St. Benedict to help us begin Lent

saint-benedict-of-nursiaWith Forgiveness Vespers tonight begins Great Lent. A time of reflection, abstemiousness, discipline both physical and spiritual, Lent calls us anew to examine our lives in the light of the demands of the Gospel. The Lenten season bids us, in a way that also the prayers before Holy Communion do, to think about life in the light of death, that is, in the light of impending judgment, of the imminent confrontation with God. Truly we meet God in the Chalice as surely as we shall meet Him at death, or at the world’s last night. Lenten struggle culminates on Great and Holy Saturday when, at the place of the Alleluia we sing “Arise Oh God and judge the earth,” when the paraments are changed from black to white, and the resurrection is announced. Here, death is swallowed by life, and our life is now hidden with Christ. (NB: I know Lent ends formally at the Vespers for Lazarus Saturday.)

As part of Lent this year I have decided to return to my blog, long abused and neglected, howbeit I could protest that this dereliction arose from a noble end, mainly my work with and for the Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture, an effort that has demanded an immense effort, and also a sacrifice of far too many things. But I hope that my labors have at last brought me to a harbour where I can now dock and get back to the things I believe myself called to do, namely writing on Church History in the blog, but also finishing my manuscript on Calvin, and then turning my attention to my next large project.

But this blog calls first, and so to the matter at hand, namely that tonight marks the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia. I came to have a rather close relation with St. Benedict some years ago, indeed, about the year 2000 when I had first been received into the Orthodox Church. Horrid and horrible dreams beset me shortly after my chrismation, and for three nights they came, dreams so disturbing, and of such an order that I even now shiver at them. I went to my priest, Fr. Eugene Vansuch, of blessed memory. And so, after Liturgy he brought me before the icon of Christ and brought out a volume of The Great Book of Needs and there prayed the prayers of exorcism over me, blessing me with holy water. The dreams never came back. Shortly after this happened, I mentioned them to a friend, rather passingly, and he sent me a medal of St. Benedict, who was known, thanks to his life written by none other than St. Gregory the Dialogist, as an exorcist of the first order. This was mentioned tonight in the hymns of Vespers. I took the medal to Fr. Eugene, who said a prayer of blessing over it, and then placed it on the altar for a Liturgy. I have worn it ever since, except when I lay down to sleep, and then it stays either on my dresser or on my nightstand. It is the first thing I put on every morning, kissing both the image of St. Benedict and that of the cross on the other side of the medal.

Until this year I always had my Western Heritage students read St. Benedict’s Rule (Latin, regula) as their first introduction to the middle ages. I regret no end that he was not read by them, but the faculty member whose duty it had been to have them read Boethius neglected his officium (albeit in his mind for a good reason – – and perhaps mine as well), and thus it fell to me to have the students read The Consolation of Philosophy. It is a hard trade to make, but one I would make again, though I can certainly be argued into taking Boethius’ contemporary over him. Uniformly my students, many of whom think monasticism a bane, somehow a hindrance to evangelism, and that monks have closed themselves away from evil instead of confronting it, after reading the Rule, come away realizing how wrong they had been. Most of them, of course, shrink from what they see as the rigors that St. Benedict imposes upon his wards, praying seven times a day, a constant reading of the psalms, etc. Incredulity reigns when I tell them that most monks within a very short while had probably memorized the Psalter. “How could they do that?” I then point out that there are only 151 psalms, and if we went to the convention of dividing the 118th into its 22 constituent parts that we are only at 172, why such surprise that monks could quickly memorize 172 chants? I ask them how many songs they have on their ipods: “Oh, hundreds, at least.” “And how many have you memorized?” “Oh . . . .”

St. Benedict’s rule arose during the times of the Visigothic and Ostrogothic deprivations of Italy. Arian heretics, the Ostrogoths (who ruled in St. Benedict’s time, and it was the Ostrogothic king Theodoric who murdered Boethius) made life a misery for the Romans, and even with the accession of the Latin Justin in Constantinople in 518, things were made little better; in fact initially they became worse, as both Boethius and Pope St. John died at their hands sometime around AD 524. With this as the historical background, St. Benedict traveled to a region about half-way between Rome and Naples (he was born in modern Norcia, to the east of Rome) known as Monte Casino and eventually wrote a rule for those monks who gathered around him. To read some, an Augustinian moderation animated St. Benedict’s rule, and that it stood in contrast to the rigors and putative Pelagianism of the Syrian and Egyptian monasticism made popular in the Latin West by St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony (whose feast we celebrated on Saturday) and the Conferences of St. John Cassian (February 29 or March 1). But this misses a number of key points in St. Benedict’s program. First, if we come away from reading the Rule with the idea that St. Benedict entails a reproach to the East we have been both a distracted reader, and a rather sloppy one, since St. Benedict recommended St. John Cassian to his monks to read. Apart from that, St. Benedict has a clearly delineated hierarchy of what makes a good monk, and the greatest of the virtues, as was true of any monk in Syria or Egypt, was humility and obedience. These twin virtues dominated the thought of Eastern monasticism, essentially making clear why there were so few regulae such as that of St. Benedict’s or the anonymous Rule of the Master. Humility and obedience, owed both to your fellow monks but most importantly to your spiritual father, set aside the need for a rule as detailed as that of St. Benedict for the simple reason that many monks in the east as spiritual fathers and confessors assumed the place St. Benedict set for the abbot. Also, it is obvious that in St. Benedict’s mind he lived in a world different from both the one resided in by St. John Cassian just a century before (St. John had lived among the monks of the East, but then ended his life in southern Gaul) in that St. Benedict’s was a world in dislocation, a chaotic world where the type of monasticism as practiced in the East, as practiced even by St. John Cassian or St. Martin of Tours, would have proved difficult.

