Blogging Benedict: Food

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

It is fitting that today, the second day of Lent, I am blogging about food. For most people, Lenten discipline involves food in some way — giving up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or all sweet treats; fasting once or twice a week. In the Rule of Benedict, chapter 39, the abbot is to have discretion about the quantity of food to give the monks. They are to avoid over-indulgence.

The idea of discretion is in John Cassian, where it is considered foundational for the ascetic life. Many ascetics go too far and make themselves ill, for example. This is not merely theoretical or exemplary but a historical fact. John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi all damaged themselves through excessive fasting. Possibly Anselm of Canterbury as well, but I’m not sure (I forget).

For most of us, however, the danger is not excessive fasting but overeating, or, in Cassian’s vision, gluttony, which includes not just too much food but the wrong food or food at the wrong time. Hence why so many of us give up some delectable treat for Lent.

In chapter 40, alcohol also comes up:

We read that wine is not a suitable drink for monks, but since monks nowadays cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to excess, because wine causes even sensible people to behave foolishly. (p. 67, trans. White)

Interestingly, this is close to what Odysseus says about wine in Homer’s Odyssey, that it makes wise men say foolish things. Anyway, this is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes, for those of us with something of a straight-laced past for whom discovering ancient Christianity and the wider tradition has been liberating, alcohol can be a danger. I know some post-evangelicals who say things like, ‘I’m an Anglican because we can drink!’ Well, I’d have hoped the BCP or the poetry of John Donne or something like that would be better reasons to be Anglican. And sometimes, people not only drink to excess but start swapping the same ridiculous stories as those ‘in the world.’

I occasionally wonder if moderation is the harder route, and if it is easier either to be a lush or a teetotaller. Perhaps I’m too hard on everyone else?

Anyway, let us remember the words of Benedict about wine, as well as the Bible, which does, after all, call wine a mocker and strong drink a brawler. Christian freedom includes alcohol. Christian holiness restricts its amount.

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Monks and the goal of reading in the 6th century

I am reading Pierre Riché, Edcuation and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries. Of relevance to my ongoing posts about the Rule of St Benedict is his discussion of reading. First of all, Riché establishes that there was a common Latin Mediterranean monasticism and monastic culture in the sixth century. Then he discusses what monastic education would look like. It is all focussed on what St Benedict calls the ‘school for the Lord’s service‘ — education in asceticism. To that end, they have the Bible and the Fathers and the lives of saints read aloud to them, and they spend time reading these same texts. Not for intellectual growth nor even for understanding as we would think it:

To what end did frequent reading of the Bible and the other texts we have cited lead? Historians have taken quite different and even opposing positions on this subject, especially insofar as the beginnings of Benedictine monasticism are concerned. According to some, monks read the Bible without ever truly appreciating its meaning. Others claim that the monks abandoned themselves to learned study and portray Benedict as the ‘initiator of Biblical studies in the West.’

We have only the texts with which to settle this debate — in particular, the regulae, which speak of lectio, especially of lectio divina and meditatio. But what do these terms mean? The intellectual vocabulary of the period was quite rich but rather imprecise. For example, meditatio, which for the Church Fathers often meant ‘prayer,’ [cites Jerome and Cassian] in the rules meant ‘study,’ especially ‘preparatory study.’ Meditari litterasmeditari psalmos meant to learn to read and to learn the Psalter by reading it aloud in order to become thoroughly familiar with it. [Benedict, Rule of the Master, Cassiodorus] Meditari was also synonymous with legere, which ordinarily meant ‘to read’; but when Benedict spoke of the lectio divina, did he not mean something more than simply reading? Lectio, for the grammarians, was the beginning of interpretation. ‘To read’ the Bible, then, could mean to study it intensively under the direction of the abbot. Was the abbot to explicate the hidden meaning of the Scriptures to the monks and to be, as was said of Achivus of Agaune, an ‘interpretator insignis?’ All that is certain is that the abbot was primarily charged with directing the spiritual and moral life of the monks. He was more a ‘physician for the soul’ than a teacher; a passage in the Regula Magistri portrays him curing an ‘illness’ with words and appropriate readings. I see no place for the establishment of ‘Christian learning’ as Saint Augustine understood it in the ascetic climate described by the regulae.

