This is the first of possibly several posts on Benedict of Aniane, reformer and teacher (750-821).
Benedict of Aniane is one of those figures in history of whom the general population is blissfully unaware, but who made great and significant changes in the way things were done. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he defined the landscape of Western Monasticism as it moved through the Early Medieval period and into the High Middle Ages.
St Benedict of Nursia gave us the Rule, but it was Benedict of Aniane who gave us Benedictine monasticism as a theological and organizational entity. In the early medieval West there were a host of monastic rules floating around, some written by famous doctors of the church—like those of Isidore and Caesarius of Arles—as well as others by lesser known or now anonymous authors. The most common was the so-called regula mixta which was a combination of the Rule of Benedict and the Irish Rule of Columbanus. English monks like Bede and Boniface were the first to push for an exclusive Benedictine observance but it remained a hard row to hoe. Without Benedict of Aniane, Benedict’s Rule would likely today occupy a place similar to where John Cassian, known by the interested but utilized piece-meal rather than whole-cloth.
Benedict of Aniane started out as one attracted by Benedict’s Rule but with the ascetic chip on his shoulder. Age brought wisdom. In chapter 2, Ardo tells us of his mortifications:
His face through gaunt with fasting; his flesh was exhausted by privation; his shriveled skin hung from his bones like the dewlaps of cows. Not so much taming a young but ungovernable animal, as mortifying the body, although he was compelled by the abbot to exercise rigor against himself more sparingly, he gave assent reluctantly. Declaring that the Rule of blessed Benedict was for beginners and weak persons, he strove to climb up to the precepts of blessed Basil and the rule of blessed Pachomius. However much the Benedictine Rule might regulate possible things for paltry people, our Benedict perennially explored more impossible things. Dedicating himself wholly to penance and lamentation, he could not be imitated by anyone or only by a few. But divine favor decreed that he was to become an example of salvation for many and would be enflamed with love for the Rule of Benedict, and like a new athlete just back from single combat enter the field to fight publicly. In the meanwhile he undertook to correct the manners of some, to scold the negligent, exhort beginners, admonish the upright to persevere, and upbraid the wicked to turn from their ways. (Ardo’s Vita 2.5, 68-9)
Students of the Rule will recognize the trope that Ardo is drawing on here. The first chapter of the rule, drawing on John Cassian Conf. 18.4ff, uses a martial motif to present the cenobites as soldiers who fight together in a battle-line, side by side. The anchorites are the champions who are strong enough to fight on their own, after hard training in the battle-line. Here, Ardo presents the asceticism of Benedict of Aniane as defacto anchorite training, who then returns to teach the rest of the monks rather than remaining elsewhere as a solitary. Ardo then continues to detail Benedict’s full conversion to the Rule:
After that it was enjoined on him to supervise the cellar. There he committed to memory the Rule of the aforesaid Father Benedict. He sought with all his might to comport himself according to its regulations and then without delay to be generous to those seeking lawful things, to deny those seeking in a bad way, and courteously to excuse those inquiring for impossible things. Because he did not freely provide them cups, he was not regarded with favor by many. The care of guests, children, and poor folk he exercised with assiduity. The abbot also esteemed him with supreme fondness, because he was beneficial in everything, circumspect in his own life, solicitous for the salvation of others, prompt in ministering, infrequent in speaking, ready to obey, good-natured in serving. Divine piety conferred upon him, among other virtues, the gift of understanding and a supply of spiritual eloquence. (Ardo’s Vita 2.6, 69)
I find this passage fascinating especially when read in parallel with the section just before it. the reversal on possible/lawful and impossible things is interesting. I note that in the first Benedict seems to do an awful lot of talking—memorization and internalization of the Rule leads to a lot more doing and a lot less talking. I don’t think Ardo wrote it this way on accident… And what a wise abbot! It seems like the move to cellarer (cf. RB 31) was quite a wise move. Benedict could no longer be peripheral to community life, holding himself above it, but was required to be fully integrated into themost mundane details of life together. I don’t think it’s an accident that it was this move that triggered his turn to the Rule.
That’s it for now—the next post will probably look at Benedict’s reforming work and the councils at Aachen.