Category Archives: Monasticism

PC: Benedict and Cassiodorus

If you’ve been following along with the Psalming Christ snippets, then you’ll have figured out that we’re heading here. Essentially, I’ve established that Benedictine spirituality is “a thing,” but that as important, useful, and helpful as Benedict’s rule is, it’s not enough—and was never intended to be. Rather, it is part of a living and lived tradition and we need some supplementation to figure out what Benedict was intending with his regulation. Here is where I make the connection between Benedict and Cassiodorus and why understanding Cassiodorus—or at least his concepts—is important for getting at the heart of a robust Benedictine spirituality…


The only source of information that we have about the life of St. Benedict is that found in Book 2 of the Dialogues by St. Gregory the Great (d. 604). A monastic admirer of Benedict, Gregory features Benedict as an example of spiritual wisdom and grace amongst a host of vignettes of other holy men who earn less space within the treatise. While the whole of the Dialogues makes for great reading, I want to direct our attention to how Gregory starts his discussion of Benedict. Classical canons suggest that a writer describing the life of a famous individual must start with his parentage and education. As a trained rhetorician, Gregory follows this pattern, and writes this of Benedict:

“He was born into a free-man’ family in the district of Nursia and was sent to Rome to study the liberal arts. But he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had he entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool. He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life. Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.”

The key things here are that Benedict turned his back on the learning that could be got at Rome and did so for a very particular reason—that he had seen it cause many students to “[fall] into vice.” As a result, he forsook Rome and its schools, going into the wilderness “learnedly ignorant” and “wisely unskilled,” a neat set of parallel phrases that Gregory as an author no doubt took delight in. I imagine Gregory also had in mind an important turn of phrase at the end of the Rule’s prologue where Benedict lays out his purpose: “Therefore we intend to establish a school (schola) for the Lord’s service” (RB Prol.45). The unlearned holy man becomes the schoolmaster of souls.

Gregory’s introductory passage accomplishes two things. First, it recalls the Life of St. Antony. In that work, penned by the learned Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 373), he too takes pains to point out that the Antony (d. 356)—regarded as the true founder of monasticism—was unlearned. Thus, Gregory portrays Benedict in the same way: untutored but in spite of that—or indeed even because of it—much wiser in the ways of God than the ways of humanity.

Second, Gregory acknowledges the existence of an important cultural gap. There was no such thing as secular learning in the Italian 6th century. All learning was pagan learning. That is, the ways that students were taught to read, write, and speak were based in the great epics of pagan Greece and Rome and attendant literature: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorpheses. There was no comparable Christian educational literature. Even the great Christian rhetoricians like Augustine and Jerome made embarrassed apologies for the Christian Scriptures—that its grammar and styling seemed rude and barbarous in comparison to its pagan counterparts, that its rhetorical faults highlighted the unlearned wisdom of its authors (pointing back to the description of Peter and John in Acts 4:13). As Christianity spread and made inroads among the learned classes, this problem came to a head. Some authors, like the North African Tertullian (d. 240), the father of Latin-language theology, famously thundered “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Other authors like Origen (d. 253) and St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), borrowed a passage of Exodus to speak of the “despoiling of the Egyptians,” arguing that if the Children of Israel could take wealth from their pagan neighbors for their own benefit, so too Christians could borrow Greco-Roman learning, strip it of its pagan character, and repurpose it for the instruction of Christian readers and thinkers.

Indeed, this educational gap was weaponized by Julian the Apostate (d. 363), the first and last Roman emperor after Constantine (d. 337) to try and restore paganism in the empire and displace Christianity. He issued an edict that all teachers had to believe what they taught. That is, those who taught higher education from the pagan epics had to be believers in them and in the gods they proclaimed, effectively barring Christians from educational roles and forcing the upper classes back into the thought-world of pagan antiquity. As Julian only remained in power for less than a year, this edict failed to have the long term effect he was looking for as it was swiftly repealed upon his death.

So—where was learning to be found for monks in the days of Benedict and beyond? As we have seen, Benedict himself was no help because none of the books he recommends assists their readers in the arts of reading itself. How should Christians read the Scriptures? What are the necessary tools for unpacking Scripture? What are the essential techniques for wringing spiritual meaning for monastics out of texts that appear to be speaking about history that happened centuries ago in an alien place and culture?

