The heart of seeking wisdom in the Rule of St Benedict for today is encapsulated in Lanfranc of Canterbury’s (Arcbhp of C 1070-1089) own adaptation of the Rule for eleventh-century Canterbury. Whether it is Benedict or any other of the old ascetics, this strikes the right tone:
What we have to consider with the greatest care is that what is necessary for the soul’s salvation should be safeguarded in every way: faith, that is, and contempt of the world, together with charity, chastity, humility, patience, obedience; penance for faults committed and a humble confession of them; frequent prayers; silence in fitting measure; and many other things of this kind. Where these are preserved it may truly be said that the Rule of St Benedict and the monastic life are kept, whatever variety there be in matters which have been differently ordered in different monasteries. –The Monastic Constitutions, pp. 1-2, trans. D. Knowles
Obviously, as Benedict recommends, office-bearers in community should be people of good character. However, what stands out is his division into tens for pastoral oversight. I think our churches could take a cue from Benedict here, even if informally. So many of us feel that no one is looking out for us, that our spiritual growth outside of Sunday morning and maybe a mid-week Bible study is entirely up to us with no assistance or accountability. Yet the community of the faithful should help all its members grow in holiness.
For St Benedict, chanting the Psalms, singing the hymns, praying intercessions, and reading or listening to passages of Scripture and the Fathers — these are not enough in themselves to constitute true prayer. There must be an accord between internal and external when we pray.
It is very easy for those of us in liturgical traditions to allow the rituals to become ‘dead’, to become mere rote activity, for our minds to wander, for our hearts not to mean what we pray. There have been those (particularly within the charismatic movement) who have sought to move the Church of England away not only from the Book of Common Prayer but the modern liturgies as well, believing that the Holy Spirit is stifled by liturgy. In many churches, what matters most is the inner attitude of the worshippers’ hearts — not whether you are standing, sitting, kneeling.
St Benedict, perhaps merely reflecting his culture, perhaps reminding us that, as psychosomatic unities, as persons comprised of body, soul, spirit, calls for worthy bodily posture and rightly ordered thoughts:
let us stand to sing in such a way that there is no discrepancy between our thoughts and the words we are singing. (ch. 19, p. 44 trans. White)
He also notes the importance of the simple prayer of the heart:
And so our prayer should be kept short and simple, unless divine grace inspires us to prolong our prayer. (ch. 20, p. 45 trans. White)
Prayer should not be something that is said and forgotten. You stand in front of an icon, recite your prayers, and go about your business. That is not prayer. (p. 113)
The attitude of the heart is not dependent upon incense and liturgy, nor upon lighting effects and evocative music. It is dependent upon the grace of the Spirit and upon our own cultivation of a quiet heart. True prayer can elude us as easily in the Vineyard as amongst the Anglo-Catholics — and it can come in either place as well.
The books to be read at the night office are those which have divine authority, both from the Old and the New Testaments, but also the commentaries on them that were written by recognized and orthodox catholic fathers. (p. 133, trans. White)
The fifth and sixth centuries are the centuries when the ‘Fathers of the Church’ became the fathers of the church, the centuries when the writings of particular authors from the previous generations were accepted and used and synthesized in various ways and copied and transmitted to future generations as the foundations of a solid faith.
What is noteworthy is that St Benedict does not recommend just any old patristic writings. Rather, he recommends commentaries on Scripture. Thus, not just Augustine, but his commentaries on the Psalms; not Chrysostom on the statues, but Chrysostom on Romans; not Ambrose De Officiis, but Ambrose De Noe; not Origen De Principibus, but Origen On the Song of Songs. And so forth.
We see this bent in our knowledge of live Benedictine monasteries. In 1083, William of St-Calais reformed the religious community at Durham Cathedral and made it Benedictine. He donated around 50 books as the foundation of the new monastic library. I’ve discussed this list of books elsewhere; amongst the books Bishop William donated are several commentaries, besides a two-volume Bible: three volumes of St Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms; St Augustine’s commentary on the Gospel of John; St Jerome on the Twelve Minor Prophets; St Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job in two volumes; the 40 Gospel Homilies of St Gregory; Bede’s commentary on Mark and Luke; Hrabanus Maurus on the Gospel of Matthew; Origen on the Old Testament; St Gregory the Great on Ezekiel; and Bede on the Song of Songs.
Most of the rest of the books are either liturgical in nature or about the ascetic life, besides two histories.
I’ve been praying Vigils lately since my wife and I get up once in the night with our infant son. Alongside the usual round of Psalmody and prayers, there are two readings. Usually they are both Scripture, but sometimes one is patristic, either keyed to the feast or theme of the day or commenting upon the Scripture of the other reading. It is a useful practice, reading the Fathers and the Scriptures side by side. The more I watch Protestantism fragment and spin out of control, the more wonder about the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.
One of my Benedict posts will be about RB and the Bible. The Scriptures and the biblical faith are at the heart of the Rule, though. We need to keep this in mind. If we are to follow Rod Dreher’s advice in The Benedict Option at some level, Scripture and prayer will be the rich centre of all that we do, turning our eyes to Jesus.
Chapters 8 through 20 of the Rule of St Benedict are about the divine office. I am not going to discuss the details of how Benedict arranges the times of day to pray and the Psalms to be sung. It is interesting for those interested in the history of the liturgy of the hours, of course, but I am not sure it fits the purpose of my blog posts about St Benedict’s Rule for today.
