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!
The books to be read at the night office are those which have divine authority, both from the Old and the New Testaments, but also the commentaries on them that were written by recognized and orthodox catholic fathers. (p. 133, trans. White)
The fifth and sixth centuries are the centuries when the ‘Fathers of the Church’ became the fathers of the church, the centuries when the writings of particular authors from the previous generations were accepted and used and synthesized in various ways and copied and transmitted to future generations as the foundations of a solid faith.
What is noteworthy is that St Benedict does not recommend just any old patristic writings. Rather, he recommends commentaries on Scripture. Thus, not just Augustine, but his commentaries on the Psalms; not Chrysostom on the statues, but Chrysostom on Romans; not Ambrose De Officiis, but Ambrose De Noe; not Origen De Principibus, but Origen On the Song of Songs. And so forth.
We see this bent in our knowledge of live Benedictine monasteries. In 1083, William of St-Calais reformed the religious community at Durham Cathedral and made it Benedictine. He donated around 50 books as the foundation of the new monastic library. I’ve discussed this list of books elsewhere; amongst the books Bishop William donated are several commentaries, besides a two-volume Bible: three volumes of St Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms; St Augustine’s commentary on the Gospel of John; St Jerome on the Twelve Minor Prophets; St Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job in two volumes; the 40 Gospel Homilies of St Gregory; Bede’s commentary on Mark and Luke; Hrabanus Maurus on the Gospel of Matthew; Origen on the Old Testament; St Gregory the Great on Ezekiel; and Bede on the Song of Songs.
Most of the rest of the books are either liturgical in nature or about the ascetic life, besides two histories.
I’ve been praying Vigils lately since my wife and I get up once in the night with our infant son. Alongside the usual round of Psalmody and prayers, there are two readings. Usually they are both Scripture, but sometimes one is patristic, either keyed to the feast or theme of the day or commenting upon the Scripture of the other reading. It is a useful practice, reading the Fathers and the Scriptures side by side. The more I watch Protestantism fragment and spin out of control, the more wonder about the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.
One of my Benedict posts will be about RB and the Bible. The Scriptures and the biblical faith are at the heart of the Rule, though. We need to keep this in mind. If we are to follow Rod Dreher’s advice in The Benedict Option at some level, Scripture and prayer will be the rich centre of all that we do, turning our eyes to Jesus.
The rabbit hole that led fromAtheist Delusionsto The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.
RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.
As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues inGregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.
Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century
The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).
Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:
Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)
This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.
That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul. I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.
Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.
Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.
540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.
What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).
Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.
But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.
In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.
In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).
So, whether you accept all of Rod Dreher’s grim view of the future in The Benedict Option or not, I think the book has a lot of good ideas to help us get our churches, families, and lives more rooted in Christ and the tradition, more resilient for whatever may come our way, more disciplined. I guess, in a way, that’s the point.
My final jab at him re St Benedict of Nursia: Much of what is discussed in this book takes little or no inspiration from the Rule of St Benedict or Gregory the Great, Dialogues II. Rather, it takes its inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre’s call for a new, doubtless very different, Benedict in our day and age. And then Dreher imagines what it would take to keep Christianity vibrant and alive in the years to come.
Besides that, many of the good ideas in this book are found elsewhere in late ancient Christianity. I almost called my post about the chapter on education ‘The Cassiodorus Option’, because much of what he discusses there makes far more sense at sixth-century Vivarium with Cassiodorus than Monte Cassino with Benedict. I’ve blogged about Cassiodorus and Christian education before, FYI.
Anyway, regardless of how much in this is directly inspired by St Benedict, when we look at the wider Benedictine tradition, from Monte Cassino to Wearmouth-Jarrow to Durham to Citeaux to Gethsemani (Kentucky) to the rebuilt monastery at Norcia, there is something in the spirit of this wider Benedictine movement throughout this book.
And one thing that runs throughout, something this blog is a little piece of, is to take the initiative yourself, like Benedict did in a cave and then with a community on a mountain, or like the founders of Citeaux, or the re-founders of Norcia. Don’t sit around waiting for your pastor or your denomination to make the changes in your life, church, community that you believe are crucial for the survival and spiritual health of Christianity.
Approach them, of course. Volunteer to use Benedict Option ideas at your own church. But don’t wait — take the initiative. Get up off your butt and do something. Lay a brick for Jesus.
In this final chapter of main content in The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher discusses technology. Technology, he argues, is not neutral. Yet he does little to demonstrate this thesis at large outside of the fact that social media technology and the barrage of information (not really ‘knowledge’) on the Internet are probably bad for our minds and our ability to concentrate and engage in what is called deep reading.