Jerome’s translations of Origen’s biblical commentaries provided a starting place but were not enough. Later monks would address this lack and the two best known would be Gregory the Great (d. 604) and the Venerable Bede (d. 725). Gregory’s Forty Gospel Homilies would become a staple of monastic libraries for centuries to come and would find their ways into sermon collections and breviaries to enrich the Church throughout the Middle Ages. Likewise, his Homilies on Ezekiel and his monumental Morals in Job would become standard works for interpreting the Old Testament. Bede would follow in his footsteps, pulling together commentaries on the New Testament Epistles, the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the Book of Revelation and parts of the Old Testament. However, sermons and commentaries alone did not suffice to teach the arts of reading. The solution to this problem penned by one of Benedict’s own 6th century Italian contemporaries, Cassiodorus.

In the first half of his life, Cassiodorus (d. 585) served the Gothic kings who ruled Italy throughout the first half of the 6th century, notably Theoderic the Great (d. 526). His family had held high positions for the previous two generations and Cassiodorus was no exception, rising to the highest civil position in the imperial bureaucracy of the West until the Eastern Emperor Justinian and his savage wars of reconquest brought an end to Gothic rule. During a time of exile in Constantinople and for the rest of his long life, Cassiodorus became a monk and—fired by the example of a school of Christian studies in the East—turned his considerable literary and intellectual talents to the creation of a Christian curriculum for educating his fellow monks.

He is best known in scholarly circles for a work called The Institutes of Divine and Human Learning which has long been considered his great contribution to keeping scholarly wisdom alive in the West. This work is divided into two books. The first is a survey of theological practice and literature—talking about the importance of Scripture, how it can be divided up, and identifying important commentaries and orthodox thinkers on each section. The second book is a crash course in the seven liberal arts: the trivium which are the initial three arts of reading (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium which are the four applied arts of mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). This work has long been considered his greatest contribution to intellectual history in the West as it passed down these seven arts to later ages, most notably through the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) who took this idea and expanded it into the first known Christian encyclopedia.

The Institutes are a great work, but—from the standpoint of the arts of reading, theology, and the spirituality of the West—lag in second place behind his most circulated and impactful work: The Explanation of the Psalms.

Benedict and the rest of the monastic movement saw the psalter as the heart of monastic spirituality. Every monastic rule devoted space to prescribing how the psalms should become a central text in monastic lives, though their singing and as models for all other forms of Christian prayer. Cassiodorus taught how to read them. He split the Gordian knot of the uncomfortable relationship between classical learning and Christian spirituality with a bold assertion: that the seeds of all seven liberal arts lay within the Psalms if one just knew how to look for them and find them. His Explanation of the Psalms in three volumes provided monastic learners with a complete road map to understanding the psalms, the arts of reading necessary to profitably interpret them, and the spiritual tools to turn the act of reading into a practice of prayer.

Because Cassiodorus’s legacy has been seen for centuries in the Institutes, Cassiodorus has long been considered a competitor of Benedict, an author advancing a more secular understanding of wisdom over and against monastic spirituality. Certainly this is the way the great monastic historian Jean Leclercq (d. 1993) saw the two—as rivals, each promoting a different aim for the unfolding of monastic life. When Cassiodorus’s key work is correctly identified as the Explanation of the Psalms rather than the Institutes, the true relationship between the two men becomes evident.

Rather than competitors, Benedict and Cassiodorus are the perfect complements to one another. Benedict provides the rules and structures that create the framework of a monastic life, a life focused on immersion in Scripture—the Psalms holding pride of place. Cassiodorus provides a invaluable guide that explains how the Psalms are read and understood from a Christian perspective with the help of the classical arts. Furthermore, he models what spiritual reading and praying look and sound like. Benedict brings the structure; Cassiodorus brings the method. Together they provide a foundation for a Scripture-shaped life in the monastic tradition.

History reveals that this is the way the relationship worked. When we compare the numbers of copies of the various manuscripts that have survived to the present day, when we hunt through the booklists of ancient monastic libraries, we find the confirmation that we are after. Judging by manuscripts, the Institutes made hardly a ripple in the early medieval world. Only XX copies of the Institutes survive. This is doubtless due in large measure to Isidore taking up the theme and running with it. He incorporated whole sections cribbed directly from the Institutes in his Etymologies and thereby made the Institutes redundant in the face of his much larger work.

The Explanation of the Psalms, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Its nearest competitor, St. Augustine of Hippo’s Narrations on the Psalms survive in sixty-six medieval copies; almost twice that many editions of all or part of Cassiodorus’s Explanations survive! In addition to these 106 copies of the Explanations, material from the Explanations became a standard feature of the Carolingian glossed psalters. These books, used for both study and prayer, contained the psalms written in large letters in the middle of the page with explanations drawn from Cassiodorus, Jerome, Augustine, and other teachers written in small letters between the lines and around the margins of the page.  These glossed psalters were one of the teaching tools by which young monastics who were in the process of memorizing their psalms would learn to read and, as they grew more advanced, how to analyze and interpret the Scriptures.

