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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