Done Blogging Benedict: What now?

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

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).

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Mother Teresa on Silence

Following from yesterday’s post about silence in the Rule of St Benedict:

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
― Mother TeresaIn the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers

Blogging Benedict: Silence (chapter 6)

The Rule of Benedict, chapter 6:

silence is so important that permission to speak should rarely be granted even to disciples who have made much spiritual progress, however good and holy and constructive their words might be. (p. 22, trans. White)

I feel that my review of the film Into Great Silence, about Carthusians (who are not Benedictine) is all we need hear.

Or the title of Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.

Some quick thoughts on us, anyway. I don’t know if any of you watched that reality show The Monastery, but the hardest part the participants had was setting aside their gadgets and being silent for so much of the day. This is our chattering culture — radio, iPods, TV, Netflix, idle conversations ‘around the water cooler’, traffic, sirens. Noise. Noise.

Noise.

C. S. Lewis complained of how distracting the radio was — imagine how much worse it was today!

Noise distracts us and sets our attention anywhere but on the inner person.

Into Great Silence

I recently re-watched Philip Gröning’s film Die Grosse Stille, or in English Into Great Silence. This film is an immersive experience and possibly one of the better ways to bring people into the world of Christian monasticism and the contemplative tradition.

When I first watched it, I watched it over more than one sitting. Although this film is a bit long — 2 h 42 min — it is, I think, important to watch an immersive film such as this in a single sitting. Into Great Silence is about the monks of La Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. This is the mother house of the Carthusian order. Carthusians do not talk to each other. They sing the office and chant the readings. The few times they eat together in refectory, a brother reads to them, and they keep silent as they eat.

The first non-singing human voice in the film is the monk who takes care of the cats, about 20 min in.

The sounds you hear in the great silence are footsteps in the cloisters. Feet treading up stairs. The sound of a kneeler creaking beneath monastic weight. The rustle of white robes. Birdsong. Spoons in bowls of soup. Rain. The river. Scissors cutting fabric. The rasor shaving their heads. The food trolley rolling down the corridor. A shovel in the snow. You hear the bell ring and watch the monks kneel to pray wherever they are. You hear them shuffle in, taking turns at the chapel bell and arranging themselves in the choir. You hear them sing the night office in Latin.

There is no voice over. Just the great silence of the Carthusian life.

La Grande Chartreuse

The film covers about one year of life at La Grande Chartreuse. It begins and ends in winter, with shots of blizzards in the Alps. You see La Grande Chartreuse covered in snow. You see the majestic backdrop of the Alps surrounding it. You watch the spring melt-off. You see the rivers and streams swell. You see two young men make profession as novices. I found it interesting that the prior seemed to roll his R’s in French like an Italian (maybe he’s Italian). You see a monk sitting at his table in his hermitage reading. You see a monk preparing  celery. You watch the monks get their heads shaved.

It is a very simple life. They seek to live that monastic ideal ora et labora. They cut their own wood for their fireplaces; Carthusians live in little houses, each with its own garden. There are also larger, communal gardens. These all grow vegetables. They pray, they read, they prepare food, they take care of the cats, they take care of the cattle, they clean the monastery, they keep the spring water flowing to the charterhouse. They work. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They work. Repeat.

There is a bit of modern plumbing, a few electric lights, electric rasors, and an IBM Thinkpad. But most of what they use looks mediaeval. You see a monk washing his dishes in his room with a jug and a bucket, and the water flows out a hole to the outdoors.

They do talk, though. Gröning edited the material very well — at the one communal meal in the film, the reading is from the constitutions of the Carthusians, talking about how they eat supper together on Sundays and solemn feasts, and that after the meal they have the chance for conversation, so that they can experience some of the joy of family life. They also get to go for a walk once a week because of how refreshing a walk in the forest is for frail humans after all the strictness of the Carthusian way of life.

What do they talk about? Whether they should maintain the tradition of handwashing, and if getting rid of the handwashing would be the start of a slippery slope into indiscipline.

They also go sliding in the winter. Their laughs are very highpitched.

In the end, this is a beautiful film of extraordinary power. I recommend it highly, whether you are into monks or not. For me, I really felt like this was a taste of the kind of spiritual tradition and spirituality that I could get into. Maybe never actually as a Carthusian, but this world of silence, calm, prayer, service, is enchanting.

Finally, if you get the collector’s edition, it has a second disc full of interesting information and slideshows about the making of the film and the history and spirituality of Carthusians.

Christian Rock

I belong to a group on Facebook called, ‘It’s True, Young People Do Like Traditional Liturgy.’ It draws a lot of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans/Episcopalians, as well as the odd Lutheran or even Presbyterian. Today, someone posted this sublimely beautiful video of Russian chant in four-part harmony:

I’ve heard a lot of Russian chant, and am kind of in love with basso profundo, but there is something sweet and, as I say, sublimely beautiful about the music in the above recording. As I continued my Internet wanderings — which consisted of typing up a post for 11 months from now (Guerric of Igny on Candlemas — I’m sure you can’t wait!), I played a recording called ‘Medieval Russian Chant.’

Shortly, my eldest brother was inquiring over Facebook as to whether his younger siblings were acquainted with Steve Taylor’s latest album (actually, Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil), Goliath. I admitted to never having heard of it, let alone having heard it. So I  pressed Pause on my Russian chant and trotted over to YouTube to meet Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil — seeing that two of his bandmates are Peter Furler of Newsboys fame and Jimmy A (for Abegg). Here’s “Moonshot”, where Taylor’s mouth freaks me out somethin’ fierce:


I went on to listen to a bunch more of Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil via YouTube — this eventually transitioned into Steve Taylor music videos from Squint, his 1993 album. As Michael said on Facebook, this sounds a lot like Squint but rocks harder and faster. I also agree that this is ‘prime Taylor.’ I, myself, once owned two Steve Taylor tapes, Squint and Liver (as in, more live, not the organ/food; it’s a live album); Michael has owned a lot of Taylor tapes, as well as the Squint video (as in, VHS).

