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.

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Theophan the Recluse in response to yesterday’s post

It is wrong to become too much attached to reading. It leads to no good and builds a wall between the heart and God. It leads to the development of a harmful curiosity and sophistry.

Theophan the Recluse, in The Art of Pryaer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky & Palmer, p. 168

Three C S Lewis Books You Should Read But Probably Haven’t

At some point in his or her reading life, the fan of C S Lewis learns that he was, in fact, a literary critic, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford and at Cambridge. This fact will probably not influence the selection of most of Lewis’s fans — it will probably deepen an appreciation of certain facets of his writing or help explain some of its oddities. Most of Prof. Lewis’s readership, however, will probably not stray far from the canon of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, the various collections of essays produced in his lifetime and beyond, as well as the less famous but well-worth-the-effort terrain of the Space Trilogy — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra/Voyage to Venus, and That Hideous Strength — and Till We Have Faces with a glance through Miracles for the bold.

How many Lewis fans have read An Experiment in Criticism? Studies in Words? The Discarded Image? Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature? The Allegory of Love? A Preface to Paradise Lost?

I imagine the fans of Lewis and Milton will certainly have read that last; I have yet to, nor have I read Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and The Allegory of Love. I intend to.

First, An Experiment in Criticism. This book is Lewis’s response to a sort of unpleasant ‘evaluative’ criticism, criticism that distinguishes between bad books and good books. This sort of reading still rears its ugly head, as Anne Fadiman discusses in her fabulous essay ‘Procrustes and the Culture Wars’ in At Large and at Small, discussing a critic who says that Huckleberry Finn isn’t even worth reading, not worthy of being called literature because of perceived moral failings on Huck’s part. True story.

It also exists all over the place, as all readers of ‘genre’ (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery/crime) fiction know.

Lewis steers the reader away from such a perception of the universe, to a question rather of types of readers as against books. This distinction speaks of an attitude towards literature (or, indeed, any art). Does someone read and reread certain books multiple times? Does this person read for the sheer delight of words, images, stories, poems? Or does someone read a book but once, always seeking new territory? Does this person read for moral improvement, because these books are fashionable, because they are ‘important’?

The great thing is, in Lewis’s distinction between the many and the few regarding any art, we can all join the ranks of the many. We can all learn to reread and rewatch and relisten over and over again, to delight in words and rhythms, in brushstrokes and pirouettes, in appoggiaturas and crescendoes. It is partly a matter of attitude, partly a matter of practice, partly, in some ways, a matter of training.

I, for example, am by and large of the many when it comes to painting. I tire quickly of Attic black figure vases. Unless a painting is startingly breathtaking, I will not spend too much time on it. I believe that, with more exposure and patience, with more books about artistic technique, I could become a better ‘reader’ of paintings. If I wanted to.

So for readers.

This is not all Lewis has to say — there is a wonderful chapter on myth. But the book is worth a look. It is worth reading for making you think about how you read books, not simply which books you read. And that is a worthy endeavour.

Second, Studies in Words. To the non-philologist, this may be the most dreary of the three I have chosen to highlight. Nonetheless, this book gets my stamp of approval because his chapter on ‘Nature’ opened my eyes to some problems inherent in the study of Pope Leo.

Besides dealing with 10 particular words and how they are used and have evolved over time (nature, sad, wit, free, sense, simple, conscience/conscious, world, life, I dare say), this is one of those books that helps teach you how to read and think. You learn attentiveness to syllables, sounds, and meanings with a book of this sort. You start to watch the words you use and read more carefully.

What is wit? (See the film/play of the name!) Is there a difference between the old, 1662 Prayer of Humble Access saying, ‘…thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy’ and the Common Worship version, ‘…you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy’? What use of nature is that? I dare say that it will help you be a more careful reader, something we could all use.

