“Imitating the blessed apostles”: The matrix for ancient and medieval discipline

In my new job, I am acquainting myself with the works of the monk-historian Simeon of Durham, who died around the year 1129. In his History of the Church of Durham (Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunelmensis, Ecclesie), Simeon writes:

Imitating the blessed apostles, the venerable Cuthbert adorned with good works the episcopal office which he had assumed; for by his continual prayers he protected the people committed to his charge, and called them to mind the things of heaven by his wholesome exhortations. (Book 1.10, trans. J. Stevenson)

A great many of our ancient and medieval ascetics believed themselves to be imitating the Apostles, or living the apostolic life, or living according to the Gospel, living ‘evangelically’ (gospelly). A century after Simeon, Franciscans will make much of ‘evangelical’ poverty.

This is in strong contrast with how most Protestants view asceticism. Indeed, asceticism tends to be associated with body-hating, unbiblical extremism; it is even used with such connotations by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. Moreover, it is in contrast with how the apostles are viewed; the only disciplines usually even considered in relation to the apostles are prayer and the study of Scripture.

Now, what might Simeon have in mind for St Cuthbert? Certainly, as the context makes clear, prayer and preaching — these are the chief apostolic virtues of St Cuthbert’s Scots-Irish predecessors, Sts Columba and Aidan. St Cuthbert, like those two, was an evangelist before he was a bishop.

He was also what one might call a prayer warrior. Of course, we might not go for his version of what continual prayer looks like. It is one thing to promote the daily office and cultivate silence, as St Cuthbert (who promoted the Rule of St Benedict amongst the monks of Lindisfarne) would have. It is another to stand in the freezing waters of the sea for an all-night vigil or to try and become a hermit.

Nonetheless, there may be something to the disciplined life being ‘apostolic’. It is clear from the biblical testimony that the apostles prayed at the Jewish hours of prayer; they fasted; they renounced worldly possessions; some of them forewent the joys of marriage for their apostolic mission; they studied and prayed over Scripture.

Many believe that St Paul’s time in Arabia was spent in prayer and communion with God before entering into ministry. Jesus certainly spent 40 days fasting on the cusp of his ministry.

As we saw a few months ago, in fact, Bede relates the story of the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons, headed by Augustine at Canterbury, in terms of them living as the apostolic community did according to Acts 2. These were certainly monks.

Later in the Middle Ages, it was the canons regular who claimed to be living the apostolic life. These were not, by a strict definition, monks, but clergy who lived together in community, lived a disciplined life, prayed a version of the daily office, and were active in their local communities, preaching and tending to the poor.

It is worth thinking about and pondering seriously — what does the apostolic life look like? It may not look like the cloister, but does it look like the comfortable pew?


Gregory the Great: Monks, missions – Contemplation, action

The top of St Gregory’s crozier

I’ve been doing some reading on and of Pope St Gregory I ‘the Great’ (pope, 590-604, saint of the week here) recently, and this ‘last’ of the Western Fathers bears much relevance to my recent discussions of both contemplative prayer and of the ongoing demise of white Anglophone Christianity.

In R.A. Markus’ Gregory the Great and His World, there is a good discussion of Gregory’s own spiritual ideal of the contemplative life and how he was forced to reconcile that ideal with his own calling to be Bishop of Rome. It is a standard trope in Late Antiquity that one resists being ordained bishop but finally acquiesces. Every once in a while, though, we meet a figure who seems to genuinely have preferred the cloister and the cell to the cathedral and the throne. Gregory the Great is one, St Gregory of Nazianzus another. Shortly after being elected Bishop of Rome, Gregory writes:

Yet in this way, I have been bought back to the world in the guise of a bishop, in which I am as much a slave to earthly cares, as I remember being a slave to them in my life as a layman. For I have lost the profound joys of my peace and quiet, and I seem to have risen externally, while falling internally. Wherefore, I deplore my expulsion far from the face of my Creator. For I was trying every day to move outside the world, outside the flesh, to drive all corporeal images from my mind’s eye and to regard the joys of Heaven in an incorporeal way. Not only with my words but also with the innermost parts of my heart I kept saying, panting before a vision of God: “My heart said unto you, I have sought your face, your face, Lord, shall I seek.’ (Ps 26 (27):8) But desiring nothing in this world, fearing nothing, I thought I was standing on some high pinnacle, in such a way that I could believe that what I had learnt from the prophet promised by God was almost fulfilled in me: ‘I will raise you above the heights of the earth.’ (Is. 58:14) For a man is ‘raised above the heights of the earth’ who contemptuously spurns even the very things that appear noble and glorious in the present world. But suddenly driven by a tornado from the pinnacle of this temptation, I have fallen headlong into fears and trepidations, because, although I am afraid of nothing for myself, yet I greatly fear for those who have been entrusted to me. From all sides I am shaken by the waves and weighed down by the tempest of affairs …’ Ep. 1.5 to Theoctista, sister of the Emperor Maurice, October 590 (trans. J.C. Martyn)