I enjoy this music.

I have not been part of the whole Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) thing for many years. At some point in undergrad, my music purchases narrowed to classical and folk plus a bit of classic rock. Occasionally something happens to break these boundaries, like me buying three Coldplay albums that one time. Or I catch wind of something Christian that I approve of, like Steve Bell’s Devotion or John Michael Talbot’s Worship and Bown Down. But on the whole, when I buy music, it tends to be classical or folk. CCM mostly appears through nostalgia — playing my own Guardian, dc Talk, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline albums — or a flurry of activity on Spotify. Not actual purchases.*

Frankly, I stopped enjoying a lot of the music. I found much CCM musically, theologically, lyrically, devotionally unsatisfying. Nonetheless, I still like some of it.

As I sit here, listening once again to some Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil (right now, “Standing in Line“), I want to share some honest thoughts about Christian rock, of varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity. Since I am the sort of person who belongs to a Facebook group about traditional liturgy, who listens to Renaissance music, swoons at the sound of Russian chant, and would rather hear Vittoria’s music for the Passion on Palm Sunday than witness a poor dramatisation — someone who writes this blog, after all — it should come as no shock that I am not sold on rock music at Sunday worship.

But since I don’t feel like getting dragged into the Worship Wars, I will say only this — whatever music you prayerfully and meditatively choose for Sunday mornings, it must be doctrinally and biblically shaped, and I hope it upholds why we go to church in the first place:

to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his [God’s] hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. (BCP, preface to Morning Prayer)

And, if Eucharist is being celebrated, to encounter the living, ascended Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of His Most Holy Body and Blood. Oh — and, traditionally, Anglicans go to confess their sins. These are the objective purposes for which Sunday morning gatherings should transpire.

Rock music exists largely to be consumed through recordings, although there is something excellent about a live performance. But it was born in the recording age, and it was radio that made Elvis so big. This means that even if we go to a traditional worship service on Sunday, we still have access to recorded music and music videos in the comfort of our own homes and our cars.

I think there’s room for some Christian rock in our homes. I mean, this blog doesn’t exist to promote what little I know on the subject. Frankly, I’d just go around promoting Steve Taylor, dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, and PFR alongside less rockin’ CCM like Rich Mullins, John Michael Talbot, Steve Bell. Maybe Third Day sometimes. Petra’s album Wake Up Call. Stryper all night long. That sort of eclecticism that reflects my teenage years. And no, Stryper was not around when I was a teenager. I’m not that old.

But I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past years with the Greek and Cypriot Orthodox. And I’ve been reading the likes of St John Climacus, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St John Cassian, St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Augustine of Hippo, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ephrem the Syrian, Lancelot Andrewes, and others in my devotional readings. Since stopping the buying of CCM, I’ve discovered Tallis, Striggio, Bach’s choral works, and more. I have spent a bit of time with the works of Anthony de Mello. I have prayed the Jesus Prayer with a chomboschini.

There can be devotional importance in Christian rock. Some of it is good music, and beauty, whether the Sistine Chapel or the Beatles, is always a glimpse of the Divine. Some of is good poetry — likewise. Some of it is theologically profound. Some of it expresses truths we all need to face about life as a Christian in this world, which is probably where it’s greatest devotional importance lies, as in Steve Taylor, “Jesus Is for Losers”:

But we need the silence. Our lives are cluttered. Facebook, TV, radio, movies, Instagram, phones at our hips, ads on every available surface, etc, etc. Music is in the background everywhere — as we clean, as we walk down the street, as we fly across the ocean, as we make love, as we eat at a restaurant, as we ride an elevator — whether chosen by ourselves or others. Christian rock is part of the noise (but so, I am aware, can be Haydn’s Die Schoepfung).

Transfiguration -- Sozomen'sOnce upon a time, I went on a bus trip to the Troodos Mountains with my friends Fr Ioannis and Fr Andreas. Fr Ioannis is an iconographer. We visited the famous “painted churches of Cyprus” — and I loved it. I learned a lot about Orthodoxy and Cyprus and iconography and all manner of things. I beheld such beauty in these churches. I should tell you more about this trip sometime.

As we travelled along, one of the Orthodox faithful asked Fr Ioannis what he thought about Christian rock. Fr Ioannis gave an answer that has always stuck with me ever since. When you listen to rock music, can you pray? Fr Ioannis feels that this kind of music is not conducive to setting your heart in quiet as prayer needs.

And we are called to pray without ceasing by St Paul.

My sister has a friend who plays drums in a band, and she says that you can tell that his drumming is something of an ecstatic experience of worship for him. So, yes, one can worship and pray to rock music.

But we need to remember Elijah, as echoed in the Brian Doerksen song, who heard the still, small voice.

As I’ve blogged before, I sometimes have anger issues. It has not been Stryper or Petra or Steve Taylor who has calmed my spirit. Today I am less prone to anger than I was two years ago, and this is because the Lord’s grace has touched me whilst praying the Jesus Prayer.

In the secret, in the quiet place. In the stillness, He is there.

Sometimes, we need to turn the music off, not up. And we need to sit in the stillness and the silence. And pray.

I’m willing to allow a place for Christian rock. I can do without it, though. None of us can do without silence, stillness, and solitude, for it is there that God has made Himself known to many a believer since at least the day Moses ascended Sinai.

*As a side note, you should buy albums (digital, CD, vinyl, whatev) of artists yo u like because they make almost no money off Spotify. In fact, they make not so much from iTunes, either, so CD or vinyl is probably to be preferred.