The Master’s Thesis of the Reverend Father Matthew R. Joyner
Submitted at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
Chapter One – The Man of Blessing
The Monastic Rule of St. Benedict
Section One: The Work of the Benedictine Way
Chapter Two – Opus Dei: The Work of God
-The Benedictine Hours
-Simplicity in Prayer
Chapter Three – Ora et Labora: Prayer and Work
Chapter Four – Lectio Divina: The Work of Divine Reading
-Lectio in Practice
Section II: The Heart of the Benedictine Way
Chapter Five – Stability
-Moderation and Balance
Chapter Six – Obedience
Chapter Seven – Conversatio Morum
-Deification is the Purpose of Man’s Existence
-The Place of Conversion is the Church
Conclusion: The Forgotten Father
It has been said many times that the heart of the Orthodox Church is monasticism. The spiritual life of the Church flows from the monasteries like water from a spring, nourishing all those who drink from it. Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) tells us why this is so when he says, “Orthodox monasticism clearly demonstrates that the Orthodox Church is ascetic and that Christian asceticism heals human beings. Through looking closely at genuine monasticism we come to a clear understanding that the Orthodox Church is a hospital where spiritual illnesses are cured… If we look at the Church without the monastic life, we see a secularized Church.”1
Orthodox Monasticism gives men and women who come to the monastery a chance to live a life that is completely focused on prayer, repentance, and salvation. However, the influence of these monastics is never left to them alone. Rather, it filters out into the world. The Holy Spirit does not deprive the world of the witness of holy men and women who have been blessed with a closeness to God; and great pillars of monastic godliness there have been indeed.
The history of the monastic movement, no less than the Church at large, is punctuated by great figures, men and women who leave their worldly lives to devote themselves entirely to complete and utter devotion to God. One thinks immediately of the “Father” of monasticism, Anthony the Great, who left behind his life “in the world” to answer the call of Christ, and who, though attempting to live alone in the desert, could not deter people from flocking to him.
The history of the Christian monastic movement is full of men and women of great prominence — always unintended by them personally — who leave a great mark upon the Church. Orthodox Christians call upon these men and women often, and their names are spoken, their works are cited, and their praises are sung to God, Who illuminated them.
There are, however, others who, though leaving an eternal mark upon the Church and the world at large, are largely neglected by many Orthodox faithful. There are great Saints of the Church who have been forgotten or relegated to simply a name on a page or a brief commemoration at the end of a Liturgy, and not given their due attention and devotion. St. Benedict of Nursia, the “Father of Western Monasticism,” I suggest, is such a Saint.
St. Benedict is a great Saint of the pre-schism western Orthodox Church, and his influence led to great changes in the culture around him which have had great bearing on the world even down to the present day. His Monastic Rule and spiritual legacy literally changed western civilization.
We must ask why, then, does St. Benedict not have a greater devotion in the Orthodox Church? What is it about this particular Saint which not only harbors neglect, but in some rare cases actually generates hostility toward this great Saint?2
There are several possible answers to this question. Before we address these, however, we must point out and greatly stress that any objections to St. Benedict, as well as his spiritual legacy, are moot, when one considers that the Church has already spoken on the matter, and the case is, therefore, closed. The Menaion and the Church liturgical calendar are set, with full acknowledgement of Benedict as a Saint of the Orthodox Church. His holiness is recognized by the entire Church, and is portrayed in icons, hymns, and readings from the synaxarion. Mother Church has enthroned St. Benedict among Her venerable and God-bearing Fathers, who shown in the ascetic life.
Though this truth is manifest and evident, still Benedict is oft neglected in the Orthodox Church. It is a definite possibility that, for the laity, there simply has not been the opportunity to hear about this great Saint of the Church. Benedict’s feast day falls on March 14th, and is generally during Great Lent, when daily Liturgies are not celebrated, and thus, his commemoration would pass many of the laity without notice.
However, it is a strange quandary that many authors, speakers, and academics specializing in history or Orthodox asceticism have failed to write about him in any real depth, or, if writing about him at all, have even made critical statements about the Orthodoxy of St. Benedict.3 There have been suggestions in some informal talks, discussions, and internet threads that have gone so far as to make statements that Benedict “combined his ideas with those of St. Augustine” who, “in his theology rejected asceticism and saw monasticism as recreating the community of the Book of Acts. He put the emphasis on uniformity, lack of any individual effort or struggle, because, for Augustine, salvation was only through grace,4 and there couldn’t be any benefit to individual struggles.”5
It is difficult to understand how anyone could make a statement such as this about either Benedict or Augustine. As for Augustine, the Orthodox do in fact have reservations about certain of his theological writings; however, he is a Saint of our Church. If the Church sees this man as a Saint, despite his theological failings, he is so because of his asceticism and personal holiness, episcopal service, and plentiful non-problematic writings. How, then, could Augustine hate asceticism? Further, how could he then influence Benedict to do so in turn? I believe this to be a grievous slander on Benedict and Augustine.
Perhaps there are Orthodox people who are very critical or negligent of Benedict, or even suspicious of him for no other reason than that he is western, for much the same reason that many within the Church condemn the use of the Western Rite.6 It would seem a strange inconsistency, indeed, to reject the Orthodoxy of St. Benedict simply because he is of the West, given that most Orthodox people have no problem celebrating the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, attributed to St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome.7
In what follows, we will look to St. Benedict’s life, Rule, and spirituality in order to seek out, or rather to show definitively, whether he is truly Orthodox or not. I will attempt to show the Orthodoxy of Benedictine spirituality and practice, utilizing Patristic texts and modern scholarship coming from Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican sources. I have divided my discussion into two larger parts which I am calling the work (or energies) of the Benedictine way, and the heart (or essence) of the Benedictine way.
For the work of Benedict, we will look at the concepts of Ora et Labora, or prayer and work; the Opus Dei, or “work of God”; and Lectio Divina, or divine reading, as the outward expressions of how the monastic in the Benedictine tradition lives and works in the world. Thus, we will examine the role that manual labor, prayer, liturgical participation, and the study of the Scriptures plays in the life of the Benedictine.
Once we have completed an examination of these outward expressions, we will then turn our focus to the inner heart of Benedictine spirituality, namely the vows which a monk takes: stability, obedience, and ongoing conversion of life. By the close of this discussion, it is my deepest hope that the Orthodoxy of not only the man, but the spiritual way of St. Benedict, will become self-evident, and that we will embrace not only his monastic wisdom, but also begin to see the few monastic communities in the Orthodox Church which follow his Rule as having something glorious to offer the Church at large.
May God, through the prayers of St. Benedict of Nursia, and St. Gregory the Great, the Dialogist and Pope of Rome, direct our hearts and minds to His truth and knowledge. Amen.
1 Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), Orthodox Monasticism, p. 25.1
2 These instances of rare hostility have come from individuals who, while not exerting a great amount of influence in the Church, are still arguments to be addressed. We will not go into the “meat” of these individual arguments here, but for the time it is sufficient to know that they do exist within the modern Orthodox world.
3 These are largely minimal, and their influence limited. However, they exist, nonetheless.
4 i.e., without any synergy, or cooperation between human beings and God. The Rule of Benedict makes absolutely no claims to any such notion of salvation.
5 Such a statement is made by Dr. Jeffrey Macdonald, former professor of Church History at St. Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak, AK in his lecture on monasticism given at his home parish. Again, while Dr. Macdonald is not a major figure in the modern Orthodox theological dialogue, and this statement probably hasn’t made any kind of deep impact on the subject matter, I believe that the fact that such a statement could be made indicates that this kind of thinking is present in the Orthodox world, and should be addressed. Dr. Macdonald’s lecture is available for download online at https://orthodoxchurchhistoryblog.wordpress.com
6 I have written an article entitled In Defense of Western Rite in Orthodoxy, which can be found online at http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/91138.htm
7 The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is, in fact, a Western Liturgy modified to Eastern liturgical norms. The western nature of this service can be seen in that it is prescribed that the liturgy is served by only one priest. The custom of the west was, before Vatican II, that concelebration was not permitted for liturgical services.
Chapter 1: The Man of Blessing
The most direct source of biographical, or rather hagiographical, information about our Holy Father Benedict of Nursia comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great, the Dialogist. Pope St. Gregory, who was three years old at the time of Benedict’s repose, had a great devotion to Benedict — before he became Pope of Rome in September of 590, he had been a member of the Benedictine Oratory of St. Andrew in Rome.8 Indeed, Gregory is said to be the first monk to be elected Pope. Gregory’s devotion to his monastic patron led him to set down in written form the life and miracles of St. Benedict, in around 593 or 594, for posterity.
Pope St. Gregory composed a work entitled the Dialogues, which is a series of four books which are dedicated to telling the lives of Italian Saints, abbots, deacons, nuns, bishops, and lastly aspects of the afterlife. It should tell us something about Gregory’s devotion to Benedict that his entire second volume is dedicated to the life and miracles of Benedict.
In this work, Gregory was very concerned with the authenticity of his account, not satisfied with hearsay or legend which had sprung up around the figure of Benedict. Rather, he sought out and recorded the lived experiences of disciples of St. Benedict who were still living at his time. And knowing that Benedict did far more than he could possibly write down, he simply selected enough to make clear the holiness and greatness of the Man of God.
St. Gregory says, “I have not attained unto all this man did, but the few things which I here set down, were related to me by four of his disciples — namely, Constantine, a very reverend man, who succeeded him in the government of the Monastery; Valentinian, who for many years bore rule in the Monastery of Lateran; Simplicius, who was the third superior of that congregation after him; and Honoratus who yet governeth the Monastery which he first inhabited.”9
Gregory tells us that Benedict was a true Saint of the West, and of noble Roman stock. He was born in Nursia (Norcia),10 Italy, in AD 480, to “distinguished parents, who sent him to Rome for a liberal education.”11 Benedict also had a twin sister, Scholastica, who would, in her own right, become a great monastic Saint, Abbess, and leader of holy consecrated women. By all accounts, his parents were noble Romans, and pious Orthodox Christians.
Benedict was born into a world of chaos and disarray. In 410, seventy years before the Saint’s birth, the Visigoth army, under the leadership of King Alaric, had sacked the Eternal City of Rome, driving the final nail into the coffin of the western Roman Empire. Though the imperial Roman administration was actually not seized by barbarians until AD 476, this initial sacking by Alaric set in stone, as it were, the beginning of the so-called “dark ages.” Beyond the political upheaval of the Visigoths sacking Rome was the spiritual chaos this event caused, as many Christians in Rome gave in to apostasy, returning to the paganism which the heathen armies brought with them. Thus, Benedict was born into an Empire which was crumbling, a country invaded, and a western world which was descending into political and spiritual darkness. The Western Church was in very great need of a light to shine in the darkness, and it would receive such a light in the person of St. Benedict.
St. Gregory records that Benedict was known for holiness even from his youth. In fact, Gregory makes a play on words with Benedict’s name12 when he says, “There was a man of venerable life, Benedict by name and grace, who from the time of his very childhood carried the heart of an old man. His demeanour indeed surpassing his age, he gave himself no disport or pleasure, but living here upon earth he despised the world with all the glory thereof, at such time as he might have most freely enjoyed it.”13
At the age of 20, in AD 500, Benedict left his home and, taking only his nurse went to study in Rome itself. While there, Benedict became saddened by the state of the spiritual life and morality of those he encountered, and realized that he could not stay in Rome and live a God-pleasing life. “When he found many of the students there abandoning themselves to vice, he decided to withdraw from the world he had been preparing to enter; for he was afraid that if he acquired any of its learning he would be drawn down with them to his eternal ruin. In his desire to please God alone, he turned his back on further studies, gave up home and inheritance and resolved to embrace the religious life. He took this step, fully aware of his ignorance; yet he was truly wise, uneducated though he may have been.”14
Benedict went into the wilderness, first taking his nurse with him, but after receiving unwanted notoriety due to performing a miracle in a village, he quietly slipped away from his nurse and all of society. He found a home in a cave in Subiaco, about thirty-five miles from Rome, where he lived for three years in repentance and prayer. His only contact with the outside world was a monk named Romanus, who, knowing “the young man’s purpose… kept it secret and even helped him carry it out by clothing him with the monastic habit and supplying his needs as well as he could.”15
After three years of living alone in the wilderness, disciplining his body, and subduing it, making it a servant to the spirit,16 he, reluctantly, answered the call of some local monks to become their Abbot. However, this would be short-lived, as they would find Benedict’s way of life to be too strict, and they resolved to remedy the mistake they perceived that they had made in recruiting him. After two failed attempts by the monks to murder him, both of which were thwarted by Divine intervention, Benedict left the monastery and resolved to establish twelve new monasteries around central Italy.