Gregory’s main outline of how to wed these two lives is the Pastoral Rule. Rather than seeing them as two stages of progression as many other ascetics would — from the active to the contemplative — Gregory saw the two forms of life working in an integrated manner, operating cooperatively. At different times of life, the same Christian can experience each of these forms of life. And the duty of the pastor is, in fact, to take the grace and knowledge and peace attained through contemplation and use it in the service of others, through preaching the Word of God in particular.

In the Pastoral Rule, Gregory argues that someone who has been given gifts from God through seclusion and the contemplative life sins if he rejects the call from the church to the service of the people of God. At Rome, Gregory lived in community with fellow monks and promoted monks within the ranks of the Roman clergy throughout his tenure of the Apostolic See. Because Gregory was such a fan of St Benedict, some think this the Benedictine ideal, but it is actually Augustinian, for the Rule of St Augustine is for clergy, not cloistered monks.

Gregory, the first monk to be Rome’s Bishop, would send a band of monks, with a monk at the their head, to evangelise the English. An interesting thesis put forth, I believe, by Dudden’s 1905 work on Gregory the Great is that Gregory wanted monks to convert the English in a manner integrated with his own monastic programme within Latin Christianity. By so doing, the Anglo-Saxon church would be a bulwark of monastic missionaries in the North; their influence could later extend South into Gaul and Germania (which it would; see my posts on Sts Boniface and Willibrord).

Dudden, I think, goes too far in his analysis of Gregory’s works, hunting for references to St Benedict’s Rule. It is not, as far as I can tell, explicitly referenced by Gregory, and all of the parallel ideals of the Rule are easily found in Sts Augustine and John Cassian as well as western canon law. That is, Gregory the Great was not imposing and enforcing the Rule; the Rule simply stands at the end of a long tradition of monastic practice. Nevertheless, St Gregory certainly promoted his own view of monachism, a view influenced by the same sources that influenced the Rule of St Benedict.

But his own transplantation from the contemplative to the active life means that he has adapted this monastic ideal. The cloister is to go abroad and adventure. The fruits of contemplation are to be shared. Evangelistic preaching is to be wedded with meditative silence.

Perhaps a renewed commitment to both contemplation and mission will help us revitalise our congregrational life and bring more people to faith?

Happy Feast of St Benedict!

Monte Cassino, site of St Benedict’s original monastery

Today is the feast of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547) of the Rule of St Benedict fame, which is the backbone not only of the Order of St Benedict but of the Cistercians and their descendant order the Trappists (the two most enduring mediaeval reform orders), as well as being the rule of life for certain Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox monasteries.

Lots of people and blogs are going to be posting about him today, so, rather than add to the noise, I thought I would direct your internet journeys to Benedict instead.

Because all blogs are essentially narcissistic, you can start here at the pocket scroll:

Posted in time for the feast, Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet for St Benedict.

If you’re looking for fresh and brief tastes from this saint, there is the selection of posts of passages from St Benedict at Enlarging the Heart.

Also at Enlarging the Heart are the (more numerous) selections from St Bernard of Clairvaux, the paragon of mediaeval Cistercian spirituality (and saint of the week here).

At the heart of Benedictine spirituality (imho) are Lectio Divina and the Liturgy of the Hours. Here’s a video on the former, from Father Matthew:

A good resource for the Liturgy of the Hours can be found at Bosco Peters’ site, Liturgy as well as at the website Universalis.

Finally, if you’re new to Benedict, here’s a five-minute video telling the story of his life:

I encourage you to spend time with one or two of the links or videos above today, remembering Benedict, and then to draw near to the Christ Benedict points us all towards. He would wish to remembered thus best.

Simplicity: Freedom from avarice and anxiety

In his book Celebration of Discipline, the first ‘Outward Discipline’ Richard Foster discusses is Simplicity. I am not the greatest practitioner of Simplicity, but ever since I really discovered St Francis of Assisi as an undergraduate, I have wished to be. As I look around at my multitudinous books, Playmobil, CDs, DVDs, cluttered schedule, I want to be unshackled. I want what Evagrius calls ‘Freedom from Possessions’.