Unless you are a Benedictine or other cloistered monk, I am not sure that you can achieve the lofty goals set out here. Besides requiring a certain amount of regulation and order, it also requires time. Now, we are all too busy not to pray. But we may be too busy to pray in this way as (post)modern lay people, many with demanding jobs and family demands. When we take ‘real life’ into account, we begin to see why monks imagine that theirs is the life most devoted to God.
That said, the inspirations for all monastic rounds of prayer are the same, and we non-monastics should take heed. The round of prayer in the monastic world (broadly considered) from Sketis and Tabbenisi to the Great Laura on Athos to the Jura Fathers to St Martin of Tours to Benedict to Columbanus to Mont St-Michel to La Grande Chartreuse to Assisi is founded primarily on two biblical texts:
Pray without ceasing. (1 Thess. 5:16)
Seven times a day have I praised you. (Ps. 119:164)
So, whether you are gaining inspiration from Benedict or Francis, from the Celtic world or the Athonites, ask yourself: How can I transform my life into ceaseless prayer? Can I find seven times to pray every day?
The answer to the second is probably yes, even if most of us have never given it much thought.
The answer to the first is to consider the office as a gateway to ceaseless prayer.
What office to pray? Where do I find the office? What is the divine office?
Well, the divine office or the liturgy of the hours is the round of prayer at fixed times that not only derives from these two injunctions but from the practice of the ancient church and synagogue. Maybe I’ll discuss its biblical foundations another time. Anyway, over the years, different ways and forms of praying the divine office evolved, some for public use in the local church (the ‘cathedral’ office), some for use by monks. There was cross-fertilization between the cathedral and monastic offices; in Byzantium the monastic office pretty much won, whereas in the Latin West it did not, although it influenced the Roman Breviary to a great extent.
I recommend starting with Morning and/or Evening Prayer at first before adding Compline or Midday Prayer, let alone Terce and None.
Here are some resources for you to start praying the office if you wish to.
The Witness Cloud! This is an endeavour started by my Anglican priest brother and I. Our dad and some friends are part of it. We have our own recommended prayers, derived largely from the Book of Common Prayer, but you can use a different text if you like. The point of the Witness Cloud is for us to know that we are all united in prayer with Christ our Lord. We recommend at least Morning and Evening Prayer.
As far as particular texts go, I always recommend Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
You can also use the Church of England’s Daily Prayer site, available as an app for your phone. It has both BCP and modern options.
If you are a bit more gung-ho, you can try Benedictine Daily Prayer — it seems daunting when you behold the size of the book, but it’s pretty doable if you are looking for a handy way to pray all seven.
Verging back into more Protestant territory, my friends at Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey — a community that prayers the hours every day — have their own set. These are more modern than the other recommendations.
Some people also like the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. I used it for a while but grew desirous of the regularity of the BCP.
Many people recommend Phyllis Tickle’s books. Although I dig her last name, I’ve never looked into them.
Prayerfully choose what can nurture your own prayer life. The purpose of the daily office, if you ask me, is to create space within the day to meet with Jesus, to encounter the word, and to start to transform our whole lives into prayer, cultivating prayerfulness and silence. I have found it beneficial in my life, as have many others.
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 litteras, meditari 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.
Here are my notes on humility from chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict…
It is a universal monastic virtue. I’ll blog on that another time.
He uses an allegorical reading of Jacob’s Ladder:
That ladder is our life in this world which God raises to heaven if we are humble in heart. Our body and soul form the sides of this ladder into which the divine calling has fixed the different rungs of humility and discipline which we have to climb. (p. 24, trans. White)
The first step towards humility is to keep the fear of God in mind at all times. (p. 24)
And then Benedict gives a bunch of commands, ‘Do not forget,’ ‘Keep in mind,’ ‘Guard yourself,’ ‘Remember’ — God is watching us, and sinners suffer. This is less heartwarming than Phil Joel in the 1990s, ‘God is watching over you.’
Because God is watching us, we should keep the fear of God in our minds. This is similar, but a bit less optimistic, than the saying of St Antony the Great that one should keep the thought of God in mind at all times.
Benedict is deeply indebted to the tradition of watchfulness, of the eight thoughts, etc., that comes from the Desert and Evagrius:
One must … beware of evil desire because death lies in wait at the gateway to pleasure. And so Scripture gives us the following command, ‘Do not pursue your lusts’ (Sirach 18:30)’. (p. 25)
Benedict’s indebtedness to this tradition comes out at the fifth of his twelve steps to humility: confessing all wicked thoughts. Here I think of St Antony telling his followers to keep a journal of their thoughts. Elsewhere in the Desert tradition, we read of injunctions to confess all thoughts — good or bad — to one’s Abba in order to keep the thoughts under control. This develops in Eastern Orthodoxy into the tradition of the spiritual father, the geron or staretz, such as Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov or, in real life, St Porphyrios (d. 1991) and Archimandrite Sophrony (d. 1993).
The sixth step is very important — being content with your station, even if it is the lowliest. No raising yourself above others at any time.
Step 9 — the power of silence. We’ve been here already.
The chapter ends:
When the monk has climbed up all these steps of humility, he will reach ‘the perfect love of God which casts out all fear’ (1 Jn 4:28) (p. 30-31)
I like this, because you begin the path of humility in fear, and end it fearless. Now, the fear of the Lord is a different thing from fear of Klingon attack or of cancer. But in the end, we are called to be in a relationship of love with God…