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 The Benedictine Contribution to Western Christianity

Fr Pius Mary Noonan, OSB

Hobart, 5 April 2017

 

First of all, I am no historian. So, when Dr Daintree was so kind as to ask me to deliver this lecture, after giving it some thought, I suggested having a look at the Benedictine contribution specifically from the inside. Many historians have documented with meticulous detail what has happened in the west under the influence of sons and daughters of the Patriarch of western monasticism. I could not possibly add to that. What I think I can do however, is point out some of the reasons for which it happened: the spiritual genius of the man who left such an indelible mark, not only on his own order and on the western Church, but even on the whole world.

 

I propose to have a look at several texts of the Rule which, in my opinion, have contributed not a little to shaping our culture. I would divide them into three categories which present our holy Father St Benedict as:

  • a man of prayer
  • a man of work
  • a legislator.

 

St Benedict the man of prayer

Quite a few people, when mention is made of monks, think almost spontaneously of what they produce: wine, beer, liqueur, olive oil, cheese, etc. But, as you probably are aware, the Benedictine motto is “Ora et labora — pray and work” in that order. A monk is first and foremost a man of prayer. What then are the key aspects of Benedict’s life of prayer that have helped shape civilisation in the west?

Let’s mention first of all a few phrases of the Rule that are foundational for any serious life in the divini schola servitii, the school of divine service, as St Benedict calls the monastery. Benedict, whose only desire, according to St Gregory the Great, was to please God (soli Deo placere cupiens), tells his monks that they must prefer nothing to the love of Christ (nihil amori Christi praeponere). Such desire for God and love for Christ gives direction to the monk’s life, orients it continually towards our final goal. It also gives shape to the practical way prayer is offered in Benedictine communities. Even though St Benedict did not invent the 8-fold prayer of the divine office (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline), his legislation in the Rule did set the standard for all subsequent legislation in religious orders up until the 20th century. Alongside other spiritual masters, his insistence that the entire psalter be recited each week left an indelible mark on ecclesiastical legislation, even for the secular clergy.

It is not possible to overly stress this point when one considers the role of the liturgy in the Church. If it is true, as Vatican II said so powerfully that “the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s entire life”, and if the various hours of the Divine Office are like the rays of that Eucharistic sun which shines over the life of the Church, it can only be the case that Benedictine monasteries have contributed not a little throughout the centuries to giving form to the Church in its most sublime aspect: a city built on a mountain gathered around its Lord in prayer, receiving from Him the light which it then radiates over the rest of the world. The centrality of the Divine Office throughout the day, with the apparent loss of time it involves, is the most important manifestation of the otium sanctum, the “holy idleness” so dear to our fathers and fundamental not only to monastic life, but to any life in the spirit. Whereas our modern technological era makes it more and more difficult for the mind to rest in thoughtful appreciation of reality, our ancestors knew how to “stop and smell the flowers”, to make leisure time in which one could pray and meditate, all indications of a healthy society in which the supreme value is not material production but spiritual progress, not doing but being.

The focus on the Sacred Liturgy in the Benedictine Tradition goes hand in hand with lectio divina. This “reading of divine or spiritual things” includes first and foremost the Holy Scriptures themselves but also all that it has inspired such as the commentaries by the Fathers of the Church as well as everything that prepares the mind to understand it and profit from its lessons. St Benedict reserved several hours a day for this activity, more in winter than in summer. He clearly wanted his monks to be well-read, well-instructed, well-armed to practice their profession of singing the praises of God. In prescribing this attentiveness to the content of Divine Revelation, he was also equipping his monks to become experts in the ways of God, to teach others, to preach the Gospel. It is no surprise if the Benedictine Tradition very quickly gave rise to exceptionally gifted monk preachers, apostles and missionaries.

 

St Benedict the man of work

The other half of the Benedictine motto is “labora”. St Benedict specifies that “Idleness is an enemy of the soul; and hence at stated hours the brethren ought to occupy themselves in the labour of their hands” (Rule, ch. 48). He goes on to prescribe just how much time is to be devoted to this labour according to the diverse seasons of the year.