Looking back at the editions of Cassiodorus’s Explanations that scholars can firmly date, almost half were written in either the 9th century or the 12th century. These spikes represent the 9th century Carolingian reform and the 12th century Monastic Reformation. The generations that renewed monastic vitality identified and copied Cassiodorus’s Explanations as a companion to a renewed focus on Benedict’s Rule and the principles at the heart of Western monasticism. When those reforming monks looked back, they identified Cassiodorus as a central resource for monastic learning.

So—what about us? As we stand at our own point in history, as many of us are drawn to the world of monastic spirituality, its rhythms and habits and patterns, is there something that Cassiodorus can teach us? However, we must approach him with a certain caution in mind. We live in a different time. Literacy and the arts of reading are deeply embedded within our societies. Our outlook on prayer is different from earlier periods. Modern biblical studies, drawing upon technological, archaeological, and theoretical advances, is vastly different in our day than those of Benedict and Cassiodorus. Many things they thought were true we now know to be false; many beliefs they treasured, we question. Nevertheless, the medieval world understood Cassiodorus and his teachings on the psalms to be an essential compliment to Benedict’s world. Does Cassiodorus still have something to teach us about reading and praying the psalms with renewed eyes and hearts?

PC: The Tradition and its Supplements

If Benedict’s Rule was not enough in itself—if it was not designed to be a self-sufficient document—then what else was needed? What supplied what it lacked? The answer is two-fold. First, it was supplemented by lived experience. Senior monastics passed on their wisdom to juniors. This was not by accident or happenstance; it was designed into the way monastic living was structured and was an intentional process cultivated by monastic rules. However, there were also other written sources that served as important supplements to the rules of life like Benedict’s. Identifying these gives us a better sense of what the monastic tradition looked and lived like.

Lived experience is fantastic and is clearly the best way for knowledge to percolate through a system: not only do you hear the wise words of the elders (just as you might read them in a text), but you get to see them in action. As a junior monastic, you’d receive teachings, but then observe how your elder lived these out, how they related to one another, what parts they took more seriously, embodied more fully, what habits and patterns shaped their being and—conversely—what teachings they held more lightly, de-emphasized in practice, or honored more in the breech than the practice.

The problem with lived experience is continuity. Yes, Benedict’s rule has been ordering the shape of western monastic experience for 1500 years—but rarely has this ordering been continuous. Very few—if any—western monasteries have existed from the time of Benedict down to our own day in unbroken continuity. When the continuity is broken, whatever lived experience hasn’t been captured in written form in one way or another is lost. An important part of the history of western monasticism is the history of monastic reform and refoundation. Monasticism of a Benedictine flavor has died out many times in many places and has had to be re-established either from earnest people working off written sources or by transplanting practices and customs from other places where it had endured.

This aspect of monastic history should be very important to us. Many modern seekers who are drawn to monastic wisdom and spirituality find ourselves in a similar position: there is something about Benedict’s rule that draws at our hearts and spirits. We are attracted to what we read and find—but where do we go from there? Just as in days gone-by we have two options: find a monastic community from which to learn or seek out the sources that give us a fuller sense of monastic wisdom and practice. By far the best option is not to do one or the other, but to embrace them both—to connect with a monastic community and to uncover the texts that will lead us into the fundamentals of monastic practice.

Benedict’s rule is an exemplar of one aspect of a living tradition. The Rule was not supposed to capture everything that could possibly be said about how monastics, lived, worked, and prayed. Instead, it lays down fundamental rules for how community life is to be ordered and structured and to communicate how those patterns have been chosen. It emphasizes the vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, and puts in place practical systems to enable those virtues to flourish. Benedict himself does not pretend that his rule is the be-all and end-all of monastic wisdom. He ends his rule with these directions:

“The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life. But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator?” (RB 73.1-4)

And now Benedict gets down to brass tacks…

“Then, besides the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, there is also the rule of our holy father Basil. For observant and obedient monks, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues” (RB 73.5-6).

He is referring here to three distinct books and a collection of materials. The Conferences and Institutes are books written by John Cassian (d. 435), one of the great transmitters of monastic wisdom from the Egyptian deserts to the Latin-speaking West. The Institutes is the smaller of the two works. The first four chapters are a kind of a brief rule, explaining what Egyptian monks wore, how they ordered their services, and how they ordered their common life; the last eight chapters are a spiritual treatise on the eight principal vices and the virtues by which they are overcome. These chapters are both theological and practical—by means of stories and advice, Cassian explains the sins, their symptoms, and the habits by which their opposing virtues are cultivated to defeat them.

