Friday, 21 April 2017

rb64/2 - The holy man and the rule

Let the abbot appointed consider always what an office he has undertaken and to whom he has to give an account of his stewardship; and let him know that it is his duty rather to profit his brethren than to preside over them.

It behoves him, therefore, to be learned in the law of God, that he may have a treasure of knowledge whence he may bring forth things new and old; and to be chaste, sober and merciful. Let him always set mercy before justice, that he himself may obtain mercy. Let him hate evil, but love the brethren. In administering correction let him act prudently and not go to excess, lest being too zealous in removing the rust he break the vessel. Let him always distrust his own frailty and remember that the bruised reed is not to be broken. By this we do not mean that he should allow evils to grow, but that, as we have said above, he should eradicate them prudently and with charity, in the way which may seem best in each case. And let him study rather to be loved than feared. Let him not be headstrong or anxious, extravagant or obstinate, jealous or over suspicious, for otherwise he will never rest. Let him be prudent and considerate in all his commands; and whether the work which he enjoins concern God or the world, let him always be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all perish in one day.

So taking these and other examples of discretion, the mother of the virtues, let him so temper all things that the strong may still have something to long after, and the weak may not draw back in alarm. And, especially, let him keep this present Rule in all things; so that having ministered faithfully, he may hear from the Lord what the good servant heard who gave his fellow servants wheat in due season: Amen, I say unto you, he set him over all his goods.

[7] Ordinatus autem abbas cogitet semper quale onus suscepit et cui redditurus est rationem vilicationis suae, [8] sciatque sibi oportere prodesse magis quam praeesse.

[9] Oportet ergo eum esse doctum lege divina, ut sciat et sit unde proferat nova et vetera, castum, sobrium, misericordem, [10] et semper superexaltet misericordiam iudicio, ut idem ipse consequatur.

[11] Oderit vitia, diligat fratres. [12] In ipsa autem correptione prudenter agat et ne quid nimis, ne dum nimis eradere cupit aeruginem frangatur vas; [13] suamque fragilitatem semper suspectus sit, memineritque calamum quassatum non conterendum. [14] In quibus non dicimus ut permittat nutriri vitia, sed prudenter et cum caritate ea amputet, ut viderit cuique expedire sicut iam diximus, [15] et studeat plus amari quam timeri.

[16] Non sit turbulentus et anxius, non sit nimius et obstinatus, non sit zelotypus et nimis suspiciosus, quia numquam requiescit; [17] in ipsis imperiis suis providus et consideratus, et sive secundum Deum sive secundum saeculum sit opera quam iniungit, discernat et temperet, [18] cogitans discretionem sancti Iacob dicentis: Si greges meos plus in ambulando fecero laborare, morientur cuncti una die.

[19] Haec ergo aliaque testimonia discretionis matris virtutum sumens, sic omnia temperet ut sit et fortes quod cupiant et infirmi non refugiant.

[20] Et praecipue ut praesentem regulam in omnibus conservet, [21] ut dum bene ministraverit audiat a Domino quod servus bonus qui erogavit triticum conservis suis in tempore suo: [22] Amen dico vobis, ait, super omnia bona sua constituit eum.


I want to come back, in this post, to an argument about the nature of sixth century monasticism that has largely been conducted between secular historians in recent times, but which has, I think, some important implications for Benedictines seeking to recover the patrimony of the Order, namely the extent to which the Rule itself was regarded as binding.

St Benedict here instructs the abbot to keep the rule: Et praecipue ut praesentem regulam in omnibus conservet.  But what did he really mean by that?

The (lack of) authority) of the Rule?

I have previously quoted the 1950s take of Ferrari on this issue, whose position effectively empties this and other such admonitions through the Rule of any meaning.  But Ferrari was certainly not alone in his position, and it has been well and truly appropriated by secular historians of monasticism.  Patrick Wormald, in an essay from 1976 reprinted in 2006 (Bede and Benedict Biscop, in Times of Bede: Studies in Early English Christian Society and its Historian, pp4), for example, I think best captures what is still effectively the mainstream view:
From the fourth to the eighth centuries, the primary meaning of the Vita Regularis was the communal life of the apostolic church, its model the description of the Jerusalem community in the fourth chapter of Acts.  In the fourth century, however, it came to be felt that certain kinds of charismatic figures offered a Christian his best chance at following that model; by about 450, it had been established in the East and in the West, that one could get just as far by copying a holy man's example as by listening to his teaching.  The rules ascribed (rightly or wrongly) to the founding fathers of the monastic life were increasingly considered to encapsulate such examples.  It was from the corpus of sanctified tradition that holy teachers, Benedict himself included, constructed their own patterns.  Thus the writings of Cassian, the most influential of early Western writers, seem to stand somewhere between a descriptive account of the Desert Fathers, a prescriptive rule for their western followers, and a verbatim record of their spiritual teaching.  Thus too Pope Gregory the Great, in a famous passage, could recommend the rule of the holy father Benedict as a reliable guide to the abbot's life and character, 'for his life could not have differed from his teaching'.  
The charismatic 'holy man' theory of Christianity in this period obviously has something to it, but a lot of what has been written about St Benedict and his Rule in this area seems to me to be reading the texts backwards from St Gregory (and through a modern lens at that) rather than assessing them on their own terms and in the context that produced them.