Third, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. I love this book. It opens the reader’s eyes to the mediaeval conception of the universe as well as to techniques and styles of literary rhetoric and of medieval tastes. The starkly pagan aspects of medieval philosophy are not shied away from, but the beauty of classical styles of rhetoric is upheld.

Lewis is fond of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. In his discussion of this framework, he acknowledges the fact that it has been proven wrong. Yet who knows how accurate our current vision is? When a new spirit of thought begins to take hold, and new evidence is then discovered, then we shall no doubt dispense with it as well. In these thoughts, he is similar to Chesterton in an essay which escapes my mind, wherein G K says that it is not the visible and tangible that moves the unseen and philosophical but the other way ’round. A tree does not move the wind; the wind moves the tree.

And so, someday, as our worldview shifts, we will be able to reassess the evidence and may reach a vastly different conclusion about the makeup of the cosmos than current. It will not, Lewis admits, be Ptolemaic. Nonetheless, he is still fond of Dante’s universe, with the Primum Mobile moving everything out of Love of God. He recommends a couple of moonlit walks to help one come to an appreciation of the medieval conception of the universe.

This book also has a wonderful chapter on the longaevi, those numinous beings who inhabit so much of the folklore, myth, and literature of the pre-modern world, be they fairies, nymphs, minor gods, spirits of rivers, what-have-you. Worth a read.

But what does this have to do with Classic Christianity?

First of all, most Anglophone Christians who begin seeking older forms of our faith, especially if they are Protestants, do so either along with or through the influence of C S Lewis. A greater understanding of this highly influential thinker of the 20th century is, then, in order for such as these.

The other reasons are thus: Our access to our forebears of the faith is largely through their written words. To become better readers is to be able to better apprehend these words and thus more faithfully find a way forward in life with their aid. Fully one half of Christian history is medieval. To better understand the medieval world is to better understand our heritage as Christians. Third, much of the riches of ages past is locked away not in ‘straightforward’ theological treatises, but in poetry, in fiction, in not-so-clearly-theological philosophy, and so forth. To understand that aspect of the heritage more fully is to understand the heritage at large more fully.

Thus why you should read these three books.

Saint of the Week: Evelyn Underhill

This week’s saint is female Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941).

In brief:

Underhill was baptised Anglican at birth but raised without religion.  She did not come to faith in Christ until she was 32.  She spent the next four years reading over 1000 books on mysticism and writing her famous book Mysticism, which was published in 1911.  She found much beauty in the Roman Catholic Church, especially after a trip to Italy, but felt that she could not become Roman Catholic because of its complete rejection of modernity and her own ecumenical spirit.

She was not drawn to the Church of England at first, either, because she found it unbeautiful.  Eventually, however, she found a home in Anglicanism and served as a leader of retreats for almost twenty years of her life.  She wrote numerous books on mysticism and is one of the 20th century’s best-known guides to the mystical life of the Christian.

For a change, here are some quotations from our weekly saint (most are from Quote Websites and so I don’ t have references for them all; sorry):

The reality of the Church does not abide in us; it is not a spiritual Rotary Club.  Its reality abides in the One God, the ever-living One whose triune Spirit fills it by filling each one of its members. –The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed

If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshiped.

Spiritual reading is a regular, essential part of the life of prayer, and particularly is it the support of adoring prayer. It is important to increase our sense of God’s richness and wonder by reading what his great lovers have said about him.

Adoration is caring for God above all else. Charity is the outward swing of prayer toward all the world … embracing and caring for all worldly interests in God’s name.-Ways of the Spirit

To finish, here are the links to some of her works available online:

Mysticism

The Spiritual Life

Practical Mysticism

Ancient Theology Blows My Mind

Some of you may recall my first encounter with paleo-orthodoxy in 2007, when, to quote my other blog, “My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson.”  Well, as I read Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see post), Hall’s chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and not Made,” which deals with St. Athanasius contra Arius, a similar event occurred.

