustine’s Rule, such as Dominicans.

I shall spend time in Scripture-reading every day.  This has been a lifelong discipline that every once in a while I fall out of for days, weeks, or months at a time.  By God’s grace, I shall maintain this discipline.

I shall exercise my body.  The Benedictines believe in hard, physical labour.  I am an urban apartment-dwelling middle-class Canadian.  I have no garden, no chickens, no building to maintain or to build.  Therefore, I shall discipline my body through exercise, chiefly through my bicycle and through walking almost everywhere.  I’ll ride my bike three to five times a week.

What else?  Buy no unneeded stuff — books, CDs, DVDs.  Don’t rent when it can be borrowed for free.  Don’t waste time watching it or reading it when there’s a better option.  Spend more time with people in pleasant occupation and company, less time simply entertaining oneself.  Continue weekly attendance at church; possibly add an extra to ensure I receive Eucharist.  Hunt down time for solitude.  Talk with Jennifer about how we might be able to spend time in service to others.

Do you have any ideas how you and I can help start the ascetic revival of the 21st century?  If you think it’s already begun, show us where and how!

*The Lessons of St. Francis by John Michael Talbot; Celebration of DisciplinePrayer, and Devotional Classics by Richard J. Foster; The Inner Experience by Thomas Merton; Flirting with Monasticism by Karen E. Sloan; Finding God: The Way of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal; Ecstasy and Intimacy by Edith Humphrey, and other moderns.  The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius; The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great; The Institutes and The Conferences by John Cassian; The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa; The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila (well, most of it); The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross; The Letters of Saint Antony the Great; the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto; The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus; The Rule of St. Augustine and other classics.