Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

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

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

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

Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixth-Century Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Benedict Option: More history

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. Then I continued the discussion of history, talking about why it matters for a book like this and then moving into monastic history. Today, I look at two more historical issues raised for me in Chapter 1: post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’ — both are related.

Post-Roman Powers

Throughout this brief contextualisation of the Rule of St Benedict, Dreher uses the word ‘barbarian’ and the designation ‘barbarian tribes’ to describe the Roman empire’s conquerors. Rome left in her wake:

countless local wars as barbarian tribes fought for dominance. (15)

I think the designation of late Roman, irregular military forces that coalesced as nations while they conquered Roman territory as ‘barbarian tribes’ is taking things too far. Theoderic and the Ostrogoths who oust Odoacer are not ‘tribes’. They are a late Roman military force whose leader never received a lasting military command from the Emperor Zeno, and who took control of an unstable situation. Yes, there was local war as a result, but then these barbarians brought stability.

In fact, it is argued that Theoderic, before the accession of Justin in 518, was setting himself up as an emperor. Everything he does in Rome and Ravenna is basically the same as what an emperor would do. Whether he would ever claim the title is, perhaps, immaterial. What matters is that he ruled like an emperor.

Or to take the notorious Vandals. Once they were done torturing and executing a large proportion of the catholic clergy of North Africa, they decided to settle down, enjoy their new villas, and write poetry. In fact, the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, although weak when destroyed by Belisarius in the 530s, was relatively stable. So was the Visigothic kingdom of Spain by 589.

For Gaul and Italy, before the Byzantine-Gothic wars of Justinian, the ‘countless local wars’ were, from what I can tell, largely confined to the border areas, to places like Septimania on the modern France-Spain border. The rulers of these new polities established themselves and fought their enemies, but it was not all war all the time.

That said, they did behave badly a lot of the time, especially if a civil war erupted amongst the Franks. Gregory of Tours (d. 595) was particularly appalled by the behaviour of Frankish Christian soldiers and their treatment of monks, nuns, and church property.

But the problem with Dreher’s picture of post-Roman Europe is that it buys into

Barbarism

On page 17 we read:

When we think of barbarians, we imagine wild, rapacious tribesmen rampaging through cities, heedlessly destroying the structures and institutions of civilization simply because they can. Barbarians are governed only by their will to power, and neither know nor care a thing about what they are annihilating. (17)

This paragraph is a zinger. He is using the image of the barbarian to describe modern liberals: ‘we … are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.’ (17) In fact, if one accepts Dreher’s view of things today, I’d much rather be ruled by Late Roman barbarian kings, thank you very much.

For example, they were not actually all that into wanton destruction. The text Anonymus Valesianus II includes a long description of things at Rome that Theoderic maintained. We have a mosaic of him from Ravenna, pictured at the right. Not only that, but his son held the consulship. His court helped foster the arts and culture of Cassiodorus and Boethius (the latter of whom he killed on suspicion of treason — perfectly Roman of him).

When the Franks emerge as military force, they imagine themselves holding various ranks within the now deceased Roman bureaucratic infrastructure. They, too, build things. Or, if not they themselves, then the Gallo-Romans under their rule.

As far as pillaging goes, this is, sadly, not a feature solely of barbarians. Soldiers have a long history of looting and destruction, whether they are Romans, Greeks, or barbarians in antiquity, or the medieval English in the Hundred Years’ War, or (sadly) even Allies in WWII. Soldiers are human; I do not wish to imply either that looting is not a big deal, nor that soldiers = barbarians. Just giving context.

Final thoughts on this strand

My final thoughts on what was meant to be a single post but is now three are as follows.

The fall of the western Roman Empire, which was a protracted process over decades, led to a power vacuum in some places and some chaos in others. It resulted in the breakdown of much long-distance trade and the reduction of classical urbanism. In Britain, in fact, Romano-British culture was completely subsumed by the newcoming Anglo-Saxon powers. Materially, many people suffered and were very, very poor.

