Blogging Benedict: The Rule and the Bible

An immediate concern of many Protestants when they meet a text such as the Rule of St Benedict will undoubtedly be, ‘What about the Bible?’ First, as I observed in my post on the Rule of St Benedict’s last chapter, St Benedict does not believe that his little rule for beginners is the be-all and end-all of the Christian life, nor even the first or best place to look for instruction. He upholds, first and foremost, the Bible.

In fact, the Rule is saturated with the Scriptures. Benedict quotes the Bible on almost every page. Many of the rules governing the life of his monks are based directly on biblical precepts or principles. Some paragraphs include whole chains of biblical citations. Benedict is using the Bible throughout the Rule; it informs him at almost every turn.

Not only this, but he continually recommends reading the Bible and integrates it into monastic life. If you want to learn holiness, St Benedict will tell you to read your Bible. From what I can tell, the Bible is the main book read by Benedictines (and other sixth-century monks) during times of lectio. They are spending hours of every day reading and thinking about Scripture.

This emphasis on Scripture and it study will pervade the history of Benedictine monasticism in its various forms. Looking at the hand-list of Durham Cathedral Priory’s manuscripts (it is not a complete description of each manuscript’s contents so there are likely some commentaries I’ve missed), we find at least 69 manuscripts containing parts of the Bible; many of these are glossed, and an entire pandect Bible from the Middle Ages is rare; the Bible is huge when written by hand on parchment, even in minuscule hands. I also identify 33 manuscripts of commentaries and Bible reading aids; more are undoubtedly there, since I see many famous Bible commentators in the list, but I don’t have time to hunt them down.

From another approach, consider a few Benedictine types. The Venerable St Bede (672-735) is well-known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but most of his life was devoted to writing commentaries on the Bible. In the generation after Bede, Alcuin (735-804), besides working on correcting the biblical text of the Vulgate, wrote on Song of Songs and Genesis. Hrabanus Maurus (780-856) also wrote commentaries on the Bible. Or consider St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the famous Cistercian father — one of his most popular and famous works is a commentary on the Song of Songs. William of St Thierry wrote commentaries and aids to biblical interpretation.

Moreover, if you read the works of the Benedictine tradition that are not Bible commentaries, they demonstrate a strong familiarity with the Bible and are informed by biblical theology at every turn.

Besides these approaches to Scripture, Benedictines sing Psalms and have multiple Bible readings at each of the seven offices. The monastic life of the Rule is saturated in Scripture as a result. Indeed, I’ve always thought it grimly funny that in the Scottish Reformation, the Tironensians (a reforming order like Cistercians) of Arbroath were allowed to live out their last days in peace at the abbey so long as they didn’t sing the office! The office is approximately 90% Scripture if not more. The strict office of the Rule is one of the most Presbyterian things in the Middle Ages — a cappella Psalms, after all!!

So, fear not. One of the first pieces of wisdom to take from the Rule of St Benedict is: Read the Bible. Mark the Bible. Inwardly digest the Bible. Meditate on Scripture, pray Scripture, study Scripture. If you want to know the path to holiness, read Scripture.

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Blogging Benedict: My initial thoughts when I finished the Rule (this time)

What follow are my initial notes jotted down when I finished read the Rule of St Benedict this time. They are edited slightly for clarity.

My final thoughts on Benedict

So now I have finished RB. What does it mean? How can it change my life? First, I guess the balance between prayer and work. Contemplation and action. Too busy not to pray. To make such a life work requires discipline at both prayer adn work. NO wasting time. Setting regimens. This I hope to be able to do. But it cannot be done alone. The Witness Cloud, my wife, yes. Anyone else?

As far as lectio goes, I don’t read enough Bible, and not very well when I do. Again, discipline. Again, my wife.

Obedience — submission and service. Done wilfully, this a great good. I need to grumble less. Pray about that.

Food. I do not know how to control my belly. B wrote for a very different economy and lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean discipline surrounding food doesn’t exist. Less coffee, no sweets, no pop. Fast 1 x week? This is do-able. [Edit: And yet…]

Back to reading — stop starting new things all the time! A discipline of stability in books, like I first thought when M was born.

Back to prayer. I must MAKE TIME. I think I can do Evening Prayer. Also, Jesus Prayer. 11:00 alarm not for nothing!!

Should I look into becoming an oblate? Third order Franciscan? Ask wife. Pray.

The rest of this regulates communal life. I am in no capacity to speak on that.

* * *

What all the old ascetic texts have that grabs me is a sense of immediacy. Christ is here now. We are to strive for holiness now — no dilly-dallying. Now is the day of the LORD. We can find Christ. We can be consumed with the Spirit. We can become all flame. Holiness is attainable (by grace). We just have to seek God, seek the Holy Spirit, immerse ourselves in prayer, Scripture, disciplne.