The Conferences is a treasure-house of monastic wisdom. It contains a set of twenty-four wide-ranging interviews with monastic elders conducted by John Cassian and his companion Germanus in the Egyptian deserts a few decades before. In giving them written form, Cassian has filtered them through the practice, experience, and wisdom of the intervening years between when he heard them in the 390’s and when he wrote them for publication between 426 and 429.

The rule written by Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) does offer directions about the practicalities of monastic life, but places it within a broader structure of theory. His work begins with a discussion of love of God and of neighbor and proceeds into the fundamentals of the ascetical life from there. Composed in question and answer fashion, it address matters of monastic life and practice. Basil’s Small Asceticon, the version translated into Latin by Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 411) and circulated in the West, does not discuss broader questions of how or why monks sing the Psalms and do sacred reading. While it offers advice on how many Scripture passages are put into practice within the ascetic life, it does not deal with interpretation in more specific detail.

Benedict’s reference to “Lives” is not very specific but refers to a general set of documents that circulated under this title. Virtually all of these collections begin with Athanasius’s Life of St Antony, Jerome’s Life of Paul, Life of Epiphanius, Life of Malchus, and then contain sayings, lives, or histories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and Syria.

On one hand, these documents get us a big step closer to monastic spiritual practice: they show us vignettes of how ideal monks lived, worked, and prayed. We can gain a sense of how Athanasius understood Antony to be using the psalms through his Life; single verses will be repeated over and over again as a focal point for meditation like a mantra as Athanasius describes the hardships Antony endures. On the other hand, these too, don’t give us the level of insight we’d like into how the Psalms and Scriptures were prayed.

PC: Benedict as Incomplete

This is a continuation of the previous post for Psalming Christ


Consider intentional communities for a minute. How many of them survive—and for what length of time? How many communes formed in the 1960’s are still around? Most of them folded within years of their founding. It’s hard work to for human beings to live together in community. It’s even harder to make it work over a period of decades. Yet, Benedict’s rule has endured for centuries as a template for intentional Christian communities. It’s a template that works; it has proven successful across centuries and cultures as a means of forming Christians within them and inspiring the Christians around them.

Why this particular document? It’s certainly not because it was the only monastic rule out there. When Charlemagne appointed his top monastic advisors to look into the state of monasticism and to determine what should be the single rule under which he would unite his realm, Benedict of Aniane and Smaragdus of Saint Mihiel compiled a document containing many different rules that were in circulation at the time—but Benedict of Nursia’s was chosen out of all of these.

It’s worth comparing Benedict’s Rule to one of the other rules found in this collection. It goes by the name “The Rule of the Master.” It shares so many similarities with Benedict’s Rule, including common sentences and chapters, one of them must have copied from the other. However, the Rule of the Master goes into far greater detail than Benedict’s. It doesn’t just prescribe how to pick a prior; rather, it goes into details about how the brothers are to greet the prior when they run into him in the halls, detailing a brief liturgical script for the encounter. It doesn’t just recommend certain classes of activities for the monks when they are not in the church praying; rather, it gives explicit directions for exactly what monks at various points in their professed lives ought to be doing in the different sections of the day. Where Benedict’s Rule is lean and spare, the Rule of the Master describes and details, ending with a text that is 3 times the size of Benedict’s work. For centuries it was assumed that the Rule of the Master was an expansion of Benedict’s Rule. The great bombshell in twentieth century Benedictine studies was the realization that it worked the other way around: The Rule of the Master was the earlier text. Benedict had copied from the anonymous Master.

Benedict’s rule worked better because it was shorter—because it lacked the countless scriptings of daily events that characterize the Rule of the Master. Because it didn’t give all of the details, it could be implemented in a wider variety of places and times that those imagined by the Master. The specificity of the Rule of the Master was undoubtedly one of the reasons why it was left behind while the Rule of Benedict was adopted more broadly. Benedict’s brevity is one of the keys to his success.

But here’s the thing: while his brevity might have helped the Rule be adopted in a wide variety of contexts, his Rule is not enough. To put a finer point on it, Benedict’s Rule assumes many things that are never described or explained. For instance, Benedict goes into great detail around the singing of the psalms: he explains how many psalms should be prayed in the Offices (RB 9-13, 17), how the psalms determine how many Offices should be prayed (RB 16), which psalms should be prayed at which Offices (RB 18), he describes the intention with which the psalms should be prayed (RB 19-20), but he never gets around to telling us why the psalms should be prayed! He assumes it, he expects that his readers will accept it as self-evident. But—why?

