Blogging Benedict: The Rule and the Bible

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 is saturated 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.

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St Margaret’s word-centred miracle

Opening of the Gospel of Luke, St Margaret’s Gospel Book

Turgot of St Andrew’s, in his Life of Saint Margaret, expresses little interest in miracles. He writes:

I leave it to others to admire the tokens of miracles which they see elsewhere, I admire much more the works of mercy which I perceived in Margaret; for signs are common to the good and the bad, whereas works of piety and true charity belong to the good only. The former sometimes are the proof of holiness, the latter are that which constitutes it. (III.32, pp. 65-6, trans. Forbes-Leith)

This is not really the attitude we associate with the Middle Ages. We imagine the mediaeval man or woman being enthusiastic and obsessed with miracles, telling and retelling these wondrous tales, even making them up as in the case of Pope St Sylvester healing Constantine’s leprosy. We also imagine that the mediaeval mindset saw the miraculous as the primary evidence for sanctity.

But for Turgot, it is Queen Margaret’s … well … sanctity that is the primary evidence. I’m not sure which approach is truly the more common in the Middle Ages, the caricature or Turgot’s. But it’s important to have our stereotypes about historical epochs challenged. Each person who lived through the Middle Ages was an individual with his or her own beliefs and emphases. Just like you.

Turgot does, however, go on to tell one miracle story. St Margaret had a favourite Gospel Book, today in the Bodleian Library — and available online in this public domain facsimile from the 1800s! Once, one of St Margaret’s servants dropped the Gospel Book in a river unawares while he was crossing. When it was discovered missing, it was sought high and low, until found on the riverbed. Turgot writes:

Its leaves had been kept in constant motion by the action of the water, and the little coverings of silk which protected the letters of gold from becoming injured by contact with the opposite page, were carried off by the force of the current. Who would fancy that the book could afterwards be of any value? Who would believe that even a single letter would have been visible? Yet of a truth, it was taken up out of the middle of the river so perfect, so uninjured, so free from damage, that it did not seem to have even been touched by the water. The whiteness of the leaves and the form of the letters throughout the volume remained exactly as they had been before it had fallen into the river, except that in part of the end leaves the least possible mark of damp might be detected. The book was conveyed to the queen, and the miracle was at the same time related to her; and she, having thanked Christ, valued it much more highly than she had done before. Whatever others may think, I for my part believe that this wonder was worked by our Lord out of His love for the venerable queen. (III.33, pp. 67-8, trans. Forbes-Leith)

I like this miracle because it also challenges our ideas of mediaeval piety. Quite often we approach the piety of the Middle Ages through a lens that they were all relic-obsessed Mariolaters who barely gave Christ a thought and read saints’ lives instead of Scripture. Some likely were. I’ve a feeling most were not.

This miracle, along with the bulk of what Turgot says about St Margaret of Scotland, serves to remind us of the word-centred nature of Queen Margaret’s holiness. Her sanctity was founded upon the reading and reading of the Bible, especially of the Gospels. At the heart of her prayers was the Psalter — not only when she recited it in toto but also because it is the heart of the daily office which she prayed.

I think this miracle of St Margaret’s Gospel Book is as much, if not more, about the holiness of the Scriptures as about the holiness of Queen Margaret. And that’s what good hagiography (the writing of saints’ lives) should do — point us from the saint to Christ, the Trinity, and the Scriptures.