Blogging Benedict: Reading and suchlike

Benedictine monks are meant to be literate. Eventually, it will come to pass in the Middle Ages that such a creature as the ‘choir monk’ will exist — someone who can sing the offices in Latin but does not know Latin. But originally, in the Latin-speaking world of Late Antique Italy, it was expected that they would memorise the Psalter and offices both orally and from books, in a language that they understood. Indeed, in the language that they spoke every day.

Throughout the Rule of St Benedict, there is a lot of reading and listening to people read. When Benedict discusses the different offices within the monastery, we learn about the ‘weekly reader’ who reads at meal times (chapter 38). The rest of the monks sit in silence while the reader reads; they use sign language at the table when they need someone to do something. No moment for edification is lost for the Benedictine.

After supper, there is time to read collationes or the Lives of the Fathers — the latter probably being the Desert Fathers (chapter 42). This is not the time for reading Old Testament history, because it might excite some of younger brothers’ imaginations, and then they’ll have trouble sleeping. In the twelfth century, the books for reading at collatio at Durham Cathedral Priory were:

  • Lives of the Fathers
  • Diadema Monachorum (Crown of Monks by Smaragdus of St-Mihiel)
  • Paradise of Ephrem with Lives of the Egyptians (that is, Desert Fathers)
  • Speculum (I do not know which one)
  • Dialogues (presumably Gregory the Great’s, which are Italian saints’ lives)
  • Excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule
  • Isidore of Seville, De Summo Bono
  • Prosper On the Contemplative Life
  • The Book of Odo (of Cluny, I suspect; he wrote a work called ‘Collationes’)
  • John Cassian
  • Decem Collationes — awkwardly, this is a title of a work of Cassian’s

In chapter 48, we read about the daily round in the Benedictine monastery. The day is divided between times of work and times of reading, besides the set hours to pray the office.

Reading is called lectio divina at the start of this chapter; Carolinne White translates that phrase as ‘biblical study’. What exact process of reading, and whether it refers specifically to Scripture, is less clear than many would make you think. Pierre Riché, in Education and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries, interprets lectio divina generally to mean the study of Scripture for the end of devotion and religion, as opposed to a more scholarly or academic pursuit. What techniques or meditation on Scripture are involved is less clear at this stage. Sometimes, though, it does seem that lectio divina includes scriptural commentaries as well as Scripture itself.

In the early Middle Ages, the tendency was more towards commentaries like Bede’s that are a bit more practical and down-to-earth, or Gregory the Great’s that are more geared for monastic life than the sort of commentaries that seek to unpack thorny problems of interpretation like you’ll find amongst scholastics or that are more literary like Cassiodorus.

Every monk is given his own special book to read during Lent. In a largely oral world, the monastery becomes one of the refuges of culture — but that culture in the Early Middle Ages is almost entirely religious. These monks are not consciously ‘saving’ western culture from drowning in a sea of ‘barbarism’. They preserve great works of literature as well as rhetoricians and grammarians to better enable them to read and study the Scriptures and the Fathers as they approach God. Western culture is, at this stage, a by-product of Christian devotion. (See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.)

So, since it is Lent in a week, let’s think about orienting our reading towards God. And our eating. And our working. Everything we do should be done to the glory of God.

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.