Of these very poor, those who could sometimes joined monasteries. There were, however, legal restrictions on the movement of those we might call ‘peasants’, so many of the very poor did not join monasteries because of being legally bound to the land that they farmed. Nonetheless, for these people and for some of the ‘middle’ class and aristocrats, monasteries became places of refuge in the relative uncertainty of the new regimes. Sure.

That said, everything in Italy, where Benedict lived, happens a few decades later than elsewhere (setting aside the possible exception of northern Italy, where first Attila in 450-2 then Theoderic vs Odoacer in the 490s, as well as some civil wars, made life difficult). Benedict is part of an international moment of monasticism that helps preserve writing as the classical culture of villa-based aristocratic living dissolves and is replaced by a largely illiterate military aristocracy who prefer hunting to poetry.

Things are often very bad in the post-Roman world, and the new rulers and their armies often do terrible deeds. But they are not always so bad as people like Dreher make it sound, and all of them were committed to preserving Roman law, Roman taxation, long-distance trade, and Roman buildings as much as was within their power, with greater or lesser success.

Here is one success, again of Theoderic’s. The Arian baptistery at Ravenna.

Some thoughts on church councils

Folio 148v, Paris, lat. 11611 of Rusticus' Acts of Chalcedon, including a version of the Creed
Folio 148v, Paris, lat. 11611 of Rusticus’ Acts of Chalcedon, including a version of the Creed

I was going crazy hunting through a pdf of this manuscript today, looking for a few of Leo the Great’s letters (found them on 134v-137r). The manuscript is a copy of a Latin translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon (451) made by a fellow named Rusticus in the mid-500s. Rusticus was the nephew of Pope Vigilius (pope, 537-555), so you’d think he’d have things pretty easy in the world of geo-ecclesiology.

However, at the time Rusticus put together his Latin version of the Chalcedonian Acts, he was hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople with some monks called the Sleepless Ones (‘Acoemetae’/’Akoimetai’) — as one does. Rusticus was hiding out for the same reason he put together this collection of Chalcedonian documents. He was opposed to the Emperor Justinian’s activities against the so-called ‘Three Chapters’. As I have written before (with more context on the issue), opposition of the Three Chapters need not mean abrogation of the Chalcedonian doctrinal settlement.

Be that as it may, people like Rusticus* felt that anything that sounded as thought it undid any of the things that Chalcedon did (whether doctrinal or canonical) undid the whole council. And the Council of Chalcedon, because of its espousing of the western Christology of Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461), was seen as essential to the western church — especially essential to East-West unity.

Putting together his own translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon and gathering together some of the relevant documents, then, was not just Rusticus’ way of killing time with the Sleepless Monks. It had a polemical purpose — to provide accurate ammunition to the western cause of support for the Three Chapters.

In the end, Rusticus’ cause lost. Despite the fact that ‘Origenism’ (whatever that is) gets most of the airtime these days, the ‘Fifth Ecumenical Council’ of 553 was not about Origenism but about Christology. Obviously, the question of universalism is more of a hot topic today than the natures of Christ, but back then, this is what mattered to church unity and concord. As part of his attempts to restore unity in the eastern church whilst maintaining it with the western church, Justinian guided the Council of Constantinople of 553 to what he hoped was a compromise position, and the Three Chapters were condemned. Ultimately this plan failed, but there we have it.

Thinking on Rusticus, Chalcedon, and the Three Chapters/Council of 553 reminded me that ecclesiastical history is not, was not, set in stone. Sometimes we read the history of the church, and especially the ‘Seven Ecumenical Councils’ teleologically. We assume that of course the bishops gathered at Ecumenical Council X would approve Doctrinal Position Y. We act as though the doctrinal statements of the councils are the only logically inevitable results of a reasoned reading of Scripture.

First, even if I accept that the seven councils termed ‘ecumenical’ are, in fact, true, even if I believe that they are the most biblically faithful and philosophically coherent options out there (I do), this doesn’t mean that, from the perspective of history and of the people living through them, these settlements were foregone conclusions.

