The feast days of the four Virgin Martyrs of the early Roman church frame the celebration of Christmas. St. Cecilia starts us off on November 22, and she is followed by the feast of St. Lucy (December 13), St. Agnes (January 21), and St. Agatha (February 5). On each of these feast, the hymn at the morning office of Lauds uses this text for the fourth verse:
Articles tagged with Rule
Of Solitude and Contemplation
In my previous post, I noted that behind the Rule of Saint Benedict, there lies hidden the influence of the Desert Fathers. Benedict recommends that the monk eager for advanced pursuits in monastic spirituality should read the “Institutes” and the “Conferences.” Universal tradition as well as common sense asserts that he is referring to St. John Cassian, who spent nearly two decades in the Egyptian desert learning the monastic life. You can find indices to Cassian’s two most important works, the Institutes and the Conferences at the Order of Saint Benedict website.
What I wish to emphasize here, and in keeping with my aim to write brief and manageable posts, is one key connection between these two books and the two-fold path to spiritual maturity. I wrote last time that Saint Benedict is primarily concerned with the correction of behavior in his Rule for monks, but that he also acknowledges, in quiet ways, that beyond the cultivation of virtue and the elimination of vice, there is the further contemplative aspect of monastic (and Christian) life, what Benedict calls “wisdom of doctrine.” The Institutes correspond to the “active” life of conversion, and the Conferences are concerned with the “contemplative” life of adepts.
The first stage of spiritual growth, the correction of behavior, is therefore the primary concern of Cassian’s Institutes. Note that Cassian does not give us what we would consider “morality.” Rather, he is interested in teaching the times of prayer, the style of dress for monks, and the organization of communal life. This is exactly parallel to Saint Benedict’s Rule. The connection is not just one of a common culture. The Rule of the Master, an Italian monastic rule from the generation before Benedict, and Benedict’s primary source, cribs from Cassian’s Institutes, so that we can say that St. Benedict’s Rule is a kind of grandchild to the Institutes. Cassian goes somewhat beyond communal organization, and spends the last eight books of the Institutes on the eight vices and how to identify the thought patterns that go with them. So again, we are not so much in the realm of morality as moderns understand it. Cassian is interested in psychology, how our thoughts influence our behavior.
This emphasis on psychology is the link between the active and contemplative stages of Christian spiritual growth. Before we can properly understand doctrine, we must first work against behaviors that are not consonant with Christian doctrine, but then we must also go after the thought patterns that underlie wrongful behavior. This cleansing of the mind of wrongful thinking allows us to receive true “theology,” knowledge of God. This is the focus of Cassian’s Conferences.
In the next several short posts, I hope to walk with you through the two stages with more attention to the particular battles with behaviors and thoughts, along with recommended reading in monastic spirituality.
The Desert Background to the Rule
Saint Benedict composed his Rule for Monks some time around 540 A.D. Egypt, the cradle of Christian monasticism, had been drastically reduced in the previous 150 years from its high point at the end of the fourth century. Saint Benedict makes explicit reference to the “desert” only once, when describing the anchorites in the first chapter, on the kinds of monks. Since his Rule is written, however, not for anchorites but for “cenobites,” monks who live in communities, we might imagine that this off-hand reference to the desert is a mere nod in the direction of Egypt, without any further thread of connection to the ancient tradition.
There are important hints that Benedict knew the Egyptian tradition well and incorporated it seamlessly into his own proto-European style of monasticism. Finding these clues requires a bit of excavation. The place I would like to begin is in a perhaps unlikely spot, in chapter 64, On the Constituting of an Abbot. The abbot, Saint Benedict tells us, should be chosen “vitae…merito et sapientiae doctrina,” for the merit of his life and the wisdom of his doctrine. This sounds common sensible enough, but in fact it encapsulates an entire way of thinking about the spiritual quest in Christian monasticism. It also justifies Fr. Terence Kardong’s contention that the abbot is to be the “perfect” monk.
