Some Benedictines

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Now, if you’re excited about the Rule of St Benedict, besides applying the lessons about prayer, community, and humility to your own life, you may be wondering where to turn next. After all, RB is pretty short. Where else within that tradition might one go? Well, of course, the fountainhead of all Christian tradition is never to be neglected; that is — read your Bible! (Like a Benedictine?1) Another alternative that I heartily endorse is to read St Benedict’s reading list and contemporaries — so John Cassian, The Rule of the Master, St Basil of Caesarea, as well as the likes of St Columba, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Julianus Pomerius.

The alternative I propose today, however, is to consider the tradition that flows forth from RB and those who live according to the Rule. This embraces more than those with O.S.B. (Ordo Sancti Benedicti) after their name, but also those who pre-date the organised congregations of Benedictine monachism as well as the other orders, such as Cistercians, who follow St Benedict’s Rule.

So, some Benedictines:

The Venerable St Bede (672-735). Bede was a monk here in the Northeast of England, at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, spending the last five decades of his life at Jarrow. Most famously, he wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People; well worth a read. In Penguin’s The Age of Bede, you can also read his Lives of the Abbots and his Lives of St Cuthbert (besides an unrelated text, The Voyage of Brendan!). If Benedictine biblical reading is your desire, he compiled/composed various commentaries, such as on Genesis,  Revelation; from Cistercian Publications, you can get the following in English: the catholic epistles, the Gospels, the letters of St Paul, and Acts. He wrote other biblical studies as well as a range of writings on computus and chronology. He is a Benedictine worth knowing.

Blessed Alcuin of York (735-804). The great Carolingian scholar from England wrote widely and helped revise the text of the Vulgate Bible. I’ve read a number of his prayers in Sister Benedicta’s anthology Christ Beside Me, as well as some of his verse. I’d like to read more, such as his letters.

St Anselm of Canterbury and Bec (1033-1109). St Anselm, from Aosta in Italy, spent his monastic career at Bec in Normandy before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He is a towering figure of medieval theology whose devotional work reveals the spiritual heart of all he does. My acquaintance with his writings is from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, which you can read in a translation by Sister Benedicta Ward, and Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, including his MonologionProslogionWhy God Became a Man (or, Why the God-Man? — Cur Deus Homo), and others of penetrating philosophical and theological insight.

St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). St Hildegard is a famous mystic and female writer of the Latin Middle Ages. She was an abbess who had episcopal authorisation to preach and who corresponded with the famous churchmen of her age. She had visions from a young age which are recorded in her Scivias; she also wrote abundantly on a great many other topics and composed some beautiful music. The Scivias and the music are my main encounters with St Hildegard. Look her up on Spotify.

Cistercians! A great entryway into High Medieval spirituality is The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, translated for Penguin by Pauline Matarasso. This includes selections from Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, and more. Worth your time.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). St Bernard is considered by Cistercians as the Last of the Fathers. Besides the anthology above, I’ve read from his Homilies on the Song of Songs. So much of St Bernard is so good, and so much exists, it is hard to know where else to point.

Jean Leclercq (1911-1993). Dom Jean Leclercq OSB was a scholar-monk, like de Vogué, of the highest calibre. I cannot recommend too highly The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Trappists are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and Thomas Merton is probably the most famous of them. His posthumous The Inner Experience from early this millennium had a strong impact on me, and many speak highly of New Seeds of Contemplation. I also found some random selections from his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain challenging and inspiring (I found a copy lying around my parents’ house while in undergrad and dipped in and out unsystematically).

Adalbert de Vogué (1924-2011). Dom Adalbert de Vogué OSB was an academic scholar-monk who wrote extensively on the monastic tradition. For our purposes, I recommend the English translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.

Important Benedictines of one order or another whose works I’ve not read: Benedict of Aniane (the second Benedict; I skimmed his list of monastic rules once), Hrabanus Maurus  St Peter Damian, St Odo of Cluny, Blessed Peter the Venerable, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, Gertrud the Great of Helfta. Once I’ve read some of his theology, Lanfranc of Bec/Canterbury may also be recommended on this blog.

In closing, one reason why we should concern ourselves with St Benedict’s Rule is not, perhaps, that it is the greatest or the most original monastic text. It probably is not. However, a rich tradition of theology and spirituality flows from it to our own day. This is reason enough to get to know it.


1. Personally, I’ve not read any books devoted solely to Lectio divina, but Enzo Bianchi, Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives has been recommended, and I like the look of Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading

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Blogging Benedict: More on the primacy of prayer

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

We have already seen some of Benedict’s discussion of prayer, as well as reflecting on the daily office as he describes it. As we progress through the Rule, we encounter more of Benedict’s regulations concerning prayer and its primacy in monastic (Christian!) life.

In chapter 50, distance from the monastery or travel are no excuse. When the hour for prayer comes, stop what you are doing and pray. Get off your horse and pray. If the bell for prayer rings and you are out in the garden, kneel in the dirt. Pray.