Another reason that St. Benedict’s rule should not be seen as “moderation” comes from his assertion that his was but a primary school in the making of monks. The holy rule was not an end in itself, but largely a primer in producing the disciplined monk described by Cassian in his Conferences. All the tools available to someone like St. Antony or St. John Cassian, both lettered men before coming to the monastic life, had vanished in the West, and thus the rudiments of learning to read had to be reacquired. Consequently, St. Benedict’s rule built not merely monasticism from the ground up, but found itself working with completely different raw material, that is, with a largely illiterate world, one where learning had largely vanished, a world that did not obtain in the East. St. Benedict was not merely preserving a written culture in his monasteries, but was essentially recreating it. In this regard the necessity of teaching the rudiments of the faith was also a concern to St. Benedict, a concern certainly true for St. Antony and St. John Cassian, but one on a completely different level.

St. Benedict’s rule eventually became the norm in the Latin west, owing to three factors. The first concerns Pope St. Gregory the Dialogist (the Great) and his love for St. Benedict’s rule. Pope St. Gregory not only promoted the rule, but also wrote a Life of St. Benedict. To St. Gregory, the Rule offered an easily exportable and flexible pattern for new monasteries. By the time St. Gregory wrote at the end of the sixth century the depredations of the Germanic tribes had largely come to an end, even though the Frankish kingdom certainly was no paragon of cultured civilization. St. Gregory reformed his monasteries around Rome along the lines of the Rule, and he sent it with St. Augustine of Canterbury to England. While there were conflicts with the monasteries of the Celts, eventually Benedictine monasticism triumphed in England and elsewhere. While the victory owed much to other events, had not the Rule been already favored in Rome, history may well have been different. An ancillary role is also played in this by Charles the Great, and after him, his son Louis the Pious, and Louis’s chief monastic reformer, Benedict of Aniane, who sought to make the monasteries of the Carolingian empire Benedictine, but in this they were already taking a lead from Pope St. Gregory.

The first of the other two factors were the Vikings (well, in unhappy conjunction with the Saracens and the Magyars) who decimated monasticism throughout Europe. So devastating were the Norse that no monasteries survived them in western France, and those that did survive in the east were largely Benedictine. Thus, when monasticism returned to eastern and central France with the foundation of Cluny in 911, it was the Benedictines who came to find the house swept and ready for their arrival.

And Cluny itself is the third reason. Cluny, from the time of its founding by duke William of Aquitaine, enjoyed several enormous privileges, including that the abbot answered only to the bishop of Rome, that is, to the Pope. Over the next hundred years, hundreds of monasteries, seeking to free themselves from the will and whim of either the local nobility or local bishops placed themselves under Cluny and its abbot. These monasteries, which were all over Europe, including in Rome, were thus governed by a prior who answered only to the mother house in Cluny and its abbot, so while there were many houses, there was but one abbot of Cluny. By 1050 over 350 such monasteries existed throughout Europe, making the abbot of Cluny the second most powerful cleric in Europe only to the Pope. Often the Pope made the abbot of Cluny his legate north of the Alps. Thus, Benedictine monasticism, as it existed within the Cluniac world, formed the vanguard of reforming initiatives in the eleventh century. A number of Cluniacs figured prominently in the great Gregorian reforms, including Pope Gregory VII himself (for more on this, you should see H. E. J. Cowdrey’s The Cluniacs and the Gregorian Reform).

St. Benedict’s Rule has played a vast role in culture and history of western Europe, and St. Benedict enjoys a status as the patron saint of Europe, and it was not without thought that the pope emeritus took St. Benedict as the patron of his pontificate, signaling the need for a new evangelization of Europe. The best reads on the history of the Rule are dom Jean Leclercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, and C. H. Lawrence’s Medieval Monasticism, though there are certainly other very good studies.

Through the prayers of our holy father, St. Benedict of Nursia, Oh Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us, and save us.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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2 Responses to St. Benedict to help us begin Lent

  1. jraczyla says:

    Welcome back, Professor. I look forward to reading this blog during Lent.

  2. marcusjosephus says:

    I think I started to read first in the mid 80s then again soon after we met at RES. In the mid 90s while teaching at a Catholic HS I had to directly address several dark issues my students were dabbling in (quite beyond dabbling actually). I got myself into a narrow spot that St. Benedict, blessed in Grace and Name, delivered me from.

    When next we are together… Since that time his Icon has a special place in my Oratory and I read at least once a year, I am currently halfway through for Western Lent, along with St. Gregory’s every 2nd year. Not to mention I use a traditional Benedictine Breviary.

    speaks to me every time I read it. I have worn and born his medal for over 20 years now. I have long since memorized the prayers described on it. I have had need of them and the future portends great need for his ongoing ministry.

    I too HIGHLY RECOMMEND, Jean Leclercq’s , for very many reasons. Dom Prosper Gueranger of Solesmes mostly known for and other writings wrote a small book, . It remains in active print. There are wonderful commentaries on the , including Dom Columba Marmion’s and one by Hildegarde of Bingen, whom Bernard of Clairvaux recommends.


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