Blogging Benedict: Obedience and Fervour

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Before I completely lose steam, I am going to give you my notes on some later chapters of the Rule, and then my final posts will by ch. 73 (the end), Benedict and the Bible, a Benedict overview, and then a Benedict round-up. That will hopefully have this series done by the end of the next week.

Chapters 68, 69, and 71 are about obedience beyond the abbot and the Rule. The monks are not to band together in rebellion. This is a thing that happens every once in a while; it happened to Benedict (see Gregory the Great, Dialogue 2), it happened in a nunnery as discussed by Gregory of Tours (History IX.39-43), it happened to various monastic founders and reformers throughout the Middle Ages.

As I say, obedience is not only about abbots and Rules:

The brothers must also obey each other, aware that it is by walking along the path of obedience that they will reach God. (ch. 71)

Given that we are called to mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), to be the servant/slave of all (Mk 9:35), obedience to fellow Christians seems only like a natural extension of biblical teachiong.

On a different note, I ask this:

How do we get the beneficial fervour of chapter 72?

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Blogging Benedict: Entering the monastery

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

According to the Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58, entry into the monastery goes as follows:

  • A few days at the guest house for the persistent
  • Two months as a novice
  • Read the Rule. Can leave if they don’t like it.
  • Six more months. Read the Rule as above.
  • Another four-month testing period.
  • Finally admitted

The three central (famous!) vows:

  • Stability
  • Poverty
  • Obedience

In making these vows, the new monk is stripped in the oratory and clothed in monastic garb. Thus everything he was is gone and everything he is is now invested in the community. He has not even his own clothing. He has no money to provide for himself. He has vowed not to leave. And he has vowed to surrender his own disordered will to that of the community under its abbot.

This is a radical commitment.

Few non-monastic Christian communities today have such radical commitment. Varieties exist in some Anabaptist communities, of course. Most of us don’t belong to those. Most of us belong to congregations that would barely notice if we were gone.

What if we were to invest in stability? This is certainly part of the Benedictine freedom of simplicity, isn’t it? Force yourself to stick with your local church, not merely in spite of the people who annoy you or the preaching that you dislike for one reason or another or the hymns/songs that aren’t your favourites, but specifically to fall in love with those people, that preacher, and find Jesus in that music.

That would take humility, as opposed to just leaving. Not that we should never go, but that we should more often stay instead.

What if we were to invest in the ideal of poverty? This one is possibly harder. Imagine that all your goods belong to the whole Christian community (cf. Acts 2). Then give cheerfully in the collection plate. Share with others. Look for opportunities to do good. Have people over to your house in rich hospitality. Living like that (which I certainly don’t do!) would probably revolutionise how we love others.

What if we were to invest in obedience? This one is probably hardest for our culture. Obedience has been abused, certainly. But Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, makes the point in his chapter about service that choosing to serve others means they can’t walk all over you because you have already willed your act of service. Their own evil hearts may seek to abuse you, but you cannot be abused, for you already wish to serve. That said, I actually do believe in boundaries; if your acts of service for others are harming your family life, for example, you need to find new ways of serving.

What if we were this radically invested in our churches?

Would it make us into better disciples? Would it make more disciples? These are the two questions I am now considering as I read through my notes on Benedict.

Blogging Benedict: Obedience (chapter 5)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

This is the chapter that scares our culture the most!

Benedict believes that absolute obedience to the abbot is essential for spiritual growth and growth in humility:

They do not live according to their own desires and pleasures, but progress according to someone else’s judgement and orders, living in monasteries and choosing to have an abbot in charge of them. (p. 20, trans. White)

This, of course, runs entirely to our culture’s belief that each of us should be his’er own master, that each knows best for oneself, and that no one should/can tell me what to do. I have a friend who works in Christian ministry, and one of the student leaders she was working with would take no suggestions and say things that amounted to, ‘Who are you to speak to my ministry?’ The answer being, ‘A sister in Christ.’ And, in that particular case, someone actually in authority over you…

But what if I am not wise enough to sift the path of discipleship on my own? What if there is someone who is better qualified to direct my paths, a spiritual father?

This emphasis on obedience is part of a wider culture of self-denial that we find a few decades later in Sinai with St John Climacus, and many centuries later in St Thomas à Kempis. The former of these two, a former hermit turned abbot and spiritual father, expresses many ideas consonant with Benedictine monasticism, including radical obedience. In St Thomas, we see a belief that we ourselves should put everyone before us and treat them as our betters.

All of this is well and good for the ancients, but unless we are monks, or Roman Catholics who confess to a priest, or Eastern Orthodox who likewise confess or have a spiritual father, what lessons might we take away from here?

I think the spirit of this obedience, in its good sense, can be found in what Richard Foster says about submission in Celebration of Discipline. We choose to submit to others and their requests and their wills not because we know they have better ideas or deserve submission, but because Scripture teaches us to submit to one another out of love. Christ came not to be served but to serve, and to lay his life as a ransom (Mt 20:28).