During this time, Benedict would hone his spirituality into an art, and would encourage his disciples to grow toward Christ by teaching them in words, and showing them in his life and deeds. Benedict established his monasteries in various places, but possibly the most well-known is the Abbey at Monte Cassino,17 where Benedict would spend most of the last years of his life, and would compose his monastic Rule.
During his time overseeing the monasteries in Italy, we’re told that Benedict worked tirelessly to draw his monks to Christ, and was at the same time strict and loving. Benedict also become very well-known as a miracle-worker and clairvoyant. He saw and did battle with demons, and performed miracles of healing. St. Gregory even records incidents of St. Benedict raising people from the dead, including a young boy crushed to death by a falling monastery wall.
To his monks, and those laypeople coming to him for help, Benedict was a true Father in God. He helped countless people, and did not distinguish between the high and mighty and the lowly and simple. He loved all, and opened his heart to each one who came to him, making them his family. While he made all people his spiritual kin, he maintained a devoted relationship with his closest blood relative — his twin sister, St. Scholastica.
Benedict and Scholastica were close in virtually every way. They loved each other deeply, and were each greatly devoted to Christ and to the ascetic life. Not long before her death, Scholastica came to see Benedict, meeting him at a house not far from his monastery. Desiring to spend as much time as possible with her holy brother, Scholastica miraculously brought about a great storm by her holy prayers, so that Benedict could not return to the monastery. The two saintly siblings spent the night talking of heavenly things and praising God together.
Three days later, Benedict was in the midst of his morning prayer when God granted him a vision. Benedict biographer Carmen Acevedo Butcher tells us that “he saw the soul of his sister Scholastica leave her body and ascend like a dove into heaven. He knew his dearest friend was dead, gone from him to be with God. He rejoiced to see the glory of her journey from this world to the next, and went to tell his brothers the news. They gathered together and sang praises to almighty God on behalf of his sister.”18
Benedict then sent for the body of his godly sister, and placed it in a tomb that he had prepared for himself.
Not long after this, Benedict was granted another vision, and a glimpse of the Uncreated Light of God. As Benedict was praying at his window late during the night, “he suddenly beheld a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away… the whole world was gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light.”19
Of this incident, St. Gregory the Great tells us that
“all creation is bound to appear small to a soul that sees the Creator. Once it beholds a little of His light, it finds all creatures small indeed. The light of holy contemplation enlarges and expands the mind in God until it stands above the world. In fact, the soul that sees Him rises even above itself, and as it is drawn upward in His light all its inner powers unfold… Of course, in saying that the world was gathered up before his eyes, I do not mean that heaven and earth grew small, but that his spirit was enlarged.”20
When St. Benedict knew that his death was near, six days before it occurred he ordered his tomb to be opened. “Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally on the sixth day he had his disciples carry him into the chapel, where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and as he prayed breathed his last.”21 Benedict was entombed at Monte Cassino, in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, which he had ordered to be built over the site where an altar to Apollo once stood, and countless miracles have been attributed to his intercession.
The Monastic Rule of St. Benedict
Benedict was heavily influenced by the Monastic Fathers of the East, as well as the Rule of the Master22, and would bring this influence to the fore in his Rule. In it we can very easily see the flow from St. Anthony the Great, down through St. Pachomius, on to St. Basil the Great, and finally, to St. John Cassian.
Benedict would synthesize these Fathers into something particular to his time and location. It could very easily be said that Benedict, along with Pope St. Gregory the Great, Augustine of Canterbury, Ambrose of Milan, and Hillary of Poitiers tower as figures of early Western Orthodoxy, and each of them brought something to the collective expression of Orthodoxy in the West which was influenced directly by the East.
Benedict, though, would stand out from among the rest as someone who would give something to the Church in the West which was truly deep and abiding — a monastic ideal centered on the attainment of union with Christ and beholding the Uncreated Light, which he experienced himself as we have already shown.
Some modern western Christian theologians might scoff at this last point. However, we must see that at the very beginning of St. Benedict’s Rule, in the Prologue, he gives to his readers the very purpose and goal of their monastic vocation. In modern Catholic translations, the passage in question is rendered as follows: “let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God.”23 However, when we consider the original Latin version of this passage, we encounter a very different idea than simply opening our eyes to a light which simply comes from God. The passage says, in Latin, “et apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen,” literally, “open your eyes to the deifying light,” or “the light which deifies.”
At the very outset of the Rule, Benedict tells his Monks that the goal of the life that he is teaching them to live is centered around the movement toward attaining the Uncreated Light. For Benedict, this acquisition of the Uncreated begins with the life of following the Rule in common with others, and ends in ongoing conversion of life, which ultimately conforms one to Christ Jesus, and brings the soul to a readiness to behold the Light of God. Any possible criticism of later Eastern authors, especially those citing the corruption of the post-Schism Benedictines, falls flat here, and Benedict’s Orthodoxy shines brightly. Benedict is the monastic Father of the West, and we Eastern Orthodox Christians living in the west need him now more than ever.
The influence of the Rule of St. Benedict cannot be denied or understated. Through his Rule and spirituality, the way of St. Benedict spread around the world. Besides the fact that many other religious orders in the West have incorporated the Rule of St. Benedict into their collective lives in one way or another, we can see the impact that the Rule can have in other circumstances, beyond the monastery. This fact sets the Rule apart from other monastic Rules, especially in the East.
The Benedictine Rule is the only monastic system which allows for the existence of Oblates — lay brothers and sisters, often married and living in the world, who profess a devotion to the Rule, and are attached to a particular monastery, and live out the Rule as best they can, adapted to their own personal situation. The Rule of Benedict is designed in such a way that this adaptation can be done easily by anyone, as it is extremely specific and practical about matters of everyday life, and not focused on lofty esoteric spiritual principles.
Most striking, I believe, is the fact that the Rule of St. Benedict is based upon a family. This means that at its core, the Rule is based upon the central unit of society: the family. Thus, it can easily be adapted to fit the family unit.24 After all, the word Abbot means “father,” and living in community with others, especially the family, requires the same Christian disciplines that are drawn out in Benedict’s Rule.
On a more grand scale, however, Benedict’s influence is seen in the tremendous work of maintaining ancient knowledge throughout the Dark Ages. After the fall of Rome, the Benedictines were virtually alone in maintaining texts and coping various manuscripts which would otherwise have been lost. Education in the West largely owes its very existence to the influence of St. Benedict, and his spiritual sons. In fact, at one point in history the most educated people in western Europe were Irish Benedictines, who traveled from Ireland to other parts of Europe as advisors and teachers.
8 The Oratory of St. Andrew in Rome was a villa which was converted into a monastic oratory during the life of St. Gregory, and, for a time, had St. Augustine of Canterbury as its Prior before he was sent to Britain by Gregory. After Gregory’s death, the community was renamed in his honor as San Gregorio Magno al Celio (St. Gregory the Great at Celio).
9 Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book II, Chapter I.
10 Nursia was a small town roughly 70 miles northeast of Rome.
11 Pope St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book II, Chapter I
12 In Latin, “benedictus” means “blessed.”
13 Dialogues, Book II, Chapter I.
16 See 1 Cor. 9:27
17 This Abbey at Monte Cassino gained new notoriety in the twentieth century due to the battle, or rather battles, which were fought there during the Second World War. These battles lasted 123 days, from January 17th through May 18th, 1944, and brought about the destruction of the Abbey.
18 Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Man of Blessing: A Life of St. Benedict, p.138.10
19 St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book II, Chapter 35
21 ibid, Chapter 37
22 The Rule of the Master was a monastic rule from the sixth century, composed anonymously two to three decades before Benedict composed his rule. The Rule of the Master contained many detailed prescriptions of monastic life, with in depth theological reasoning behind each prescription.
23 RB. Prologue. v.9.
24 Several books have been written on this idea, even from Protestant sources. However the most well known is from the Catholic Priest and Scholar Fr. Dwight Longenecker, entitled, Applying St. Benedict’s Rule to Fatherhood and Family Life.
Section I: The Work of the Benedictine Way
Chapter 2. Opus Dei: The Work of God
Central to the life, Monastic Rule, and spirituality of St. Benedict is the reality of work. For Benedict, the Monk is not a sedentary being, one who leaves the world to escape it and do nothing but think about God.25 While the monastic does, in fact, leave “the world” in order to more fully devote himself to God and the contemplation of the Divine, he is not doing so in a manner which can be construed as “lazy” or “escapist.”
So far from this perceived laziness or escapism, the monastic is, at least according to the Benedictine way, always working, moving, and thinking. As St. Benedict himself tells us, “idleness is the enemy of the soul.”26 This would seem to be a paradox when one considers the Great Silence,27 both interior and exterior, to which the Benedictine, and every monastic, is called.
However, when we consider this deeply, this stress upon work makes abundant sense; work keeps our mind, body, and will focused on a single goal, and, thus, keeps our thoughts, passions, and will in check, and under control. Thus, focusing our minds and bodies on activities of an obedience (the term used in monasteries for the manual work to which a monk is assigned), the monastic is able to quiet the influences of the world. Of all these “obediences” which may be given to a monastic, for St. Benedict the chief and highest is the Opus Dei, the work of God.
Opus Dei is what Benedict called the liturgical prayer life of the monastic, and included the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours), the continual prayer of the monastic, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. All of these together make up St. Benedict’s “work of God,” and to them the Benedictine devotes his or her entire life, making all other “work” secondary, and simply an outgrowth of this chief work: the praise of God in common worship.
The name “Opus Dei,” or Work of God, tells us a great deal about what St. Benedict thought about communal prayer. His choice of words is very telling in this regard, because he very easily could have simply used the phrase “oratio” — prayer. However, his choice in naming the liturgical life of the Christian the “work of God” should bring to the mind of the Orthodox Christian the first phrase uttered by the Deacon at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.
Before anything corporate happens in the Liturgy, after the Priest prays, “O Heavenly King,” the Deacon kisses the Altar, bows to the Priest and says, “it is time for the Lord to act.” In our liturgical action it is the Lord Himself Who acts, not us. We are simply caught up, so to speak, in the working of God. Thus, as Benedict rightly points out, the liturgical life of the Mass/Divine Liturgy and the Divine Office is not the work of the monk, but rather the Work of God, into which the monastic enters.
This common life of prayer and worship is at the heart of the Christian life, and St. Benedict was only too aware of it, as he placed it as the centerpiece of the life of his disciples, and expected them to make this way of life their own. Here too, we find commonality in the Eastern Tradition, as we can find, for example, in the monastic rule laid out by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov (19th Century Russia) when he tells us, “Prayer is the mother of virtues. And so all the brethren are invited to the diligent and unremitting performance of the appointed prayers, and therefore to diligent and unremitting attendance in the Church of God.”28
Further, in our modern context, Archimandrite Sergius (Bowyer), of the monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, tells us that “it must be stated and emphasized that Orthodox Christian life is, by definition, a liturgical life. To fail to recognize this is to fail to find the key to the mystery of Orthodox Christianity.”29 Indeed, it is out of, and due to, worship that the Church Herself has existence. “The Church has not grown out of dogmatic formulae, nor even out of Holy Scripture, but primarily out of the Divine Liturgy. In the first years after the Resurrection of Christ, when no gospel was yet written and no dogma formulated, the Liturgy already existed. It was the Liturgy that united Christ’s followers into the Church, His mystical body.”30
The Benedictine Hours
St. Benedict was very much in keeping with the Monastic Rules and observances which came before him regarding the observance of the “hours” of prayer. Benedict himself did not invent the Liturgy of the Hours, but as with his entire Rule and Spiritual path, he codified, and modified it to fit his particular place, time, and context.