For us today: Holidays are no excuse! A lot of us get our prayer disciplines out-of-whack during holiday seasons. Some people stop making it to church when they move out to their cottages. Others choose not to go to church when away from their home city. Benedict would not approve. Just because our secular work is on holiday doesn’t mean our prayer lives are!

Chapter 52 highlights the extreme importance of prayer in the Benedictine world, urging that oratory be put to not purpose other than prayer. No idle conversations. No roughhousing. No badminton (I know a minister who wants to take the pews out of his church so they can play badminton). Making certain places special, set aside for prayer and holiness, helps make all places special.

There is an argument from contemporary neo-Celtic spirituality that there are ‘thin’ places. I am not sure if a. this is actually something Insular Christians of the Middle Ages believed or b. it’s true, anyway. In fact, there is an argument that places people often consider ‘thin’ are not literally, objectively more so than anywhere else — whether we say Mount Athos or the chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto or wherever — but rather that the activities we engage in while at such places make us more attuned to God.

The goal for us, when we leave ‘thin’ places, is to make our whole lives in every place ‘thin’, permeated with the Kingdom of the Heavens. For, as Christ says in Matthew 4:17, the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand.

Prayer is the opus Dei in the life of the Benedictine monk. It is the work of God. It runs through the fabric of every day. I find it no surprise, then, that some of the great pray-ers of history and writers on prayer have been from the Benedictine traditions. I think immediately of two from the Middle Ages, St Anselm in the opening prayer of the Proslogion or his Meditations and the Cistercian St Bernard of Clairvaux and his rich spirituality, expressed in his sermons on Song of Songs.

The Cistercian World, selected and translated by Pauline Matarasso

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth CenturyThe Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century by Pauline Matarasso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my Lent reading for 2016. It is the second Penguin Classic translated by Pauline Matarasso that I’ve read, the first having been her superb The Quest of the Holy Grail. This volume is an excellent anthology in readable English of selections from some of the most important figures in the twelfth-century Cistercian movement. It moves chronologically from the founding of the abbey at Cîteaux to the close of the century.

Matarasso gives a handy introduction to the origins of the Cistercians and their move away from some of the decadence of contemporary Benedictine abbeys, especially many associated with Cluny. Cistercians sought to return to the original letter and spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. Cistercian spirituality is a spirituality based on simplicity of life, dress, manners, art, architecture. It is based upon Scripture and the Fathers, and Cistercians sought through their patristic, scriptural simplicity, to attain union with God through contemplative prayer in the midst of the opus dei, the liturgy of hours. To further assist the reader in interpretation, each text has its own introduction, and there are endnotes.

Cistercians included in this volume are Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, Amedeus of Lausanne, Aelred of Rievaulx, Isaac of Stella, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, and Adam of Perseigne, as well as an anonymous description of the abbey and selections of exemplary stories about Bernard and other early Cistercians.

These men are aware of their own finitude in the face of the transcendent God. However, equipped with love, with the Scriptures, and with the power of prayer, they set out to clarify their knowledge of the divine and enter into God’s loving embrace, encountering the bridegroom of the human soul.

Some of St Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs are included here, and they are mightily inspiring, reminding us of the different kinds of love and how we can fulfil the commands. Also inspiring for me were the Meditations of William of St Thierry, who demonstrates the heart of the contemplative. Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship is important for us to think over as we live in relationship with others—what sort of friendship is to be cultivated, and how to use friendship to attain spiritual heights.

This is the sort of book that makes you want to pray more and engage in ascetic endeavour. I am a most imperfect example of someone who fulfils that desire, however. Nonetheless, I have copied out some of the passages of the book for private meditation and hope to reread the whole anthology again someday in order to further deepen the grace God gives through his servants. Finally, I would urge anyone interested in the Christian mystical tradition to read this book and see what our forebears in the faith said, thought, and did, and also to be reminded (if you know of the eastern tradition) of the silent ecumenism that links mysticism across time and space and ecclesial boundaries.

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My stray theological thoughts

Last night, a friend was giving a wee talk/sermon/whatever at church about Q1 of the bigger Westminster Cathechism:

Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

He spoke a bit about the Trinity and the divine attributes, and why it is that God is always ‘happy’/’blessed’/’joyful’, and what it must mean for us to enjoy Him. It was quite good, full of references to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Surprisingly, no Bavinck, though.

