The Cistercian World, selected and translated by Pauline Matarasso

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth CenturyThe Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century by Pauline Matarasso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my Lent reading for 2016. It is the second Penguin Classic translated by Pauline Matarasso that I’ve read, the first having been her superb The Quest of the Holy Grail. This volume is an excellent anthology in readable English of selections from some of the most important figures in the twelfth-century Cistercian movement. It moves chronologically from the founding of the abbey at Cîteaux to the close of the century.

Matarasso gives a handy introduction to the origins of the Cistercians and their move away from some of the decadence of contemporary Benedictine abbeys, especially many associated with Cluny. Cistercians sought to return to the original letter and spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. Cistercian spirituality is a spirituality based on simplicity of life, dress, manners, art, architecture. It is based upon Scripture and the Fathers, and Cistercians sought through their patristic, scriptural simplicity, to attain union with God through contemplative prayer in the midst of the opus dei, the liturgy of hours. To further assist the reader in interpretation, each text has its own introduction, and there are endnotes.

Cistercians included in this volume are Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, Amedeus of Lausanne, Aelred of Rievaulx, Isaac of Stella, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, and Adam of Perseigne, as well as an anonymous description of the abbey and selections of exemplary stories about Bernard and other early Cistercians.

These men are aware of their own finitude in the face of the transcendent God. However, equipped with love, with the Scriptures, and with the power of prayer, they set out to clarify their knowledge of the divine and enter into God’s loving embrace, encountering the bridegroom of the human soul.

Some of St Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs are included here, and they are mightily inspiring, reminding us of the different kinds of love and how we can fulfil the commands. Also inspiring for me were the Meditations of William of St Thierry, who demonstrates the heart of the contemplative. Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship is important for us to think over as we live in relationship with others—what sort of friendship is to be cultivated, and how to use friendship to attain spiritual heights.

This is the sort of book that makes you want to pray more and engage in ascetic endeavour. I am a most imperfect example of someone who fulfils that desire, however. Nonetheless, I have copied out some of the passages of the book for private meditation and hope to reread the whole anthology again someday in order to further deepen the grace God gives through his servants. Finally, I would urge anyone interested in the Christian mystical tradition to read this book and see what our forebears in the faith said, thought, and did, and also to be reminded (if you know of the eastern tradition) of the silent ecumenism that links mysticism across time and space and ecclesial boundaries.

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‘Let us gather hand in hand’ – A Mediaeval Poem for Christmas

medieval nativityFrom Medieval English Verse, trans. and ed. Brian Stone (pp. 30-31):

Let us gather hand in hand
And sing of bliss without an end:
The Devil has fled from earthly land,
And Son of God is made our friend.

A Child is born in man’s abode,
And in that Child no blemish showed.
That Child is God, that Child is Man,
And in that Child our life began.
Let us gather, etc.

Be blithe and merry, sinful an,
For your marriage peace began
When Christ was born.
Come to Christ, your peace is ude
Because he shed his blood for you,
Who were forlorn.
So let us gather, etc.

Sinful man, be blithe and bold,
For heaven is both bought and sold,
Through and through.
Come to Christ, and peace foretold:
His life he gave a hundredfold
To succour you.
So let us gather hand in hand
And sing of bliss without an end:
The Devil has fled from earthly land,
And Son of God is made our friend.

Stone writes that this Nativity carol ‘is the earliest in English yet discovered, for it appears in a Franciscan list of sermon outlines written not later than 1350. The words of the refrain clearly convey both the manner of performance and the joy of the occasion.’ (p. 25)

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)

The next step …

In “This Week in Patristics” for May 30 – June 4, Phil Snider ponders, “It does make me wonder what the next step is, now that we have so many competant introductions.” This is a good question. I, myself, have read a few good introductions of various types, such as Thomas C. Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy which is a call for mainline Protestants to rediscover the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall’s three volumes from IVP, Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith, and Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers.

One answer, of course (and I’m pretty sure Phil thought of this), is to read more and more of the Fathers. The Age of the Fathers contains an enormous volume of content, much of which is worth reading more than once, spanning the Mediterranean world and beyond, covering a multitude of genres both prose and poetic, and providing wisdom for many different aspects of our lives.

If the bigness of the Patristic world overwhelms you, I recommend working through something like Ramsey’s “Patristic Reading Program” as at the back of Beginning to Read the Fathers. I also recommend, if you’ve read a lot about the Fathers but not much from the Fathers, that you get Henry Chadwick’s translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions, the SVS translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, and the Penguin Classics edition, by Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, of the Apostolic Fathers called Early Christian Writings. These will give you a variety of different writings from East and West in different genres. You can move on from there based on what you found of interest.