Thanks to manual work, the monk conforms himself to the example of the Fathers, the Apostles, Saint Joseph the Worker, nay Christ himself, obeying the common law and preaching the dignity of humble work by which man is associated with the work of the Creator. He finds therein the sure and excellent way of self-denial and humbly takes part in helping the monastery provide for its needs and those of the poor. Manual work also teaches the monk solidarity with all the working sectors of people and makes him personally experience what it means to slog to earn a living.

It is easy to see how such an ethos of work has contributed to building up Western civilisation and to this day inspires solidarity among various classes of people. Perhaps this is one of the aspects of the monk’s life which favoured in a special way the implantation of monastic communities in missionary countries: the monks, being men of work, not only gave the good example of making a living for themselves, but also taught the people of other countries the skills they had developed in Europe.

The value of manual labour, not only for providing for one’s own needs, but also for giving peace to the soul, is admirably exemplified by a touching incident in the life of St Benedict recounted by St Gregory. “At certain Goth,” he writes “poor of spirit, that left the world, was received by the man of God; whom on a day he commanded to take a scythe, and to cleanse a certain plot of ground from briers, for the making of a garden, which ground was by the side of a lake. The Goth as he was there labouring, by chance the head of the scythe slipped off, and fell into the water, which was so deep, that there was no hope ever to get it again. The poor Goth, in great fear, ran unto Maurus and told him what he had lost, confessing his own fault and negligence: Maurus forthwith went to the servant of God, giving him to understand thereof, who came straightways to the lake: and took the handle out of the Goth’s hand, and put it into the water, and the iron head by and by ascended from the bottom, and entered again into the handle of the scythe, which he delivered to the Goth, saying: “Behold here is thy scythe again, work on, and be sad no more.” Labora, et noli contristari.

“Work on, and be sad no more”. A profound thought lies behind this expression. Work, and be sad no more. There is here an entire ethic of work as a remedy to sadness and all it can lead to. Is it not significant that, along with an increase in “leisure” in our modern world, we see also an increase in sadness, depression, and suicide? “Work on, and be sad no more”, says St Benedict. If you want to avoid sadness, find yourself some healthy form of work adapted to your capacities, and work on. Seek to reach your potential by ardent work. Such a philosophy of work, inspired by the Gospel and implemented by monks throughout the centuries, is one our world is in dire need of. Instead of finding fulfilment by the development of talents in and through work, our present day world seems hell-bent on avoiding work as much as possible. To make the most money with the least effort and have the longest weekends and holidays seems to many the ideal, and yet, how terribly depressed our contemporaries are as they go feverishly about their daily affairs, eyes glued on their mobile phones, or ears squeezed between a set of headphones, ever in search of some new distraction to dissipate the boredom, and totally unconscious of the neighbour at their side. St Benedict is there to repeat again and again: “Work, and be sad no more”. Man was created in a garden, one he was commissioned to cultivate, and so it is that man must busy himself in tranquility with healthy work if he wishes to be happy.

I might share here an incident that struck me profoundly, and which will illustrate the correlation between the “ora” and the “labora” of the Benedictine Tradition. At the abbey of Flavigny in France many years ago I welcomed an American couple who had never visited a monastery. After a bit of conversation, I offered to show them the audio-visual presentation of the community which consisted at the time of photo slides and a commentary by one of the monks, interspersed with Gregorian chant. When it was over, the lady looked at me and said: “When I came here, I was thinking: ‘These monks must really spend all their time in idleness; no wonder they get nothing done. But now, I’m wondering how you actually do everything you do!”. What she meant was that it is rather astounding how much work monks actually get done, even though they sacrifice long hours each day to activities which seem an idle waste of time, namely silent prayer, chanting psalms, reading the Bible. Well, that’s precisely why they are so effective. Spending time with God in liturgical prayer, sacrificing time to listen in silence to His Word, knowing how to “lose time” reading really good and wholesome books that nourish the mind and heart, such activities actually sharpen the acuity of the soul, and give it redoubled capacity for work. It also places things in their proper perspective, and allows the heart to be fully conscious of priorities. In the world, so much time is wasted on futilities. But the monk has no time for futilities. Every minute of his day is put to good use. Labora, et noli contristari.

