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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Blogging Benedict: My initial thoughts when I finished the Rule (this time)

What follow are my initial notes jotted down when I finished read the Rule of St Benedict this time. They are edited slightly for clarity.

My final thoughts on Benedict

So now I have finished RB. What does it mean? How can it change my life? First, I guess the balance between prayer and work. Contemplation and action. Too busy not to pray. To make such a life work requires discipline at both prayer adn work. NO wasting time. Setting regimens. This I hope to be able to do. But it cannot be done alone. The Witness Cloud, my wife, yes. Anyone else?

As far as lectio goes, I don’t read enough Bible, and not very well when I do. Again, discipline. Again, my wife.

Obedience — submission and service. Done wilfully, this a great good. I need to grumble less. Pray about that.

Food. I do not know how to control my belly. B wrote for a very different economy and lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean discipline surrounding food doesn’t exist. Less coffee, no sweets, no pop. Fast 1 x week? This is do-able. [Edit: And yet…]

Back to reading — stop starting new things all the time! A discipline of stability in books, like I first thought when M was born.

Back to prayer. I must MAKE TIME. I think I can do Evening Prayer. Also, Jesus Prayer. 11:00 alarm not for nothing!!

Should I look into becoming an oblate? Third order Franciscan? Ask wife. Pray.

The rest of this regulates communal life. I am in no capacity to speak on that.

* * *

What all the old ascetic texts have that grabs me is a sense of immediacy. Christ is here now. We are to strive for holiness now — no dilly-dallying. Now is the day of the LORD. We can find Christ. We can be consumed with the Spirit. We can become all flame. Holiness is attainable (by grace). We just have to seek God, seek the Holy Spirit, immerse ourselves in prayer, Scripture, disciplne.

I am inspired by lofty ideals but oh so weak. I find some aspects of late ancient asceticism too much. Onouphrios, Mary of Egypt, boskoi, encratism. St Simeon’s maggotty wound. That saint Theodoret tells of who wore an iron undershirt. But — they had ideals! A bit crazy at times, encratism. But none of this comfortable coasting to Christ. The Apostles, martyrs, Desert Fathers, Benedictines, did not imagine that the road to the Kingdom of God was a La-Z-Boy. It is narrow. It is steep — Syriac Liber Graduum. That icon I saw at Alpha Mega [of the people going up the wide, easy path getting thrown from a cliff to dragons, and others carrying crosses up a narrow path to Christ] (should’ve bought it!).

Too often, we Prots just rest easy on cheap grace. The cost of non-discipleship. The great omission. How can we live holy lives NOW in our context? It doesn’t matter if you are Quaker, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Coptic, you can find wisdom in the ancients, wisdom that can help you apply the lessons of the Bible and live biblically, growing in grace and charity. We need to recruit not only ourselves but our communities — spouses, children, friends, congregation. Living like this is counter-cultural, so it needs true community, rich Christ-rooted fellowship, to make it happen.

The old texts often assume that ascetic monks are the only ones ‘saved’. But think on the Macarius the Great story about the baker in Alexandria who was holier than he. Most married people in the anecdotes told by late antique monks live ‘chastely’. But we can still adapt these texts for our lives!

The Divine Office

A few books for prayer…

Chapters 8 through 20 of the Rule of St Benedict are about the divine office. I am not going to discuss the details of how Benedict arranges the times of day to pray and the Psalms to be sung. It is interesting for those interested in the history of the liturgy of the hours, of course, but I am not sure it fits the purpose of my blog posts about St Benedict’s Rule for today.

Unless you are a Benedictine or other cloistered monk, I am not sure that you can achieve the lofty goals set out here. Besides requiring a certain amount of regulation and order, it also requires time. Now, we are all too busy not to pray. But we may be too busy to pray in this way as (post)modern lay people, many with demanding jobs and family demands. When we take ‘real life’ into account, we begin to see why monks imagine that theirs is the life most devoted to God.

That said, the inspirations for all monastic rounds of prayer are the same, and we non-monastics should take heed. The round of prayer in the monastic world (broadly considered) from Sketis and Tabbenisi to the Great Laura on Athos to the Jura Fathers to St Martin of Tours to Benedict to Columbanus to Mont St-Michel to La Grande Chartreuse to Assisi is founded primarily on two biblical texts:

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thess. 5:16)

Seven times a day have I praised you. (Ps. 119:164)

So, whether you are gaining inspiration from Benedict or Francis, from the Celtic world or the Athonites, ask yourself: How can I transform my life into ceaseless prayer? Can I find seven times to pray every day?

The answer to the second is probably yes, even if most of us have never given it much thought.

