St Benedict and Pope Gregory I by mwv14394


									                                          St Benedict and Pope Gregory I1
                                                               Bernard Bell

   The first monastics were the Essenes who withdrew                     as the people of God, called to walk with Him. Along
to the Judean wilderness at Qumran by the Dead Sea.                      the way there were many “Sadducees” who gradually
Their withdrawal from society indicated a radical shift                  infiltrated the monasteries that had sought to with-
in their social outlook on life, a rejection of the social               draw from them and their compromising ways. Along
behavior of their fellow Jews. The Jews have always                      the way there were plenty of common folk, the people
been a communal people with a strong sense of ethnic                     of the land for whom mere survival took all their en-
or national solidarity, based upon their identity as                     ergy, leaving nothing for the pursuit of God. But with
children of Abraham and as the covenant people of                        each new reform movement precipitated by excessive
God. Neglect of community brought harsh criticism                        compromise, the newly invigorated monasteries
from the prophets. What shift in worldview must it                       would reach out to touch these common people,
have taken, therefore, for the Essenes to turn their                     teaching them or drawing them into their fold.
back on the rest of their people and withdraw to the                        The early Church was a community. Although Jesus
wilderness to establish what amounted to a new peo-                      redefined the people of God from being the people
ple? Furthermore, at the core of the Jewish social order                 descended from Abraham to being the individuals
lay the family, as it does to this day. To advance un-                   gathered around himself, the early church nonetheless
married into adulthood was unthinkable. Why then                         saw itself as a community, a people, the new Israel, the
did the Essenes turn their back upon marriage, reject-                   new human race. In a sense they did withdraw from
ing the primary building block of God’s order?                           society. They met together as a new community. The
   The Essenes withdrew because they became con-                         Gentiles stopped attending the pagan temples. The
vinced that the society in which they lived had become                   Jewish Christians continued to attend the Temple, but
so hopelessly compromised that they needed to with-                      late in the first century the Jewish leaders declared
draw if they were to remain the pure people of God.                      them anathema and expelled them from the syna-
The insider would see this as a reform movement, the                     gogues. Though meeting separately, the Christians
outsider as an extremist cult—it’s all a matter of per-                  were still part of society, pursuing their trades and
spective. Whether as cult or reform movement, the                        living happily alongside their neighbours who viewed
Essenes wrestled with the question of how to best live                   them as just another Jewish sect. This changed when
as God’s people. Their answer was the Qumran com-                        persecution hit, briefly under Nero then in a sustained
munity, but there were other answers, offered by dif-                    deliberate manner under Diocletian. The Christians
ferent segments of Jewish society that were serious                      were declared persona non grata and excluded from
about God. The Pharisees built a fence around the To-                    society. The Church had not sought this exclusion; it
rah in order to retain purity. While living in society, in               was cast upon it. The Church did not have to go off to
some senses they withdrew from society, restricting                      the wilderness to be a people apart; it was a people
their involvement with the common people, the “peo-                      apart, even when dwelling in the midst of the Roman
ple of the land” ha-am ha-aretz, upon whom they                          Empire.
looked with disdain for their lack of seriousness about                     It was another two centuries until, in then late third
the minutiae of halakah, yet whose praise they none-                     century, the first Christians would withdraw to the
theless sought. The zealots sought to restore purity to                  wilderness in search of God. What sea-change oc-
God’s covenant people by driving out the gentile Ro-                     curred to bring this about? The Church of the second
mans. In pursuit of their higher end they were pre-                      and third centuries lived under the threat of persecu-
pared to use means that would have horrified the                         tion. As a result, it lived apart from but within the
prophets. The Sadducees did not seek purity at all;                      world. Despite the invisible wall of isolation, the val-
they had completely sold out to material and political                   ues of the world outside still seeped in. The ejection of
interests. Despised by the other groups, the Essenes                     the Jewish Christians from the synagogue around 85
viewed them as spiritual imposters, the zealots as na-                   AD, and of the Jews from Palestine in 135 AD, has-
tional traitors, and the Pharisees as religious traitors.                tened what had already been happening: severed from
   The Essenes, Pharisees and Zealots offered different                  its Jewish and Judean roots, the church became more
programs, but their question was the same: how can                       and more Hellenistic, taking on Hellenistic philosophy
we be God’s pure people in a world of indifference                       in the process. The Jews, seeing God as the creator of
and compromise? When, a few centuries later, Chris-                      all, enjoyed His good gifts, be they wine, food or sex.
tian monasticism arose, and throughout the 1200 years                    They were a lively people who enjoyed a good feast.
during which it was a driving force of European life,                    The Greek philosophers, especially Plato, saw God as
the question remained the same. For the most part,                       spirit and good, but necessarily far removed from
men became monks and women became nuns because                           matter which was evil. The second century Fathers
they were serious about God and about their standing                     adopted this philosophical grid; the pursuit of God