Foster maintains that anxiety is the opposite of simplicity. I agree. I also believe that avarice is one of the great problems confronting and confronted by Simplicity. To cultivate Simplicity, to seek first the Kingdom of God, to dress like flowers and eat like birds, he gives three inner attitudes:

Freedom from anxiety is characterized by three inner attitudes. If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety. This is the inward reality of simplicity. However, if what we have we believe we have gotten, and if what we have we believe we must hold onto, and if what we have is not available to others, then we will live in anxiety. Such persons will never know simplicity regardless of the outward contortions they may put themselves through in order to live ‘the simple life’. (p. 77, 1st UK ed.)

The focus of our material possessions, and — I maintain — earthly relationships is turned from us maintaining and controlling to God maintaining and controlling. This can only be healthy.

But Simplicity is an outward discipline. What sorts of things can w do to live such a life? Foster gives ten principles; I give you the outdated page number for each in case you happen to also have the first UK ed at hand:

  1. buy things for their usefulness rather than their status (78)
  2. reject anything that is producing an addiction in you (79)
  3. develop a habit of giving things away (79)
  4. refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry (80)
  5. learn to enjoy things without owning them (80)
  6. develop a deeper appreciation for the creation (80)
  7. look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. They are a trap and serve to deepen your bondage (81)
  8. obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech (81)
  9. reject anything that will breed the oppression of others (82)
  10. shun whatever would distract you from your main goal (82)

Many of those are painfully obvious, but we do not live by them! Many we can think of friends or even ourselves being entrapped by such un-simplicity (e.g. ‘Must – have – iPhone – 5 …’; I know a guy with $25 000 of consumer debt). Number 8 is refers to, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no, no.’ How often do we just say what is necessary and what we mean without trying to justify ourselves or our answers? How many of us can even give an unqualified apology?

Our main goal — the Kingdom of God. Cassian (Conference 1) points us to ‘Purity of Heart’ as the earthly goal to attain this heavenly end. Kierkegaard’s book title (referenced by Foster) tells us that Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. It is Simplicity.

For More on Simplicity

Besides Celebration of Discipline, I have been challenged (and sometimes changed to whatever degree I am simple) by these two modern books in particular:

Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J Foster. He goes into ever deeper detail in this book. Well worth reading and re-reading.

The Lessons of Saint Francis by John Michael Talbot. Gives various lessons on daily living with Christ through the lens of the life and teachings of the jongleur de Dieu.

From the ancient and medieval writers, check out John Cassian, The Conferences and Benedict of Nursia, The Rule.

Insatiability, Medieval Benedictine Reform, and Freedom from Consumerism

Although I frequently blog about monasticism, I do not frequently blog about consumerism or the unholy economic system most of us help feed every day (I have, but I think that was elsewhere). Nonetheless, I think that strands within Christian asceticism may be part of the cure for consumerism as we find the satisfaction for our insatiability in the Infinite.

Today, my thoughts are inspired by my favourite living theologian, Miroslav Volf. In his essay ‘Hunger for Infinity: Christian Faith and the Dynamics of Economic Progress’ (ch. 6 of Captive to the Word of God), Volf discusses Weber’s discussion of our creation of an iron cage around us out of Baxter’s ‘light cloak’ of work, observing that insatiability has always been with us (Exhibit A: Ecclesiastes), but that modern capitalism has given it new drive and energy, creating false gods who live with us in the cage as we run the hamster wheel of production-oriented work.

As part of the cure, Volf recommends that we go back to a land before Baxter and the Puritans, to a worldview that acknowledges the vanity of vanities this toil can be yet which affirms work through the lens of Genesis and Eden. One of the realities about human nature that Genesis teaches us is that we were made for work. God placed us in the Garden specifically to work in it. Even in paradise, we do not lead idle lives if we are to be happy.

Volf calls us to work for the sake of a product, and to work for the sake of God. We should work because work itself is good, not because it will provide us with a paycheque or a good employee discount or what have you. Working is a property of human nature.

Product-oriented work, rather than production-oriented work, is part of a redemption of work in this vision. We are to work to produce something that is, in itself, a quality piece of human handiness. A well-harvested and well-grown field of wheat, a carefully-constructed PhD dissertation, an exquisite soup, a breath-taking fresco, a satisfied visitor to an historic landmark — these are to be the ends of our work, rather than more money, fulfilled quotas, more money, a new videogame system, more books, more, more, more.

The work should be oriented unto itself.

And if we turn our thoughts to the real God, the Trinity who created us as beings meant to work, we are working for him. We know that he is, to quote the old song, Jehovah Jireh, our provider. He will supply our needs. We work to encounter him and join him in the enterprise of supplying our needs. As we work within the finite realm of human toil, we can find ourselves caught up into the infinite realm of God’s Triunity.