Merit of life corresponds to the presence of virtue and absence of vice. It is the first step in monastic conversion, a change of outward behavior. One learns to act…as a monk acts. When monks promise “conversion of life” (conversatio morum) according to the formula invented by Saint Benedict in chapter 58, they are promising to change their way of living. This is not a matter of mere “morals” but is implicated in all kinds of habits, preferences, and in personal comportment. This is the minimum observance “for beginners” [RB 73]. For those who are striving for greater advancement, however, as Benedict goes on to show us in chapter 73, there is the inward transformation of doctrine, new habits of thought about the cosmos and insight into God’s ways. It is not enough for the abbot to be worthy by his exterior actions; he must also have the interior virtues that allow him to give spiritual counsel and make wise decisions about the community’s welfare. It is noteworthy that one of the primary sources of doctrine, according to RB 73, is St. John Cassian, the primary link between European and Egyptian monasticism.
In future posts, I hope to demonstrate Saint Benedict’s direct dependence on the Egyptian desert fathers for this two-fold description of monastic spirituality. What the great monastic theologian Evagrius (354-399 A.D.) described as the practical (or “active”) life followed by the theoretical ( or “contemplative”) life is the best way of understanding Benedict’s emphasis on merit of life and wisdom of doctrine.
Taciturnity and Silence
The doctrinal heart of the Rule of Saint Benedict is found in chapters 4-7: The tools of good works, obedience, taciturnity (often significantly mistranslated as “silence”), and humility.
Can anyone doubt the average modern Westerner is tempted to view the combination of obedience, silence and humility as a way of robbing the individual of his maturity (exercised by choice and responsibility), of his voice, and of his selfhood?
Saint Benedict cannot possibly mean this, of course. Yet well-meaning Christians can fall into this trap of misinterpretation. I’ve already pointed out our tendency to render “restraint of speech” as “silence.” Saint Benedict actually urges responsible speech, especially where it is most typically going to be denied in an unhealthy community. Thus the younger members are urged to speak up and be heard at community meetings of the greatest importance, and monks who find tasks beyond their abilities are directed to give reasons to the abbot rather than toil miserably without recourse.
This loss of voice is what concerns me especially. I hear so often, when persons are hurting and in need of prayer, expressions like “I know I shouldn’t pray for this, but…” Even in seminary, when I took a course on Wisdom literature, the prof (himself a monk at the time, though he has since left the life) concluded his lectures on Job by claiming that God’s revelation in chapters 38-42 meant that God has more important things to do than to bother about every little human being’s problems. This is a problematic interpretation, by the way, just on exegetical grounds. But it harmonizes with what I discern as a dangerous tendency in the life of faith, to think that being a good Christian means being bullied into silence and conformity by a God who is too busy for us.
God is not too busy for us. God wants to hear from us, especially whatever is hurting us. “Then they cried to the Lord in their need.”
The disciplines of obedience, restraint of speech, and humility are necessary–not because God is threatened by us but because we are forgetful of God. God tends to speak in a still, small voice (which is to say, the opposite of the domineering voice that many lectors take on when reading God’s pronouncements at Mass), easily crowded out by noisiness and idle talkativeness. Talkativeness further cheapens words, and God wishes to give us His Word. Let’s not cheapen that exchange! God gives us an astounding palate of freedom, in order that we might freely offer ourselves as a gift in return. Obedience is not about us being so unreliable and depraved that we need to be treated as slaves. Rather, our desires tend to blind us toward the needs of others, and obedience habituates us to an openness to others, an openness that is, one hopes, less patronizing than what we otherwise might produce by do-gooder-ness [see Deus Caritas Est 34*]. And finally humility is a way to open myself to the grandeur of the cosmos (here is a closer approximation of the message of Job 38-42), of which I form a unique and unrepeatable part…as does everyone else.