If you are already reading the Fathers but are looking for guides, a good idea is to get a book of essays on Patristic themes. One of my first introductions to the secondary material on the Church Fathers was Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-orthodoxy in the 21st Century, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall, a collection of essays about patristic themes and the question of orthodoxy in today’s Church. A similar volume, also from IVP, was Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of conference papers on Patristic questions and their application to today’s situations.

Another, similar, idea is to find authors of series of books on Patristic questions, such as Robert E. Webber’s series that began with Ancient-Future Faith but also includes Ancient-Future Evangelism and Ancient-Future Worship. These books tend to point you towards others, both primary material and secondary sources, that may interest you.

I have a friend who is a missionary in Cyprus, and because St. John Chrysostom is such a big deal in the Greek Orthodox world, he got his hands on J.N.D. Kelly’s book Goldenmouth. If you are a Jerome enthusiast, Kelly also has Jerome.

Along similar lines to a modern biography/study of an ancient Christian figure is the Routledge series The Early Church Fathers. Who has caught your eye, but the bibliography seems too big? St. Leo? No problem! Or Severus of Antioch? Or Evagrius Ponticus? Or Ambrose of Milan? Or Cyril of Alexandria? Or Athanasius? No problem!

Alternatively, browse through a handbook to see what material there is. I realise that non-specialists with not a lot of time on their hands will be less excited by Daniel Hombergen’s The Second Origenist Controversy than I am, but handbooks also point you less weighty, more readable material along the way; there is Quasten’s multi-volume Patrology as well as Hubertus Drobner’s single-volume The Fathers of the Church. If a book looks like it will kill you from boredom, don’t be ashamed to put it down! The whole point of Patristics is edification and drawing nearer to Christ. We only have so many hours in our lives, so wasting time with boring or excessively long books that will profit us little is not to be recommended.

Finally, why not take your daily Bible readings and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and read along that way? And if a passage is particularly striking, see if you can find it in context and find more Church Fathers and connexions that way. You will learn more about Scripture at the same time! To save time, for those who use the Revised Common Lectionary, the companion volumes Ancient Christian Devotional (Year A doesn’t specify the year, Year C is out, and I hope to see Year B by Advent) are aligned with the Lectionary. Also interesting may be Hendrickson’s Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers.

This is all for now, but even if you choose a single one of these, you will have taken an important step beyond reading introduction to the Fathers after introduction!

A collection of … hagiography?

I am the proud possessor of a small but growing collection of saints’ lives. My first was a remaindered copy of the Penguin Classic Early Christian Lives by Carolinne M. White, picked up for St. Antony but also containing the delightful lives of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus by Jerome, Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, and Benedict by Gregory the Great. These are lives that helped establish the genre.

My interest in Desert monasticism drove my next hagiographical purchase, the Cistercian Studies translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto called The Lives of the Desert Fathers. This is an interesting travelogue that visits a bunch of the fourth-century monks and tells their stories. It is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

My third was a grab at a used book shop of another Penguin Classic, Lives of the Saints by J. F. Webb, containing the Voyage of Brendan and the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid. I bought it because of the Voyage of Brendan but greatly enjoyed Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. I have yet to read Wilfrid, but this volume contains lives that show us the world of Early Mediaeval Britain and Ireland, the saints of the “Celtic” and Anglo-Saxon worlds. Worth a read. This is, I have learned, no longer published, but the material available has been expanded in the Penguin Classics volume The Age of Bede.

My most recent acquisitions take us back to the desert, one being Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, translated by R. M. Price for Cistercian. This is a collection of seven monastic biographies by Justinianic (sixth-century) Palestinian monk Cyril. It tells the stories of some of Palestinian monasticism’s founders, such as Sts. Euthymius and Sabas. These are lives of men approximately contemporaneous with Brendan and Benedict but living on the other side of the world in the desert. Very informative about the world of sixth-century monasticism.

At the same time as Cyril of Scythopolis, I got Cistercian’s translation of Besa’s Life of Shenoute, telling the life of one of the most important figures of Coptic monasticism, Shenoute, archimandrite of the White Monastery in the first half of the fifth century. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s bound to be good.

I’m thinking of getting my own copy of Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. We’ll see about that.

If I could, I would certainly add John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Saints, but the only English translation is that by E. W. Brooks in PO 17, 18, 19. Alas.

So many saints. Because of its chronological and geographical breadth, I’d recommend White’s Early Christian Lives if you wish to start reading hagiography yourself! The genre is introduced at the beginning of the volume, and each life contains a brief introduction to the subject. The translation is highly readable, which is always a blessing.

What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.