I am in the middle of writing about the Rule of St Benedict, and yesterday I began writing about his twelve steps to humility. Immediately, what came to my mind as a helpful addition to St Benedict was the distinction between perfect and imperfect humility in the anonymous, 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud makes an interesting distinction between the two. Imperfect humility arises when we look at ourselves, our sins, our frailties, our weaknesses. Perfect humility, on the other hand, is the result of looking at God and being overcome by his greatness, glory, and goodness.
Throughout my current work on Benedict’s Rule, I am trying to focus my attention on the Rule itself, the tradition that birthed it, or the tradition that grew out of it. This is an ample field from which to reap — not only John Cassian and the Rule of the Master, but the Desert tradition leading to Cassian (including Evagrius), and Benedict’s other “holy catholic Fathers” such as Pachomius, Basil, Augustine; not only pre-Benedictine monasticism but the sons and daughters of Benedict as well, such as Bede, Boniface, Anselm, Hildegard, Bernard, Aelred, the rest of the Cistercians, and even Thomas Merton.
But what about texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing? When I write about Lectio Divina, can I safely use Guigo II, a Carthusian? Or the Victorines if I feel the need? Obviously, any wisdom from any source should be welcome. But if I’m writing about the Rule of St Benedict, part of me wants to consider the influence that Benedictine life and spirituality has had. Can Carthusian sources be welcomed, then?
I am, in fact, leaning towards yes. The reasoning is not simply, “Wisdom is wisdom. Let us attend.” It also has to do with the nature of the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict is the most popular monastic rule from before 800 to after 1200 when the friars start appearing. Besides being used by multiple orders, the members of non-Benedictine orders had contact with the Rule, its sources, and their brothers following the path of Benedict.
For example, St Bernard was a regular visitor to the Abbey of St Victor, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion that there are links between some Victorine and Cistercian manuscripts. William of St-Thierry wrote works for Carthusians. Ivo of Chartres, not a Benedictine, studied at the monastic school of the Benedictine monastery at Bec alongside St Anselm under Lanfranc. Sons and daughters of Benedict rub shoulders with those in non-Benedictine orders.
Furthermore, the Desert tradition that nourished the Rule of St Benedict in many ways continues to be copied, read, and meditated upon — and sometimes lived — by those outside the Benedictine tradition.
Therefore, it seems methodologically sound to include sources from outside the Benedictine tradition when they represent the wider tradition of the Desert as it swept through western Europe in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity is a thousand-year meditation and recasting of Late Antiquity in different ways. Its interconnectedness should, therefore, inform our meditations upon it.
Yesterday (leap day, of all days in the calendar!) was the feast of John Cassian, monastic founder and one of the ascetic fathers of Latin Christianity. Clearly, though, he has something of a mixed reputation to get a feast that comes only once every four years!
Cassian’s reputation is marred by the predestination controversy, in which the Augustinians in Gaul (modern France) were so particular and powerful that an anti-Pelagian such as Cassian could still come under suspicion and find himself labelled “semi-Pelagian”. Cassian’s teaching on this subject is found in his thirteenth Conference. What we find there has been called by one scholar “semi-Augustinian” rather than semi-Pelagian. Vladimir Lossky, in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church says that what Cassian writes here is essentially Eastern in spirit, which is no surprise, since Cassian is from the Balkans, lived as a monk in Bethlehem, toured Egypt’s monasteries for about ten years, and spent time with John Chrysostom in Constantinople before moving West.
But Cassian, despite this label, despite so inauspicious a feast day, has had an enduring influence on Western asceticism and mysticism, from St Benedict to Steve Bell. Besides a couple of obvious references in Benedict, if you look through the commentary on the Rule by Georg Holzherr, you will find many passages inspired or paralleled by Cassian.
Indeed, Cassian is one of the great ascetic fathers of the Latin church — hundreds of copies of his main works, the Institutes and Conferences, exist. His teaching about the inner life has found eager readers in every generation. What is the telos (end) of the monastic life? The Kingdom of Heaven. What is the skopos (goal)? Purity of heart. Aim for purity of heart, and you will find the Kingdom of heaven. This wisdom is not just monastic but for all Christians, is it not?