Rules and the example of the holy man

The genre of rules, it seems to me, are not really primarily about 'encapsulating examples of the behaviour of holy men'; quite the contrary.  St Benedict makes it clear in many places in the Rule, for example, that he is writing a beginner's rule, a set of instructions for those still on the path to perfection but may be very far from having actually reached it.  The Rule includes several chapters on punishments for misbehaviour; many prohibitions on things and protections that the perfecti surely do not need.  St Benedict also makes it clear that the Rule is written in a way that can be adapted to communities of different sizes, to communities in different financial situations, and to different climates.  The Rule is not, in other words, strictly speaking a description of life at Monte Cassino or Subiaco, or his own life, but rather a set of legislative principles derived from his knowledge and experience.

And given that St Benedict is attempting to set up some general principles that can be applied and adapted to the needs of very different communities, nor can St Benedict's Rule be readily be interpreted in Weberian terms (as Marilyn Dunn for example has argued), as providing a basis to bolster the authority of second generation abbots to ease the transition from the 'charismatic holy man' to 'institutionalisation of a charism' in my opinion.

Many of the abbots lives from this period, as we have seen, unsurprisingly often present the monk in question as going above and beyond the norm.  But the rules they impose on others often don't reflect these extremes.  St Benedict's Rule is of course the classical example of this: St Gregory's life might depict him as rising before the rest of his monks to pray before Matins, but the Rule itself leaves prayer above the prescribed norms to the individual. Instead the rule constantly advocates moderation and adaptation both to individual capacities and the needs of the monastery.

And pace Conrad Leyser ('Late Antiquity in the Medieval West', in P Rousseau ed Companion to Late Antiquity, Oxford 2009, 20-42), St Gregory's comment about the connection between St Benedict's life and teaching then should perhaps not be interpreted overly literally: St Benedict for example, did his time as a hermit before living in community, but this surely does not negate the teaching in chapter 1 of the Rule; rather, as St Gregory points out in Book I of the Dialogues, there are always exceptions to the proper norms.  All the same, it is St Benedict's own experiences that surely taught him that spending time in community first is the best path for most people.  Nonetheless, the rule urges the abbot (and the monk  more generally) to provide a good example, and be a 'living rule' and this is surely what St Gregory what St Gregory was seeking to draw out attention to.

The rule and the example of the abbot

In St Benedict's conception, it is pretty clear that the ongoing health of the monastery depends very much on the abbot.  The Rule obviously provides a strong framework for him to act within - and rather than the abbot picking and choosing from a variety of rules, there seems no reason to discount the text's clear insistence on this particular rule being followed as a whole - but it is the abbot's teaching, decision-making and example on which the health of the community depends.  Nor was St Benedict unique in this approach: as we've seen the rules and comments in the lives of Caesarius, the Jura Fathers, Fulgentius and the Lerins, all reflect the same basic principle of dependence on abbot and rule.

This is not to discount the importance of the lives of the authors of the Rules.  The Lives, in my view, functioned both to validate the source of the teaching (since good fruit comes from a good tree) and also provide us context that helps us understand how the Rules were applied in practice.  And this contextual function is perhaps something those of us bought up in a common law tradition, which focuses on interpreting the words in the text of a legislative document first and foremost, tend to miss - the contrasting civil law tradition draws much more on custom and precedent, and on interpreting documents as a whole.

The Rule and the tradition

Rather, the Rule, it seems to me, is about encapsulating a particular take on the developing tradition of what it means to live as a monk.  It is important to note that unlike some later rules and saints lives, the sixth century rules almost never appeal to any particular authority as the source of a particular provision - despite the recommendation to read Cassian and Basil for example, the only authority St Benedict ever explicitly appeals to is Scripture.

Rather, many of the monastic debates of the time, reflected in the rules and lives we've been looking at  - such as how many hours should be said in the Office each day, how best to treat monks who are late for the Office, and whether the abbot should eat with his monks or with visitors - are around working through issues arising out of the practicalities of the cenobitic life.  Wormald acknowledges this to some degree:
The sixth century was however the age of codifications.  As bishops claimed the right to regulate the monastic communities of their dioceses, and as several notable monk-bishops legislated for their own foundations, rules throughout the western Mediterranean became increasingly similar in content and in language. (pg 5)
Nonetheless, he goes on to argue, that individual monks into the seventh century didn't really follow any particular rule with any great commitment, instead picking and choosing the bits that their abbot or monastery thought best.

The Lives of the Jura Fathers, however, seems to me to capture better the approach adopted by Benedict, Caesarius and other early sixth century Rules when it says 'we read the other rules; but we follow our own'.

But what about the exceptions?

Although this issue perhaps properly comes later chronologically, it is perhaps worth dealing now with the argument principally advanced to support the claim that rules were not considered binding, namely the various stories in St Gregory's Life where St Benedict appears to deviate from the rule, such as, for example, personally appointing an abbot and prior for the new foundation of Terracina, rather than leaving the appointment of the prior to the new abbot.

The traditional answer, and the right one in my view, has always rested on St Benedict's advocacy of that 'mother of all virtues, discretion'.  No rule of the kind St Benedict wrote can possibly foresee all possible situations and provide for them: to do so would require a document many times longer than the one he provides.  Instead, the abbot is required to recognise where dispensations and exceptions to the rules are appropriate, a challenge that St Gregory tells us, through the story of his last encounter with his sister, St Benedict himself didn't always get right!  But the odd exception, or cases of adaptation of the Rule is not a justification for claiming it was not followed at all.

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