The obvious objection: ‘Won’t people walk all over me?’

My honest answer: ‘Probably. I’ve never tried this at large.’

Foster notes, though, that if you have already chosen in your heart to submit to your fellow-Christians and obey them, then are they walking on you? I, personally, try (not always with success) to think of my relationship to my wife and son in these terms. That in serving them I love them, that in submitting to their needs, desires, requests, I am acknowledging the headship of Christ in my own life.

A final thought related to this: Let us learn not to grumble in our hearts.

Perhaps as great a lesson, if we ever wish to be content and love our communities, our families, our coworkers, our churches.

Blogging Benedict: A Wake-Up Call

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

The Prologue to the Rule of Benedict is not so much a setting out of what will follow as it is a call to wake up, although it does touch on one of the most important themes of the Rule, one that is distasteful to our modern ears: obedience. Let us begin with the wake-up call (avoiding Petra references).

“Let us open our eyes to the divine light and listen carefully to what the divine voice tells us to do…” (p. 2 English)

As the verse says (Ro. 13:12), “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” Or, as my mother felt the Lord say once, “Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity.” What are we doing now about salvation? Christianity is not an exercise in passivity. It is a matter of finding the truth and living it.

For Benedict, the truth is found in the Scriptures, it is found in Christ, it is found the writings of the Fathers. We cannot be slack or lazy or put off to tomorrow the holiness to which we are called today. Christians in many (all?) ages have been tempted in two ways: cheap grace or legalism. Sometimes (for example) I think it is easier to be a teetotaller or someone who drinks to excess than it is to drink in moderation. Benedict will read to many people like legalism, even though he is far more lenient than some of his contemporaries. And the thing that we will chafe under most is obedience.

Very quickly, it is worth here reminding ourselves of the modern notion of freedom as the pure, unrestrained activity of the will of the human individual. Or nation-state, at a higher level. Anything that conflicts with my desires is seen as necessarily bad. This vision of freedom is in direct contrast with the pre-modern West, where true freedom was found by living according to your own nature, or the nature of the universe (Stoicism); it was found by seeking the summum bonum (Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas), or the beautiful (Plato’s Symposium) and then living in accord with that. It is choosing to restrain our wills to something bigger and better than the fleeting pleasures of a moment.

What we tend to consider ‘freedom’ today is really just slavery to the passions. We should instead seek to be freed from the passions, or seek to rule them and guide them in accordance with nature, reason, the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one (Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). If we do not control the passions, do not subvert them to the greater good, we are not free, for we cannot choose rightly.

While many Christians would agree with all of this, there are still concerns about obedience as Benedict lays it out. The Benedictine monk is to give absolute obedience to the abbot. This, in fact, is common to many Late Antique ascetic/monastic texts, whether in Sinai with John Climacus, Egypt (Palestine?) with Mark the Monk, Luxeuil with Columbanus, Monte Cassino with Benedict.

Our concern about giving any human such obedience is not ungrounded. We live in the age after Jonestown, after all. We have seen what personality cults can do in a less murder-suicide manner, anyway. Nevertheless, for Benedict, responding to the call to holiness starts with obedience.

Here, in the Prologue, obedience is first and foremost to Christ. Let us keep that in our mind when we consider other parts of the Rule and the rest of obedience. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not the abbot. But our disordered wills should perhaps submit to the wisdom of our elders in the faith. Otherwise, is it not like undergraduates determining pedagogy, as though 18-22-year-olds know what’s best for them, how best to educate themselves?

At the root of both ethics/morality and discipline lies the reality of God as creator and sustainer. He knows best because he is best. He is Aristotle’s summum bonum, as discussed by Anselm’s Monologion. Therefore, we willfully submit to God’s will and God’s commands in order to flourish. Our lives, as St Paul says, are not our own. We were bought at a price. Let us ever keep scriptural obedience in mind in our reading of Benedict.

We find God’s commands in Scripture. We also, sometimes, add disciplines. There is an important difference between discipline and morality. Discipline is the voluntary activity in which we engage to grow spiritually, but it is, morally, optional. Ivo of Chartres makes this important distinction in the prologue to his canonical collection around 1100.

Discipline is askesis, the word for training an athlete. We need to train ourselves for the fight for holiness in our lives, against the passions and the demons and the external temptations of life.

And so, as we steer clear of the Scylla of cheap grace, which is what Benedict’s Prologue is calling us to do, we feel like perhaps we are veering into the Charybdis of legalism or what Presbyterians call ‘works righteousness’. But what about ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12)? The sheep and goats of Matthew 25? Faith without works is dead — the epistle James. Holiness is a calling that we pursue. God acts in us as we act for him.

The ancient and medieval ascetics are thus helpful for us in our simultaneous fear of cheap grace and legalism. They sought to radically train themselves to live in holiness. Even if we are saved by grace, holiness usually seems to arrive after some effort. I saw this as an Anglican, thinking beyond the ancients to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. I’ve blogged on the latter before. Both of these writers, without denying the necessity of grace, believe in the disciplined life. One of the points made by Taylor, and reproduced as an appendix in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is the fact that specific disciplines are not necessary to all Christians — that each of us needs to train for holiness in the way that works for our soul.

