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.

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Blogging Benedict: Humility (chapter 7)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

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…

Blogging Benedict: Chapter 1

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In Chapter 1 of the Rule, Benedict lays out the different kinds of monks. What wisdom might we find for today here?

First, coenobites — monks who live in community — “are the most effective kind of monks” (p. 8). St Basil, who wrote his own monastic rules, was himself opposed to hermits. How can someone who lives alone fulfil the command of Christ to love others, to serve others? As Cassian observes, if you suffer the passion of anger, how will you ever overcome it if you never spend time with people to anger you?

For us — deep community matters. It can smooth our rough edges. It provides accountability. It gives a place to live out Christian virtues, to learn from others, to grow in grace.

Second, sarabaites. These are monks, so-called, if you will. I suspect (with no research into the question to back me up) that Benedict is taking a stab at aristocrats who claim to be ascetics but live on their villas with servi to take care of their needs. These people do not labour but rather live comfortably. Such as these are also a target of Cassian’s, and an example of what happens when people try to hold them to monastic strictness is in Gregory of Tours when there is a rebellion of aristocratic nuns.

Third, gyrovagues. Jerome and Cassian both oppose these as well. These are monks who just wander around from monastery to monastery. They have no stability. What they fail to realise is that perhaps the problem with all of the communities through which they drift is themselves — they bring their own problems with them wherever they go.

For us — this is a very Protestant phenomenon. Leaving one congregation or denomination for another whenever we disagree. Drums, preaching, music, the kind of ministry they do, how nice people are to us. What if we who leave were the problem in the first place?

The spirit that inspires these is the noon-day demon of akedia, I think. We become listless, despondent, discontented with our situation, our discipline, our community. We think that a change of scenery will help. Evagrius and Cassian deal with this, as does St Anselm in a letter quoted by Eadmer in the Life of St Anselm.

Fourth, hermits. Benedict himself, if we trust Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2, spent time as a hermit before becoming a coenobite. St John Climacus also spent time as a hermit. Because of what was said above about the virtues of coenobitism, one should only become a hermit after having grown much in grace. Cistercians have no place for hermits in their constitutions, much to the consternation of Thomas Merton, who so greatly desired that grace.

A thought on hermits: They are never alone. Indeed, the cloistered monks have a hard time keeping the world out. Even monks of La Grande Chartreuse (who are a community of hermits who never speak) have written books to minister to the world (I’m thinking of Guigo II, on whom I’ve blogged here and here). In Jerome’s Life of St Hilarion, the recurring theme is that Hilarion keeps getting found out everywhere he goes, and people come for spiritual wisdom and miracles, so the hermit moves along. Jerome attributes his discovery to demons who want to disturb his solitude. I like to think the opposite — God does not give people the fruits of contemplation to hoard them but to share them (see Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule on that one).

In John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints, he tells the story of Simeon the Mountaineer, a hermit who went off into the mountainous regions of Mesopotamia (Assyria?) to be alone. There he met people who had been baptised but not catechised and who had no priests. Thus he found himself wrenched from the eremitical life into the life of active service, preaching to them and bringing them to a true faith in Jesus who saves them.

Consider Richard Rolle, a hermit who was also a spiritual adviser to some nuns and wrote several books. Or, also in the 14th century, Julian of Norwich, who received visitors at her anchorhold. And, today, Father Lazarus, the anchorite who inhabits the Inner Mountain of St Antony the Great. St Antony went there to be a hermit, and a community followed him that exists to this day. Father Lazarus lives there, alone with his demons and prayers and Nescafé, but he receives visitors and even makes videos for the Coptic Orthodox youth!

Blogging Benedict: A School for the Lord’s Service

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

Before moving on to the first chapter of the Rule, I want to pause for a moment to consider this phrase and what it might mean for us today — our understanding of discipleship and our worshipping, witnessing communities.

Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici scola servitii.

The idea of the Christian community as school should help us shift our thinking about what the worshipping community is up to. For example, a few months ago a friend expressed his displeasure at a post that had done the rounds on his Facebook feed all about why Millennials aren’t going to church anymore. And, even if some of the criticisms were valid, the entire spirit of the piece was, ‘We don’t go to church because church isn’t doing things for us/the way we like it.’

Elsewhere, you’ll read about church growth tactics, using coffee bars to lure people back. Or manipulating emotions with lighting during worship (this is a thing I read in a catalogue from a supplier of church electronic equipment). We are told to make church relevant to the (felt) needs of congregants. To make worship an unforgettable, subjective (emotional) experience.

For monks, all of this is meaningless.

What do I know about what is good for me? Have I not sacrificed my temporal pleasure and temporal good for the Kingdom of Heaven? I have forsaken all to gain everything in St Clare’s Laudable Exchange. The monk has given up all rights to earthly materials, earthly goods, family, inheritance, social position. St Antony the Great made sure his sister had enough to live on, then completely abandoned his inheritance, giving it all to the poor.