The Early Church, wherever She was to be found, observed set times for prayer throughout the day. This was not a custom that arose out of Christianity; rather, the Church adopted and gave fulfillment to the practice of set times of prayer found in Judaism. “The connection between the original hours of the daily sacrifice in the Temple and the original Synagogue services at the beginning and end of the day is clear. In the Church of the early third century these hours were still being observed as regular times of prayer.”31
Since the beginning, the Church took as Her own the notion that time itself is to be sanctified and offered to God. As much as a sacred place, or a sacred thing, time can be sacred; and it is this principle of Sacred Time which gives rise to the Canonical Liturgy of the Hours both in the East and the West. The Christian model reflects the Jewish beginning, and Jewish worship anticipates the coming of its fulfillment. “This basic arrangement still applies in Christianity. Even in its ordering of time, Christianity retains a profound, interior continuity with its Jewish heritage.”32 From this Jewish heritage the Church, and St. Benedict, arrange the Liturgy of the Hours, and set aside times throughout the day to remember the events of the Salvation of the World by Christ. Benedict states in his Rule:
“The Prophet says, ‘Seven times a day have I praised You.’ We will fulfill this sacred number of seven if we satisfy our obligations of service at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, for it was of these hours during the day that he said, ‘Seven times a day have I praised you.’ Concerning Vigils, the same Prophet says, ‘At midnight I arose to give you praise.’ Therefore, we should praise our Creator for His just judgments at these times: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline; and ‘let us arise at night to give him praise.’”33
These hours correspond, of course, to the Canonical Hours celebrated by the Eastern Church: Prime, or First Hour (6 a.m.); Terce, Third Hour (9 a.m.); Sext, Sixth Hour (Noon); None, Ninth Hour (3 p.m.); Vespers (at Sundown)34; and Compline (after dinner, before bed). Matins, also called Nocturnes or Night Office, in the Benedictine Tradition, is broken up into two separate services of Vigils and Lauds, and would be celebrated at midnight and 3 a.m., respectively.
Something that is extremely important to remember in the discussion of St. Benedict’s arrangement of the Hours is that, in content, they are almost exclusively made up of the Psalms. While there is generally a single brief hymn at the beginning of every Office, the bulk of these services is the chanting of the Psalter, and Biblical Canticles. Thus, we can clearly see that at the heart of St. Benedict’s “philosophy” of worship is a love and reverence for the Holy Scriptures, especially the Psalms, which he saw as the prayer book of the Church.
Simplicity in Prayer
While St. Benedict kept the tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours, practiced seven times a day, he did so with a spirit that seems to separate him from other Monastic Fathers. Concerning prayer, many Eastern writers and Saints seem to give us the impression that to “pray ceaselessly,” to a large degree, means long and repetitive Church services, or hours upon hours of personal prayer vigil. With Benedict, however, the spirit of monastic prayer, and by extension, Christian prayer as a whole, is one of brevity and simplicity.
Chapter twenty of the Rule points this out:
“Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion. We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, prayer should always be brief; and when the superior gives the signal, all should rise together.”
Lest we think this to be a western idea only, let us consider St. John Chrysostom, who encouraged his listeners to “ask constantly, not by composing endless prayers, but rather telling Him of our needs with simplicity.”35
Neither Benedict nor Chrysostom are suggesting that prayer and repentance are not the whole of the life of the monastic or lay Christian. Far from it, for to St. Benedict, “the monk is always and essentially a man of prayer and penance. His horizons are always and essentially those of the desert. He has left all things to deny himself and follow Christ in poverty, labor, and humility. In a word, the monastic life is the Cross of Christ.”36
What Benedict and Chrysostom are implying, however, is that the prayer which we offer to God need not, and should not, be “long-winded,” and full of vain repetitions, nor services full of words for their own sake. St. Benedict, it seems, is much more in favor of shorter times for communal and private prayer, but during those times the things which are said to God should be heartfelt.
This point is wonderfully illustrated by the great twentieth century American Trappist Monk, theologian, author and mystic Thomas Merton who says,
“the thing that most strikes us when we grasp the meaning of St. Benedict’s legislation for the monastic liturgy, is that he wants everything to be simple and brief, according to the words of Christ, ‘When you are praying speak not much as the heathens, for they think that in their much speaking they may be heard.’ The Rule, however, leaves the individual monk free to prolong his prayer in private, according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the common, liturgical prayer should not become mere tedious routine, and private contemplative prayer is left to the free choice of each particular soul. In this way, St. Benedict made sure that when the monk carried out his principle obligation, the praise of God in choir, he would do so with a mind that was fresh and attentive to the words he recited.”37
Benedict also incorporated within the framework of corporate liturgical prayer, the idea that prayer is an ongoing personal thing, and for him, that means that the mundane aspects of life are saturated with prayer, even short prayers.
The well-known St. Benedict scholar and Anglican Nun, Esther de Waal says on this point,
“the start of routine duties, the beginning and ending of meals, the welcoming of a guest, all these are occasions for short prayer… This is a refocusing of our attention on God at specific moments… Often this is little more than heightening awareness, not taking for granted, the paying of full attention to what I am doing… The heart of it is my total attentiveness to God. This is an amazing, liberating realization and of course this needs constant recalling and constant practice… What Benedict is really looking for then is that continual prayer which goes on all the time; it is the always of that line of the psalms which he uses in chapter seven. ‘That a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes.’ Here we are moved beyond words. This is total attentiveness to the presence of God. It is the fruit of the whole and balanced person which the Benedictine life has always been trying to foster, and of the sense of the all-embracing presence of Christ which runs throughout the Rule. For Christ is to be found in the circumstances, the people, the things of daily life. St. Benedict hopes that if we are continually aware of this we shall lift our hearts to him and in this way our whole life will become prayer in action.38 So here we see that the final purpose of the monastic life is not the opus dei, the work of God as it is celebrated in the Divine Office, but the work of God in uninterrupted prayer, which is the search for God in all things.”39
In short, it may be said that the way of Benedictine Opus Dei in the ultimate sense is the path to hesychia, to Theosis. While there is no specific language in the Rule of St. Benedict about the Jesus Prayer, or other specific formulations of short prayer, we do very clearly see that Benedict set up his rule as a means to acquire continual prayer. The life of the Benedictine monastic is the life of Opus Dei. It is a life in which a Christian devotes becomes completely devoted to the ongoing work of God, and is deeply and totally changed by it. Here we find the true Western Orthodox path of the glorification and deification of man, as he is drawn deeper into the life of Christ, our Lord.
25 This is a popular caricature of the monastic life given by many Protestants. Such Protestants, whether they know it or not, have a very utilitarian view of humanity, meaning, of course, that a human being is only “good for something” if they are actively contributing to society in a visible way, such as holding down a job, paying taxes, having a family. Essentially this is an outgrowth of the Puritan/Protestant work ethic, that one must have a visibly prosperous life in order to “prove” one’s election.
26 RB 48:1
27 We will discuss the practice of silence further and in greater detail below.
28 The Arena, p. 217
29 Archimandrite Sergius (Bowyer) Acquiring the Mind of Christ, p. 430 Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) The Mystery of Faith, p. 167
31 C.W. Dugmore, D.D., The Influence of the Synagogue Upon the Divine Office, p. 60
32 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 94
33 RB, Chap. 16, with quotations from Psalm 118/119: vv. 62 and 164
34 It is a common tradition that the words themselves which we use for these services, “Vespers,” “Compline,” and “Matins,” are attributed to St. Benedict himself.
35 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on St. Matthew, Homily 19, 4
36 John Merton, The Silent Life, p. 60
37 ibid. pp. 67-68, with quotation from Matthew 6:7
38 St. Benedict tells us in the Prologue of the Rule, “the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, His holy teachings” (v. 35).
39 Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, pp. 151-153
Chapter 3. Ora Et Labora: Prayer and Work
As we have already seen, the notion of work is central to the Benedictine way of life. For St. Benedict, it is tantamount to a horrendous sin to be idle, because this offers an open door to the passions. “Idleness is the enemy of the soul,” Benedict tells us, and so, “the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.”40 We have already covered in some detail the “Opus Dei,” or the work of God, meaning of course, the liturgical life of the monastery, and in the chapter that follows, we will look into the practice of sacred reading, or Lectio Divina.
Here in this Chapter, though, we must look at the concept of Ora et Labora itself, which has, in recent years, been called the “motto” (if there is one) of the Benedictine way.41 We might say that, for Benedict, the concept of Prayer and Work really is at the heart of what it means to be a monastic, and indeed a Christian, in practice. These two necessities, prayer and work, make up the “nitty gritty,” so to speak, of the everyday life of the monastic outside of the corporate liturgical setting.
In reality, we will see that Opus Dei, as well as Lectio Divina, really are corporate exercises, times of prayer and study which are done at the community level. However, Ora et Labora, while certainly encompassing both Opus Dei and Lectio to one degree or another, stands apart as well, because it determines, to a large degree, the manner in which the monastic lives out the “private” life with God, as opposed to their communal life. It thus comprises much of what could be called the “heart” of the Benedictine life.
How then, should we define this “heart” of the way of St. Benedict? It is, I believe, to be understood in terms of a single word: discipline. The everyday life of men and women in the world is filled with potential distractions, things which pull us away from our path towards communion with God. Our means of reorientation of mind and heart back to God is through the disciplines of prayer and work. In reality, what we are talking about here, using Orthodox terminology, is the reorientation of the nous.
Thomas Merton tells us,
“The Monastery is never merely a house, a dwelling for men. It is a Church, a sanctuary of God. It is a Tabernacle of the New Testament, where God comes to dwell with men not merely in a miraculous cloud but in the mystical humanity of His Divine Son, Whom the cloud prefigured. The monks, working together with a spirit of solidarity, are not merely providing for their material needs in this life. Their work also contributes to a much more important common spiritual end: their union in Christ.”42
This Tabernacle of the New Testament, as Merton calls it, and union with Christ in it, is the goal of the monastic, and indeed, the Christian life. This reorientation towards the nous, in union with God, comes through discipline and exertion; and as Fr. Zacharias says, “as we struggle to regain our deep heart, we see that our tragedy lies in the fact that we have chosen to life mostly outside the house of our Father, outside our heart, far from the very place where the Spirit of God would dwell.”43
For Benedict, this reorientation of the nous toward Christ is aided by the removal of distraction, and the implementation of manual labor with constant prayer. We can see how highly Benedict holds this principle when he says, “when they [the monastics] live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.”44 There is scriptural precedence for this, of course, as we find in the writings of St. Paul who says, “We exhort you, brethren… to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we have charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.”45
St. Benedict is not alone in this particular way of thought, though. One cannot help but see the connection here between St. Benedict and his monastic predecessor, St. Anthony the Great. In a great story about him, we are told that
“when Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by sinful thoughts.46 He said to God, ‘Lord I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.”47
Further we are told, “When anyone is idle, he becomes occupied with the thoughts that come to him. But when he is occupied with work, he has no time to accept them. And so, from early morning keep your millstone (i.e., mind) within your power, and you will mill your wheat into bread for food. But if your adversary shall forestall you, then instead of wheat you will mill with it (the millstone) tares… Let us labor according to our strength, and God will help is.”48
Thus, we can see that St. Benedict’s insistence upon manual labor is not a new idea. However, what is absolutely plain is that Benedict is not prescribing labor for its own sake. No one comes to a monastery so that they may become a gardener or a scholar.49 In fact, historically, a great deal of the manual work done by monastics was very insular in nature — meaning, that the work that was done was simply to keep the monastery itself functioning.
So we find that these seemingly trivial activities in the life of the monastic are part of a larger whole. It must be remembered that this so-called motto of the Benedictine Order is Ora et Labora (prayer and work), not Ora est Labora (prayer is work), or even worse, as some have suggested, Labora est Ora (work is prayer). These two things, prayer and labor, go together in the Benedictine way of life: they are inseparable.