Faith does not mean allowing my voice to be co-opted by a dominant power structure. Nor is it about a false propheticism that is license to speak self-righteously about everyone else’s problems. I may require taciturnity to restore my true voice, just as physical therapy necessarily includes rest and inactivity for a damaged limb. But the goal is not silence but true speech, accurate speech, healed of both breezy ignorance and of grating pretension.
* “Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.” (emphasis added)
Going to the Father 5: The Full Benedict Option
Our community began life living according to the charism of the Community of Jerusalem. This new religious order began in Paris and spread to many major European cities and to Montreal. We were going to be their foundation in Chicago, and in a filial sense we were. When the brothers arrived in Chicago in 1991, however, there were canonical obstacles in the way of an official affiliation.
This meant that our continued existence depended upon the local Archbishop. Cardinal Bernadin had invited us, and was a strong supporter of our work, but by the mid-90’s, he was experiencing serious health problems, including the cancer that would eventually claim his life in 1997. So we were looking for a way to strengthen our community canonically, perhaps by affiliating with a different monastic community. Another factor in this discernment process was the strain of translating what was then a _very_ French, even Parisian, religious ideal into the blue-collar, multi-ethnic, South Side Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport. These were the days before Bridgeport became the new Bohemia (or for locals, the new Wicker Park/new Pilsen…), but even now, I don’t see the Jerusalem model working here.
We began looking for something more stable and at the same more flexible. The idea of becoming Benedictine had been tossed around, but most of the Benedictine communities we knew were operating schools or involved in other active ministries. Our mission from the Cardinal was to be contemplative. One of the monks went on retreat to Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, and there learned that they had recently entered into a congregation of Benedictines that was more oriented toward contemplation. Formerly known as the Cassinese Congregation of the Primitive Observance, in 1997 the newly-christened “Subiaco Congregation” numbered nearly seventy communities, spread over six continents.
Christ in the Desert has its own very interesting history, which you can read about here. Make no mistake, this is a place of contemplation. Fourteen miles down a gravel road into the Chama canyon, it’s pristinely quiet and just rustic enough to keep you alert (e.g. rattlesnakes). The community there very generously offered to adopt us city boys as a dependent house, if we so chose. After consultation with Cardinal Bernadin, who enthusiastically supported the change, we entered into the Benedictine family.
During one of the abbot’s first visits, he got rid of the community money box and pointed out that we needed to pray the office of Vigils. We began to visit there more frequently, often returning with new ideas. We noted how traditional practices like statio (brothers lining up in ‘battle rank’ and processing into the choir) and penances for latecomers at the liturgy helped to create an atmosphere of recollection and purpose. We also discovered that once we would adopt a new practice from the Rule, we would begin to see how it connected to other practices in the Rule. Many disciplines that seemed silly or outdated when we began, gradually came into focus, and the wisdom of the Rule understood as a whole, and within the larger monastic tradition, began to invigorate us. We became evangelists for Saint Benedict’s monastic vision.
There were two other significant events in this movement toward a stronger, more integral observance of the Rule.
First was another article in Worship magazine, this one by Monsignor Francis Mannion. The article discussed the blessings for brothers leaving and returning to the cloister. These are minor exorcisms. This being the case, use of these blessing generates a certain disposition of the monk toward the world. It is not hostile, mind you. But it is cautious and realistic about the importance of the discipline of silence and withdrawal for the monk or nun. We live in a bustling city with many potential dangers to one’s spiritual health, especially for those who cultivate a contemplative openness to God’s quiet communication through His creatures. So we began to use the blessings.
Secondly, we struck up a friendship with the nuns at St. Walburga’s Abbey in Virginia Dale, Colorado. We used to go there regularly on community retreats as a way to experience a bit of distance from the city. They are another contemplative community, and even have a mitered abbess (meaning, among other things, she has the canonical right to carry a crozier and to preach). It was there that the idea of doing all 150 Psalms in a week took shape in our minds. We had felt that the peculiar circumstance of the city required us to have less Psalmody and more silence, but the sisters’ example worked away at us. There was something about their joyful, matter-of-fact acceptance of the requirements of the Rule that moved us deeply. We began chanting the full Psalter in the year 2001, and once more, the immediate effect was that many other aspects of the liturgical code of the Rule suddenly made sense. They seemed rational.