According to Cassian, who borrowed the thought from Evagrius Ponticus, purity of heart was preferable when learning when it came to delving into the meaning of Scripture. The cenobites of Gaul and Italy remained true to this advice. Caesarius said that humility, obedience, and charity were the primary conditions necessary for lectio and oratio, while Benedict, like Cassian, insisted on ‘puritas cordis.’ Cenobites, beginners in the art of asceticism,[Benedict] were apprentices under the direction of their abbot. Their final goal was real meditatio, the contemplation of God.[Cassian] Legere and meditari mean more ‘to taste’ than ‘to understand.’

Thus the monk’s religious culture was an exclusively ascetic culture. While there is no doubt that Benedict founded an original monastic organization, he was somewhat less original in the realm of religious culture. He compares in this respect more with the Eastern cenobites than with Cassiodorus. This monastic culture, which, as we have described it, was completely opposed to profane culture, was also proposed as a model for clerics. (120-122)

A quick note: This is explicitly a discussion of sixth-century southern Gaul and Italy, not the wider monastic culture that will grow up in Benedictine monasteries and which is described and studied by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

Blogging Benedict: Tools for good works (chapter 4)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 4 of The Rule of St Benedict (RB) is about the ‘tools for good works.’ We have already set aside concerns about legalism, so hopefully we can read Benedict for wisdom about discipline — about being disciples, students, in the Lord’s service, and seeing these tools as the means by which we grow spiritually and become truly virtuous. Much of this chapter is simply a catalogue of commands, some moral, some more ascetic/disciplined.

A few for reflection, then.

“put a high value in fasting.” (p. 16 — page references to the Little Black Penguin translation by Carolinne M. White)

In the churches I have attended, the only two disciplines regularly discussed are read your Bible and pray every day. They are probably the two most central. The ancient ascetics always bind in this third — fasting. And, indeed, our Lord fasted. John the Baptist fasted. St Paul fasted. Esther fasted. Fasting has been an integral part of Christian discipline, east and west, Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the whole history of the Church. Well, until recently. Not being a historian of the modern church, I don’t know when the change occurred. But I know that it was practised and advocated during the Reformation and by such figures as William Law and John Wesley.

In our food-obsessed culture (see my post on gluttony), fasting can be truly counter-cultural. It can also challenge us to re-think our priorities. As Benedict says in this chapter:

“Do not be guided in your actions by the values of this world, and do not value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” (pp. 16-17)

That, of course, includes fasting. Fasting, recall, is a tool, not an end in itself. To use these tools wisely, we need discretion, we need purity of heart, we need to cultivate what Hesychios the Priest (fifth-century) calls ‘watchfulness’ in The Philokalia. RB:

“As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ.” (17-18)

This not only draws my thoughts to St Hesychios but to St John Cassian as well, whose allegorical reading of Psalm 137, which advocates infanticide, I have blogged about. Twice, in fact. Cassian’s reading says that the Babylonian children are to be considered our vices; C. S. Lewis gives the same reading in Reflections on the Psalms.

Watchfulness as advocated by the ancients is almost impossible. How can we actually pay attention to every single thought we’re having? Thinking about thinking is really weird, isn’t it? In this regard, one non-Benedictine discipline that may help is the Examen, a Jesuit practice whereby you prayerfully go through the day and examine your heart. Where was God? Where did you sin? I’ve not read extensively on this discipline; Richard Foster treats it in his book Prayer.

When Benedict closes his discussion of these moral and ascetic tools, he writes:

“These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. … The workshop where we diligently work at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery, in the stability of the community.” (p. 19)

We see here some truly Benedictine ideals, particularly stability and community. Too many of us — myself often included — try to go it alone. No wonder we fail. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’ (Gen. 2:18) And when things get tough in one circumstance or community, we often leave, rather than wonder if the problem includes ourselves. You will never be able to outrun your own sweat.

Blogging Benedict: Leadership (chapters 2-3)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict is all about what sort of man the abbot should be. This is Benedict’s ideal abbot. My brother Jonathan mused a while back about what it means to be a priest (a herder of cats?), and John Cassian brought him to the idea that a priest should be like an abbot, seeking to help his congregation grow spiritually, giving them the spiritual nourishment they need as students enrolled in the school of the Lord’s service (that’s me putting a Benedictine metaphor in his mouth).

Benedict’s abbot is a spiritual father. He is called to be a man of compassion and virtue. Yes, he punishes, excommunicates, disciplines the brothers. But he also loves them and cares for them and seeks their growth in the Spirit. I think about St Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), one of the great Cistercian fathers. He was mild in his punishment of brothers who deviated, and some people criticised him for this. Yet one of the brothers he treated with clemency made a complete change and recovery, if you will, becoming a holy and devout monk because of the mercy he was shown. The one who is forgiven much will love much, as Our Lord says.