As Fr. Sergius, Abbot of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, says, “Since monasticism seems highly impractical to the world and doesn’t fit society’s criteria of ‘productivity,’ it is easy to discount it when taken at a superficial level. In fact, the main work of monasteries is not to make jelly and candles, but rather to ceaselessly pray for the salvation of all mankind, both the living and the dead. This kind of prayer for mankind is of inestimable worth. However, this worth is not usually seen or even quantifiable.”50
So, the true “work” of a monastic is to repent, and pray for himself and the world, ceaselessly. Or, put another way, the life of a monastic is geared towards building a life that is 100% Christianity, 100% of the time.
What we find, though, when reading St. Benedict’s Rule, is not what we find in many other Monastic writings of the period, or even today. Very often, Eastern Fathers, especially Monastic Fathers, have a great tendency to spiritualize virtually everything. They are concerned with the soul, and its union with God. To the casual observer, this seems lofty, and often unattainable for all but the most spiritually advanced.
This is precisely what sets the Rule of St. Benedict apart. Benedict is not at all concerned with any kind of “heroic” spirituality, or great feats of spiritual strength. Not that he discounts them, by any means, as he himself was a great wonder-worker, and beholder of the Uncreated Light.51 Rather, what the emphasis of St. Benedict is in the spiritual life is something far more profound, mystical, and at the same time, utterly simple.
Benedict gives his followers a means of experiencing God in the mundane of everyday life. For St. Benedict, one does not have to go out into the desert and live alone in monastic solitude in order to have a deep and lasting experience of God. He does, indeed, speak very highly of the anchorites, the hermits “who have come through the test of living in the monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervor of monastic life. Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil.”52 For Benedict, though, God can be found and communed with just as much in the simple labors of the hands as in the desert:
“In St. Benedict himself we have a layman writing a guide for his household, his extended family of brothers with their busy and shared life and all its inevitable demands: preparing food and washing up, looking after guests, maintaining buildings and property, educating children, caring for the sick, and also earning a living. His concern was to help them impose on this busy life such a structure and order (both external and interior) that they could make prayer the one essential priority, the central focus of everything else. There was no separation of prayer and life. Everything flowed from that one center…”53
What this means for us is that the Rule of St. Benedict can be adapted for use outside of the monastic context. Benedict’s wisdom is one of communal life, and meeting the spiritual and material needs of the individual and the community; and at the heart of all of this is Benedict’s approach to prayer and work. Far from being compartmentalized, and segmented in one’s life, they flow together as a single stream.
It is well known that in Orthodox Monasteries to this day, especially on the Holy Mountain, during times of manual labor, the monks continuously pray the Jesus Prayer. Regardless of whether they are planting crops, sweeping halls, or whatever the obedience may be, they engage in these mundane activities with a spirit of prayer, with the Name of the Lord always upon their lips. This, if I dare say so, is incredibly Benedictine.
Indeed, to St. Benedict, this can be taken a bit further. One could easily place in the mouth of Benedict these words:
“we do not live off the labor of others. We are not to be a burden on society. We are not an elite. Those working in the fields at the hours of prayer are to stay in the fields and pray. Prayer is not an excuse not to bring the harvest in… Work in the monastic tradition is not something to be avoided. Work is not a punishment or a penance. Work is a privilege… In the monastic mind, work is not for profit. In the monastic mentality, work is for giving, not just for gaining. In monastic spirituality, other people have a claim on what we do.”54
For Benedict, manual work is a part of the contemplation of God; it is not an obstacle to it. Benedict took work very seriously, as he saw a deep connection between work and the original commands of God to man at the beginning: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it,”55 and, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”56
Further, this idea of work is to be found in the New Testament as well, especially in St. Paul, who worked to sustain himself as a tentmaker, taking nothing from the brethren. “You know that these hands of mine have served both my needs and those of my companions. I have always pointed out to you that it is by such hard work that you must help the weak.”57 And again, perhaps more harshly, St. Paul says,
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we have to this command: If anyone will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living.”58
Again, Benedictine nun and scholar Joan Chittister remarks, “None of the great religious figures withdrew from reality intent on rapture alone. The rapture came from making reality better. And work was the key to it all.”59 She also points out that “The function of the spiritual life is not to escape into the next world; it is to live well in this one… Work and prayer are opposite sides of the great coin of a life that is both holy and useful, immersed in God and dedicated to the transcendent in the human. It is labor’s transfiguration of the commonplace, the transformation of the ordinary that makes co- creators of us all.” 60
What is this co-creation? In the framework of the Benedictine way, we see it as nothing less than a working in creation which brings together the mundane and the spiritual, the sacred and the secular, into a single cohesive manner of living in which the act of sweeping a floor out of obedience and love can be a salvific act of communion with God.
We need look no further for guidance concerning this notion than Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who said, “In our perspective… the ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. The sin was not that man neglected his religious duties. The sin was that he thought of God in terms of religion, i.e., opposing Him to life.”61
Our sin, so says Fr. Schmemann, is to separate God from our everyday lives, and place Him in a separate box marked “religion,” which we open when it is time for that. For St. Benedict, this manner of life and approach to spirituality is unacceptable. For him, the remembrance of God should be brought into every moment, “preferring nothing whatsoever to Christ Himself.”62 In order to reach this great feat, the remembrance of Christ in every moment, we must embrace what St. Benedict knew all those centuries ago, that we cannot compartmentalize Him into just a single part of our lives.
For us to truly be Christians, Christ must be all in all. He must be permitted to consume every single aspect of our lives; and we must train ourselves to be undeterred and free from distractions, as we seek Him in the mundane aspects of our everyday lives. After all, the Holy Spirit of God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” Therefore, in order for us to commune with Him, we need not search for Him, but rather, allow ourselves to see Him in the very simple and seemingly insignificant moments of life.
Then, like St. Anthony, we will see our work and our prayer together, and hear the voice of the angel saying to us, “do this and you will be saved.”
40 RB Chap. 48, vv. 1-2
41 Interestingly, the phrase “Ora et Labora” is nowhere found in the Rule of St. Benedict. Moreover, it appears nowhere in Benedictine history before the 19th century. The “motto” seems to have actually originated in a popular book on Benedictine life written by the German abbot, Maurus Wolter. So, it is hardly accurate to even call it the motto of the Benedictines. However, the recent vintage of the phrasedoes not negate the fact that the concept of Ora et Labora itself has always been central to the Benedictine way, and, thus, still merits inclusion in our discussion here.
42 Thomas Merton, The Silent Life, p. 35.
43 Archimandrite Zacharias [Zacharou], Remember Thy First Love, p.123
44 RB. Chap. 48, v.8.
45 1 Thess. 4:10b-12, Revised Standard Version
46 Grk. Logismoi (as also found transliterated, but not translated, in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press publication, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers. p. 31).
47 Benedicta Ward, SLG, translator. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 1-2.
48 Saints Barsanuphius and John, Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p.56.
49 It must be conceded however, that many people, after Benedict’s own time, came to monasteries for precisely these reasons. Many came to learn, study, and become scholars, and many of the “academic theologians” of the movement known as Scholasticism came from the Benedictine Tradition.
50 Archimandrite Sergius [Bowyer], Acquiring the Mind of Christ, pp. 64-65
51 Pope St. Gregory the Great, The Life of St. Benedict, from Dialogues, Book III, Chapter 35
52 RB, Chapter 1, vv. 3-4
53 Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, p.11.
54 Joan Chittister, OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, pp.81-8455 Gen. 2.15
56 Gen. 3:19
57 Acts 20:34-35
58 2 Thess. 3:6-12
59 Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, p. 85.
60 Joan Chittister, OSB, The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages, p. 132
61 Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, p. 18.
62 See RB. Chap. 72, v. 11.
Chapter 4. Lectio Divina: The Work of Divine Reading
Among the monastic “work” of St. Benedict, which draws the hearts and minds of men to God, is the great work of Lectio Divina. Lectio is the practice of Sacred Reading, during a special daily time, set aside for monastics to be in silence with the Holy Scriptures. This particular “work” is one for which the Benedictine Way is especially well-known, as it has worked its way into popular spirituality, especially in the modern Roman Catholic Church. Lectio is “a holistic way of prayer which disposes, opens and ‘in-forms’ us for the gift of contemplation God waits to give, by leading us to a meeting place with him in our deepest center, his life-giving dwelling place.”63
Along with manual labor, the work of Lectio Divina is prescribed by St. Benedict in various places in his Rule; and as with manual labor, the goal of this work is to tame the mind and heart, keeping them from wandering into the passions. St. Benedict says, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore, the brothers should be occupied at certain times in manual labor, and at certain other hours in sacred reading.”64 Thus we see that the practice of Lectio is inextricably linked to manual labor, and to Opus Dei,65 the liturgical life of the Church, both in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office). The intent of all three practices of Lectio, Labor, and Opus Dei is, of course, to unite the whole person, in all times and activities of the day, to God, not separating man from God, or compartmentalizing God in man’s life. Rather, the intent is to bring the presence and remembrance of God into every moment and facet of men’s lives, no matter how mundane.
Though its beginnings are among the great monastic leaders, the practice of Lectio is not, nor has it ever been, limited to a strictly monastic practice. We can see the influence of Lectio even in the modern Protestant/Evangelical phenomenon of “quiet time” — time, on a daily basis, which is set aside by the individual to sit in silence with the Scriptures, and to pray. Many books have been published under the category of “daily devotionals,” and all of these, whether the author is aware of it or not, are influenced by the practice of Lectio, which is deeply ingrained within the Western Christian consciousness.
Perhaps the greatest influence of the daily practice of Lectio in the “modern” context comes from within the Anglican Tradition, or more specifically, the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in creating the Prayer Book, was heavily influenced by the Benedictine Monastic Diurnal (Book of the Liturgical Hours of the Day). He utilized the Monastic hours to fashion the Morning and Evening Prayer,66 with specific sections set aside for readings from the Lectionary.67 Often, these readings are quite short, often one verse. The idea is to encourage the practice of Lectio within the Liturgical setting.
It can easily be seen and argued that these liturgical hours included in the Prayer Book reflect a latent inclination toward the notion of the Sanctification of Time that was deeply embedded in Britain due to the Benedictine presence there. Further, the Benedictine Way was an ingrained reality in the Office of the Archbishopric of Canterbury itself. Indeed, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine of Canterbury, was a monastic in the Benedictine tradition, and many of his successors would wear the black Habit as well. Thus, the influence of Benedictine thought and practice, especially that of Lectio, on the Book of Common Prayer should not come as a surprise.
Lectio holds a place that is near the very heart of St. Benedict’s Rule, and he devotes a great deal of time to discussing it. Lectio Divina, however, is not a strictly Benedictine practice, in terms of its origin. Lectio, one could argue, has its genesis in the writings of the third century teacher Origen, who spoke of “Scripture as Sacrament.” Origen believed that an encounter with the Scriptures was an encounter with Christ Himself, for Christ dwelt in the Scriptures. Thus, by spending time with the Holy Scriptures, be they from the Torah, the Prophets, the historical books, the Epistles, or the Gospels themselves, Christ is present. So much more than simple reading, Lectio is “a whole process or way of spirituality – a journey into God, deep into the inner life of the Trinity.”68
From this view of and approach to the Scriptures, one in which the Scriptures areprayed and not studied, per se, we can see that the aim of Lectio is not knowledge, from an academic perspective, but rather knowledge of an intimate nature — knowledge of a Person. St. Benedict is not concerned with an academic analysis of the Scriptures; he is rather, interested in coming to know and experience the Person of Jesus Christ. Thus, for the Benedictine, the Holy Scriptures are not primarily informative, but rather,transformative. As St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says, a Monk (indeed a Christian) should “occupy himself with all possible care and attention with the reading of the Holy Gospel. He should make such a study of the Gospel that it may always be present in his memory, and at every moral step he takes, for every act, for every thought, he may always have ready in his memory the teaching of the Gospel.”69
Thus, in this deeply rooted practice of Lectio Divina, we do not grasp the language, and hear the poetry, just for our enjoyment. Rather, we find in it God Himself. This is the heart of the Christian life, the Monastic vocation, Benedictine Spirituality, and the practice of Lectio itself: to seek God (Quaerere Deum). In our time of Lectio, “we are hoping to hear God’s voice and do God’s will, but we are operating in search mode. We have not yet attained the goal of our ambition, and so our reading is fundamentally an expression of our desire for God… Authentic reading, therefore, has the character of dissatisfaction; we always want to go further and deeper.”70 As can been seen plainly from these descriptions, this is not a mere academic exercise.