The answer to the first is to consider the office as a gateway to ceaseless prayer.

What office to pray? Where do I find the office? What is the divine office?

Well, the divine office or the liturgy of the hours is the round of prayer at fixed times that not only derives from these two injunctions but from the practice of the ancient church and synagogue. Maybe I’ll discuss its biblical foundations another time. Anyway, over the years, different ways and forms of praying the divine office evolved, some for public use in the local church (the ‘cathedral’ office), some for use by monks. There was cross-fertilization between the cathedral and monastic offices; in Byzantium the monastic office pretty much won, whereas in the Latin West it did not, although it influenced the Roman Breviary to a great extent.

I recommend starting with Morning and/or Evening Prayer at first before adding Compline or Midday Prayer, let alone Terce and None.

Here are some resources for you to start praying the office if you wish to.

  • The Witness Cloud! This is an endeavour started by my Anglican priest brother and I. Our dad and some friends are part of it. We have our own recommended prayers, derived largely from the Book of Common Prayer, but you can use a different text if you like. The point of the Witness Cloud is for us to know that we are all united in prayer with Christ our Lord. We recommend at least Morning and Evening Prayer.
  • As far as particular texts go, I always recommend Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
  • A shorter office was devised by the Anglican Society of Saint Francis, called Celebrating Common Prayer.
  • You can also use the Church of England’s Daily Prayer site, available as an app for your phone. It has both BCP and modern options.
  • If you are a bit more gung-ho, you can try Benedictine Daily Prayer — it seems daunting when you behold the size of the book, but it’s pretty doable if you are looking for a handy way to pray all seven.
  • Verging back into more Protestant territory, my friends at Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey — a community that prayers the hours every day — have their own set. These are more modern than the other recommendations.
  • Some people also like the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. I used it for a while but grew desirous of the regularity of the BCP.
  • Many people recommend Phyllis Tickle’s books. Although I dig her last name, I’ve never looked into them.

Prayerfully choose what can nurture your own prayer life. The purpose of the daily office, if you ask me, is to create space within the day to meet with Jesus, to encounter the word, and to start to transform our whole lives into prayer, cultivating prayerfulness and silence. I have found it beneficial in my life, as have many others.

John Cassian in The Philokalia – Purity of Heart

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)First things first — my brother has blogged at our shared blog about how Cassian has shifted his paradigm for ministry as an Anglican priest. This is what these blogs are all about — that one is about our dispersed community that prays the office and strives for holiness. If you want to find at least a digital community that seeks prayer in these old ways, check us out — we’re called The Witness Cloud (and this link is our homepage).

Reading the Fathers, studying Scripture, getting down and dirty with monks, thinking through theology — the point of all this endeavour, as far away as it may seem sometimes, is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to be converted, conformed to the likeness of the image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Not that this is actually easy, mind you.

I am not a monk. I am not a priest. I am not, professionally, a theologian.

I am a classicist and ecclesiastical historian, an ancient historian. I interpret texts and study their manuscripts.

This is not the same thing as living them.

My job and my devotional life do overlap, but this means that sometimes, although I can wax poetic and prosodic about the spiritual world of ancient Christianity, and exhort my readers even to take up their challenges, much of the time the challenges are unmet — even unattempted — by me.

I first read John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus for a Master’s dissertation (I am, however, now reading them devotionally); saints’ lives were likewise for graduate study. My work brings me into contact with bishops of Rome from the fourth through sixth and seventh centuries — and beyond. For my research I read Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Severus of Antioch. For my teaching, I read Eusebius of Caesarea, the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus.

It is easy for it not to change the way one lives.

To turn, then, to the second selection of Cassian in The Philokalia, what can this do for me, here and now?

It’s kind of like doing to Cassian what he claims to have done with the Desert Fathers — take their teachings from one setting, one time, one culture, one language, and transplant them to a new one. Adapted from the hot desert of Egypt to the somewhat colder world of southern Gaul to the long, dark nights of an Edinburgh winter.

Well, straight up, what does this selection present us?

Questions of our purpose, our goal, our end. For Cassian and Germanus, what is the purpose of the monastic life? For us, what is the purpose of Christian living, of my lay spiritual life in the 21st century?

Germanus says to Abba Moses: The Kingdom of Heaven.

Abba Moses says: But what closer goal can you reach?

That closer goal, in Cassian’s rewriting of Evagrius, is purity of heart.

I’ll leave this discussion here for now. But this moment in Cassian’s Conferences is one that has challenged me every time. What is purity of heart? How do I live it here, now? How much frivolity is too much? Is this life I’ve chosen really worth the effort? Could I make something more of my life for the sake of a pure heart, for the sake of the Kingdom of God?