A presentation of monastic work would not be complete however without making mention of intellectual and pastoral work. As mentioned above, the Rule provides for a few hours a day of lectio divina. That study of divine things inevitably led the monks to becoming scholars and missionaries. Think only of St Augustine of Canterbury, the apostle of England who was sent there by another great Benedictine, none other than St Gregory the Great himself. Think of St Boniface the apostle of Germany, of Venerable Bede, St Anselm of Canterbury, Hildebrand (St Gregory VII), initiator of what came to be known as the Gregorian reform, the first five Abbots of Cluny (Odo, Odilo, Maiolus, Hughes, Peter the Venerable) Rabanus Maurus, John of Glastonbury, Jean Mabillon, Blessed Columba Marmion, Blessed Alphonsus Schuster. Here in Australia, one cannot fail to mention men like Bede Polding, William Bernard Ullathorne, Rosendo Salvado, all Benedictine monks who became missionary bishops and found no contradiction between their life of praise learned in the cloister, and the mission to souls which was destined to give rise to other “schools of the divine service”. It is no secret that Archbishop Polding’s dream was to make of Australia one big Benedictine diocese.

We cannot fail to mention as well the legions of monks who have assisted the Church throughout the centuries by their expertise in all the sacred disciplines. Suffice to mention that, at the beginning of the 20th century, when St Pius X wanted to have a new revised edition of St Jerome’s vulgate, he entrusted this work to the Benedictines of the abbey of St Jerome in Rome. The reputation of quality work achieved in the silence of the cloister was well earned by generations of monks and nuns. For we must not omit to mention some of the illustrious women, Benedictine nuns, have illustrated the Church by their learning: to the names of Gertrude, Mechtildis, Hildegard, we should add those of modern nuns who left an indelible mark on monastic spirituality in recent times, such as Mother Cécile Bruyère, first abbess of Solesmes, or Mother Marie Cronier, foundress of Dourgnes in France. The spiritual, moral, intellectual, pastoral impetus given by St Benedict has carried through to our own day.

 

St Benedict the Legislator

St Benedict is not ordinarily conceived of as a political figure. And yet, I think it worthwhile to say a few words about the mode of government which is given form in the Rule and which has prevailed in Benedictine monasteries throughout the centuries. Benedict makes the abbot responsible for everything, everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong. Consider such phrases as this: “Let the Abbot be ever mindful that at the dreadful judgment of God an account will have to be given both of his own teaching and of the obedience of his disciples. And let him know that to the fault of the shepherd shall be imputed any lack of profit which the father of the household may find in his sheep” (ch. 2); “the Abbot ought always to remember what he is, and what he is called, and to know that to whom more is committed, from him more is required; and he must consider how difficult and arduous a task he hath undertaken, of ruling souls and adapting himself to many dispositions” (ch. 2); “the Abbot is bound to use the greatest care, and to strive with all possible prudence and zeal, not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him. He must know that he hath undertaken the charge of weakly souls, and not a tyranny over the strong” (ch. 27). It is not without trepidation that a man would take upon himself such imposing duties that will have everlasting consequences.

Let’s pause for a moment. By placing the abbot before his eternal destiny, St Benedict places things in their proper perspective, just as the Lord Himself did in the parable of the talents. Upon his return, the master of the household shows no mercy to the evildoers, to the shepherds who had no care for the flock entrusted to them. Such a teaching has a profound and lasting effect on anyone in authority who truly takes to heart what is said here. The reminder that in the end one must give an account to an eternal, non-corruptible Judge who has power to open the gates of heaven or condemn to hell was a timely one that shaped not only monasteries but also the solid European governments of the middle ages. Admirable figures such as King St Louis IX who prayed his Hours each day in the midst of his administration of the kingdom or Emperor St Henry II, a Benedictine Oblate, were the logical, sublime products of this evangelical truth. It was only when eternal realities were ignored that princes became tyrants. I might add that the very same considerations are perhaps what is lacking most in our modern governments. Our lawmaking bodies no longer have the conviction that they are but servants of an eternal law expressed in nature and therefore given by God. They no longer believe that they are accountable to the Supreme Being who will judge, reward or condemn. Modern political leaders would do well to take to heart St Benedict’s stern remonstrances to the abbot.