And so, finally, when we think on obedience and discipline and the serious call to holiness, we cannot forget grace. St Benedict believes in grace, intimately united to duty:

Those who fear the Lord and do not allow themselves to become proud because of their good works realize that the good that is in them does not come from their own abilities but from the Lord. (p. 4)

Brothers, we have questioned the Lord about the person who lives in his tabernacle, and we have heard his instructions about living there, but it is for us to fulfil the obligations of those who live there. And so we must prepare our hearts and bodies to fight by means of holy obedience to his instructions. If our natural abilities do not allow us to do something, we must ask the Lord to grant us his grace to assist us. (p. 5)

All the great ascetic writers acknowledge the union of grace to our effort — that we cannot be holy without God making us so, that we cannot even performs virtuous acts of ascetic labours without grace. This union of God’s grace with our discipline is found in Theophan the Recluse (19th c. ), Prosper (On the Call of All Nations), Augustine (variously), Mark the Monk, and Cassian (Conference 13) in the fifth. Mark the Monk writes:

First of all, we know that God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good; and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. -‘On the Spiritual Law’, 2, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 110.

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. -‘No Righteousness by Works’, 18, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1

In ‘No Righteousness by Works’, St Mark goes into this discussion more extensively. He also has high expectations of his ascetic readers.

We have been called out of the darkness and into the light. We have been shown by the Scriptures what holiness looks like. Christ and the apostles fasted and prayed. The apostles searched the Scriptures. They performed acts of mercy. They called us all to obedience to God as well as mutual submission to one another.

“And so, clothed in faith and the performance of good works, let us set off along his path using the Gospel as our guide.” (p. 3)

Thoughts on Climacus’ Ladder, Step 4

I am partway through Step 4 of John Climacus’ (Saint of the Week here) Ladder. Not being a monk, I find a lot of his wisdom wasted on me. Still …

A lot of people these days are really stoked about “narrative” and “narrative theology” and suchlike things. I remember once at a party a guy who worked for the Canadian Bible Society remarking that the Gospel could never be put into propositional statements because Jesus taught in parables. Given that that was a propositional statement, I was amused. Given also that the content of the Gospel is not Jesus’ parables but his life, I was a bit irked.

A lot of people try to pit narrative against proposition, though. This is wrongheaded, as Edith M. Humphrey (once Anglican, now Orthodox [yes, I’ll mention that every time I mention her]) notes in her book Ecstasy and Intimacy. We need both. We need balance. In Step 4, about obedience, St. John Climacus, Father of the Church, demonstrates the usefulness of both ways of presenting truth.

Approximately half of this Step on the ladder to paradise is occupied with stories about a monastery John once visited in Alexandria. He was filled with wonder at what he saw there. The monks lived in obedience to their abbot to a very high degree. To test them, he would make them lie on the ground for undetermined lengths of time just to see if they would do it. Once, to see if a postulant was worthy of admission, he made this man, a former fornicator (with both humans and animals), thief, and liar confess in detail his deeds before all the brothers at Divine Liturgy. Brothers who were disobedient enough were cast out or sent into the Prison where they only got bread and raw vegetables for food.

The monks were also obedient to one another and sought to outdo each other in virtue and in bearing one another’s burdens, claiming the sins of others for themselves to help brothers avoid punishment.

The result of this radical obedience was great virtue. John writes, “If they had to speak, what they talked about all the time was the remembrance of death and the thought of everlasting judgment.” (95, Classics of Western Spirituality translation) The advanced brothers were so humble that, when asked about hesychia by John, they claimed to be merely corporeal men with no knowledge of such things.

These men were calm of heart, humble, meek, pure. The longer they lived in the monastery, they less they were involved in backbiting and prideful actions.

Now, I’m not sure if I can handle such radical obedience. But imagine if we tried to do things for people without grumbling or complaining (cf. Philippians!). Imagine if we tried to be the servant of all (cf. Mark!). Imagine if, when asked to do something that is largely indifferent, we did it, seeing it as a way of learning humility. Imagine if we saw everyone around us as Kings and Queens. Or, to take another image, imagine if we saw them as Christs (cf. Matthew! Also, John of Ephesus, Lives of Eastern Saints, Chapter 5 about Simeon & Sergius, Patrologia Orientalis 17, pp. 84-89) rather than as nuisances.

Anyway, Climacus pairs this narrative teaching technique with propositional statements such as this:

Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, and unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness. (91-92)

I like this technique, this balance between narrative and proposition. Western preaching has swung too far to the propositional, but I do not think it should be lost. We should find, however, a place for deep and meaningful storytelling in our teaching, as we see St. John Climacus doing in Step 4.

In the words of my friend Fr. Ioannis, “How clever the ancients were!”