This idea draws me to the idea in Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) that canon law is a remedy. The regulations surrounding medieval ecclesiastical life and the monastic lifestyle, in an ideal sense, are meant to heal us of the disease of sin. Or, as DC Talk once put it, ‘the disease of self running through my blood, it’s a cancer fatal to my soul.’ Canons and penances are not, ideally, punitive but healing and restorative.

And they are to be applied to all equally — Benedict’s abbot does not play favourites. In fact, Aelred runs counter to Benedict here. Benedict says that you should not play favourites unless someone proves himself a better monk. Aelred, on the other hand, gets in trouble for seeming to favour his wayward monk. Yet this apparent favouritism was the right remedy. This is the value of discretion or discernment, one of the most prized monastic virtues of Late Antiquity (on which I’ve blogged here).

Of course, all this is well and good for the ideal abbot. But we know that this ideal rarely exists. Do we really want to trust the lives of so many souls to live in absolute obedience to anyone in a post-Jonestown world? This is a hard question to answer. I do think there is a way to think on the virtues of obedience in our own lives separately from how much authority we give an individual leader in our worshipping community. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Chapter 3 of the Rule makes it clear that the abbot is not meant to rule as a tyrant. Benedict writes:

Whenever any important matters need to be dealt with in the monastery, the abbot should gather the whole community together and set out the agenda in person. (p. 14 English)

The goal here is a balance between control and inclusion. The monks are included in the decision-making process, their voices are sought and heard. The abbot weighs their opinions and decides. After the decision is made, the monks must obey and not dispute with the abbot in public.

I wonder if they can respectfully dispute behind closed doors?

The concept of absolute obedience is very difficult for me to imagine…

However, what I wonder is, could there be room for a ‘Presbyterian’ monastic governance? That is, no absolute obedience to anyone. Remove the abbot and replace him with the deans. Make everyone mutually submissive to a commonly chosen rule. Decisions are made corporately and democratically by the ‘kirk session’. Or, even more radically, no monastic elders at all — monastic Quakerism? All decisions require unanimity and consensus.

My closing question, then: Do you, dear readers, know of intentional communities (besides local churches!) with either a ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Quaker’ kind of leadership structure? I’d like to hear about them.

Blogging Benedict: Chapter 1

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In Chapter 1 of the Rule, Benedict lays out the different kinds of monks. What wisdom might we find for today here?

First, coenobites — monks who live in community — “are the most effective kind of monks” (p. 8). St Basil, who wrote his own monastic rules, was himself opposed to hermits. How can someone who lives alone fulfil the command of Christ to love others, to serve others? As Cassian observes, if you suffer the passion of anger, how will you ever overcome it if you never spend time with people to anger you?

For us — deep community matters. It can smooth our rough edges. It provides accountability. It gives a place to live out Christian virtues, to learn from others, to grow in grace.

Second, sarabaites. These are monks, so-called, if you will. I suspect (with no research into the question to back me up) that Benedict is taking a stab at aristocrats who claim to be ascetics but live on their villas with servi to take care of their needs. These people do not labour but rather live comfortably. Such as these are also a target of Cassian’s, and an example of what happens when people try to hold them to monastic strictness is in Gregory of Tours when there is a rebellion of aristocratic nuns.

Third, gyrovagues. Jerome and Cassian both oppose these as well. These are monks who just wander around from monastery to monastery. They have no stability. What they fail to realise is that perhaps the problem with all of the communities through which they drift is themselves — they bring their own problems with them wherever they go.

For us — this is a very Protestant phenomenon. Leaving one congregation or denomination for another whenever we disagree. Drums, preaching, music, the kind of ministry they do, how nice people are to us. What if we who leave were the problem in the first place?

The spirit that inspires these is the noon-day demon of akedia, I think. We become listless, despondent, discontented with our situation, our discipline, our community. We think that a change of scenery will help. Evagrius and Cassian deal with this, as does St Anselm in a letter quoted by Eadmer in the Life of St Anselm.

Fourth, hermits. Benedict himself, if we trust Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2, spent time as a hermit before becoming a coenobite. St John Climacus also spent time as a hermit. Because of what was said above about the virtues of coenobitism, one should only become a hermit after having grown much in grace. Cistercians have no place for hermits in their constitutions, much to the consternation of Thomas Merton, who so greatly desired that grace.