To describe such a brain-cracking is hard.  It seems silly when I review the chapter.  It seems like, “Well, yes, this is Nicene theology, Matthew.  This is the mindset you were reared on.”  My Father is a big fan of St. Athanasius.  Nevertheless, the Truth comes bounding into my life and mind sometimes, and the shock of it is explosive.  Suddenly, my brain-pain is split wide open.  I gape in wonder at the beautiful simplicity of orthodoxy and proclaim, “Yea, verily!”  or “Sweet deal!”  So, at the risk of sounding like a pedestrian, small-brained kid from rural Alberta . . .

St. Athanasius primarily blew my mind by pointing out that when we talk of the Divine, we are talking about a categorically different Being than when we talk about anything else in the universe.

Thus, begetting with God is not the same at all as begetting with men.  How can it be?  Men are bound by time, and thus beget in time.  God is not; God is eternal and exists outside of time.  Thus, He would not necessarily beget in time.  In fact, since like begets like—were I to have a son, he would be consubstantial with me by nature—God cannot but beget anything other than God.  Therefore, whatever God begets is like God.

As Hall puts it, “whatever is predicated of the Father must be predicated of the Son . . . .  That is, if the Father is sovereign as an attribute of deity, the Son possesses that same attribute.  If the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord.  If the Father is Light, the Son is Light.  [Quoting St. Athanasius], ‘Thus, since they are one, and the godhead itself is one, the same things are predicated of the Son as of the Father, except the title of ‘Father.’” (p. 44).  I was also especially fond of St. Athanasius’ analogy of the Sun and its radiance; you cannot separate the two.  Thus it is between the Father & the Son.  Clearly this analogy, like all analogies (especially those used of the Godhead) could break down, but it is firm enough to do the job.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus sort of blew my mind also.  In Hall’s recounting of his Theological Orations, St. Gregory never goes beyond the bounds of Scripture yet uses logic to demonstrate certain truths of the Holy Trinity.  First of all, we see an element of Patristic methodological thinking that is absent today.  Hall, paraphrasing St. Gregory, writes, “Theology, while employing the mind, also involves the heart.  A pure heart, one grounded in the worship of the church and a life of prayer, will produce clear and fruitful theological reflection.  A murky heart and a dark mind, on the other hand, will produce a sick, thorny theology; it will offer no nourishment, only harm.” (p. 56)[1]

I once took a correspondence course from a prominent Protestant college in Australia.  This course was an introduction to the Bible, and its goal was to get us students acquainted with Scripture and the main foci and themes running throughout the divine narrative.  According to the authors of this work, using the interpretive method laid out by the book, anyone—Christian or pagan—would be able to correctly interpret Scripture and see what its plain sense was. St. Gregory and others would likely raise an eyebrow at this.  Really?  If we Christians see as through a mirror darkly, what about those who do not have the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten their hearts and minds?  This modernist approach also fails to take into account the human heart, something that St. Gregory of Nazianzus does first off—theology is both of the mind and the heart.  If we want to be true theologians, we should seek to be pure of heart.  How many academic theologians operate that way today?

However, these foundational challenges were not what blew my mind as I read about St. Gregory.  What blew my mind was the simple statement in a cool, logical fashion of the truth:

For indeed, it is not some deficiency in the Son which prevents his being Father (for Sonship is not a deficiency), and yet he is not Father. . . . For the Father is not Son, and yet this is not due to either deficiency or subjection of essence; but the very fact of being unbegotten or begotten, or proceeding, has given the name of Father to the first, of the son to the second, and to the third . . . of the Holy Ghost, that the distinction of the three persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the godhead.  (71)

He blew my mind elsewhere, but I can’t find the reference just now.

May the Lord God Almighty blow all our minds by the stark reality of His Truth now and again.


[1] This sentiment is echoed in John Cassian’s Eighth Conference when Abba Serenus says that the pure of heart alone can properly interpret the high points of Scripture, and that a holy life is necessary for anyone who wishes to discern the true meaning of the Bible.

John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

As promised, here are some thoughts on Wesley’s thoughts on spiritual reading.