Now I recount all this because it is parallel to our experience with the larger tradition of the liturgy. Our typical experience tends to narrow of thinking about the liturgy to: 1) the Mass; 2) Tridentine vs. Novus Ordo; and 3) political leanings of those who favor one of the two options. But the liturgy is celebrated by all Christians, and has been for two millennia. It includes the whole panoply of the Mass, Divine Office, Processions and Litanies, blessings of persons and holy items, and all the accoutrements that go with: vestments, buildings, music and so on. Once we began to discover the ancient Benedictine rite of the Divine Office, for example, other aspects of the liturgy seemed less odd, less tied to contemporary political positions, more laden with potential for spiritual growth, more full of joy. This is the broader background of our use of the ad orientem posture at Mass. There is a whole world of thought that created the liturgy under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and working our way back into this stream of life brought insight into theology and prayer that we had not obtained through newer, more locally restricted practices.
The more we discovered, the more we hungered for discovery in the Church’s broad experience of the Kingdom of God, inbreaking in the the Divine Liturgy, to which we will return in the next post.
The Love of Learning and the Desire for God
In the hands of a genius or a saint, or, even more so , a man who, like Bernard, is both, the artificial, the factitious, and art become natural, or, rather, nature yields itself unrestrainedly to art and its laws.
The specific type of cultural engagement of monasticism does not simply dissolve culture. It creates a new culture. Few have illustrated this with such erudition and passion as did Fr. Jean LeClercq, OSB. I opened with his description of the high art of St. Bernard’s prose and poetry.
On Community Practices
One of the ‘great books’ that most University of Chicago undergraduates have to read is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you’ve ever used the phrase, “paradigm shift,” you’re trading with Kuhn’s coinage. His notion is that normal science is done under conditions of a dominant paradigm. This contains all of the theories that everyone takes for granted and provides the background for research and further extensions of knowledge. Newton’s physics provided an amazingly powerful paradigm for three centuries. But by the late nineteenth century, researchers were discovering holes in it. The perceived problems in Newton’s paradigm led Albert Einstein and others to propose a paradigm shift, a new set of theories that today (along with the seemingly incompatible particle physics) are mostly taken for granted as the background for current research and practice.
Kuhn’s idea has been subjected to a lot of criticism. But his basic insight is vindicated by the amount of fertile thinking that has ensued in dialog with his book. One of the better refinements of Kuhn’s theory was made by Imre Lakatos, who moved away from general paradigms to more local ‘research programs’.
I begin with this excursus on science because science is, for moderns like ourselves, the dominant practice in life. Science is successful. It sells. It works. More than that, because we are all somewhat familiar with how it works, it provides a good model for other types of human practices and disciplines. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s proposals to reinstate a traditional Aristotelian morality depend heavily on what he calls ‘practices’. I will spare you his difficult definitions. These practices have a lot in common with Lakatos’s research programs (MacIntyre, in a separate essay, indicates his debt to Kuhn and Lakatos).
Yesterday I asked what tools a community needs if it wishes to engage in a kind of recovery of tradition. From the opening of this post, you can see that what is involved is something like a research program into the common good. I offer the following in the context of writing about the Benedict Option, and doing so from the standpoint of genuine Benedictine life, but also from the standpoint of someone who is intimately familiar with MacIntyre’s writings. He’s the inspiration for this project, after all, as I indicated in the first post in this series.
After Virtue doesn’t make clear what concrete qualities such a community will need. So I will use a boiled-down version of some insights from Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, one of his follow-up books. As I read MacIntyre, here is what a community needs, if the members wish to engage in some kind of disciplined pursuit of the common good: 1) a canon; 2) legitimate authority; 3) practical boundaries; and 4) modes of engagement. There are probably plenty of other things that such a community will need, but these are important and easy to overlook.