Take Nicaea, for instance. Nicene orthodoxy had a long, uphill battle for its establishment as the official doctrine of the church within the Roman Empire, and of the Germanic Christians outside imperial control, the only ones who really converted before being totally assimilated by their neighbours were the Visigoths in the 580s. If we set aside convictions that the truth will always prevail, it is certainly not a foregone conclusion that Nicene Christianity would survive and thrive as it has.

Second, part of what makes orthodoxy ‘so perilous’ and ‘so exciting’ (quoting Chesterton) is the fighting. I have a friend who says that one reason she became Anglican is that, ‘God is in the fighting.’ Not just the fighting, of course — much of that is petty, ungodly, un-Jesus-y. But the uncertainty of it all — fighting for or against the Three Chapters. Believing that Chalcedon is the one hope for orthodoxy. Gathering together all the evidence you can find, just as Rusticus and Facundus did in the sixth century. God is with us in the struggle to learn and defend the Truth.

We do not know for certain what the exact shape of orthodoxy’s road will be. Often, it is ratified after the fact. Indeed, it wasn’t until Chalcedon in 451 that the ‘Second’ Ecumenical Council of 381 was really and truly upheld as a universal council — and what makes it so different from the unratified, non-ecumenical Council of Sardica of 344? Outside of strong papal disapproval of Second Ephesus (448) (Leo calls it a ‘den of robbers’, latrocinium), is it so different from the First Council of Ephesus (now the ‘Third’ Ecumenical Council) in 431?

We are the heirs of these councils — by faith in the Holy Spirit, we can believe that what the council fathers approved was orthodoxy. But to the people who lived through it — nothing was written. Not yet.

Who knows what the future will mean for our days?

*And a significant swathe of western/Latin ecclesiastics, including the whole diocese of Aquileia and a certain Facundus of Hermiana who wrote a book In Defense of the Three Chapters and Victor of Tonnena, who wrote a chronicle. And loads more.

Does the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’ contradict Chalcedon?

Justinian in San Vitale, Ravenna

One of the events of import when looking into Leo the Great’s legacy is the Three Chapters Controversy of the sixth century. Many western bishops and clerics — as well as some of the East — felt that an edict of Justinian condemning ‘Three Chapters’ (544), and the Second Council of Constantinople (553) that approved this edict, undid the work of the Council of Chalcedon (451). As a result, besides writing texts In Defence of the Three Chapters, the opponents of the condemnation put together collections of texts and acts of the Council of Chalcedon to better present their opposition to Justinian (who was likely to depose and exile you if you resisted).

But what are the Three Chapters, and do they contravene the Council of Chalcedon?

The Three Chapters first emerge in an edict of Justinian’s in 544. They are part of his overtures to the Miaphysite/conservative Cyrillian contingent in the eastern Church that was at this time coalescing into its own ecclesial structure in opposition to the imperial church, especially in what will become the Syrian Orthodox Church (traditionally ‘Jacobite’ due to the tireless efforts of one of its founding bishops, Jacob Baradaeus) and the Coptic Orthodox Church.*

I have not as yet read the text of the original edict, but in one of his letters to dissenters, Justinian summarised the contents of the Three condemned Chapters:

If anyone defends Theodore [of Mopsuestia], or the letter allegedly written by Ibas [of Edessa], or the writings of Theodoret [of Cyrrhus] which set forth teachings contrary to the orthodox faith, he is numbered with the heretics and he sets himself outside the catholic faith whose head is the only-begotten Son of God, our Lord and God Jesus Christ. (A Letter on the Three Chapters, trans. K P Wesche, On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian, p. 158)

How might this potentially abrogate Chalcedon? Well, the chapter against Theodore of Mopsuestia won’t. It is the chapters against Theodoret and Ibas that pose the problem for most — especially, it seems, against Ibas.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus was a tireless critic of Cyril of Alexandria, and wrote a number of dogmatic works, including refutations of Cyrils anti-Nestorian anathemas — anathemas considered essential to orthodoxy in the mid-sixth-century East, whether Miaphysite or Chalcedonian. In fact, the interpretation of Chalcedon produced by the above-quoted letter of Justinian is that Chalcedon approves of Cyril’s anathemas.

