Benedict of Aniane: On Poverty

The next big post on Benedict of Aniane will look at his reforming work as described by Ardo and as cemented in the Councils of Aachen. These acts lay the foundation for the continuation and growth of the great monastic houses which, with their huge tracts of land, massive rents, and temporal sway represent a very different reality of monastic possession that what was within the imaginative scope of Benedict of Nursia. However, to lay this temporal wealth to the charge of Benedict of Aniane does not seem quite accurate.

A celebratory post at NLM rejoicing in the absence of earthen vessels from the cover of a major Roman Catholic publication reminded me of a passage from Ardo’s life. Concerning Benedict of Aniane’s establishment of the monastery at Aniane, Ardo writes:

In the meanwhile the band of students gradually began to increase. The fame of holy religious observance began by degrees to flit by the mouths of those dwelling nearby, spreading itself to places a long distance away. Because the valley in which he had first settled was very narrow, he undertook little by little to erect by effort a new monastery beyond its confines. Sometimes he labored with the brothers as they worked; sometimes he had his hands full with cooking food for them to eat, while at the same time he was also occupied even in the kitchen with writing a book. And often, because of the scarcity of oxen, he carried wood on his own shoulders along with his students.

There was on the place where they were endeavoring to establish the monastery a building which they expanded and dedicated in honor of holy Mary the bearer of God. With people flocking thither from everywhere, begging earnestly to submit themselves to his superintendency, the fabric of the monastery was quickly completed. The place was endowed and increased with properties as various persons offered what they had. Benedict had given orders to make the houses, not with ornate walls, red roof tiles, or painted panelings, but with thatch and cheap timber. Although the number of brothers was rapidly expanding, he still strove for cheap and modest materials.

If anyone wanted to bestow some of his possessions on the monastery, Benedict accepted it. But if someone pressed to attach serving men and women to it, he refused. Nor did he permit anyone to be delivered to the monastery by charter, but ordered them to be set free. [So, no lay-brothers and no slaves—the monks would have to do their own work.] He preferred himself that the vessels for Christ’s body not be of silver. To him first choice was wooden vessels, secondly glass, and finally tin. He refused to have a silken chasuble. If some person gave him one, he immediately gave it away to others. (Ardo’s Life, ch. 5, 72)

To the description of this humble foundation, Ardo gives us an interesting contrast later on. This is Benedict’s first house built by his own hands and means; it’s quite appropriate for an ascetical reformer. Later, Ardo tells us about a second house and church that Benedict builds at the command and with the resources of Charlemagne and the royal court. It’s rather different and deserves its own post due to some interesting architectural elements described therein.