But if St Benedict makes the abbot responsible for everything, this does not mean he considers him to have direct and infallible inspiration at every step. Such a concept of authority has never been a Catholic one, in which even the divine right of popes and kings was never considered to be absolute, but always subordinate to the higher authority of Christ. Indeed, St Benedict stresses also that the abbot must take counsel. Immediately after the chapter on the abbot’s role (ch. 2), chapter 3 evokes the way in which the abbot must call the brethren to council every time there is an important question that needs to be treated and decided. Interestingly, whereas for the ordinary, everyday decisions, the abbot is encouraged to take counsel only of the seniors, that is, the elder monks who are experienced, when there is some more important issue at hand, the abbot is to convoke the entire community, even the youngest members. Here we see the common sense of the legislator perfected by the insight of the saint: “all should be called to council, because it is often to the younger that the Lord revealeth what is best.” In chapter 63, on the order to be kept in community, the patriarch gives us a deeper insight into why he insists on taking advice even from the juniors: “in no place whatsoever let age decide the order, or be prejudicial to it; for Samuel and Daniel, when but children, judged the elders”. This magnanimous appeal to all the members of the community concludes with a double admonition: “let the brethren give their advice with all subjection and humility, and not presume stubbornly to defend their own opinion; but rather let the matter rest with the Abbot’s discretion, that all may submit to whatever he shall judge to be best. Yet, even as it becometh disciples to obey their master, so doth it behove him to order all things prudently and with justice.” In other words, all are invited to express their opinion, but always with humility. But in the end, it is the abbot who must make the decision, and he will answer to God for it.

This form of government is one that has proved itself as solid and has survived the centuries. Even our democratic age has a lot to learn here in terms of the way in which one expresses one’s opinions, the way in which one listens to the opinions of others, and the way in which the ultimate decision lies with one man who will answer to God.

 

Conclusion

On 1 April 2005, just one day before the death of John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, upon receiving the St. Benedict Award for the promotion of life and the family in Europe, pronounced what has come to be known as the “Subiaco Address”. In this discourse, Ratzinger, after seeking to draw the lessons from the crisis Europe now finds itself in, concluded that today, what we need are “men who, through an enlightened and lived faith, render God credible in this world”. After evoking a fact that we are all acutely and painfully aware of, namely, the negative testimony of Christians who speak about God and live against him, thus darkening God’s image and opening the door to disbelief, he added: “To understand true humanity, we need men who have their gaze directed to God. We need men whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up to the hearts of others. Only through men who have been touched by God, can God come near to men. We need men like Benedict of Norcia, who at a time of dissipation and decadence, plunged into the most profound solitude, succeeding, after all the purifications he had to suffer, to ascend again to the light, to return and to found Montecasino, the city on the mountain that, with so many ruins, gathered together the forces from which a new world was formed. In this way Benedict, like Abraham, became the father of many nations. The recommendations to his monks presented at the end of his Rule are guidelines that show us also the way that leads on high, beyond the crisis and the ruins”. And to conclude by quoting the Rule, ch. 72, this chapter which is as it were the final testament of St Benedict:

“As there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separates from God, and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal, which keeps us from vice, and leads to God and to life everlasting. Let monks, therefore, exert this zeal with most fervent love; that is, “let them give precedence to one another”. Let them most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind. Let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinks good for himself, but rather what seems good for another. Let them cherish fraternal charity with chaste love, fear God, love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all alike to life everlasting.”