An academic streak would run through the Benedictine Order in later years, but this was not the case from the beginning. Benedict was not opposed to the pursuit of knowledge as an exercise; however, within the basic Benedictine framework, we see that this is a lesser exercise. Benedict is concerned most of all with the call of the Lord, and the response of the disciple to it. In the Prologue to the Rule, he proclaims to us:
“What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life… Having given us these assurances, the Lord is waiting every day for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways.”71
This call is answered by the self-sacrifice of the monk, in giving himself to the monastery, the brotherhood, the liturgical services, and to the life in the Scriptures. All of these pieces of the Monastic life, each its their own special way, direct the monk toward Christ, into Whose life the monk has, of his freewill, entered. The discipline of Lectio Divina, in its own way, accomplishes this union with Christ in the heart of the monk.
Lectio in Practice
Having established this basis, we will now turn our attention to the actual discipline of Lectio Divina, and how it is practiced. It should be pointed out that in Monasteries which kept the Benedictine Rule, a set daily time was given to Lectio for all the Monks. Individuals could, conceivably, have further time for Lectio in their private time, but it was a required practice for all on a daily basis, and this set time could be as much as three hours a day (RB, readings during Lent).
Lectio Divina is a discipline which encapsulates within it four steps; Lectio, the act of reading; Meditatio, the act of meditation; Oratio, or prayer; and Contemplatio, or contemplation of the prescribed text. None of these practices individually makes up Lectio, as they could be done independently, but rather, all of them done together. Lectio Divina involves a kind of feasting on the Word of God. The four parts are, first, taking a bite (Lectio, the reading); then chewing on it (meditation). Next, one savors the essence of it, lingers over a word, phrase or feeling (prayer) and the word is digested and made part of the person (even their bodies): contemplation.
What must be understood before we begin our discussion of these “steps” of Lectio, is that these are not the kinds of steps that are taken one at a time. Rather, they are like a jigsaw puzzle, that must be pieced together to see the entire picture. Reading without prayer, meditation, or contemplation is an academic exercise or entertainment; prayer without reading is simply prayer, and so on and so forth. So it must be understood that each of these pieces of Lectio Divina must be present, in a manner of speaking, at the same time. In this way, Lectio, properly followed, is a practice that will lead to deeper conversion into Christ. Indeed, it is a major tool on the path to the Benedictine Vow of Conversatio Morum, which we will discuss in a later chapter.
As we have already seen, the first “step” of Lectio Divina is, of course, Lectio, the act of reading itself. This may seem an obvious point; however, we often we don’t think about this in its original context. In the ancient monasteries this reading was done in silence, at first as a group in an oratory, and later alone in a cell, with absolutely no other distractions. The monk is to read the assigned passage[s] with as much exterior and interior silence as can possibly be found. Silence, and lack of distraction, is an important aspect of the study of Scripture, as well as the whole of St. Benedict’s view of the Christian life. Benedict tells us, “Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times.”72
However, this “silence” does not necessarily mean “quiet.” In practical terms, Lectio was historically communal. This was largely due to the fact that books were so expensive to obtain, and to produce. Lectio would have been done largely as much by listening as by reading. As time went on, and monasteries obtained or created more copied or printed volumes, monastics could read on their own. This reading, in centuries past, while done “silently,” was still done out loud. The practice of reading silently and mentally to one’s self is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Individual reading, in the ancient world, was done aloud, even if at a whisper. The connection between written words and the hearing of them did not stop at the public reading of the text. Rather, it was seen as an essential piece of Lectio that the text be taken from the lips to the ears, from the ears to the mind, and from the mind to the heart. It is rather humorously said that during Lectio time, the Benedictine Monastery becomes a “community of mumblers.”
Further, the practice was not a sedentary practice of sitting and reading. Rather, we can see that Lectio would have, in early times, been performed standing, and the text spoken in a rhythm, and repeated over and over, and the reader would sway back and forth with the reading of the text. This is a practice that is still famously seen in Orthodox Judaism to this day. These factors show us that Lectio is a saturation of the senses with the Holy Scripture, making it a holistic part of life, and not merely a mental exercise.
Though Lectio embodies a whole way and means of reading and taking in the Scriptures, it is not a “stand-alone” reading of Scripture itself in isolation. It is essential that the reading of the Holy Scriptures, whether alone or in a common hearing, such as the Liturgy, must be accompanied by the proper interpretation— i.e., within the mind and Tradition of the Church. Benedict is well aware that going about the study of Scripture on one’s own can lead to error and pride. Rather, interpreting the Scriptures through meditation, prayer, and contemplation requires guidance. This is why Benedict allows for the reading of certain extra-biblical patristic texts during Lectio time, because he says, when the Ethiopian eunuch was asked if he understood the scriptures, he replied, “how can I, unless someone guides me?”73 In particular Benedict allows for, and indeed recommends, the reading of “the Conferences and the Institutes74and the Lives of the Fathers, as also the Rule of our holy Father Basil,” as these serve as “tools of virtue for right-living and obedient monks.”75
In these practices we can clearly see the connection between Benedict’s model of reading the Scriptures, and the manner in which the Orthodox engage the Scriptures, especially liturgically. In our Orthodox setting, the reading of Sacred Scripture is done by chanting or intoning the text, and is done in such a way that it rings in our ears. In terms of time set aside for individual reading of Holy Scripture, we find a similar practices in the Eastern Fathers, most notably in the monastic ideal of reading daily.
For example, the Cell Rule of Optina states, “one chapter from the Gospels in order, beginning with Matthew and ending with John, and two chapters from the Epistles, beginning with the Acts of the Apostles and ending with the Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian, with the last seven chapters of the Apocalypse read on the same day. Thus you will read through the whole New Testament every 89 days. Read one kathisma from the Psalter each day, beginning with the first and ending with the last.”76
The second of the four parts of Lectio Divina is meditatio, or meditation upon what is read. As already stated above, lectio is spoken of as taking a “bite” of the text; meditatio is, thus, the chewing on what is read. In the first part, lectio, we find that the faculty of the person that is engaged is the intellect. The reading of the texting engages the mind, and its ability to recognize and respond to the basic level of the text. Meditatio, however, takes this a step further. If the faculty engaged in lectio is the intellect, then the faculty engaged by meditatio is that of memory.
The “technical meaning [of meditatio] is taken over by the earliest monastic rules, where it means chiefly repetition, recitation, and memorization. Meditatio takes place in the memorization process while the text is being learned, alone or in groups, and also in psalmnody and the recitation of previously memorized texts, while the monk is at work, away from the written page.”77
Meditation in this regard is not simply thinking deeply about something, but rather committing it to memory so that it fills your thoughts. In this historical Benedictine practice, the basic idea is to fill the mind with the holy words of God, to repeat them to one’s self until they can be recalled at any time, and to apply them. Indeed, recalling the thought from St. Ignatius which we quoted earlier, the Christian “should make such a study of the Gospel that it may always be present in his memory, and at every moral step he takes, for every act, for every thought, he may always have ready in his memory the teaching of the Gospel.”78
In practice, the monk would even recite memorized passages while walking through the monastery, going to services, or while doing work, constantly “turning them over in memory,”79 once again, bringing the remembrance of God into the mundane. We can clearly see here a pattern forming: from plain reading, we memorize and internalize the Scriptures, making them a part of us, and then on repeating them, reciting them afresh, turning the Scriptures themselves into prayer.
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk tells us, “Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking with him.”80 Oratio, the third step of Lectio Divina, is, quite simply, prayer. However, it is not merely simple prayer. In the context of Lectio Divina, it is prayer that is focused upon and encased within the Scriptures. At this point within the discipline of Lectio, we are, in the words of St. Ignatius, training ourselves to “pray with compunction to the Lord so that He will open your eyes to see the miracles hidden in His law, the Gospel.”81
Beyond simply looking at the surface level of the text, we can see that the “flow” of Benedictine Lectio Divina begins at the simple text, and eventually finds itself in prayer, asking God for insight on the His Holy Word. In many cases, especially in terms of a doxological passage, or a Psalm, it is possible and encouraged to actually pray the passage itself, as we have already seen. In this form of prayer, we allow the Word that we have taken into ourselves, and on which we are pondering, to touch and change our deepest selves.
In terms of a chronological process, we have reached the final point of our journey through Lectio Divina. Our passage has been read, meditated upon, and prayed over; the Benedictine now sits in silence, waiting to hear from the Lord in response to his obedience in reading, his work in meditation, and his seeking God in prayer. This sitting in silence and waiting upon God is called contemplatio, contemplation. In the Western Church, this contemplation has been called “silent love.”
We can see countless examples of God revealing Himself to His people in silence, rather than in pomp and fanfare. This can be clearly seen in what could be the best example of this in the Holy Scripture itself — the encounter between God and Elijah in 1 Kings Chapter 19:
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”82
What is essential here is the presence of silence: uninterrupted and intentional. Again we point to Benedict’s words that we quoted already, “monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times.” Why is this? Why must a monastic, and indeed any Christian person, be “zealous for silence?” Simply put, and aside from the practical aspect of calming down the senses in order to properly listen, the pursuit of silence is because “silence is the sacrament of the world to come.”83
Even in the monastery, men and women are tossed upon the stormy sea of life, and long for a calm harbor. In the silence of God, we find the fulfillment of the words of Christ to the wind-tossed sea, “Peace, be still!” Remembering that God speaks out of His own great silence, Benedictine Spirituality calls upon men and women to silence themselves, interiorly and exteriorly, so as to be able to hear the voice of God.
Here, with this Benedictine notion of contemplation, we can begin to see the connection with the Eastern practice of Hesychia, and the Orthodox cultivation of silence. Clearly, the reception of the daily reading of Sacred Scripture is essential to the life of the monastic East or West. Upon the simple reading, we see meditation, indeed memorization of the Scriptures, in which we begin to know them “by heart.” This phrase, to know something “by heart,” is a wonderful way to think of this, because we see that knowing the Scriptures is not a matter of the head, but of the heart.
From the spring of the heart-knowledge of the Scripture flows prayer, repetitious prayer of the Scriptures. Though in the East our form of repetitive prayer generally focuses on the Jesus Prayer, we can still see an undeniable continuity of practice. If indeed Christ is present in the whole of Scripture, then praying Scripture repeatedly is a practice of the presence of Christ. Finally, when we have reached this point of Scripture going into our minds through our eyes, and from our minds to our hearts, and from our hearts to our lips and back to God, we then see that our only response is to sit in silence before God, and allow Him to respond.
Once again, we find not a great distance between our Orthodox Tradition and Benedictine Spirituality, but rather, a closeness that stems from the Orthodox context of St. Benedict himself. As we have seen, Benedict, his Rule and Spirituality, especially as they pertain to the approach to the Holy Scriptures, are thoroughly Orthodox in practice and in nature. In the final analysis I suggest that in Orthodoxy, as much as in historical Benedictine practice, the discipline of Lectio Divina is present; it simply exists within the context of Orthodox hesychastic practice.
63 Thelma Hall, Too Deep for Words, p. 7
64 RB (Rule of St. Benedict) 48:1“Otiositas inimica est amimae, et ideo certis temporibus occupari debent fratres in labore manuum, certis iterum horis in lectione divina.”
65 “The Work of God”
66 In the Prayer Book tradition Morning Prayer is referred to as Matins, and Evening Prayer as Evensong, and both contain readings from the Psalter, Hymns, Intercessory Prayer, and readings from the Old and New Testaments according to the Lectionary. The Book of Common Prayer also contains orders for Compline and Noonday Prayer.