Theodoret’s anti-Cyrillian activities got him deposed at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 — the council Leo dubbed a latrocinium, a den of robbers, in a letter to the Empress Pulcheria. At Chalcedon in 451, the actions of Second Ephesus were undone, including the condemnation of Theodoret on the condition that he give assent to the Tome of Leo as orthodoxy and condemn Nestorius. These things he did; there is a chance that he is one of the few people in antiquity who actually changed his mind.

Since Theodoret was reconciled to the Church at Chalcedon and reinstated as Bishop of Cyrrhus, it struck the supporters of the Three Chapters that a vague condemnation of his anti-Cyrillian writings was dangerously close to contravening Chalcedon.

Ibas of Edessa, on the other hand, appeared at Second Ephesus after having already been tried for heresy, allegedly having said, ‘I do not envy Christ becoming God; what he is, so can I be.’ He was also condemned for having written a letter to ‘Mari’ (which means ‘My Lord’), a Persian; Richard Price reckons that Ibas’ letter was written after 433 when the Antiochene party was reconciled to Cyril of Alexandria to help remove the sting. This letter makes quite clear that before 433, Ibas considered Cyril a heretic.

Ibas’ letter to ‘Mari’ was read out at the Council of Chalcedon as part of the acts of Second Ephesus during Ibas’ reconciliation to the church that, as with Theodoret, included the anathematisation of Nestorius and Eutyches.

Some of the sixth-century Chalcedonians had become what Richard Price in his introduction to The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 calls ‘conciliar fundamentalists’ — they treated the acts of the ecumenical councils the same way a fundamentalist treats the Bible. As a result, if it’s in the official acts, they believe it is to be accepted wholly and uncritically. However, the acts of Chalcedonian are simply the minutes of what transpired, and they include the acts of Second Ephesus, which Chalcedon actively overturned, as well as statements from various bishops not meant to be taken as binding for the Church. Nonetheless, for such readers, Ibas’ letter to ‘Mari’, a Persian, was a stumbling block when Justinian passed his edict.

To others, it was the apparent acceptance of the letter as evidence of Ibas’ orthodoxy by the papal legates and Maximus of Antioch. It is true, the rest of the bishops present did not accept it as such — the most any of them would say was that ‘the documents’ proved his orthodoxy, and that would mean that acts of the synods that tried Ibas, not the letter to ‘Mari’ alone.

I do not think that condemning the letter to ‘Mari’ abrogates the Chalcedonian settlement. First, doing so does not condemn Ibas himself post-Chalcedon, for one thing, which was the major issue at the Council. Second, the opinion of most bishops was not positively in favour of this letter — does endorsement by the papal legates mean endorsement by the whole council? Not necessarily.

Third, and this is the argument put forward by Justinian, a document so anti-Cyrillian cannot be reconciled with the First Council of Ephesus (431) and the spirit of the Chalcedonian Fathers who approved of two of Cyril’s letters as official doctrine and commended Leo on the basis of his own alleged Cyrillianism.

Fourth, when you read the acts of Chalcedon, it is evident that these bishops have little or no interest in reconciling Ibas at all. When the imperial magistrates running the show first ask them if they are willing to readmit Ibas into communion, there is one of the most awkward silences in Church history. No one wanted to do it. They were forced into it by circumstance and the council’s goal of completely overturning Second Ephesus, not by their own will.

Interestingly, there is less argument about condemning the vague selection of works by Theodoret. Since his person is left unscathed, and none of those documents made their way into the acts to be adored by conciliar fundamentalists, he is less of a hot topic than Ibas, even though his memory is also more widely regarded.

In sum, I don’t think the Three Chapters abrogate Chalcedon. They are, to a degree, in the same spirit as the Chalcedonian Fathers, but adding a stronger Cyrillian emphasis to the doctrine of the church. I do, however, think Justinian was breaking the rules when he tried to enforce them by edict.