Arbroath Abbey

This relates to monks, I promise. As history marched its way through the Middle Ages, Benedict of Nursia’s Rule became adopted by more and more monasteries, which were larger and larger than he’d intended the Rule to govern (it is meant for about 12 plus an abbot), and soon grew wealthier and wealthier as people left land in wills and made donations during their lives. Medieval monasteries would collect rents from the lands they owned, just like any other medieval lord.

The result was that, rather than leading the quiet, simple life designed by Benedict, one would end up with the paradoxically fat monk, feasting on meat and drinking wine in a richly-adorned monastery. Throughout the Middle Ages, various reform movements arose both amongst the monastic orders as well as the later mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans). The last such reform movement in Scotland, alas, was the Reformation in the 1560s that, rather than making monasteries places of peace, holiness, and prayer once more, made them into piles of rubble. The most famous reform movement was the Cistercian Order, which had its own reform movement started from La Trappe, the Trappists (technically Cistercians of the Strict Observance).

I recently, whilst visiting Arbroah Abbey, one of Scotland’s multitudinous ruined abbeys, learned of the twelfth-century Benedictine reform order called the Tironensians. Founded in Tiron by St. Bernard d’Abbeville, the Tironensians sought to escape the wordliness of the twelfth-century Order of St. Benedict. They maintained the Benedictine order of daily prayer combined with physical labour.

It is that element of physical labour, something Tironensians share with Cistercians and Trappists, that draws the connection in my mind. St. Bernard wanted the monks of Tiron and their daughter abbeys to all learn a trade. Each monk was required to work with his hands as well as to preserve the daily round of prayers. This would keep them from idleness. It would probably also keep them from the temptation to worldliness, for they would be dependent on themselves, not rents and tithes, to keep themselves alive.

Tironensians led lives of prayer and work, praying in the monastery chapel, working in its gardens, tending its beehives, and doing maintenance on the building. Prayer and work. Work and prayer. These are the intertwined realities of the Benedictine life. If a monk is out working in the garden, and the bell rings for prayer, he is to pray on the spot. Nothing is more important than prayer, the Opus Dei. In making his monks all learn a trade, the importance of work was also highlighted by Bernard d’Abbeville.

Liberation Theology for Consumerists?

Perhaps we should follow in the footsteps of the Tironensians, the Cistercians, certain strands of Franciscans. We should work to produce a high quality product, and when it is time to pray, we should drop everything and pray. We would free ourselves from the hamster wheel of consumerism. We would turn ourselves towards the infinite God, finding there the source of contentment in the face of human insatiability.

All we need to do is ask God for this strength, for the divine reality to enter into our reality. Or to move our reality into his. To take our work — be it essay-writing, preaching, serving people at McDonald’s, collecting garbage, gardening, teaching Latin, historical interpreting — and acknowledge it as good in and of itself. And then to take that work and give it to God in faith that he, and not our productivity, will supply all our needs — and not necessarily our wants.

Thoughts springing from Benedict

The end of the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict reads:

Thus we must found a school for the Lord’s service. In its design we hope we will establish nothing harsh, nothing oppressive. But if, according to the dictates of fairness, there emerges something a little severe in the interest of amending sins or preserving love, do not at once be frightened by fear and flee the path of salvation, which can only be narrow at the start. Instead, by progress in monastic life and faith, with hearts expanded in love’s indescribable sweetness, we run along the path of God’s commands, so that, never turning away from his instruction and persevering in his doctrine in the monastery until death, through patience we may share the sufferings of Christ and also deserve to be sharers in his kingdom. Amen. (Prol. 45-50, trans.Venarde, p. 9)

I am primarily grabbed by the first line in which Benedict likens his monastery/rule to a school, indeed, ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’  I like this image. For, indeed, Christians are disciples, discipuli, students. We are students of our great Master, Christ. We sit at his feet and learn from him.

And who does Christ tell us to be? Servants of all. Then the monastery — or any Christian community — is a school for the Lord’s service by its very nature. It is a place to learn how to serve the Lord. And since in serving the least, we serve Him, all service is the Lord’s service.

The rest of this passage is not without importance for us today, however.

Benedict, like many Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic authors, thinks of the monastic pathway as ‘the path of salvation.’ Here he describes it as sometimes severe (but only in the interests of fairness and love), and narrow at its start. Yet it is a pathway to be followed through to one’s death, showing us the Benedictine virtue of stability (currently discussed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at Relevant).

By living lives in submission to God’s commands, lives devoted to the Lord’s service, by walking along a narrow path, we hope to become ‘sharers in his kingdom.’