I am inspired by lofty ideals but oh so weak. I find some aspects of late ancient asceticism too much. Onouphrios, Mary of Egypt, boskoi, encratism. St Simeon’s maggotty wound. That saint Theodoret tells of who wore an iron undershirt. But — they had ideals! A bit crazy at times, encratism. But none of this comfortable coasting to Christ. The Apostles, martyrs, Desert Fathers, Benedictines, did not imagine that the road to the Kingdom of God was a La-Z-Boy. It is narrow. It is steep — Syriac Liber Graduum. That icon I saw at Alpha Mega [of the people going up the wide, easy path getting thrown from a cliff to dragons, and others carrying crosses up a narrow path to Christ] (should’ve bought it!).

Too often, we Prots just rest easy on cheap grace. The cost of non-discipleship. The great omission. How can we live holy lives NOW in our context? It doesn’t matter if you are Quaker, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Coptic, you can find wisdom in the ancients, wisdom that can help you apply the lessons of the Bible and live biblically, growing in grace and charity. We need to recruit not only ourselves but our communities — spouses, children, friends, congregation. Living like this is counter-cultural, so it needs true community, rich Christ-rooted fellowship, to make it happen.

The old texts often assume that ascetic monks are the only ones ‘saved’. But think on the Macarius the Great story about the baker in Alexandria who was holier than he. Most married people in the anecdotes told by late antique monks live ‘chastely’. But we can still adapt these texts for our lives!

Blogging Benedict: The Final Chapter

What to read next?

Chapter 73 is the final chapter of the Rule. Here we learn that the journey we’ve been on these several months is just a beginning, a ‘little rule for beginners’. Where you really need to go if you want to progress:

  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Conferences (assume Cassian)
  • Institutes (assume Cassian)
  • Lives of the Fathers — RB 1980 does not think this refers to the Vitae Patrum, since it is compiled a few decades too late, but rather to those by Jerome and the Life of St Antony by St Athanasius
  • St Basil’s Rule

These books are singled out as:

the tools of virtue for monks who wish to lead a virtuous and obedient life (trans. White, p. 113)

St Benedict also says, ‘We are lazy.’ I wonder what he would think of our undisciplined, cheap-grace Christianity?

Somehow, we should overcome spiritual laziness (which can be one outcome of akedia, one of the eight deadly thoughts). What I find interesting is that St Benedict does not think that his rule is the main place for that. It is simply for beginners, to set up a coenobium that is neither too harsh nor too lax. Yet for many today (myself included), this Rule is itself an enormous challenge.

We write so many books and commentaries on the Rule (I’ve read only that by Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict), or books inspired by Benedict (I’ve read Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, for example). At Durham Cathedral bookshop, there is essentially a whole shelf of Benedictine books. Adalbert de Vogué wrote a multi-volume commentary on the RuleRB 1980, Latin with English and commentary, takes over 500 pages, while the Little Black Penguin with no intro or anything takes but 114 little pages.

We can’t help ourselves — whatever its intrinsic worth, the Rule has been used in so much of western European religious culture for so long that many of us who want to go deeper in our faith have to come to terms with it along the way.

But St Benedict points us away from himself. First, to the Bible. This is a prime lesson. People like me are very good at paying our lip service to the supreme glories of sacred Scripture, and professing it as God’s primary, normative mode of revelation, as holding authority, etc., and saying that it nourishes us — and then neglecting to read it ourselves, due to probably a variety of sins, weaknesses, and passions (I’ve already read it twice; I know theology; I keep meaning to but run out of time; I find it dry some days; I find biblical truths in other books, anyway).

Benedict says: NO.

Search the Scriptures. Read, mark, and inwardly digest them (okay, that was Thomas Cranmer).

And then he points us to Cassian, to saints’ lives, and to Basil. Probably more than enough wisdom in those to occupy us, I think. Maybe a good book for those seeking God after having read the Rule would be an introduction to Benedict’s reading list with some excerpts? (Just a thought.)

And so the Rule is done. Next: Benedict and the Bible — I’ve already hinted at it here.

Blogging Benedict: Obedience and Fervour

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Before I completely lose steam, I am going to give you my notes on some later chapters of the Rule, and then my final posts will by ch. 73 (the end), Benedict and the Bible, a Benedict overview, and then a Benedict round-up. That will hopefully have this series done by the end of the next week.

Chapters 68, 69, and 71 are about obedience beyond the abbot and the Rule. The monks are not to band together in rebellion. This is a thing that happens every once in a while; it happened to Benedict (see Gregory the Great, Dialogue 2), it happened in a nunnery as discussed by Gregory of Tours (History IX.39-43), it happened to various monastic founders and reformers throughout the Middle Ages.