67 Taken from the Sarum Lectionary
68 Pennington, Lectio Divina, p. 57
69 St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena, p. 3
70 Casey, Sacred Reading, p.8
71 RB, Prologue: 19-20, 35-36
72 RB, 42:1
73 Acts. 8:31
74 Benedict is referring here to the Conferences and the Institutes of St. John Cassian. Both of these works, as well as the monastic Rule of St. Basil the Great, were very formative for St. Benedict himself, and he encouraged his disciples to take wisdom from them as well. This, again, shows continuity with the Eastern Monastic tradition, as Basil wrote in the East, and Cassian wrote about his own experiences in the Egyptian Desert.
75 RB, Chap. 73:5,6a
76 Prologue of the Cell Rule of Five Hundred of the Optina Monastery.
77 Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading, p. 97 (emphasis added)
78 St. Ignatius Brianchininov, The Arena, p. 3
79 Rule of Pachomius, Chap. 6
80 St. Tikhon of Zadonsk: in Nadejda Gorodetsky, Saint Tikhon Zadonsky, Inspirer of Dostoevsky, SPCK, London, 1951, p. 119
81 St. Ignatius Brianchininov, The Field: Cultivating Salvation, p. 22
82 I Kings 19:11-12 (RSV)
83 St. Isaac of Nineveh, Letter Three
Section II: The Heart of the Benedictine Way
Chapter 5. Stability
Thus far, we have examined what I have called the work, or energies, of St. Benedict’s Rule. These actions of “work,” which the monastics engage in, draw the patterns and deeds of everyday life into the rhythm of the holy, and there transform time, space, and matter. While these “works” of the Benedictine life are central to the growth, in Christ, of individual men and women, and indeed entire communities, they are largely external in practice, and do not necessarily lead to a greater closeness to God.
For this, we must now look deeper, beyond the external actions of the monastic Benedictine way, and turn with our spiritual eyes, to the heart, the spirit, or, one could say, the interior essence of St. Benedict’s way of life. Here, in examining this essence, as far as is possible, we will find what it is, at the core, that makes the Rule and spirituality of St. Benedict so thoroughly Orthodox in nature. And this core is found in the vows of the Benedictine taken upon reception into the community.
When a person is received into the monastery, “he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to the monastic life,84 and obedience.”85 We will begin with the vow of Stability, and we will see that this particular principle of Benedictine life and spirituality has great impact not only on monastics, but upon the life of the average Christian, in whatever state he or she may be found.
When looking at the Benedictine notion of “stability,” we are immediately drawn to an interesting section at the very beginning of the Rule. Curiously, Benedict devotes his entire first Chapter in the Rule to explaining the various “kinds of monks.” Before we examine Benedict’s purpose for doing this, let us look briefly at his summary of these types of monastics.
He mentions first the cenobites — monastics for whom Benedict is composing his Rule. These live in a monastery under the rule of an abbot, and these are the most common type of monastic, whether in the East or in the West. It is in the cenobitic monastic community that a group of men or women work out their salvation together. “The monastic community presupposes a common life in all external things. Of course the personal life of each one differs according to his freedom and love, but also the energy of divine grace. Although the journey is the same, the speed of travel varies from person to person. In the outward way of life, however, there has to be conformity, because otherwise the monastery cannot progress as it should.”86
The second type of monk, says Benedict, are the anchorites, or hermits. These monks “have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervor of monastic life.”87 Benedict began his monastic journey as an anchorite, living in a cave in the hills above Subiaco, and he obviously has great love for this life. He further says that these monks are “trained to fight against the devil. They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God’s help to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.”88
The third type of monk that St. Benedict mentions are the sarabaites, whom he calls “the most detestable kind of monks.” He holds this opinion of them because they, “with no experience to guide them, no rule to try them as gold is tried in a furnace,89 have a character as soft as lead. Still loyal to the world by their actions, they clearly lie to God by their tonsure… Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.”90
These sarabaites were sheep trying to build their own fold without the aid of a shepherd. How similar they seem to many modern Christians in America and elsewhere who move with their own whims, or with the tide of the culture. They, indeed, seem to fall under the condemnation of Benedict’s words, as “anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.” Once again, we see our beloved Saint delivering a timely message and rebuke to us, and a reminder that this kind of behavior is not new to our own time, but was present in his age as well.
The fourth and final type of monk that Benedict mentions is the one that he seems to intentionally place at the end of his list. This group he seems to have the greatest disdain for. These monks are the Gyrovagues, the wanderers, those with no place and no rule. Benedict tells us that these monks “spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than sarabaites.”91
We can see that St. Benedict had valid criticisms of these two groups of monastics, and we can also see, if we will, that at the heart of his objections to their way of life is one simple factor: a lack of stability. These monks are in every way unstable, and in the already volatile environment of the disintegrating Roman Empire at the time, a great stabilizing force was necessary. No less than in the sixth century do we now in the twenty-first have need of stability.
When we talk about stability, we are, in reality, talking about fidelity to a place and a people. It is the active decision, on the part of the person choosing to embrace this life, to “stick it out.” Stability is standing firm and in place, regardless of circumstances that may be presented in life. For the person committed to stability, a line is clearly drawn in the sand, and the person does not move. In the monastery, this means that the monastic keeps in mind the words of Benedict when he says, “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts over-flowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in His kingdom. Amen.”92
We see the obvious notion of the holiness of place, relationship, and fidelity in the notion of stability. For Benedict, it is essential that the monk remain in one place, and remain committed to this one group of monks as a family, growing in maturity and holiness, until his death. It is here, in the realm of stability, that we see the connection between monasticism and married life. For those faithful Christians who have committed to a life of marriage, rather than monastic celibacy, this commitment to stability is no less true.
Fr. John Meyendorff tells us that “one of the paradoxes of Christian ethics is that marriage and celibacy, if they presuppose different practical behaviors, are based on the same theology of the Kingdom of God and, therefore, on the same spirituality… Thus marriage and celibacy are ways of living the Gospel, anticipating the Kingdom, which was already revealed in Christ and must appear in strength at the last day.”93
Further, it is here that we begin, or rather continue, to see the practical ramifications of the Rule of St. Benedict in the everyday life of the Christian. Stability, no less than the other Benedictine vows, is central to the Christian life. For, in truth, not only stability, but also obedience and continual conversion of life are absolute necessities of the Christian life. It is, therefore, only a marriage ‘in Christ’ sealed by the Eucharist, and celibacy ‘in the name of Christ,’ which carry this ‘eschatological’ Christian meaning — not marriage concluded casually, as a contract, or as a satisfaction for the flesh, and not celibacy accepted by inertia, or worse, by egotism and self-productive irresponsibility.”94
Thus, we see from Fr. Meyendorff that monasticism and marriage depend upon an ongoing commitment of the will, rooted in the Eucharistic life of the Church, which is the essence of marital and monastic stability. Stability, whether for a monk or a married person, provides for comfort in the midst of struggle, as well as growth for those involved. It is only too common for us as weak human beings to succumb to the temptation to flee from conflict and difficulty.
Stability negates the possibility of fleeing to a different monastery or to another “greener pasture,” as it were, when difficulties arise. Thus, from the moment of either monastic tonsure or crowning in marriage, we are placed into the community of faith which God has prepared for us, in His great providence. The community of faith in which we find ourselves is that station in life in which we will be honed and sharpened by continuous and often strenuous contact with others. “Iron sharpens iron and one man sharpens another.”95
When we look closely at the notion of stability itself, we must look deeper, beyond the word itself, to see what, in the context of Benedictine spirituality, the concept consists of. When look a bit closer, we find that Benedictine stability is a tension between rootedness and change, and in this tension we find three basic elements: simplicity, moderation, and balance.
We hear a great deal about simplicity of life in our world today. There is a great movement among people of various age groups in America to get away from the entrapments of consumerist life. We can see the so-called “tiny house” movement, and the “off-grid” communities as an indicator of the popularity of this idea. Within these movements, and others, people feel compelled to lay aside their excess possessions, and live in a way that is more basic to existence, and free of debt and dependence upon others.
These ideas, at the basic human level, would most likely be lauded by St. Benedict. He devotes a great deal of time to the material simplicity of his monastics.
Benedict speaks of monks having private ownership of material things in stark terms: he says, “above all, this evil practice must be uprooted and removed from the monastery. We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive or retain anything as his own, nothing at all — not a book, writing tablets, nothing at all — in short, not a single item, especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills. For their needs, they are to look to the father of the monastery, and are not allowed anything which the abbot has not given or permitted.”96
Likewise, Benedict specifies that even the clothing that the monk wears is not his personal property, but rather, belongs to the monastery, and is given to the wearer only at the discretion of the Abbot.97 Thus, we can see that Benedict absolutely was in favor of the kind of material simplicity that those in these secular movements call for. Besides this, we also find no small amount of defense for this idea in the writings of the Eastern Fathers of the Church.
Benedict is in full unity with his Eastern Monastic brethren, believing and practicing this mandate of Christ: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”98 Indeed, one of the clearest examples of this can be found in St. John Climacus, who says, “the man who really loves the Lord… will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions… but having shaken off all ties with earthly things and having stripped himself of his cares, and having come to hate even his own flesh, and having stripped himself of everything, he will follow Christ without anxiety or hesitation, always looking Heavenward and expecting help from there.”99
Thus, we find that material simplicity is but a reflection of a deeper spiritual simplicity. This is particularly clear in Benedictine spirituality, especially as we apply it in everyday life, because, as Benedict scholar Esther de Waal tells us, “the Rule knows much about the continuing paradox that all of us need to be both in the market-place and yet in the desert… There is no evasion here of the complexity of life, and yet the final paradox is that running the way to God appears modest and manageable while at the same time it is total. These are the demands of extreme simplicity which cost everything.”100
The Benedictine way of Spirituality is one that is not heroic. It is practical, and it is approachable — in short, it is simple. Again, Esther de Waal reminds us, “Nowhere does St. Benedict suggest that he is interested in encouraging unusual people to perform spectacular feats. His monks are ordinary people and he will lead them in ways that are accessible to ordinary people. In fact, the great importance of the weak and the ordinary is one of the great guiding principles of the Rule.”101 It is perhaps this, more than anything else, that has led so many, both monastics and lay people alike,102 to embrace the Rule of St. Benedict and apply it to their lives.
Moderation and Balance
We will examine the final two elements of stability together, moderation and balance. In regards to moderation, we see that St. Benedict does not, under any circumstances, permit his monastics to live in excess, neither did he allow his disciples to live in want. Rather, what we see is the Benedictine ideal of sufficiency, meaning that each has what they need to live, no more or less. We can even find Benedict prescribing the amount of food and drink that a monk should have on a daily basis.103
For the Benedictine, moderation and balance are two sides of the same coin, and cannot be separated. Indeed, good order in the monastery ensures that each aspect of life is given its proper place, so that the whole community will work better. In the Benedictine monastery, it becomes clear that in daily living the right relationship between the parts ensures the good of the whole. No one part, chore, or duty of life is more important than any other. Rather, as Benedictine spirituality shows us, all things are working together to make a complete whole. The Sacred Scriptures testify to the truth that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,”104 and “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.”105
We can look to the analogy given to us by St. Paul for insight here. He says, “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”106 Of course, St. Paul is referring not to individual balance, but he is speaking of balance nonetheless — the balance of the members of the body of Christ. Just as one member is not more important than the others in the Body of Christ, so we must admit that no single part of or activity in life is more important than another, but rather, each influences and guides the others.
As St. John Chrysostom says, “If there were not among you great diversity, you could not be a body; and not being a body, you could not be one; and not being one, you could not be equal in honor. Whence it follows again that if you were all equal in honor, you were not a body; and not being a body, you were not one; and not being one, how could ye be equal in honor? As it is, however, because you are not all endowed with some one gift, therefore are you a body; and being a body, you are all one, and differ nothing from one another in this that you are a body. So that this very difference is that which chiefly causes your equality in honor.”107
It is here, in this simplicity, moderation, and balance of life, that we find the essence of Benedictine spirituality, and the rootedness in Christ to which Benedict calls us. In our modern era, in which we are constantly pulled away from community,108 family, parish and sacramental life, and in which our lives are becoming increasingly complicated, often to the exclusion of prayer, and relationship, we need Benedict’s example now, possibly more than ever.