My mind being what it is, I also drew in the following:

  • In response to how we are created in God’s image, I said we are created for communion, since God is a communion of persons (thanks, Zizioulas)
  • God and creation are utterly different and separate, yet we are able to encounter God in specific ways on earth through his activity — couldn’t help but think of Gregory Palamas and the essence and energies of God, especially since there was a Venn diagram involved, with two unconnected circles but arrows going from ‘God’ to ‘creation’.
  • How do we most enjoy life? By finding the summum bonum, for this is where happiness lies. So far, Aristotle. God is the summum bonum — Aquinas. Christ is God, and He says that we will find Him by serving the poor.
  • Christ saves us and makes us able to know God as He knows Himself. Couldn’t help but think of Leo and two natures.
  • The goal of Christianity? To see God. I thought immediately of the beatific vision of St Bernard, Moses. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ I thought. This leads straight into John Cassian, Conference 1, where we learn that the goal of monastic (Christian) life is purity of heart as a way of achieving the end of the beatific vision.
  • Finally, he spoke about how living in knowledge and love of God, and actually enjoying Him and Christian life will transform all our relationships, and we will love others differently. I think, ‘Keep your heart at peace and a multitude around you will be saved,’ St Seraphim of Sarov.

Pretty sure the Free Church of Scotland (‘Wee Frees’) rarely has so many Eastern Orthodox, mediaeval, and patristic references running through parishioners’ minds. Except, of course, mine.

Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…

Poems of St John of the Cross and making time for silence

I got back from a week up in northern Scotland with my parents this past Friday, and our first stop was the Granite City of Aberdeen where, after seeing my Grandpa’s birthplace and two fantastic Gothic churches, we slipped into a bookshop (as we are wont to do). To my delight and surprise, I found Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell.

poems of st john of the cross

As I have mentioned here before (twice, in fact), I lost this book, a gift from my friend Emily, along with The Way of a Pilgrim, trans. Helen Bacovcin, back in 2004 on the OC Transpo when the books fell out of my pocket. My brother gave me Bacovcin’s Pilgrim for this past birthday, and now I have also recovered St John of the Cross — in even the same edition! Quite chuffed with this purchase (a mere £2), I started reading that night at our hotel.

Zurbarán_St._John_of_the_CrossHere you will find that St John of the Cross employs ‘the analogical’ method of talking about God and our relationship to Him — that is, St John is unashamed to follow in the footsteps of St Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) in discussing Christ as the bridegroom of the human soul as bride. It is an analogy for a kind of communion and relationship to which nothing in the human sphere really compares. This private poetry is one of my cited locations where it’s okay for Jesus to be your boyfriend.

The first poem is the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘, upon which St John wrote a commentary that is one of the great classics of the Christian tradition (read it online or find it in print!). Many of the poems deal with searching for the Lover or with one of the classic tropes of lyric-elegiac poetry — the pain of love.

One title stands out to me, Englished as, ‘Verses Written After an Ecstasy of High Exaltation’.* How many of us could say, ‘I have had an ecstasy of high exaltation?’ We may have the eros, the desire, for God, but we rarely reshape our lives. My ‘ascetic revival’ of a few years ago lasted about a week. Old patterns slip back in.

Who has time to sit alone and pray to God, to clear the mind, to do nothing in God’s presence?

We, of course, need to make the time. Cultivate stillness and silence. Probably very few of us will have ecstasies of high exaltation — ecstasy, as James Houston notes in The Transforming Power of Prayer, is a gift from God not doled out lightly. We cannot attain it by any technique or through any skill. But we can all attain the same stillness that inspired St John of the Cross to write his beautiful poems, driven by the desire to meet with the Most Holy Trinity. And that is worth doing.

So, when we’re moving along with church attendance, prayer, and scripture reading — as recommended here — shall we then add stillness in God’s presence as a way to focus our lives and hearts of Jesus?

*’Coplas del mismo hechas sobre un éxtasis de alta contemplación’ in the original spanish.

Happy Feast of St Benedict!

Monte Cassino, site of St Benedict’s original monastery

Today is the feast of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547) of the Rule of St Benedict fame, which is the backbone not only of the Order of St Benedict but of the Cistercians and their descendant order the Trappists (the two most enduring mediaeval reform orders), as well as being the rule of life for certain Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox monasteries.

Lots of people and blogs are going to be posting about him today, so, rather than add to the noise, I thought I would direct your internet journeys to Benedict instead.

Because all blogs are essentially narcissistic, you can start here at the pocket scroll:

Posted in time for the feast, Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet for St Benedict.

If you’re looking for fresh and brief tastes from this saint, there is the selection of posts of passages from St Benedict at Enlarging the Heart.

Also at Enlarging the Heart are the (more numerous) selections from St Bernard of Clairvaux, the paragon of mediaeval Cistercian spirituality (and saint of the week here).

At the heart of Benedictine spirituality (imho) are Lectio Divina and the Liturgy of the Hours. Here’s a video on the former, from Father Matthew:

A good resource for the Liturgy of the Hours can be found at Bosco Peters’ site, Liturgy as well as at the website Universalis.

Finally, if you’re new to Benedict, here’s a five-minute video telling the story of his life:

I encourage you to spend time with one or two of the links or videos above today, remembering Benedict, and then to draw near to the Christ Benedict points us all towards. He would wish to remembered thus best.