Happy Feast of St Gregory the Great

With my office under two minutes’ walk from the tomb of the Venerable St Bede, my mind tends towards thinking of Gregory the Great (Bishop of Rome, 590-604) as the man who sent missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons in 597. This, indeed, was one of the many ways in which St Gregory is a major figure of his day. Through the mission of Augustine and his comrades at Canterbury, the Christianisation of southern England and its Anglo-Saxon inhabitants began. Britain was reconnected much more strongly with the Mediterranean world than hitherto. Anglo-Saxon culture began to take on its great fusion and synthesis that makes it so attractive, bringing with it elements of its own Germanic origins, the Mediterranean culture of the Roman missionaries and Roman Christianity, and the Celtic culture of its own neighbours and their missionaries who would become settled more permanently in English soil in a few years.

This triple fusion is, in my opinion, eminently demonstrated in the Lindisfarne Gospels (715-720).

This alone would make St Gregory great and worthy of recognition.

My research, on the other hand, makes me turn to Gregory’s voluminous correspondence. At a conference in honour of his retirement, early medieval scholar Tom Brown (author of Gentlemen and Officers), said that the first task he was assigned as a graduate student was the study of Gregory’s correspondence. Here he found a window into the social world of the Early Middle Ages unparalleled anywhere else. Indeed, Gregory the Great has over 800 surviving letters, more than any preceding pope. The greatest corpus of papal letters before Gregory is Leo the Great with 173.

In his letters we gain access to the workings of the papal machinery, to the growth and development of canon law, to the theological issues of the day, to early Byzantine politics, to the world of Byzantine Italy and the Lombard invasions. Worth reading, indeed.

My interest in Benedict, of late, makes me think on St Gregory’s life in two further ways. One, of course, is the second of his Dialogues, our only near-contemporary life of St Benedict, upon which we rely for any details about the author of the Rule and founder of Montecassino. The other is Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule, which details the ideal bishop but could easily be applied to an abbot or parochial priest — anyone with the care of souls.

Elsewhere, Gregory shows us the union of the active and contemplative lives, drawing on ideas expounded by Julianus Pomerius a century before. He praises the usefulness of images for instructing the illiterate. He sought to reform the singing of the liturgy in Rome, whereby a Sacramentary and a style of plainchant now bear his name (even if they are not, properly speaking, his).

He is worth knowing, this (potential) last of the Latin Fathers, latest of the Four Great Doctors of the Western Church, poised between antiquity and the Middle Ages.

I don’t know where to direct you first in this exhortation, though. Perhaps Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, for those with time to read a whole book! Here’s the most ancient life of St Gregory. Enjoy.


Blogging Scholastica (the sister of Benedict)

Since I’ve been passing through several Benedictines along with the Rule, in honour of International Women’s Day, here is a selection from Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2.33, that features St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict:

GREGORY. What man is there, Peter, in this world, that is in greater favour with God than St. Paul was: who yet three times desired our Lord to be delivered from the prick of the flesh, and obtained not his petition? Concerning which point also I must needs tell you, how there was one thing which the venerable father Benedict would have done, and yet he could not.

For his sister called Scholastica, dedicated from her infancy to our Lord, used once a year to come and visit her brother. To whom the man of God went not far from the gate, to a place that did belong to the Abbey, there to give her entertainment. And she coming thither on a time according to her custom, her venerable brother with his monks went to meet her, where they spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk: and when it was almost night they supped together, and as they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, and darkness came on, the holy Nun his sister entreated him to stay there all night, that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven. But by no persuasion would he agree unto that, saying that he might not by any means tarry all night out of his Abbey.

At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The Nun, receiving this denial of her brother, joining her hands together, laid them upon the table: and so, bowing down her head upon them, she made her prayers to almighty God: and lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their head out of door: for the holy Nun, |95 resting her head upon her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears upon the table, that she drew the clear air to a watery sky, so that after the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed: and her prayer and the rain did so meet together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began, so that in one and the very same instant, she lifted up her head and brought down the rain. The man of God, seeing that he could not by reason of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return back to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain of his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?” to whom she answered: “I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me, I have desired our good Lord, and he hath vouchsafed to grant my petition: wherefore if you can now depart, in God’s name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone.”

But the good father, being not able to go forth, tarried there against his will, where willingly before he would not stay. And so by that means they watched all night, and with spiritual and heavenly talk did mutually comfort one another: and therefore by this we see, as I said before, that he would have had that thing, which yet he could not: for if we respect the venerable man’s mind, no question but he would have had the same fair weather to have continued as it was, when he set forth, but he found that a miracle did prevent his desire, which, by the power of almighty God, a woman’s prayers had wrought. And it is not a thing to be marvelled at, that a woman which of long time had not seen her brother, might do more at that time than he could, seeing, according to the saying of St. John, God is charity and therefore of right she did more which loved more.

PETER. I confess that I am wonderfully pleased with that which you tell me.