His teaching on discretion is a reminder that true Christian asceticism at its best is not typified by standing on a pillar, tying a chain around your waist, wearing iron underwear, or mortifying the flesh to such extremes that you become ill. It is typified, in Cassian as elsewhere, by the words of Sergei Bulgakov, ‘Discipline the flesh that you may gain a body.’ It is what Kallistos Ware calls ‘natural asceticism’.
Conference 10 on prayer is a classic treatise on the subject — and the reason we say, ‘O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us,’ at the start of the daily office!
It has been a long time since I read all of Cassian in full; in recent years, I have only whetted my appetite with the selections in The Philokalia, Vol. 1. There is a lot of wisdom, as I recall; I’ve blogged about it here. Clearly, being unpopular in your teaching about predestination is not enough to keep you from being read and digested for centuries. In fact, Lossky says that Cassian’s popularity results in St Bernard’s views on grace and freewill being more like the Eastern Church’s than the predominantly Augustinian West (take that for what it’s worth, though; I am skeptical about Lossky because of his misunderstandings of Aquinas on the Trinity).
I am going to be revisiting Cassian in greater depth soon. I think, though, that he is precisely the sort of guide to Christian “spirituality” we need in this age — an ascetic master esteemed in both the Latin and Greek churches who was not fully engulfed by either side of the predestination debate who sought purity of heart for the purpose of finding the Kingdom of Heaven.
As the empires and kingdoms of the human race descend into madness, that is the true Kingdom we all need.
Prayer, I think, is the heart of the spiritual life. A certain breed of fellow Protestant may protest that fact, but I cannot help but think on the myriads of illiterate Christians in history and the world today whose only access to Scripture was/is in preaching, hearing others read, or looking at pictures. But any illiterate person can pray.
Moreover, I cannot help but think of the literate Christians who seem to know the facts about the Bible and have read the Bible but seem also to have little charity and grace in their dealings with others.
Third, and last, to get the most out of Scripture, before any of our methodologies or study guides, we need prayer.
So, of the two disciplines all evangelical children are encouraged to undertake — read your Bible, pray every day — prayer is at the heart of the spiritual person’s life. Of course, this probably makes too strong a distinction, for Scripture informs prayer, and prayer will lead the literate Christian to pick up a Bible and read it prayerfully, and (hopefully) better.
Anyway, although prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life, many of us seem to have trouble praying. Either we don’t make the time, which signals that we don’t really, truly believe it is worth the time (whatever our conscious minds tell us), or we have trouble going through with prayer when time is made. Our minds wander. Our lips are there, but our hearts aren’t in it. We race through our prayers (whether extemporaneous or written). We find ourselves saying the same things over and over and wonder if there isn’t more to it than this.
If God’s a person, then shouldn’t prayer be a conversation?
There are many ways to revitalise our prayer lives, as discovered through the ages of Christian belief and practice. Some are directly encouraged by Scripture, others come from the tradition, others are recommended by the experiences of particular Christians.
When I think about my own spiritual flabbiness in contrast to my high spiritual ideals, I wonder how this might apply to me. I used to own a copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, but when we moved from England back to Canada, it was among many books left behind to lighten the load. I left it behind because I could never actually organise my day to pray most offices, so it was mostly dead weight or, to use an image of St John of the Cross, it was a symptom of spiritual gluttony.
In fact, since my first son was born, I have not really got into an ongoing, steady groove of devotion, including the Prayer Book office (once the heart of my daily prayer).
I think that many of us are spiritually flabby, and I also think that most of us do not have spiritual fathers like Archimandrite Sophrony to help us grow up, nor even spiritual friends like St Aelred of Rievaulx to encourage us to good deeds. Without guides, or in a world where our guides are books and blogs, how can we work our way to spiritual strength and fortitude?
Is it wimpy to suggest starting small?
The idea is to take the seven canonical hours and use them, but not to use the set liturgies. Or at least, not all of them. Take your phone or calendar on your computer and set reminders at the hours throughout the day. And then determine what sort of prayer will take up the different hours.
An example might be:
On waking: Thank God for day and commend it into His hands before getting out of bed.