First, go and read his brief introduction to The Christian’s Pattern, Wesley’s abridgement of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  A non-copyright edition is available through Google Books.  My thanks to Liam for making me aware of this fact.

In our world of instant, consumable media such as blogging, newspapers, TV, magazines, etc, Wesley’s advice goes somewhat against the grain.  His first piece of advice?  Find an assigned time for reading your spiritual book (in this case, The Christian’s Pattern).  Same time every day.  Don’t give it up unless absolutely necessary, and then reassign your time for reading to time as close to the original as possible.  Most of us tend to read whatever we want whenever we want.  Wesley urges not to do this.

This first piece of advice is actually quite good.  It is sensible for someone who has limited time and a specific book to work through.  The establishment of a routine can be the establishment of a good habit.  By doing our spiritual reading at the same time every day, we are less likely to forget about or let it slide to the wayside.  And if we keep it up for 40 days, it becomes a habit.  Some habits are good and worth keeping.

Second, he encourages the reader to read with purity of intention.  We are supposed to prepare our hearts and minds for reading.  We are to read prayerfully, asking God to enlighten us through the reading, to make us attuned to what he is saying.  Most of us just grab a book/computer/magazine/whatev and plunge in with no preparation or time for self-examination.

I like this second piece of advice.  Clearing your mind of the detritus of the day before engaging in any task that requires mental preparation just makes sense.  You are less likely to be distracted and more likely to follow Kierkegaard: “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.”

Third, we are not simply to burn through our spiritual reading like it’s a thriller by Frank Peretti, Dan Brown, or Daniel Defoe.  We are to read “leisurely, seriously, and with great attention.”  We are reading for our own profit.  We are to read and reread until we thoroughly understand what is being said and have applied to our lives.  If something is of especial profit to us, we should go over it and meditate on it more than once, trying to appropriate the lesson for how we ought to live.  Again, most of us are careless in our reading.  We read quickly and for pleasure, not slowly and with leisure.  If we wish to have our souls scoured and made clean by the spiritual books in our lives, Wesley urges us to slow down.

If we read slowly, carefully, and methodically, our reading is more likely to have a lasting impact upon the way we think and live.  I think we need to engage in this kind of reading more than once a week (if we are readers, that is), and possibly every day.  I have read a lot of stuff about spirituality and the Bible, but very little had truly soaked into me.  Perhaps if I followed John Wesley’s advice on spiritual reading, it will finally soak in and transform who I am, how I live, what I think.  And perhaps I’ll more easily be ready for the movement of the Spirit when He says, “This part here — not such a good idea…”

Fourth, John Wesley exhorts his readers to stir themselves up to “a temper correspondent with what you read.”  The idea is that we are more than mere intellects but are also spirits and bodies, with emotions and passions.  This paragraph is a reminder that John Wesley is the man whose “heart was strangely warmed,” a man who once had an experience that looks suspiciously like “being ‘slain’ in the Spirit” to my eyes, the man who gave Hooker’s three-legged stool a fourth leg, that of experience.

I understand what this fourth piece of advice is driving at.  However, it seems the most suspect to me, to someone of academic training, to someone who, since high school at least, has been told to set aside passions and emotions when approaching a text.  A text is to be studied with the intellect alone.  To bring the bundle of emotions and passions that make me me is to compromise my point of view, to ruin my objectivity.  I am, as a result, not sure how far to go with Wesley on this fourth piece of advice.

Finally, he exhorts the reader to conclude with a prayer.  This is sensible advice.  We are to lead lives soaked in prayer, imbued with the very presence of God in all that we do.  We should begin and end all activities with prayer; we should also pray in the midst of them.

This little introduction also serves as a reminder that John Wesley was a Methodist before he wasn’t an Anglican.

Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1

Big Bibles from Troll Keeper's HouseModern biblical criticism, “liberal” or “evangelical”, likes the historical understanding of Scripture.  We must read the text and see what it says to the original audience.  This will help us understand what it means.  The meaning of Scripture is thereby reduced to the original audience.  If the original speaker meant, “Smash babies heads on rocks,” then that’s all it means.  If the original speaker meant that a prophecy would be fulfilled in two days, it is unlikely to be fulfilled again in 2000 years.  If the original Hebrew says “young girl,” it doesn’t mean “virgin.”

This form of interpretation only takes us so far, however.  If all of Scripture is God-breathed and useful, as St. Paul contends, then we need a way of reading the Bible beyond the historical meaning.  One of the joys of reading old books and discovering Christians from other ages is to see how they dealt with problems facing them.  Thus, I have an idea how to deal with a verse from the BCP-appointed Psalm for today:

Let them be confounded and perish that are against my soul; let them be covered with shame and dishonour that seek to do me evil. (Ps. 71:13)

Our starting point is one of the good, readable books to come out of the Protestant paleo-orthodoxy and the Evangelical ressourcement, Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers.  This book is a brief introduction to patristic thought that requires little specialised vocabulary and no Latin or Greek (thus, those who are neither clergy nor scholars can read it).  He deals with the use of Scripture by the four Doctors of the East and the four Doctors of the West, then he goes more specifically into “Alexandrian” and “Antiochene” schools of thought.

Alexandrians, typified by Origen, sought the allegorical meaning of Scripture, and the Antiochenes reacted against excessive allegorical readings, especially when considering Origen’s more heterodox teachings.*  The Antiochene method sought a spiritual meaning that was not divorced from the literal meaning of the text, as seen in Diodore of Tarsus.  Both schools of thought looked beyond the historical and literal meanings of Scripture, seeking higher spiritual knowledge revealed by the hard work of exegesis and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

In our old friend John Cassian, we see that as we read Scripture, our contemplation is divided into the historical and the spiritual.  No doubt Cassian would agree with Diodore of Tarsus that we ought not to simply make up whatever allegories we please and that the spiritual understanding will not run counter to the historical (see Conf. 14.8).

The spiritual understanding of a text includes tropology, allegory, and anagogy (14.8.1). His definitions only make sense in the context of the example he uses, so to save time, here’s what the OED tells us:

tropology:

1. ‘A speaking by tropes’ (Blount, 1656); the use of metaphor in speech or writing; figurative discourse.

2. A moral discourse; a secondary sense or interpretation of Scripture relating to morals.

allegory:

1. Description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance.

2. An instance of such description; a figurative sentence, discourse, or narrative, in which properties and circumstances attributed to the apparent subject really refer to the subject they are meant to suggest; an extended or continued metaphor.

3. An allegorical representation; an emblem.

anagogy:

{dag}1. Spiritual elevation or enlightenment, esp. to understand mysteries. Obs.

2. Mystical interpretation, hidden ‘spiritual’ sense of words.

The ancient and mediaeval interpreters of Scripture believed that the historical meaning of Scripture was true and useful.  However, it is not enough.  We must seek out deeper meanings that will speak to our spiritual lives, meanings that will help us grow as Christians.  The Spirit will enlighten our understanding; the classic Christian methodology runs counter to Enlightenment methodology that seeks to interpret Scripture by reason alone, believing that with reason even the heathen can unlock the mysteries of God.

To close, from John Cassian, Conf. 13.17.3:

Whoever believes that he can sound the depths of that immeasurable abyss [of God’s wisdom] by human reason is trying to nullify the marvelous aspect of this knowledge, then, which struck the great teacher of the Gentiles.  For the person who is sure that he can conceive in his mind or discuss at length the designs whereby God works salvation in human beings is certainly resisting the truth of the Apostle’s words and declaring with impious audacity that the judgements of God are not inscrutable and that his ways are traceable. (Trans. Boniface Ramsey)

*See also “Antiochene θεωρία in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” by Bradley Nassif in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, K. Tanner & C.A. Hall, eds.  Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.