84 Conversatione morum, in modern translation, especially after Vatican II, is usually rendered as “fidelity to the monastic life.” However, the older, more traditional translation and understanding of this phrase is “ongoing conversion of life.” We will look at this further in a later chapter.
85 RB. Chapter 58, v. 17
86 Metropolitan Hierotheos [Vlachos], Orthodox Monasticism, p. 35187 RB. Chapter 1, v. 3.
88 Ibid., vv. 4b-5
89 Reference to Proverbs 27:21
90 RB. Chapter 1, vv. 6-9
91 Ibid. vv. 10-11
92 RB. Prologue, vv. 49-50.
93 Fr. John Meyendorff, Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. p. 69
94 ibid, p. 70
95 Proverbs 27:17
96 RB. Chapter 33, vv. 1-5
97 See RB. Chapter 55
98 Matt. 19:21
99 St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 2, On Detachment
100 Esther De Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, p.29
101 ibid., p. 30.
102 In the Benedictine tradition, lay people are permitted to come to the monastery and to become “Oblates.” These men and women offer themselves as an “oblation” to God, and “attach” themselves to a particular monastery, promising to life out the principles of the Rule in their own life and circumstances, under the guidance of the monks at the monastery. This tradition has a long history, going back to the time of Benedict himself, and is retained even in the Benedictine Monasteries within the Orthodox Western Rite, which permit any faithful Orthodox Christian to become an Oblate of St. Benedict.
103 See RB. Chapters 39 & 40
104 Ecclesiates 3:1
105 Proverbs 11:1
106 1 Cor. 12: 19-20
107 St. John Chrysostom, Homily XXX on 1 Corinthians
108 For a further treatment on this, see the blog Roads From Emmaus, by Fr. Andrew Steven Damick, particularly the series of entries entitled, “The Transfiguration of Place.”
Chapter 6. Obedience
“The first step of humility is obedience without hesitation. This comes naturally to those who esteem nothing as more beloved to them than Christ.”109 With this quote, St. Benedict opens the fifth chapter of his monastic Rule, and these words resound throughout the whole of the text. Obedience without hesitation is arguably one of the great monastic themes that has run through the centuries, and is a constant in monastic life whether in the East or in the West.
Obedience to whom, though? When we speak of obedience, we are using a word that is necessarily a relational word. To be obedient, we must be in a position to exercise that obedience to another person. In point of fact, the word obedience comes from “the word obaudiens, to listen intently, to listen to the voice of God, to hear God’s voice and follow it — so that we are led along the path of God’s will rather than our own.”110
With this in mind, we find that obedience is nothing short of listening intently, with full attention to what is being asked of us, to internalize it, and to act upon it without giving oneself the time or opportunity to procrastinate or rationalize the request away. Obedience is the work not only of the monk, but it is the work of every Christian, and it reflects the humility and obedience of Christ to His Father: “Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing… I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and My judgement is just, because I seek not My own will but the will of Him who sent Me.”111
Here we see something very interesting emerging from the Scriptural picture of the obedience of Christ. He hears what the Father says, and He responds with action. Thus, the obedience of the Christian is a reflection of the obedience of Christ Himself, which was a constant response to His perception of the Voice and Will of the Father.
We know that monastic life is meant to reflect a constant practice of and devotion to the Christian life, and obedience is central to that life. And in the monastic tradition, obedience is focused in several directions for the monk: first to God, then to the Abbot of the Monastery, and then to those around him.
For Benedict, though, obedience to the Abbot (or to any senior monk) is the expression of a monk’s obedience to God within the community. He says that “because of the holy service they have professed, or because of the dread of hell and for the glory of everlasting life, they [the monks] carry out the superior’s orders as promptly as if the command came from God Himself.”112 This also applies to the life of Christians in the wider Church, as often disobedience is the cause of a great deal of strife and devision.
Indeed, St. Clement of Rome encourages those who have rebelled against the leadership of the Church in times of schism, saying that they “must submit to the elders and accept discipline in repentance, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn obedience, laying aside the arrogance and proud willfulness of your tongue. For it is better for you to find a small but creditable place in the flock of Christ than to appear eminent but be excluded from His hope.”113
So we see that obedience within the sphere of the life of the Church is not simply a monastic vocation. Rather, it is a reflection of the life of Christ in His entire body, working in each of His members, and remembering to subject ourselves and our desires to the will of God, and to the needs and requests of our superiors and those around us.
Though the focus of obedience is a work of three-fold action which is outwardly focused, it begins, as all Christian virtues do, with the heart. The disposition of the obedient heart is one of renunciation, but not renunciation of material things; rather it is a total renunciation of self. St. John Climacus says that “obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions. Or, conversely, obedience is the mortification of the limbs while the mind remains alive… Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility.”114
How is this so? What is the specific purpose of obedience in the Christian life, and specifically in the monastic vocation? St. Benedict tells us that obedience is nothing less than the road to salvation itself, which flows from a heart of love for God. “It is love,” says Benedict, “that impels them to pursue everlasting life; therefore, they are eager to take the narrow road of which the Lord says: ‘Narrow is the road that leads to life.’115 They no longer live by their own appetites; rather they walk according to another’s decisions and directions, choosing to live in monasteries and to have an abbot over them. Men of this resolve unquestionably conform to the saying of the Lord: ‘I have come not to do my own will, but the will of Him Who sent me.116’”117
Further, as we have seen already, it is not a mental exercise on the part of the monastic or lay Christian, but it is a reflection/result of a heart directed toward God. “This very obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness. For the obedience shown to superiors is given to God, as He Himself said: ‘Whoever listens to you, listens to Me.’”118
Obedience, though, is not to be seen as something that is burdensome or taxing, but something sweet, truly an act of love. As Elder Joseph the Hesychast tells us, “truly great is the mystery of obedience. Since our sweet Jesus first marked out this path and become a model for us, aren’t we obliged to follow Him?”119 The Elder further reminds us that obedience is not only for the sake of the disciple, but also for the sake of the Spiritual Father. He tells us, “when the disciples are obedient in everything, then the elder is uplifted: he prays fervently, he is enlightened abundantly, he speaks wisely, he advises in good order, he receives additional grace, and he becomes an ever-flowing spring distributing to everyone the divine grace that he has received from the Lord.”120
Thus, we have seen that obedience is at the heart of the monastic life, and the Benedictine way of life, and that it, like the other “pieces” of St. Benedict’s spirituality, are applicable beyond the monastic enclosure. Now, let us turn our attention to those components that make up obedience itself. When closely examined, we can find three elements involved with the acquiring and practice of obedience, and these are silence, prayer, and humility.
In popular culture the caricature of Benedictine Monks taking a “vow” of silence is only too well known. Of course, as we have already established, there is no vow of silence. Only the most austere modern orders in the Roman Church have anything resembling this kind of practice. Rather, we find that Benedict is not calling for total silence, but rather, a “taming of the tongue.”121
St. Benedict says, “let us follow the Prophet’s counsel: ‘I said, I have resolved to keep watch over my ways that I may never sin with my tongue. I have put a guard on my mouth. I was silent and was humbled, and I refrained even from good words.’122 Here the prophet indicates that there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence. For all the more reason, then, should evil speech be curbed so that punishment for sin may be avoided. Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written: ‘In a flood of words you will not avoid sin;’123 and elsewhere, ‘The tongue holds the key to life and death.124’”125
We can look to Elder Ephraim of Arizona126 for modern Orthodox monastic insight on this matter. He says, “Compel yourselves; say the prayer; stop idle talk; close your mouths to criticism; place doors and locks against unnecessary words.”127 Elsewhere he says, “Keep silent in order to say the [Jesus] prayer. For when one speaks, how is it possible to avoid idle talk, which gives rise to every evil word, which weighs the soul down with blame. At your work, flee conversation; only speak in moderation when necessary. Let the hands work for the needs of the body, and let the nous say the sweetest name of Christ, so that the need of the soul, which we must not forget even for a moment, will also be provided for.”128
Beyond Elder Ephraim’s words, we can find further spiritual benefits to the practice of the virtue of silence. This practice of silence is something cultivated, and nurtured, and isn’t something that comes naturally in a world full of distractions. However, if we allow ourselves to integrate silence into our lives, prayer is the inevitable outcome, and one may find that, as Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) says, “sometimes this silence comes to us from God even more plainly. Without any warning we suddenly find ourselves silently at rest in God. Praying for others is shedding our blood, spending ourselves to the limit in sympathy and compassion. But praying for others is also going the way of Christ, becoming an expression of His intercession, uniting ourselves with Him in His prayer and His incarnation. We experience the unutterable groans of the Spirit in our own hearts… This silence leads us to an encounter with God in serene and simple faith.”129
Benedict contends that even prayer is something that should not be over-burdensome, as we have already seen when he tells us, “we must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure.”130 This is an act of obedience, and is replete with reverence and respect for the weak, and those who follow in Benedict’s footsteps have taken this act of obedience very seriously.
Often among Orthodox Christians, we see a temptation for what could be called “uber-piety.” This may take the form of harsh self-imposed prayer or fasting rules, or rigidness in matters of piety and penance, while the Church offers leniency. In this we find not only a disobedient heart, and one that has not properly been formed by simple prayer as, perhaps, St. Benedict and Elder Ephraim might suggest, but it also reveals the presence of pride. As we are well aware, the only cure for pride is humility, which is the third, and most essential part of obedience.
In the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great tells us a story in which he illustrates the struggle between pride and humility in a seemingly mundane event. He tells us,
“Once when the saintly abbot was taking his evening meal, a young monk whosefather was a high ranking official happened to be holding the lamp for him. As he stood at the abbot’s table the spirit of pride began to stir in his heart. ‘Who is this,’ he thought to himself, ‘that I should have to stand here holding the lamp for him while he is eating? Who am I to be serving him?’ Turning to him at once, Benedict gave the monk a sharp reprimand. ‘Brother,’ he said, ‘sign your heart with the sign of the Cross. What are you saying? Sign your heart!’ Then calling the others together, he had one of them take the lamp instead, and told the murmurer to sit down by himself and be quiet. Later, when asked what he had done wrong, the monk explained how he had given in to the spirit of pride and silently murmured against the man of God. At this the brethren all realized that nothing could be kept secret from their holy abbot, since he could hear even the unspoken sentiments of the heart.”131
We can see from this story that pride and humility not only factor into great and lofty events, but in the very small and minute duties of life. If we cannot approach our everyday work and interactions with others with a due sense of humility, then we will never move toward the humility of Christ, Who was in all things, “meek and humble of heart.”132
Benedict himself tells his monks, “if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, then by our actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw angels descending and ascending.133 Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven.”134
It is part of the goal of the Christian life to seek after humility, and to consider others above the self. This kind of humility is part of what Benedict showed in Chapter 71 of the Rule, in which he discusses mutual humility. He says, “obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.”135
How is this so, that obedience draws us to God? It is because, as Archimandrite Zacharias says, “humility attracts the energy of God’s grace, and as it accumulates, the image of Christ is traced in the heart. Man then hungers and thirsts for a clearer and bolder ‘form’ of Christ to take shape in his heart. He beholds the perfect image, the pure icon of Christ Himself, and compares it with the faint reflection of it in his own person, and knows that he falls infinitely short. And this inspires him day after day in his effort to fulfil God’s commandments.”136
As we acquire the virtues of stability and obedience, to which St. Benedict calls his followers, and by extension us as well, we will move toward our ultimate goal — the ongoing conversion of life, in theosis and unity with Jesus Christ our Lord. It is to this ideal of ongoing conversion, and Benedict’s vision for it, that we turn in our next chapter.
109 RB. Chap. 5, vv. 1-2.
110 Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p.13.