Canon: This is some kind of record of the best results of the practice so far, usually reference texts. For physicists, this would include Einstein and Heisenberg and the records of experiments of various kinds. For a monk, this includes Scripture, the Rule of Saint Benedict, the writings of the Fathers (Benedict himself names Basil and Cassian), the marytrology, Canon Law, etc. Studying the canon gives the participants common imagery, shared goals and a common vocabulary. It helps to solidify common commitments. Of course, texts, especially theological texts, can issue in disputes about interpretation. Therefore, authority and boundaries are necessary, as are proper modes of engagement. For the Benedict Option, I imagine that the usual Church documents will be in play, as well as the writings, say, of Pope Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the like. I will be offering copious suggestions for supplementing such a canon.
Authority: The role of authority in such a practice is not so much to boss people around. But someone must be responsible enough and well-versed enough in the practice to identify when an interpretation of the canon is out of bounds. Thus in science again, we have peer-reviewed journals (alas, these are becoming less authoritative), and academic hiring committees. In monasteries, we have the abbot. In the Church at large we have the bishops. Authority facilitates the ongoing argument about the common goal of everyone involved. Sometimes this requires authority to correct a participant, even to censure in some way. Sometimes it even requires a participant to get kicked out, which is why we need:
Boundaries: It is important to know who exactly is qualified to engage in the debates about the common good. Scientists usually don’t oversee original research until they have achieved a diploma indicating some level of expertise. In monastic life, only monks in solemn vows are allowed a vote in the community Chapter meetings. Part of the goal of formation is to bring the new monk into the discussion by teaching him the canon and teaching him how properly to respond to and engage with authority. When a scientist is caught faking data, his or her career can quickly come to an end, as institutional funding will dry up, effectively ruling the person out of further research. We don’t excommunicate monks anymore, as far as I know, but the principle is clearly sound (the canonical penalty of excluding a monks from Chapter is still used): monks who cease to base their decisions on the canon and abide by the community authority pose a grave risk to the community’s existence. It is up to authority to make this call. It seems to me that authority and boundaries are potential sticking points for serious efforts at the Benedict Option. Noah Millman has already helpfully issued this challenge: ‘any conscious program to implement a “Benedict Option” would be concerned, first and foremost, with questions of communal organization.’ Yes.
Engagement: I’m not completely satisfied with this word, but here is the basic idea. There has to be some kind of institutional support for serious discussions about how the group is going to act and how it is going to understand itself. There must be ways to alert authority to issues that need careful discernment. Again, in science, this is the publication of study results in accredited journals and the methods of peer review. In a monastery, engagement mainly takes place in Chapter meetings and other stylized settings. What is important about these engagements is that they are above-board and involve everyone in some fashion or other (in a monastery, different monks have different capabilities in terms of being able to engage in practical decision-making, but somehow everyone needs to be included). So Benedict Option pioneers should be wary of any sort of engagement that is too informal, too dependent on personalities, and so on.
Keep in mind that how community membership is defined, how authority is determined and exercised, what rules of engagement are allowed and institutionalized…all of these will probably require regular negotiation at some level, especially among the leadership of the group. Benedictine monasticism has never been static. We’ve constantly debated the role of priors versus abbots, sleeping arrangements (dormitories versus cells), expressions of poverty, which texts novices are to read, how to celebrate the liturgy properly, and on and on. As long as there is a way for legitimate members to be heard, as long as arguments derive from canonical sources in some way, and as long as authority can issue decisions that are binding on everyone, these debates will strengthen the communal project and provide for course correction even when things go awry. Communities break down when authority and authoritative texts become too diffuse, when members are allowed entry but lack the proper formation, and when legitimate members feel excluded from decisions that affect their participation.
Our monastery has been consciously attempting to put these insights into practice. What sort of results have we had? Which texts have become canonical in our work to engage the broad tradition of Catholic and Orthodox monasticism? We will sally next into that fray.