 Essay written 24 Jan 1996, for the question “Why might St Benedict and Pope Gregory I be said to have constructed the foundations of me-
dieval monasticism?” in a take-home exam for Dr. John Toews’ course Agonies and Ecstasies (HIST 560), Winter School 1996, Regent College,
Vancouver, BC, Canada.

became equated with the abandonment of material                ily near Rome, abandoned his family’s plans for him
desire. The Apostle Paul could be read either way:             and withdrew to a secret cave, known only to one
everything is good when enjoyed in its proper context          other monk who brought him occasional food. For
(the Jewish mindset), but the flesh must be mortified          three years Benedict tried the approach of the Egyp-
and celibacy is better (the Hellenistic way).                  tian Desert Fathers, renunciating self through strict
   The first century Christians had renounced riches,          asceticism. After three years, his hiding place was dis-
selling what they had in order to share with the poor          covered and many monks gathered around him, im-
in the midst. It was the love of money, not money it-          pressed with his “holy” lifestyle. Ever the aristocratic
self, that was the root of all kinds of evil. The second       Roman bureaucrat, he organized these monks into
century Christians went far beyond this, renouncing            twelve communities of twelve. When trouble arose in
all material desires and possessions. Money, and other         their remote ravine, he withdrew with his monks to
matter, per se was now evil. They embraced the asceti-         Monte Cassino. Desecrating the pagan temple and
cism that would characterize the monks, though they            felling the sacred grove of trees, he established a mon-
were not themselves monks. Some went to extremes in            astery on the top of the hill. Twenty-five years later, in
their renunciation of matter, such as Origen who cas-          529, he issued his Rule for monastic governance, a rule
trated himself to flee lust.                                   that had presumably been taking shape over the pre-
   The monastic movement was born when, by the late            vious 25 years. In this Rule, Benedict completely for-
third century, this asceticism had gathered so much            sakes the approach of the Desert Fathers. The monks
force that individuals withdrew to caves in the Egyp-          should live in community and should take adequate
tian desert. This movement received a great boost              care of their bodies. Why did Benedict do such an
when Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a biog-           about turn in his thinking from his years in the cave?
raphy of one of these early desert monks, Anthony.             Certainly he had been reading Cassian, for in his Rule
This book was widely read throughout the Mediterra-            he recommends that the monks read Cassian. He
nean world, and set the standard for those serious in          agreed with Cassian that the purpose of the monastic
their pursuit of God. This approach to the Christian           life was the pursuit of God, not the renunciation of
life was championed throughout the east by Basil of            self, but he went beyond Cassian, stating that the life
Caesarea, and in the west a century later by John Cas-         of the solitary hermit was not a higher calling beyond
sian.                                                          the cenobitic life. Maybe Benedict had observed his
   The movement received a second boost following              own natural tendencies when pursuing the ascetic life-
Constantine’s Edict of Toleration issued in Milan in           style in his secret cave. The approach of the solitary
313. Once the Church ceased to be a persecuted com-            ascetic has many dangers, and Benedict may have seen
munity it quickly became secularized and comfortable.          these dangers in his own life. It is easy for the desert
Those who were serious in their search for God found           monk to lose sight of God, consumed instead by re-
themselves surrounded by indifference. Many with-              nunciation of self. He then becomes scarcely distin-
drew to the desert to be in the company of others who          guishable from a Buddhist “holy man.” Though the
were equally serious. Initially these monks lived soli-        Buddhist ascetic starts from a very different position
tary lives in isolated communities. Gradually learning         he ends up in the same place. All evil is attributable to
that they needed each other, they drew closer together,        suffering; all suffering is attributable to desire. To es-
living in caves within earshot or within separate huts         cape evil and attain Nirvana, one must therefore re-
in a common enclosure. Their modus vivendi was the             nounce all desire. Hudson Taylor’s concerns for the
same, the quest for union with God through renuncia-           lost millions of China was intensified when he was
tion of self.                                                  shown a Buddhist holy man, bricked up in a wall,
   Around 415, John Cassian, who had spent many                with only a small hole through which was passes oc-
years as a monk in Egypt and Palestine, arrived in             casional food. This is not too different from a desert
Marseilles where he established monastic communi-              monk who has chained himself to the side of his cave,
ties for men and women following the Eastern ascetic           or hung himself in a small cage off a cliff, or confined
pattern. But Cassian made two important modifica-              himself to a small box atop a tall pole. So, the quest for
tions. First, he established communities in which the          God degenerates into an emphasis on self-
monks and nuns lived as a community helping one                renunciation. This further degenerates into an empha-
another, rather than isolated individuals each trying to       sis on extraordinary things. It was the Western
outperform the other. Secondly, he reminded the                Church, clamoring after heroic saints like the Eastern
monks and nuns of the true purpose of withdrawal               Church had in the Desert Fathers, that Cassian re-
from society: it was not to perform dramatic feats of          minded that the purpose of the monastic life was the
self-renunciation but to find God. Nonetheless, Cas-           pursuit of God, not the making of super-saints.
sian still regarded the life of the solitary hermit as            A further danger of the solitary ascetic way of life is
more desirable, as a stage beyond the life in commu-           that the emphasis on the self robs one of the assurance
nity.                                                          given when the emphasis is on God and His character
   Cassian set the stage for the two men who were to           and activity on our behalf. The constant doubt that one
define the shape of western monasticism for the next           is not doing enough to renounce the flesh produces
800 years, Benedict and Gregory. 85 years after Cas-           implicit pressure to attempt ever wilder feats of self-
sian established his first communities in Marseilles,          degradation. This, in turn, attracts cranks and the psy-
Benedict, a young man of 20 from an aristocratic fam-          chologically deranged to the desert.