111 John 5:19, 30
112 RB. Chapter 4. vv. 3-4.
113 St. Clement of Rome, 1st Clement, Section 57, vv. 1 & 2, taken from The Apostolic Fathers, edited by Jack N. Sparks.
114 St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 4, section 3.
115 Reference to Matt. 7:14
116 Reference to John 6:38
117 RB. Chap. 5. vv. 10-13
118 ibid. vv. 14 & 15
119 From Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, p.96
120 ibid. p. 97
121 See James 3
122 Ref. to Psalm 38 :2-3
123 Ref. to Proverbs 10:19
124 Ref. Proverbs 18:21
125 RB. Chapter 6. vv. 1-6
126 Without question, Elder Ephraim is a controversial figure in modern Orthodoxy. However, his voice is one that reflects a stream within the contemporary monastic world, and thus his words on this topic are useful to show continuity with the Benedictine Tradition.
127 From Counsels from the Holy Mountain: Selected from the Homilies and Letters of Elder Ephraim. p.102.
128 ibid. p. 211.
129 Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom], Courage to Pray, pp. 45-46.
130 RB. Chap. 20. vv. 3-4
131 St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book II, The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict. Chapter 20.
132 See Matt. 11:29
133 Ref. Genesis 28:12
134 RB. Chap. 7. vv. 5-8
135 RB. Chap. 71. vv. 1 & 2
136 Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love, pp. 323-324.
Chapter 7: Conversatio Morum
Thus far in our treatment of the Benedictine way we have examined, albeit briefly, the “work” of the Benedictines, and the vows of stability and obedience, and given time to the manner in which each portion is worked out in the life of the monastic. Finally, as we draw to the close of our discussion of Benedictine spirituality itself, we come to that ultimate goal which is really the true focus of all that has come before. This ultimate goal is condensed by Benedict into the vow of Conversatio Morum, or ongoing conversion of life.
It can be said that each of the aspects of Benedictine life which we have addressed is pointless on its own; they are not meant to be ends in and of themselves. Rather, each aspect of Benedictine life is meant to draw each moment, thought, word, and activity of the monk into conformity with Christ. In short, for Saint Benedict, conversion is the point of life itself — conversion to Christ-likeness. And conversion, for Benedict, is not a moment, but a journey. In his own words Benedict describes the life of conversion saying, “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”137
What is interesting about this particular vow which is taken by the Benedictine, is that the Saint does not simply say “conversion,” but rather “ongoing conversion.” In his own words, in the chapter which gives the procedure for receiving new monks into the community, Benedict says, “when he is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises… ongoing conversion of life.”138
For the Orthodox Christian, this language of “ongoing” conversion should immediately ring in the ears as being the essence of our view of salvation, which is beautifully and succinctly described by St. Nicholas Cabasilas when he says, “the life in Christ originates in this life and arises from it. It is perfected, however, in the life to come, when we shall have reached that last day. It cannot attain perfection in men’s souls in this life, nor even in that which is to come without already having begun here.”139 Thus, Salvation is a process, an ongoing conversion, which begins in this life, and continues on into the next.
St. Theophan the Recluse tells us that “Christian life is zeal and the strength to remain in communion with God by means of an active fulfillment of His holy will, according to our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the help of the grace of God, to the glory of His most holy name.”140 Thus, very obviously, in speaking about an ongoing conversion of life, Benedict is reflecting something that the Orthodox Church holds to be true over and against the mainstream Protestant model of salvation — that salvation is a process, and not a momentary event.
Before we delve further into this concept, a word about translation is necessary. Conversio Morum has been historically translated in two ways: ongoing conversion of life, and conversion to the monastic way of life. The more modern trend is to translate this phrase as conversion to the monastic way of life, which has caused some to cry “foul” due to supposed biases in translation against the notion of theosis.
The debate on this topic is understandable. However, upon reflection, there isn’t really a theological discrepancy between the two translations. If we consider the monastic way of life to be one that is completely geared toward living out the Christian life, then conversion to the monastic way of living is, in fact, ongoing conversion to Christ. The only difference that the two translations make is one of context. As the Latin text nowhere makes mention of the word “monastic,” though, we can, with a fair amount of confidence, say that the proper translation of conversatio morum is the older of the two: “conversion of life.”141
Whether we are speaking of the initial conversion to Christianity or the ongoing process of growing in holiness and Christ-likeness, the whole person must be engaged. It is not enough for a “part” to be engaged (as if a person can be divided), but rather each one must be nurtured and fed according to the needs of his/her intellect, physicality, and spirituality. There is an initial conversion, to be sure, in which the Christian is first drawn to the life in Christ. As St. Theophan tells us, “There is a moment, and a very noticeable moment, which is sharply marked out in the course of our life, when a person begins to live in a Christian way. This is the moment when there began to be present in him the distinctive characteristics of Christian life.”142
But salvation, in the Orthodox view, is much more than a single moment. It is a journey, a path, and it is one that every Christian must walk throughout his entire life. Benedict understood this reality, and thus, as we have seen, gave examples and norms for his monks to live by that would draw them gradually more and more toward Christ by conforming every aspect of their lives toward Him, little by little.
Ongoing conversion is perpetual transformation — a constant, and often subtle, transformation of a person into a more Christ-like human being. This movement toward conversion includes the embrace of authentic holiness, and partaking of the divine nature. Ongoing conversion is that which the Orthodox call the process of Theosis, or deification— the life of growth toward union with and participation in the Divine Nature of Christ, and of seeking and beholding the Uncreated Light of Christ, allowing it to shine in us, bringing us into true communion with the living God.
This process of theosis, of growing into Christ-likeness, begins and ends with faith. As Thomas Merton reminds us, “Faith is the beginning of new life. Life means growth and development toward a final complete maturity and perfection. What is this finished perfection for the Christian? The full manifestation of Christ in our lives.”143
Deification is the purpose of man’s existence.
The question of the meaning or purpose of life has been the central question which man has asked throughout history. Orthodox Christianity offers the answer to this question — that the purpose of life is union with God, theosis. This is seen reflected in the awesome reality of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Dr. Christopher Veniamin writes, “the divine purpose for the human race, however, is seen in the union of our human nature to the divine Person of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in its being raised to the right hand of the Father… we see in Him not only the great God and Saviour (Titus 2:13), but also what or who we have been called to become — sons and heirs of God the Father.”144
Thus, deification is not only the answer to the question of our existence. It is also the answer to the question of the ultimate will of God, “Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”145 This God Who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life,”146 desires our union with Him, and our participation in Christ makes that possible.
The place of conversion is the Church.
As with all things in human life, there is a proper context for the life of conversion, and this context is within the Church. Benedict called his monastery a “school for the Lord’s service.”147 Why is the Church the context for salvation, and the school for training in conversion? I believe that we can easily see that the reason for this is precisely because Christ dwells in His body, the Church. If we are to draw near to Christ, we must first approach the Church. As Stanley Harakas tells us,
“accepting for yourself that Christ’s redemptive work, teaching, and life, and death and resurrection apply to you, restoring basic communication and union between yourself and God and your present self with your true self is what we call ‘Faith’ or ‘belief.’ But that faith and belief is not offered to us in a vacuum. It is not just you and Jesus Christ facing each other. There is a multitude of humanity involved. Many have accepted that offered hand of Jesus Christ, and since He is no longer here in the flesh to offer it to you, that saving assistance of God is offered to you through the body of those who have already been lifted up into the road of salvation. Those throughout the centuries who have believed accepted what Christ has done and who have been granted the presence of the Holy Spirit and who have witnessed the saving power and love and forgiveness of the Holy Trinity, make up that body. Throughout the ages we have called that body, ‘The Church.’”148
So we see that when one comes to Christ, he comes to the Church, and vice versa. Within the body of the Christ, we see the purpose of the Church in the lives of people. The Church “guides men and women in their spiritual growth and administrates the spiritual life of the Christians — thus continuing as well as pointing to the Lordship of Christ over the faithful and the world. The Church is also the agent which mediates the saving acts of Jesus Christ to individuals and the body of believers.”149
The Rule of St. Benedict is a guide for living in Christian community, for the working out of salvation in the context of a larger group of people. Benedict lays out in his Rule a manner of living which seeks the presence of Christ in the other, and in the everyday activities of life. Here, we see the crux of Benedict’s requirement that his disciples vow ongoing conversion of life. He gives them first stability, the promise to stay in one place, one family, one father (abbot) for life. Then he calls them to obedience, asking his monks to relinquish their own will, and putting themselves in a teachable position.
Once the Christian has embraced these two, he then is in a position to begin his ongoing life-long conversion. To this, Benedict adds work, prayer, study, silence, and all the external actions which aid the conversion of the interior man. As we have seen, the whole of Benedictine spirituality points to this one principle: conversion into Christ. Benedict does not seek to have a building full of monks; he seeks for communities full of devoted Christians who are seeking the common goal of salvation, theosis, and union with Jesus Christ.
137 RB Prologue v. 49
138 RB, Chapter 58. v. 17
139 Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 43
140 St. Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation, p. 27.
141 The original phrase in Latin is, “Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.”
142 The Path to Salvation, p.27
143 Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, p. 86
144 Dr. Christopher Veniamin, The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation, p. 15
145 1 Timothy 2:4
146 John 3:16
147 RB. Prologue, v. 45
148 Stanley S. Harakas, Living the Liturgy, p. 17
Conclusion: The Forgotten Father
With this description of the Benedictine path, how can we not, then, acknowledge the complete Orthodoxy of this way of life? We are left with little choice but to see in Benedict a great Orthodox Saint — indeed further, a Father of the Church, who gave to the Church a way of life which was devoted to theosis. His given path to God was through self-denial, humility, love, discipline, prayer, work, liturgical and private prayer, and unhesitating obedience to the other, all with the aim in view of the total conversion of the person to Christ.
In this focus, we see, again, Benedict’s complete continuity with the rest of the Orthodox Fathers, and with the heart of Orthodox asceticism which “heals human beings.”150 Benedict lays before his disciples, and all those who would take up his mantle, the road to seeking Christ, for “if we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then — while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life — we must run and do now what will profit us forever.”151
We have seen that Benedict’s emphasis on prayer, both personal and liturgical, is at the center, not only of the Benedictine way, but at the very core of the Orthodox Christian life. Benedict simply gives us a structure for the Orthodox Christian to live out the life of Sacramental and Ecclesial expression. Benedict echoes the emphasis that the Church Herself gives on the centrality of prayer and participation in the sacraments, which are for the life of the world.
Further, we have seen Benedict’s focus on working with the hands, and using manual labor to discipline the body and the mind to focus on bringing the remembrance of God into every moment. As I have demonstrated, the notion of work within the monastic framework holds just as high a place in the Eastern monastic tradition as in the Benedictine, and is an aid to theosis.
As we looked at the vows of the Benedictine, we examined first the vow of stability, and saw how rootedness in the community plays a central role not only in the monastic life, but in the very life of the Christian. We have seen that dedication to a family or a specific community gives context to our salvation, and draws us into a life lived with others, which chips away the rough edges of our hearts, as we learn to live in love.
Looking at Obedience, we examined the heart that every monastic should strive to have — one of silence, prayer and humility. The virtue of obedience, as we have seen, is an absolute necessity for the common life in the monastery, but also for every person seeking the life in Christ. We have seen that, for St. Benedict, no less than the Eastern Fathers, the life of obedience is nothing less than the life of the Christian.
Finally, in the final vow of Conversatio Morum, we come to the pinnacle of the Christian life, and the true purpose for which Benedict wrote his Rule. His way of life was purposely geared toward the acquiring of the virtues, the pursuit of Christ, and the movement toward theosis. After careful examination, it cannot be denied that St. Benedict, his Rule, and his spirituality, are, indeed, fully Orthodox. Countless men and women, including great Saints of the Church, have been brought into union with Christ through living the Benedictine way.
St. Benedict is the Anthony of the West, in that he leaves all things to battle the demons in the wilderness, and conquer his passions. He is the Pachomius of Italy, in that he set up great monasteries, and oversaw their life, drawing whole communities to Christ. He is the Basil of Monte Cassino, living in a rural city, and proclaiming truth to all those with ears to hear. And he is the Climacus of the West, giving monks a firm, yet loving rule, to live by, which influences not only monastics, but lay people throughout the centuries.
Holy Father Benedict of Nursia, pray to God for us.
150 Orthodox Monasticism, p. 25
151 RB. Prologue, vv. 42-44