Third hour (9 AM-ish): Arrow prayer (e.g.g. ‘O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me’; ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Most people start work at 9 AM, so that may be all there is time for. Is there a better way to start work?
Sixth hour (Noon): 10-20 minutes of Jesus Prayer during lunch break (I think Dallas Willard would recommend a similar practice with the Lord’s Prayer). Or prayerful meditation on the Cross and its meaning since that is when Jesus died for us.
Ninth hour (3 PM-ish): The Lord’s Prayer.
Evening Prayer: Evening Prayer (take your pick: BCP, Celebrating Common Prayer, Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, Orthodox Daily Prayer)
Prayers before bed: Maybe Compline? Or time for prayer with spouse.
Middle-of-the-night prayers: Arrow prayer on the way to the bathroom to pee. Or more extended prayer if you’re involved in caring for an infant.
My two main thoughts are:
Make sure there is a time for longer, undistracted prayer.
Make sure the Lord’s Prayer is there.
Structure may not give the oomph! back to prayer life. It may not work miracles. But it will guarantee that we at least pray. And if we do it not because it is a duty or because we think it’s magical, God, Who is faithful, will turn up. Hopefully we’ll notice Him.
So I’ve blogged through the Rule of St Benedict in a haphazard way for the past several months, the goal being to consider what wisdom St Benedict may hold for us today. This was inspired by having blogged through Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. This post is, then, a roundup of all the Benedict posts from both sources as well as before I started this journey — just in case you were late to the party or missed something along the way. I’ve divided it into three parts: Blogging Benedict, The Benedict Option, and Other Benedict(ine)-related Posts.
I do believe that St Benedict’s Rule is a source that can help us in our own path of discipleship and make more disciples. Enjoy this table of contents to my thoughts on it!
For the past several months, after I finished Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (through which I also blogged my way), I’ve been creeping my way through the Rule of St Benedict. Next week I’ll round up all the Benedict(ine) material on this blog. For now — what now?
There are many lessons we can take away from the Rule, many of which are thrown into sharper relief when considered alongside Scripture, the Rule‘s context, other monastic literature, and later Benedictines. My own lumping mind has tended to do this. If you want those in detail, enjoy.
But, having come to the end, what should we be doing now, with this mid-sixth-century rule for beginning monks, designed in central Italy to run a school in the Lord’s service that, due to several historical events in the text’s history, became the norm for western Christian monasticism from about 800 onward?
Some main themes that emerge for us non-monastic, layfolk of the 21st century:
Silence. Benedictines are encouraged not to talk. In that silence they engage in:
Prayer. Regular, routine prayer. Sort it out. Make yourself a little prayer rule. Join us at The Witness Cloud.
Scripture reading. Get on that, too. Figure out a rhythm of reading and studying the Bible regularly.
Work — usually physical, but maybe illuminating manuscripts or whatever. Seek how to glorify God in your work.
Community. This, for me, is always the hardest (at least in person). Find a way to invest in your church, the other Christians around you, your family, et al. Figure out how to go deeper, how to find that tantalising, elusive spiritual friendship written of so beautifully by the great Cistercian St Aelred of Rievaulx.
These are the biggest, I think. One could add: submission to fellow believers and church authorities. That would probably revolutionise our lives in ways we can’t imagine.
What is great about these, though, is that they point us not back to Benedict or to the history of Christian monasticism and spirituality, but back to Jesus, to the Most Holy Trinity, to the Body of Christ, the church. Let us set our minds on things above. This is what Benedict envisaged. It is a message as timely now as in the year 540.
But … if you do want more ancient monks, check out Benedict’s influences, especially John Cassian, and his contemporaries, such as the Greek fathers in The Philokalia, vol. 1. Then, maybe cross the Irish Sea and rest with St Brigid. And whatever wisdom you find there to apply, take it all to Christ. Enter more deeply and richly into the mystery of his love.
This is what the great mystics, contemplatives, preachers, ascetics, and others of the rich tradition of Christian spirituality would call you to.
Prefer nothing to Christ (The Rule of St Benedict, ch. 72).
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 issaturated 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.
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!
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:
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 Rule. RB 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.
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?