*Justinian, in writing to the opponents of his condemnation of the Three Chapters, denies that he is making overtures to Miaphysites, but argues that there is a nascent Nestorian resurgence that the edict is countering. That’s false — even non-Nestorian ‘Antiochene’ Christology had long ago entered into critical decline with the Empire years before this.

Blog Posts for Context re Green Men and Christianisation

At least nine, and possibly more than twenty, people have read yesterday’s post, Brief Thoughts on the Green Man. I would like to draw the attention of my readers to some posts here that may de-fuse any sticky situations that may arise from people who think I’m off my rocker or have no clue what I’m talking about. In anti-chronological order, they are:

A Few Thoughts About ‘Celtic’ Christianity

Christianisation Under Justinian Part 1 and Part 2

Rosslyn Chapel, ‘the Celts’, and the Christianisation of Europe

I thought there were more that would be useful, but they seem not to be. Enjoy!

Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia – The Man and His Life

St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543) is one of the most influential figures in the western Christian spiritual heritage, due largely to his Rule which was adopted by much of Western Europe as the Church under the Carolingians and others sought to standardise and regularise the monastic movement — as a result, the Rule is the foundational document for Benedictines and Cistercians (including Trappists). Given the impact of the Rule over the centuries, we shall discuss Benedict in two sections: “The Man & His Life” and “The Rule & Its Legacy”.

The Man & His Life

Benedict was born to noble parents in Italy in the years just following the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer, in those years where, although there was no longer an emperor in Rome (or Ravenna, for that matter), life went on in many respects much the same, except that, following Odoacer, Italy was ruled by Goths who were ostensibly under the Emperor in Constantinople, although effectively kings of Italy. Justinian’s (re?)conquest of Italy was not completed at the time of Benedict’s death — yet he still lived through turbulent times.

What follows derives largely from Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogue 2, from St. Gregory’s series of lives of holy men of Italy cast as dialogues. It is available online here., although I read it in Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives.

When a youth, he decided to abandon the usual route of formal secular education for fear of the pagan learning infecting his delicate brain and casting him into eternal hellfire and brimstone. If this is true, he joins the ranks of another learned sixth-century Christian figure with no pagan education, my current companion Cyril of Scythopolis. Anyway, he and his nurse went off to live holily together.

When he was old enough, this young man decided to run off and become a solitary, a hermit, an anchorite. While he was wandering in the woods, a monk named Romanus found him, and Romanus showed him to a cave where Benedict could live in secret. Unlike other secret anchorites such as we see in the Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, Benedict did not immediately draw a crowd but lived in his cave for a long while, fed by Romanus’ who gave him food from his own rations at the monastery.

Eventually, however, the cat was out of the bag, when God decided that Benedict was ready to be shown to the world, and a priest was shown in a vision where to find Benedict and to celebrate Easter with him. Thus, Benedict and the priest celebrated Easter together. Shortly thereafter, some shepherds found Benedict, having first mistaken him for a wild beast. They helped him out and came to him for spiritual comfort (this once happened to, I believe, Savvas in Palestine).

People got to hearing that there was an anchorite around who was pretty holy, and soon Benedict was in the holy man business, giving spiritual counsel and all the usual.

Eventually, the abbot of Romanus’ monastery of Vicovaro died, and the brethren there elected Benedict to be their abbot. He left behind his anchorhold and took up the spiritual leadership of this monastery. However, according to Gregory, the monks at Vicovaro were lazy and not up to living truly spiritual lives. They found the rule that Benedict produced for them to live under too stringent. Soon they were complaining, and after an attempted poisoning, Benedict left them and returned to his cave.

As often happens with famous anchorites, people seeking the holy life started to dwell in the area around Benedict. There in the wilderness he founded twelve monasteries of twelve monks each — this being the ideal number of monks in Benedict’s mind. He himself served as spiritual head of them all, much as his Palestinian contemporaries Barsanuphius and John would, holed up in their cells and never seeing a soul.