Discontinuity in Benedictine History
In the preface to After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes a curious admission:
Ever since the days when I was privileged to be a contributor to that most remarkable journal The New Reasoner, I had been preoccupied with the question of the basis for the moral rejection of Stalinism.
Wait–what’s there to be preoccupied with here? Rejecting Stalinism should be easy, shouldn’t it? Could there be anything simpler, less risky, than soundly denouncing Stalinism? What could he possibly mean?
The Benedict Option: Why No Benedictines?
Have you heard of the “Benedict Option?” If not, you may hear a lot more about it soon. Rod Dreher is working on a new book that will presumably help to explain the concept that he coined. But even before the book comes out, important blogosphere voices have been engaging in spirited discussion of it.
What is it?
Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., in his Great Courses CD’s on the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle comments that new readers of Aristotle’s ethics are frequently surprised that he spends almost no time discussing rules of behavior. What is right behavior, then, if not obedience to rules? Don’t we have the Ten Commandments? And a host of other rules? Aren’t Jesuits supposed to be jesuitical and concerned about minimal applications of rules and maximal excpetions? What’s with Fr. Koterski and Aristotle?
St. John Cassian demonstrated that he is in the Aristotelian tradition when, in his first Conference, he asks “What is the goal of a monk?” And he answers this by saying that monks choose their actions based on a calculation of what is most likely to bring about the Kingdom of God in their lives. The word ‘calculation’ might sound odd here. All I mean by this is a reference to the cardinal virtue of prudence. And by mentioning prudence as a virtue, I’ve indicated what is different about Aristotle and Cassian versus modern ideas about ‘morality’ or ethics. Aristotle and Cassian are interested in achievement of a goal: happiness for Aristotle*, the Kingdom of God for Cassian. Good actions move us closer to our goal and evil actions move us away. Rules can help us in important ways: they tend to condense the hard-earned wisdom of those who have been in the quest before us. But they can almost never be adopted naively. The second Conference makes this clear. There are many stories of monks who failed to achieve the Kingdom because of an over-reliance on a limited number of hard and fast rules.
But what about the Rule of Saint Benedict? The translation of the Latin Regula as ‘Rule’ is another example of what I all ‘linguistic drift’. We no longer easily sense what is meant by regula, and our word ‘rule’ only gets at a small part of it. A regula is a guide to behavior, a framework, a template. It doesn’t do your thinking for you; it provides the contours of the arena in which the spiritual battle is to be fought by monks. Saint Benedict is very clear that he does not wish to legislate a series of rules, and throughout the Regula, he gives the local abbot the discretion to dispense with virtually any particular rule. This is why the abbot should be a man learned in divine things; he must know how to assess the particular situation and adapt himself to many different characters and temperaments.
When Saint Paul writes that the letter of the law kills and the spirit gives life, he is teaching in this vein. The danger with rules, as the monks of old discovered, is that they tend to deceive those who put too much trust in them. The legalistic monk is tempted by vainglory and pride, and is tempted to judge his fellow monks who seem to fail at keeping the rules strictly enough. Self-justification through the keeping of rules is far from the justification that we receive unmerited from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Preoccupation with rules leaves uninspected the deeper questions of the heart.
None of this is to say that no laws are necessary, or that sin is no big deal. Rather, it is to alert us to a particular modern problem we have, living as we do in liberal democracies where laws are paramount. Laws in our political system are there to allow individuals to pursue their own personal goals, rather than teaching us how to pursue common goals, like eternal life with God. The teachings of Christ are meant to bring us into communion with God and with neighbor.
God’s blessings to you!
Fr. Peter, OSB
* It is important to specify that for Aristotle happiness is not mere pleasure, but knowing how to take pleasure in truly noble, good things, even Goodness itself. In this case, he is quite close to Cassian, for whom Goodness would simply be God. And to delight in God, to seek the face of God, is to seek His Kingdom.