Blogging Benedict: The Final Chapter

What to read next?

Chapter 73 is the final chapter of the Rule. Here we learn that the journey we’ve been on these several months is just a beginning, a ‘little rule for beginners’. Where you really need to go if you want to progress:

  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Conferences (assume Cassian)
  • Institutes (assume Cassian)
  • Lives of the Fathers — RB 1980 does not think this refers to the Vitae Patrum, since it is compiled a few decades too late, but rather to those by Jerome and the Life of St Antony by St Athanasius
  • St Basil’s Rule

These books are singled out as:

the tools of virtue for monks who wish to lead a virtuous and obedient life (trans. White, p. 113)

St Benedict also says, ‘We are lazy.’ I wonder what he would think of our undisciplined, cheap-grace Christianity?

Somehow, we should overcome spiritual laziness (which can be one outcome of akedia, one of the eight deadly thoughts). What I find interesting is that St Benedict does not think that his rule is the main place for that. It is simply for beginners, to set up a coenobium that is neither too harsh nor too lax. Yet for many today (myself included), this Rule is itself an enormous challenge.

We write so many books and commentaries on the Rule (I’ve read only that by Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict), or books inspired by Benedict (I’ve read Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, for example). At Durham Cathedral bookshop, there is essentially a whole shelf of Benedictine books. Adalbert de Vogué wrote a multi-volume commentary on the RuleRB 1980, Latin with English and commentary, takes over 500 pages, while the Little Black Penguin with no intro or anything takes but 114 little pages.

We can’t help ourselves — whatever its intrinsic worth, the Rule has been used in so much of western European religious culture for so long that many of us who want to go deeper in our faith have to come to terms with it along the way.

But St Benedict points us away from himself. First, to the Bible. This is a prime lesson. People like me are very good at paying our lip service to the supreme glories of sacred Scripture, and professing it as God’s primary, normative mode of revelation, as holding authority, etc., and saying that it nourishes us — and then neglecting to read it ourselves, due to probably a variety of sins, weaknesses, and passions (I’ve already read it twice; I know theology; I keep meaning to but run out of time; I find it dry some days; I find biblical truths in other books, anyway).

Benedict says: NO.

Search the Scriptures. Read, mark, and inwardly digest them (okay, that was Thomas Cranmer).

And then he points us to Cassian, to saints’ lives, and to Basil. Probably more than enough wisdom in those to occupy us, I think. Maybe a good book for those seeking God after having read the Rule would be an introduction to Benedict’s reading list with some excerpts? (Just a thought.)

And so the Rule is done. Next: Benedict and the Bible — I’ve already hinted at it here.

The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?