As people were taking up the spiritual life, the local priest grew jealous of Benedict and his popularity, thinking that he should be the most popular spiritual man around, so he tried various stratagems, from slander to a troupe of naked dancing girls, to ruin Benedict’s plans. All of them failed, but eventually Benedict felt it was better for all involved if he took his leave of that area. So, appointing priors to continue his work in the monastic foundations he’d made, Benedict departed.

He took up residence at Monte Cassino around 531 and founded a monastery as its abbot. It was for the community of monks gathered here at Monte Cassino that Benedict wrote his famous Rule. His first act upon arrival on Monte Cassino was the destruction of a Temple of Apollo and its grove (still in use!), the site of which he covered with a shrine to St. Martin. As in his old residence, Benedict founded more monasteries in the area as the years passed.

Throughout his life, both as an anchorite and as an abbot, Benedict is recorded to have performed many miracles. Outside of one battle with the spirit of fornication, he never seems to have had any failings, something common to saints of the Early Middle Ages — too bad, really; I like redemption stories. He also helped alleviate the sufferings of the people of Campania during famine (I wonder if the famine was due to the war btwn the Goths and “Romans”?) with great liberality despite the limited resources of the monastery. Furthermore, Benedict was involved in the conversion of many of the pagans still abroad in sixth-century Italy.

So we see that Christ sanctified his servant Benedict and demonstrated his own power through Benedict’s miracles and spiritual leadership. Indeed, the greatest reminder that Christ was with this saint lies not in the miracles, not in the visitations from Gothic kings, but in the spiritual movement that rose up around his teachings and way of life, drawing men to holiness in Benedict’s lifetime and for centuries beyond.

Despite Benedict’s many miracles, Gregory reminds us in an interchange with his interlocutor Peter that the focus of all our lives, as those of the saints, is to be on Christ:

Peter: … In my estimation, Benedict was filled with the spirit of all just men.

Gregory: Actually, Peter, Benedict the man of the Lord possessed the spirit of only one person, of Him who has filled the hearts of all the elect by granting them the grace of the redemption. John said of Him, He was the true light who illuminates every man coming into this world, and it is also written of Him, Of his fullness we have all received. For the holy men of God might possess special powers from the Lord but they could not grant them to others. (8.8-9, trans. White)

Christianisation Under Justinian: 2

A friend of mine is a minister at a church with a very multicultural, international congregation. One day, of the many Africans in his congregation came to him and offered to pay him so that he would put a curse on someone for him. His answer was a firm no.

This is the sort of startling story we hear coming out of Africa more frequently than most of us are very comfortable with. But if the Global South is becoming the new Christendom, as Philip Jenkins argues in The Next Christendom, then ought it not to have all the characteristics of the old Christendom?

When I first mentioned the Christianisation of Europe here, it was in the context of the persistence of pagan practices throughout the Middle Ages, after Europe was an ostensibly “Christian” continent. The ongoing resort to non- and pre-Christian practices by believers go back to the sixth century under Justinian, if not earlier.

One letter of Barsanuphius and John will suffice:

Letter 753:Question: Since my beast of burden is ill, it’s not out of place for someone to cast a spell on it, is it?

Answer: The casting of spells forbidden by God, and it is not necessary to make use of it all, for it is destruction of the soul to transgress the command of God. Apply to it, rather, the treatments and cures of veterinarians,* for this is not a sin. Pour over it holy water as well.

Given that the person addressed the letter to the Two Old Men of Gaza, he was probably well associated with the church (although we cannot forget the social function of the holy man in Late Antiquity). We cannot assess this person’s level of Christian commitment. This person could be head-over-heels for Christ and attend Church assiduously. However, how many sermons about spell-casting do you really ever here? And how well catechised is the growing Christian population of the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century?

What this letter illustrates is the continuation of apparently “pagan” practices in the Christian Empire on the part of Christians. It also demonstrates the difficulties attendant on catechising the many Christians of Justinian’s Empire. It also casts away the easy distinction between “Pagans” and “Christians” as we observe the historical record.

Finally, it brings home the importance of helping Christians learn accurate Christian faith and practice so they don’t go around casting spells on sick beasts of burden.

*Lit. “horse-doctors”.