The importance of virtue and holiness is always to the fore in monastic spirituality, as we see here. As I exhort you and myself to live a devout and holy life along the at times severe, frequently narrow path of salvation, take comfort from the earlier portions of the Prologue wherein Benedict reminds the reader that one’s ability to live holy lives and do righteous deeds is based in the grace God gives to those who come to him in faith.

“Glory be …”

Re-post from elsewhere in 2008

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritu Sancto,

Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

* * *

Glory be to the Father,

and to the Son,

and to the Holy Spirit,

as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Those with a knowledge of Latin are already saying, “But ‘et in saecula saeculorum‘ means ‘and unto ages of ages’!” I know. Don’t ask me why, the “ages of ages” bit is also there in the Greek. Moving along . . .

You may know the above prayer from time spent in liturgical churches; we have a tendency to sing or say it following Psalms, canticles, and various prayers and antiphons based on Psalms. It tends to be called the “Gloria Patri,” after the first two words in Latin.

John Cassian (c. 360-430), the fellow I’m researching these days, says that the Desert Fathers of Egypt would say the Gloria Patri after each Psalm (Institutes 2.8), noting, “This we have never heard anywhere in the East.” Cassian had lived in Bethlehem and was later to visit Constantinople before settling in Marseilles. If Cassian speaks aright, the Gloria Patri goes back at least to the Desert Fathers, a movement that was already a hundred years old by the time he arrived and one with a strong oral culture. The Gloria Patri may be older than they are, but we don’t really know.

Anyway, it made its way from the Desert Fathers to St. Basil the Great’s Divine Liturgy (c. 370-379) as well as into St. John Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy (late fourth century), although since both of those are from the living traditions of the East, it is hard to know what exactly the original text of each was; nonetheless, if we consider the guardedness of the East towards its tradition, the texts as we have received are probably very close to those of Sts. Basil and Chrysostom. Therefore, it was spreading in use in the late fourth century, despite Cassian’s note that he had never heard the Gloria Patri elsewhere in the East.

How the prayer came to the West is hard to say as well. The liturgies of the East were known in the West. Nonetheless, it may have come all on its own. Had it not come on its own, the most likely candidate is John Cassian. Cassian transmitted the spirituality and practices of the Desert to the monks of Marseilles in his two major works The Institutes and The Conferences.

He had a massive influence upon succeeding generations of monks, the Conferences being recommended reading in St. Benedict’s Rule (ch. 42). His recommendation of regularly praying the versicle, “O God make speed to save me; O Lord make haste to help me,” (Ps. 70:1, in Conf. 10.10.2 ff.) ensured its inclusion in St. Benedict’s office, being the standard beginning for the prayers and readings (chs. 17, 18, and 38).

It is hard to measure the impact of St. Benedict (c. 480-543) and his Rule for Beginners upon Christian spirituality. During the Early Middle Ages, more and more monasteries were founded according to his Rule or chose to live by it until the Rule became the standard authorised monastic rule of life. Since most monasteries were Benedictine and the Benedictines helped preserve Western learning during times of upheaval as well as produce many leading churchmen and missionaries, they inevitably had an effect on the liturgy of the Western Church.

Therefore, go and grab a BCP, and turn to the order for Morning Prayer. On page 6 of the Canadian 1962 version, just after the Lord’s Prayer, we read:

Minister. O Lord, open thou our lips;
People. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Minister. O God, make speed to save us;
People. O Lord, make haste to help us.

Here, all standing up, the Minister shall say:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
People. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

There we see the influence of Cassian and the Benedictines. Here also we see the continuing tradition of saying the Gloria Patri. At a tradition BCP service, at the conclusion of the Psalms (outside of Lent), we proclaim the Gloria Patri.

In fact, this prayer is not only old and venerable but incredibly widespread. Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and others all pray this prayer. Wherever we have gone, we have brought the Gloria Patri with us. As a result, if you check out this page on Wikipedia, you can see the Gloria Patri in numerous languages.

When we proclaim the glory of God in this form, we are joining with Christians across the ages — at least 1600 years of church history includes this prayer in its worship and use of the Psalms. And when we say the Gloria Patri, we are joining with Christians of varying traditions from around the globe, joining in the mystical communion of the Body of Christ, raising our anthems high to the throne of God, united in one voice.

How cool is that?

This post has gone on long enough. But I hope you have caught a glimpse of the Gloria Patri as it has wended its way across the globe and through history right into your Prayer Book or BAS or version of the Daily Office or breviary or local congregation’s morning worship.

I’ll get to the usefulness of this as prayer and a small rant later.