-Translation as at tertullian.org

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).

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.

The Benedict Option 1: 5th-century history

I’ve decided to blog my way through Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. I do not know if, overall, this is a good book or a helpful book or — even if it is both of those things — my kind of book. But it is a book much talked about. And I am a historian of late antiquity as well as a Christian concerned about the survival of the faith and of western culture who believes that ancient and medieval texts have relevance for today’s world.

Two things first, though.

Thing One: My qualifications for critiquing the historical side are: a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity and Classics; two published articles about late antique Christianity plus a third in press that is specifically sixth-century; one year of teaching ancient history, primarily late antique, at a major research university; one year of research into late antique Christianity in Rome itself; a current postdoctoral position studying mediaeval manuscripts. I do Latin, canon law, christology, the Later Roman Empire, and manuscripts. Intellectual history.

Thing Two: Thing One will make me critique Rod Dreher in ways an ordinary, sane human would not, and possibly at times unfairly. Nonetheless, I believe that professional writers, even if not academics, have a duty to do research and read the sources themselves as well as at least some of the most current analysis of the sources and events they write about. I don’t think that’s unfair. I certainly, however, do not expect Rod Dreher to have read Gregory the Great or Benedict in Latin, or to have read Adalbert de Voguë’s multi-volume French commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. That would be absurd.

I have read Chapter 1. In this chapter Dreher sets out very quickly the plight of conservative Christians in America and gives a very brief account of the life of Benedict from St Gregory’s Dialogues, which you can read here. It is also included in Carolinne M. White’s Early Christian Lives from Penguin. My concerns do not lie with the brief outline itself, but with the decline and fall narrative as we have it here.

Dreher maintains that Rome in the year 500 ‘was no longer the Rome of imperial glory’ (13). This is only sort of true, but the grounds he gives are weak — the Visigothic sack of 410 (p. 13) and the fall of the western Roman Empire when a barbarian deposed the last emperor in 476 (p. 13). The population ‘plummeted in the decades after the sack.’ (13)

The fact of the matter is, the sack of 410 was a Bad Thing, but that seems mostly to have been on a psychological level — everyone, Dreher included, cites Jerome’s histrionics after the fact. But no one cites Rutilius’ poetry that seems to imagine a city full of glories and intact temples. And yes, people left. Mostly wealthy people; we see them turn up in North Africa and Palestine-Syria. But the Goths were mostly after moveables, besides any human cost. If they could carry it, they did. Otherwise, it stayed behind. The same goes for the very successful Vandal pirate raid of 455.

Now, I don’t want to say that Rome in 500 was a shiny city of marble or that it was in as good condition as it was when Constantius visited in 357 or when Theodosius I visited in 389. But I maintain that the main cause was not necessarily the sacks of Rome but the loss of Africa. The überwealthy of the fifth century owned most of North Africa, so when the Vandals conquered it throughout the first four decades of the 400s, that shattered their own personal financial base. And the subsequent imperial attempts to gain it back — including the largest joint East-West Roman army every mustered — went to impoverish the already economically weak imperial fisc in the West.

But, as Dreher notes (p. 14), Rome in 500 was still important enough for Theoderic the Ostrogoth (misidentified as a Visigoth) to visit. And the wealthy aristocrats were still there — Symmachi, Anicii, et al. 410 makes a nice, neat bundle for pegs to hang your history on, but it is not a primary cause for the gradual decline of the city of Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries. And it was still the largest city in the West, if not the whole Mediterranean when Benedict visited.

It seems like a needlessly simplified story to have Rome in 500 a crumbling shadow of its former self, when we know that there was a certain amount of urban revitalisation going on. However, this seems to be part of Dreher’s rhetorical strategy. On page 14, he posits that the reason why Roman morals were so bad in Benedict’s day — so bad that the young, tenderhearted Christian ran off to become a hermit — was precisely because of the shock of Rome’s fall, citing modern parallels. This could have worked for Rome in the immediate aftermath of 410 or 455, but not 500. Moreover, Benedict finding the city a corrupting influence and thus running away is a trope. Not to say it’s not what happened, mind you. Finally, Rome is always described by its critics as being a city of sin, whether these critics are Juvenal c. 100 or Ammianus c. 380.

That this is all too neat seems to hover at the edges of Dreher’s awareness when he says that things in Italy continued much as they had before (13). In fact, Italy’s great change and disruption do occur during Benedict’s posited lifetime and extend beyond into Gregory the Great’s era — first, Justinian’s Byzantine-Gothic War, second the Lombard invasions. These are what ruptured the social, cultural, and economic fabric of Italy. If Benedict had been in southern Gaul or Spain, Dreher’s neat, little late Roman narrative would have worked. But he lived in Campania.

I have three further critiques of this chapter’s presentation of history, more specifically about the sixth century. But this has gone long enough, and I need to get ready for bed. So I’ll leave it here for now, and then jump in next time with the history of monasticism, post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’.

Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 1: Homilies

I was chatting with a friend at a barbecue yesterday (indeed, in the smoke of the very barbecue itself!), and the subject of the Council of Tours of 813 arose, as it does. It arose for about the only reason I imagine it does arise these days, which is Canon XVII:

It seemed to our unanimity, that any bishop have homilies containing the necessary admonitions, about which his subjects be educated, that is about the catholic faith, according as they can grasp, about the perpetual retribution of the good and the eternal damnation of the wicked, about the future resurrection as well and the last judgement and with which deeds the blessed life can be promoted or by which it can be excluded. And that each be zealous to translate the same homilies clearly into the rustic Roman language or the Thiotisca, so that everyone can more easily understand the things that are said.

The Council of Tours of 823 did other things, encapsulated in 52 canons. You can read the Latin here. They legislate about the sale of church offices, about the translation of clerics, that bishops should frequently read and memorise the Gospels and letters of St Paul and become acquainted with the church fathers (in particular they should read Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule), that bishops should preach, take care of the poor, and lead a holy life. Various other things are articulated. It’s not uninteresting.

But, of course, it is Canon XVII that is most referenced. This is one of the first times we meet ‘rustica Romana lingua’ as something distinct from Latin. In the immediate context this would mean early Old French, but also includes the nascent Romance languages elsewhere in the Frankish domains in Spain and Italy, I’m sure. The Council of Tours was a local council, but it was part of Charlemagne’s efforts to correct religion and morals in his realms; it was assembled at the emperors behest, as were (it seems) some other councils that year. Thiotisca is mediaeval German.

Anyway, this canon is interesting because it counters two claims sometimes made by some Protestants (not all Protestants, and not all of them all the time). First, that there was no preaching in the Middle Ages. Second, that the vernacular was forbidden from official church activities in the Middle Ages. These are both false. Given that the Dominican order (founded 1216) is even officially called the Order of Preachers, the idea that people didn’t preach in the Middle Ages very easily refuted; just search your local university library catalogue for medieval preaching. Or sit back and enjoy this anthology by J.M. Neale. Nonetheless, some may still imagine that everything was in Latin.

Over a century after Charlemagne’s reform synod in 813 at Tours, in a land beyond Frankish control, we have the homilies of Aelfric of Eynsham, whose Old English homilies survive — you can read modern English translations here, if you wish. We also have the tenth-century Blickling Homilies in Old English. I am not an expert on all the vernacular homilies, but I do note a book about preaching in Romance languages prior to 1300 in my university’s catalogue. A lot of these sermons do not survive in the vernacular, though, as discussed at Harvard’s Houghton Library website. Since Latin was the international language of public discourse, most sermons were translated into Latin for dissemination; thus, the oral and the written find themselves at a much farther remove in this instance than usual.

Nevertheless, if we consider stories about the influence held by preachers such as St Francis in the early 1200s or Savonarola in the later half of the 1400s, we realise that vernacular preaching must have been normal.

The point of my poorly-sourced argument above?

Medieval Christianity was not as far removed from ordinary life as you might expect. The church was not, for a full half of its history, dominated by Latin to the exclusion of a language such as the people understands. Yes, the liturgy was in Latin. Yes, the language of high European culture was Latin. Yes, the official pronouncements of the ecclesiastical authorities were in Latin. But the day-to-day preaching to ordinary folk of the Middle Ages was in English, Old French, the old dialects of German, not Latin.

When we read the Reformation, this is important to keep in mind. There was preaching, and it was in the vernacular. It was the translation of the liturgy and the reform of certain practices and teachings that were the main concern of the Reformers. They, themselves, inherited and continued, in many ways, the mediaeval heritage of vernacular preaching. Let’s not erect mediaeval straw men in our quest to keep our consciences clear in our separation from Rome.

Boethius on divinity and happiness

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 3.10:

Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation. (Trans. V.E. Watts)

Boethius (or, rather, Philosophy) goes on to argue that happinessgoodness, so you are not truly happy unless you are truly good. This is part of the argument that only God, the Supreme Good, is ultimately happy. That’s a necessary piece of context. (For more context, read my review.) It’s important, because if committing murder or lying to people or stealing make you have feelings you call ‘happy’, this does not mean you are participating in divinity. In fact, according to Boethius, you wouldn’t be happy at all because evil is itself a tendency towards non-existence.

Upon reading this passage, those of us who spend time with the Eastern Orthodox will immediately cry aloud, ‘Ah, theosis!’ And, indeed, it is part of what is going on here, part of the passage from praktike to theoria symbolised by Philosophy’s gown as she stands before the senator in his prison cell. Of these latter two words, theoria is usually Englished as contemplation. So we are back in our sixth-century contemplative context, a few decades before Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

This, I would argue, is the philosophical basis of Christian mysticism. God is good. To be truly happy, one must be good. God is wholly good, so he is perfectly happy. Therefore, for us to become happy, we have to connect with God and have communion with Him.