A thought on hermits: They are never alone. Indeed, the cloistered monks have a hard time keeping the world out. Even monks of La Grande Chartreuse (who are a community of hermits who never speak) have written books to minister to the world (I’m thinking of Guigo II, on whom I’ve blogged here and here). In Jerome’s Life of St Hilarion, the recurring theme is that Hilarion keeps getting found out everywhere he goes, and people come for spiritual wisdom and miracles, so the hermit moves along. Jerome attributes his discovery to demons who want to disturb his solitude. I like to think the opposite — God does not give people the fruits of contemplation to hoard them but to share them (see Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule on that one).

In John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints, he tells the story of Simeon the Mountaineer, a hermit who went off into the mountainous regions of Mesopotamia (Assyria?) to be alone. There he met people who had been baptised but not catechised and who had no priests. Thus he found himself wrenched from the eremitical life into the life of active service, preaching to them and bringing them to a true faith in Jesus who saves them.

Consider Richard Rolle, a hermit who was also a spiritual adviser to some nuns and wrote several books. Or, also in the 14th century, Julian of Norwich, who received visitors at her anchorhold. And, today, Father Lazarus, the anchorite who inhabits the Inner Mountain of St Antony the Great. St Antony went there to be a hermit, and a community followed him that exists to this day. Father Lazarus lives there, alone with his demons and prayers and Nescafé, but he receives visitors and even makes videos for the Coptic Orthodox youth!

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.

Suffering (St Mark the Monk and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom)

An illuminating interview with Anthony Bloom is at the bottom of this post. Skip to it if you only have 22 minutes…

Holy Saturday.

Countless sermons and Eastertide devotionals remind us of what Our Lord’s disciples must have felt this day.

Bewilderment. Loss. Fear. Disillusionment. Suffering of an existential variety.

The day before, Good Friday.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison!

Christ rests in the tomb. Some days, it feels like maybe He stayed there — personal suffering blocking theological perspective. Illness of oneself or a loved one, poverty, bereavement, loss of employment, tenuous employment, tense work/family/household/school/church situations, mental illness.

There are actually no easy answers for suffering. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God says that we should accept illness, in particular, as God’s will for us, that we may learn to live under His will. My friend with chronic illness found this singularly unhelpful.

In God and Man, Met. Anthony Bloom says that as Christians, we must be ready to suffer. Indeed, he says that Christianity necessarily involves suffering. This is in stark contrast to what we usually think about religion. I remarked to a group of students recently that many people join different religions or ancient mysteries because they are promised happiness through religion — except, I said, by Met. Anthony.

At the bottom of this article, I am posting a video interview with Met. Anthony from CBC back in what looks like the 1980s. I’m a bit surprised to find this interview coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I’ll take it! Anyway, in the interview, Met. Anthony believes that our suffering can be truly transformative and redemptive in our lives — if we suffer with love.

Love is what makes all the difference for Met. Anthony, although he also believes that fortitude and endurance can make suffering good for us as well. This is in contrast to how most of us view our own sufferings and those of others today. It is, however, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

St Mark the Monk (or ‘Ascetic’ or ‘Solitary’) wrote in the early to mid-400s, at a time when Nestorian and Pelagian ideas were hot topics. He is the next author in The Philokalia after St John Cassian on whom I blogged fairly extensively in February. I find St Mark hard to grasp at times, and I do not always agree with him. But he is worth wrestling with.

Some thoughts from ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’ (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware):

42. Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.

43. He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction.

65. To accept an affliction for God’s sake is a genuine act of holiness; for true love is tested by adversities.

66. Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.

67. Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.

Numbers 65-67 resonate particularly with the teaching of Met. Anthony. I believe that part of what we see in these verses is a redirection of the heart. What matters is not, ultimately, blame, or origin of suffering. What matters is not its intensity. What matters is our response to it. This is part of the arguments found in Cassian’s Conferences, in fact; their philosophical roots are Stoicism.

If suffering comes our way, it is best, ultimately, to respond with reality. I was going to say, ‘If suffering comes our way, do we blame God, or see how we can respond to suffering in faith and virtue?’ But, really, how many of us have reached such a state of purity of heart that such is even possible. The Psalms teach us to be real with God.

The Psalms also push through disappointment, anger, frustration, grief, etc., directed towards God and draw us up into joy and glory.

So, perhaps, we should certainly give God whatever true feelings we have in the moment. But maybe the reflective and meditative exercise on sufferings is to see how we can become more virtuous through them? Maybe we can use the things over which we have no control to better our lives and the lives of others in areas where we do have control?

There are no quick, easy answers to suffering. But I think Met. Anthony Bloom of Sourozh is onto something.

I’d certainly take his view on suffering over Joel Osteen any day.