Aren’t we supposed to be like that guy in the parable, who found a treasure in a field, so he sold everything and bought the field?

Forsaking everything for Christ means opening ourselves up to suffering. It means looking at church not as a place where we go to feel good or to have our needs met, but to encounter the risen Christ. It means enrolling in a school of the Lord’s service.

After all, Jesus’ followers in the New Testament are called disciples — an English word from the Latin discipulus, a learner, a student, an apprentice, translating the Greek mathetes. I remember how it startled me to recognition about the word in a Bible study with a Greek Cypriot friend who kept calling the disciples Jesus’ students.

What if all of the inward-focussed church programmes (so not evangelism or serving the wider community) took themselves seriously as a school for the Lord’s service — a school where we learn to serve the Lord Jesus Christ? I think that our churches would look different. And healthier.

And maybe, for a while, smaller.

The Phoenix (or: Surprising Things in the Church Fathers)

Re-post from elsewhere in 2007

Phoenix from the Aberdeen Bestiary (12th c.)

One of the things I’m contemplating studying when I grow up is Patristics, which is to say, the study of the Church Fathers, who are the church leaders, bishops, theologians, monks, writers, mystics, and whatnot, from the second through the fifth or sixth century, sometimes even later. As part of this, once Easter came and I was allowed to read books again, I read First Clement.

First Clement is a letter from St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome, on behalf of the Romans to the Corinthians. I found it in an immensely useful book called Early Christian Fathers from the Library of Christian Classics. The book gives a good introduction to the writings of the period, as well as solid introductions to each work, editions of the text, and further reading.

Anyway, one of the interesting bits is Chapter 25:

Let us note the remarkable token which comes from the East, from the neighborhood, that is, of Arabia. There is a bird which is called a phoenix. It is the only one of its kind and lives five hundred years. When the time for its departure and death draws near, it makes a burial nest for itself from frankincense, myrrh, and other spices; and when the time is up, it gets into it and dies. From its decaying flesh a worm is produced, which is nourished by the secretions of the dead creature and grows wings. When it is full-fledged, it takes up the burial nest containing the bones of its predecessor, and manages to carry them all the way from Arabia to the Egyptian city called Heliopolis. And in broad daylight, so that everyone can see, it lights at the altar of the sun and puts them down there, and so starts home again. The priests then look at their dated records and discover it has come after a lapse of five hundred years.

St. Clement concludes, Chapter 26.1:

Shall we, then, imagine that it is something great and surprising if the Creator of the universe raises up those who have served him in holiness and in the assurance born of a good faith, when he uses a mere bird to illustrate the greatness of his promise?

This is not some sort of whacked-out Christian appropriation of a pagan myth. In St. Clement’s mind, this is no myth at all. This is fact. There is a bird called the phoenix, and it operates in the following way. It is part of God’s glorious creation. Just as Jesus uses wheat as a symbol of His death and resurrection, so St. Clement uses the phoenix as a type in nature of the Resurrection.

Nor is it shocking proof of how quickly the Early Church was Hellenised, how its Hebrew roots were lost and subsumed into pagan culture. Clement was a Jew [I think?]. A Jew with a specific adjective: Hellenistic. The phoenix story shows not how Christians had been Hellenised or paganised, but how Jews living outside of Palestine for generations had become part of the culture around them. Clement knew what he was talking about. He knew this story. Sure, he’d never seen one. I’ve never seen a hippopotamus, either.

Apparently, according to footnote 66 on page 56, “Tacitus is more critical toward the legend than Clement (Ann. 6:28).” Other people who wrote about the Phoenix are Hesiod, Herodotus, Ovid, Pliny the Elder.

Does the phoenix come under the classification of cryptozoology? Or is that more for things like the brontosauroi in the Congo, and dragons?

As a thing to close. There is a story, I think it’s even in Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, about St. Anthony [actually, it’s in Jerome’s Life of Paul of Thebes]. One day he was walking to visit this one fellow monk [Paul of Thebes]. Along the way, he met a hippocentaur (that is a centaur with horse bits rather than bull bits) who was seeking the fellow monk as well. Anthony wept at the knowledge that even this creature out there in the desert was seeking knowledge of salvation. I think that’s how the story goes. I’m not going to look it up.

Reading the ‘Life of St Antony’

I have blogged about St Antony and his Life published (if not composed) by St Athanasius before, as visible on the Desert Fathers page of this site. When we come in front a text such as the Life of St Antony, the questions that tend to confront us — especially if philosophical materialists (matter is all there is) — are manifold.

How much of this is even true? We have Antony visible wrestling with invisible opponents. The sick are cured. Demons are cast out. People hear the disembodied voices of the demons as they tempt Antony. He lives for twenty years alone on a sparse diet but is as hale and hearty as ever when he comes out of seclusion. He has visions both of demons and of Christ.