   Benedict renounced this approach, which he had                monk’s life, giving him a theology, a spiritual frame-
tried for 3 years. He wrote his Rule for the ordinary            work.
monk not for the super-achieving desert solitary. It is a           Gregory had a very different attitude to suffering
rule of common sense, a rule of security, physically,            than the desert monk. He suffered all his life, due not
psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Physi-            to self-inflicted asceticism, but to an incurable ailment
cally, the Rule saves the monk from destroying his               inflicted by God. Whereas the desert monk saw self-
body. Psychologically, the Rule prevents the monk                inflicted suffering as a means to drive us away from
“going off the deep end” in his quest for wilder feats           self, Gregory saw God-inflicted suffering as a means to
of self-renunciation. Emotionally, the Rule gave the             drive us to Him. Both the cause of the suffering and
monk the comfort of communal living. Spiritually, the            the goal of the suffering are therefore different in
Rule gave the monk security by focusing his attention            Gregory’s worldview.
on God not self.                                                    A key word in Gregory’s theology is compunctio,
   Two components lay at the heart of the Rule: opus             compunction. This “pricking” is produced by the dis-
dei, the work of God; and lectio divina, divine reading.         quiet we feel over our own wretchedness, or by suf-
The work of God consisted of religious services seven            ferings inflicted by God. We all feel compunction;
times daily at set times. At each service psalms were            what is key is how we respond. The correct response is
sung, completing the entire Psalter each week. These             tears; tears, first, of repentance, then tears of desire for
seven services provided the beats for the rhythm of              God. God troubles us in order to shake us out of the
daily living. The content of each service was specified          slumber into which the world has lulled us, so that we
in the Rule, so the monk knew exactly what he was                might seek after him, and find Him. Gregory likened
supposed to do.                                                  the spiritual journey to the flight of an eagle, which
   Benedict, in his Rule, recommended that each monk             spreads it wings against adverse winds in order that it
spend two hours per day reading. The act of personal             might soar upwards.
reading was still vocal, i.e. out loud, following the an-           Gregory at last provided a satisfactory answer for
cient custom. One not only saw the text with the eye,            what the monk was supposed to be seeking. For cen-
one heard it with the ear. The text thus entered                 turies he had been told he needed to flee from the
through two sensory gates, facilitating meditation               world. Gregory told him he should flee to God. In his
upon the text. The reading matter was the Scriptures,            theology of desire, Gregory provided the monk with
especially the Psalms, and the Fathers. At Lent, each            internal structure for his life that had already been
monk was assigned a book from the monastic library.              given external structure by Benedict.
This Lenten reading might include the classics.                     Except during times of decay, all subsequent mo-
   The desert monks had not been readers—a book,                 nasticism in Western Europe was based upon the Rule
even a copy of the Scriptures, was a possession to be            of Benedict and the theology of desire of Gregory, un-
renounced. Benedict saw reading as an essential com-             til the rise of the mendicants in the fourteenth century.
ponent of the quest for God. The monasteries assem-              Repeatedly the monasteries did decay, losing sight of
bled libraries, and the monks were literate. Benedict’s          Benedict’s practical wisdom and Gregory’s spiritual
Rule had the highly significant side effect of keeping           vision. Each time, the period of decay ended when
learning alive while the society of Western Europe               someone restored the Benedictine and Gregorian ide-
collapsed around the monasteries.                                als.
   Added to the opus dei and the lectio divina was a third          Monastic life in Europe did quickly decay after in
component, manual labour for everyone in the com-                the chaos of the further disintegration of what had
munity. This might be work in the fields or in the               been the Roman Empire. But Gregory had sent Bene-
scriptorium; the important part is that everyone par-            dictine monks to England, where they found a healthy
ticipated. As well as keeping the monasteries eco-               Celtic Christianity which they slowly won over to
nomically solvent, this manual labour no doubt did its           Benedict’s Rule. Beginning with Boniface in the early
part to promote the physical and emotional health of             eighth century, Benedictine monks from England re-
the monks.                                                       turned to the continent, bringing with them a vigour-
   Benedict’s ideas were promoted two generations                ous monastic life. Later that century Charlemagne
later by Pope Gregory who was born around the time               summoned a Benedictine monk from York to help lead
Benedict died. Gregory wrote a biography of Benedict             a revival of culture, now called the Carolingian Ren-
which became widely read. Prior to becoming Pope,                aissance. At the same time, another Benedictine monk,
Gregory was a monk in, then abbot over, a Benedictine            Benedict of Aniane, with Charlemagne’s blessing, re-
monastery. Though his election as Pope removed him               stored the purity of Benedict’s Rule to the monastic
from the monastic community, his Papal writings had              houses. By 900, monasticism was once again rotten,
a great impact upon subsequent monasticism. Though               fallen prey to the appropriations of secular princes, to
Gregory was a fin administrator, Benedict’s Rule for             the appointment of members of the ungodly nobility
the administration of monastic life need no modifica-            as abbots, and to fresh waves of barbarian attack. In
tion. Benedict provided a structure for the external life        910, a monastery was established at Cluny, a monas-
of each monk (i.e. how he lives the external details of          tery that held strictly to the Benedictine Rule. Re-
his life) that is still widely used today. Gregory’s con-        markably, this house with its many dependant houses,
tribution was to provide internal structure to the               was able to stay vibrant for 250 years, but by the late
                                                                 eleventh century the rot had again set in. Once again, a