Of course, technology may be bad. Or it may be neutral and used for bad purposes. If you aren’t paranoid about nuclear energy, for example, the same technology is useful for electricity for our homes as well as for blowing stuff up and killing thousands of people. Take your pick.
But the most important takeaway is, of course, our use of information technology.
This distracts our minds and fragments our attention. Fragmented attention makes sustained thought, meditation, contemplation, deep reading, difficult. This is no new discovery — hence my recent post quoting Burchard of Worms, c. 1000. C. S. Lewis complained that the radio — the radio — hampered his ability to do sustained reading and writing.
Our distractions have grown even more invasive and pervasive. We read brief posts and articles online, sometimes even good ones, and follow hyperlinks wherever they lead. We passively allow the Internet to set our agenda, while at the same time carefully crafting echo chambers where conservatives and liberals can avoid each other, except (of course) when they go trolling.
And when we’re done with social media, news outlets, and whatever else the Web has to offer, we can further numb our minds with Netflix.
I’m as guilty as anyone.
But if we want to get into habits of deep reading, deep thinking, rich prayer, silence, quiet, solitude. If we want to be able to stand against a world we perceive as corrupt and corrupting, we need to unplug.
We need the Desert.
This is why, after one final post about this book, I’m going to take a 1-week break from personal blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and then see how I do when I resurface. I may return to this blog but not Facebook for a while after that… Technofast, here we come!
I’m approaching the end of these posts about The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The penultimate chapter of the book is about sex because this is one area that our culture is particularly confused about and contrary to traditional Christianity, and because it is an area that touches biblical, traditional anthropology deeply. I essentially agree about the core thesis of this chapter, especially that we need to grasp Christian anthropology properly if we are to live by Christian sexual ethics and teach it to our children.
In a culture that believes that any sex act between consenting adults is good, with an easy and high divorce rate, that is challenging the biological foundations of the family and gender, it is not enough for us to simply teach a historic Christian moral code. Eros and Venus need to be rooted in the wider philosophy of Christianity, and rooted in what Scripture and tradition teach us about the human person. Simply telling teens, ‘Don’t have sex before marriage,’ isn’t good enough anymore — it may never have been in the first place.
According to the moral code of Scripture, as properly interpreted through the methodology and lens of traditional moral theology, sexual activity is meant for a man and woman in a monogamous union. This, I realise, is a conclusion and not an argument. Nonetheless, it is also a foundation in its way. Human beings are made in the image of God. Whether you take Genesis 1-3 literally or not, this is one of the major takeaways from those chapters of the Bible, one of the things that they teach us about ourselves.
And a remarkable thing, as Fr John Behr points out (in a video I can’t find just now), is that God says, ‘Let us make man [adam/anthropos/homo – generic but singular, thus inexpressible in current English idiom] in our own image,’ and then makes — plural — male and female. Man and woman together, united, are the image of God. Our view of sex must be rooted in our view of humanity, our view of God, our view of marriage.
My friend Tim recently remarked that simply teaching the moral code won’t ever make our congregations moral.
He argued that instead we need to help people reorient their desires.
If your greatest eros is God (who is the actual most beautiful and most good being striven for in Plato’s Symposium, itself an exposition of eros), then you will be willing to live as he recommends, even if it is very hard. This is something that I think Dreher’s chapter on sex could have emphasised more.
Sex, food, material goods, family, community, work — all of these are good desires. Yet all should be subordinated to our desire for God on the metaphysical, ontological grounds not that God wants us to do so (for then He is merely a superhuman despot) but because God actually is worthy of such desire. Having rightly ordered any of these desires for God, we will no longer declare, ‘Confusion is sex,’ but realise that the eros that unites man and wife is good and is beautiful and is itself subordinate to something else so intimate that the Bible keeps expressing it in marital images.
In fact, this is a natural realisation of the western mystics. Most famously, St Teresa of Ávila, but also Julian of Norwich, use erotic language of metaphysical ecstasy. C.S. Lewis once had a mystical experience, and the thing he could best compare it to was sex.
Besides some excerpts from the Rule in history class, my first introduction to St Benedict was Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict. Taking up the theme of work from yesterday, here is a quotation from that book where the Benedictine belief in the worthiness of all work — manual, intellectual, spiritual — feeds into daily life:
The respect for people and the respect for the work they do and the things they handle interconnect and deepen each other. … The implications of this in modern terms are quite far-reaching. My own preference is for books rather than for petrol, to take an absurd example, which I am sure many others would reverse. And if I am totally honest with myself it means that I have, perhaps quite subconsciously, a greater respect for a writer or lecturer than for the man or woman who manages a garage and sells me petrol. If I take the Rule seriously, it frees me to notice this, and if I am trying to live by it, it forces me to re-think my attitudes. (p. 118)