People who want to determine whether an account is true or not tend to dissect things on their likelihood as well as how well attested they are. The likelihood of any miracle is, by definition, scanty. And our evidence for Antony’s miracles primarily comes from this text written probably by an Alexandrian and certainly serving the polemical purposes of Athanasius vs. the ‘Arians’ — if the Nicenes can produce such a saint, how could they be wrong?

Of course, one could easily point to the vast wealth of material that gives us miracle stories, exorcisms, and visions in the acts of the martyrs and lives of later saints. Perhaps these could be used as a bar — people in similar circumstances do similar things. May these miracles be not so unlikely after all?

However, immediately it will be pointed out that the earlier stories are unreliable because they were often written after the fact and clearly embellished to promote the Christian message. And the later stories are clearly modelling themselves on the Life of St Antony. Therefore, the argument that holiness manifests itself in similar ways throughout history will not convince our imagined materialist.

In fact, short of witnessing such a miracle oneself, I don’t think that a confirmed materialist could ever be convinced that the Life of Antony is 100% true. Furthermore, the apparatus of historical investigation cannot either prove or disprove the events recounted in this story. ‘Likelihood’ cannot be used as a criterion if the miraculous is in play, short of discounting all miracles (as the materialist will).

What use, then, is the Life of Antony? We cannot prove it true. We cannot prove it false. What do we do with it?

We must ask ourselves why the text was written in the first place and for whom it was written. It claims to have been written by Athanasius to provide the ideal monastic lifestyle for the reading pleasure and edification of his fellow clergy. The point of the Life of Antony is not historical information but edifying example.

Therefore, what this text shows us is what this particular Egyptian community — Alexandrians who admired the Desert Fathers, perhaps the Desert Fathers themselves a bit — values and strives towards. These people value commitment to Christ above all. They value what Franciscans will later call ‘evangelical poverty.’ They value constant prayer. They believe in demons but also in the greater power of Christ at work in the Christian to overcome the demons. These things and more are what we can take away from this text.

At this point, when we look to it as reflective of a particular historical community rather than a straight historical narrative, the Life of St Antony takes on a different force and becomes disturbing in a new way. Rather than challenging the philosophical materialist (matter is all there is), it aims for the heart of the practical materialist (matter is all that matters).

This is the value, historical and philosophical, of documents such as the Life of St Antony. These are the questions we should ask them — questions that will provoke the text to question us as well.

St Francis and the Monastic Impulse

St Francis and Brother Rufus, by El Greco

Today is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. I have been a fan of St Francis since ever I learned of him, and have read The Little Flowers of St Francis, G K Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi, John Michael Talbot’s The Lessons of St Francis, and Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (my wee review here).*

Last night after Bible study, I was talking about my tutorial for tomorrow with one of the guys, a tutorial about the Desert Father St Antony of Egypt (saint of the week here). Like many evangelicals, my friend sees no appeal in monasticism, rightly (I believe) criticising the all-too-frequent tendency in monastic or eremitic circles to cut oneself off from the rest of the world that the commandments of Christ to make disciples cannot be fulfilled.

I, however, tend to find the monastic call somewhat appealing — certainly the ascetic/mystical call. When we look at St Francis (as at Antony), we see someone who took up the ascetic life out of a desire to live in radical obedience to Jesus. He gave away his very clothes so as not to be beholden to his earthly father, declaring to his local bishop that he now had only God for his Father!

And what does Francis do? He goes and rebuilds a local church. And then he gathers a band of fellow jongleurs de Dieu. And what do they do? They go around getting into all sorts of trouble and preaching the Good News of Christ.

This is the monastic impulse as it should be, I think. The single-minded devotion to Christ that we find in ascetics from Antony of Egypt to Benedict of Nursia (saint of the week here and here) to Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) is present in St Francis of Assisi. He abandons the life of a warrior or of a middle-class merchant with wealth. Rather than giving the regulated, required tithe to the poor, he gives all to the poor and joins their ranks, out of obedience to Christ’s call to give all your possessions to the poor.

St Francis spent hours and days and months in prayer, once going off to an island spontaneously and spending all of Lent on it praying. This is the monastic impulse at work. But St Francis takes this single-mindedness and turns it outward to the suffering world around him.

Francis doesn’t shut himself away in a cave or the thick walls of an Italian monastery. He goes out into the world, preaching the Gospel of Christ, working to save souls. This is the monastic impulse as it should be directed, I think. He engages in the usual ascetic practices of dietary restriction, prayer, and poverty, but he spends his days in the marketplaces of Italy, telling people the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, calling them to repentance.

The Franciscan friary — their equivalent of a monastery — is meant to be a stop along the way, a place for refreshment both physical and spiritual before going back out into the hostile world and engaging in the true mission of Francis: winning souls for Christ.

It all sounds terribly evangelical, doesn’t it?

*Also, I’ve written these blog posts: St Francis and Why You Like Him; The San Damiano Crucifix; Saint of the Week: St Francis; St. Francis of Assisi; What to Do with the Canticle of Brother Sun; and St Clare’s Laudable Exchange.