new abbey was formed, holding strictly to the                  sulted from a departure from Benedict and Gregory.
Rule—the abbey of Cîteaux (Latin Cistercium) founded           These two were indeed the founders of medieval mo-
in 1098. Fourteen years later, a young man of 23 joined        nasticism. But they were more than that: they were the
this abbey—Bernard. Three years later he was sent off          sustainers of medieval monasticism for every monastic
to found the daughter abbey of Clairvaux, where he             revival consisted in a recovery of their ideals. Not until
remained 38 years as abbot till his death.                     Bernard of Clairvaux was there an individual who
  Bernard of Clairvaux was both a man of great orga-           placed such a stamp on monastic life and Benedict and
nizational ability and a mystic. He was a combination          Gregory, and even Bernard did not depart from their
of both Benedict and Gregory. As a Cistercian, he held         ideals, but, rather, recovered them, living in the spirit
strictly to a simple observance of the Benedictine Rule.       of Benedict and writing in the spirit of Gregory.
As a mystic he had the same intense desire for God as            Their work is not dead yet. Many still follow the
had Gregory. Cistercian monasticism thrived under              Benedictine Rule in Benedictine or Cistercian monas-
him, but immediately waned when he died.                       teries. Many find in the writings of Gregory and Ber-
  It was not until the mendicant orders associated             nard an echo of their desire for God. The evangelical
with the twelfth century Francis of Assisi and the             world, too prone to convey the message that we need
thirteenth century Catherine of Siena that a vigourous,        to be extraordinary people doing extraordinary things
healthy monasticism emerged that was not based on              for God, would do well to listen to Benedict, finding in
Benedict’s Rule and Gregory’s theology. Until then,            him physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual
healthy monastic life coincided with adherence to              security, and to Gregory, finding in him a latter-day
Benedict and Gregory; unhealthy monastic life re-              David who hungered after God.


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