As I say, obedience is not only about abbots and Rules:

The brothers must also obey each other, aware that it is by walking along the path of obedience that they will reach God. (ch. 71)

Given that we are called to mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), to be the servant/slave of all (Mk 9:35), obedience to fellow Christians seems only like a natural extension of biblical teachiong.

On a different note, I ask this:

How do we get the beneficial fervour of chapter 72?

Blogging Benedict: The cloistered life

Durham Cathedral Priory in the snow (my picture)

In chapter 66, St Benedict describes the monastery:

If possible, the monastery should be arranged in such a way that everything necessary — in other words, water, the mill, the garden and the various crafts practised — should be inside the monastery, so that the monks do not need to go wandering outside, for that is not at all good for their souls. (trans. White, p. 107)

Monasteries are not meant to be tourist attractions or places that are easily left. From its beginnings, monasticism was a retreat from the world, even if in practice the grace of God kept the monks from having outside contact. The Life of Antony from St Athanasius was a story of him moving to progressively more remote and inaccessible places, ending at ‘the inner mountain’. In Gregory’s Dialogue 2, we read of Benedict fleeing to become a hermit because of the dissolute life he saw at Rome.

The cloister is part of this withdrawal. It is an architectural feature that is inherently inward-looking. I suspect it is descended from the peristyle of the ancient Roman domus, but its function is not simply to provide shade from the head or dry from the rain but to connect together as many of the buildings and rooms of the monastic complex as possible — oratory/chapel, dormitory, chapter house, refectory, library, infirmary.

Nevertheless, Benedictine monasteries, self-sufficient though they are, cannot be totally cut off from the world. They interacted with the world in several ways. First, they provided hospitality to visitors. Second, they provided care and assistance to the poor. Third, they sold the produce of the monastery to provide for themselves. Fourth, in practice (that is, not according to the ideal in the Rule), many Benedictine monasteries became places of community worship.

The purpose of the monastery, nevertheless, is to provide a haven from the distractions and care of the world, a place to seek hesychia and to find God’s grace that will calm the human heart to teach it how to pray, providing time and space for meditation on Scripture.

To this end, monks who journey (ch. 67) must say nothing of what they saw outside. This is like idle chatter and idle curiosity. It is not the business of monks.

Blogging Benedict: Where’s Easter?

Medieval image of the Resurrection of Christ, seen in Vatican Museums

Doing with the Rule of St Benedict something similar to what I did with The Philokalia, vol. 1, I ask: Where is Easter?

Chapter 15:

From holy Easter until Pentecost without interruption let “Alleluia” be said both in the Psalms and in the responsories. From Pentecost to the beginning of Lent let it be said every night with the last six Psalms of the Night Office only. On every Sunday, however, outside of Lent, the canticles, the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext and None shall be said with “Alleluia,” but Vespers with antiphons.

The responsories are never to be said with “Alleluia” except from Easter to Pentecost.

-trans. Leonard J. Doyle

All of the references to Easter are in terms of computation, in terms of the Church Year and how to pray the office.

But the above gives us a glimpse of what it means to be an Easter people.

“Alleluia!” is the refrain of Easter people, the refrain of the Benedictines for fifty days.

Praise the Lord!

This is the natural, automatic response to the unbelievable reality not simply that we worship a crucified God, but that a Man has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. I cannot help but think of the character of Bartholomew in the film Risen and his unquenchable joy and happiness.

I hope we can call have a taste of that today.

Blogging Benedict: More on abbots

Last time, I broached the subject of choosing the abbot towards the end of my discussion of rank in the monastery. The abbot should be chosen unanimously. I know a clergyman who has only even accepted a parish when the selection committee has been unanimous in its choice of him. Wisdom there, I think.

And what sort of man should be chosen?

The one to be appointed should be chosen for his virtuous way of life and the wisdom of his teaching, even if he is the lowest in rank in the community. (ch.64; p. 101 trans. White)

The only way for someone to cultivate the character of Benedict’s abbot is lots of prayer and Scripture. These are the two things the Benedictine life is most devoted to. Hopefully, then, a potential abbot has been well-shaped! In terms of modern application, we must free up our clergy who sometimes seem to me like administrators and undertrained psychologists who preach once a week rather than priests of God and shepherds of holiness.

Once appointed:

He [the abbot] should strive to be loved rather than feared. (ch. 64, 103 English)

Indeed, if you read the lives of the early Cistercians, Stephen Harding, Aelred of Rievaulx, Bernard of Clairvaux, you will see men well-beloved by their communities.

Finally, we circle back to the universal monastic virtue of discretion (discussed by Cassian):

Taking these and other examples of discretion, the mother of all virtues, let him be moderate in all things. (ch. 64, 103 English)