To zero in on another core practice of the Rule, sacred reading (lectio divina) forms a central part of the monastic day (RB 48). But how is it done? Why is it done? Benedict assumes the importance of the practice, carving out significant amounts of time for it, but he never describes the goal or purpose or method he expects his monks to follow. If this activity is so central that it becomes one of the three basic practices of the monk (praying the Offices, sacred reading, and work), why does he devote so little place to explaining or exploring it?

If we flip back to that longer, more expansive Rule of the Master, we find our situation not much improved. The Master doesn’t answer any of these questions either! Instead, we have to see both of these documents as not sufficient in and of themselves. Neither of these rules contain everything that they need to contain in order to communicate the fullness of monastic life and values.

One of the ways monastic communities addressed this gap was by writing customaries—legislative documents that would help describe how the Rule of Benedict was put in place within their particular time, situation, and architectural arrangement. One well-known example of a customary is the Ordo Qualiter used by the great Abbey of Cluny and its many daughter houses. Another is the English Regularis Concordia that the monastic bishops of the 10th century Benedictine Reform wrote to establish uniform monastic practice throughout England (based, in part, on the Ordo Qualiter). However even these documents don’t get into the heart of spiritual practices of the monasteries. Yes, they prescribe additional devotions and say what the monks should be doing when, but so often they pass by the question of why and how: the questions that we are most interested in.

Rules and customaries exist within a living tradition, some of it written, but some of it oral as well, that has had to be recaptured and recompiled whenever monasticism has been restarted in places where it has ceased to exist. The English had to do this in their monastic reboot in the early 10th century after decades of viking depredations. The French Benedictines had to do it 19th and 20th centuries. While the Rule is essential, it’s is not sufficient. There is more that has to come along with it. Here’s the key point for us: if we too wish to explore the heart of Benedictine spirituality, we too must realize that there is more too it that the Rule itself does not describe.

PC: Starting with Benedict

Here’s the first chunk of Psalming Christ. If I’m trying to make the argument that modern readers should consider the use of a sixth century commentary to enhance their spiritual lives, I’ve got to make the case up front. I’m connecting it into my own way of getting into the topic: an appeal to a Benedictine-infused spirit…


When I was in my late twenties, my wife, a friend, and I squeezed into my pickup truck and headed out on a weekend road trip. Where to—a concert or a festival? Actually, no. Although we did (and still do) like to go to those things, our destination was rather different. This was a four-plus hour road trip from Columbus, Ohio to the Abbey of Gethsemani: the Cistercian monastery outside of Louisville, Kentucky where—among others—Thomas Merton had lived and written. We stayed in the guest quarters, attended the round of daily prayer offices, read in the library, and hiked in the fields around the abbey. We attended mass each day, but observed rather than receiving because we none of us were Roman Catholics. At that time we were two Lutherans and an Episcopalian (all three of us are Episcopal now) and yet there we were. We were drawn to a place and a feeling and an experience that our theological traditions had, during the Reformation, denounced as an aberration of Christian life and practice. Nor were we alone, either: among the several visitors were others from a number of Christian bodies and even some agnostics seeking for something deeper.

What would cause otherwise normal Protestant young adults to seek out a place that our Protestant traditions had reviled?

For me it was part of a spiritual journey that I had been on for several years. As a young Lutheran college student I had encountered Kathleen Norris’s Dakota and Cloister Walk. A Presbyterian coming back to faith, her meditations on the spirituality she had discovered in the high plains of the Dakotas struck a deep chord within me. Her encounters with Benedictine monks, their spirituality, and the endless round of psalms and canticles with which they construct their life inspired me with a vision of the faith unlike anything I had known before. A college-intensive led by a fierce and formidable Benedictine nun from the Twin Cities didn’t satisfy my hunger, only whetting my appetite to learn more. And, as a final-year seminarian feeling restless and ill-at-ease in my Lutheran tradition, my future was decided when, in the undercroft of a small Episcopal church, I heard the rector explain that the psalm-centered rhythms of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer were the heritage of the Benedictine spiritual system granted to the whole church—not just a special subset within it. To steal John Wesley’s famous phrase, my heart was strangely warmed and I knew not only that I had found my spiritual home but also why: these rhythms answered that deep call I had heard for years.

That’s just my experience. Over the years I have heard many similar stories. I have discovered a wealth of literature for Christians who aren’t vowed to religious life, lay and clergy alike, who are drawn to the ancient rhythms of Benedictine spirituality. Certainly many are Roman Catholics, but some are mainline Protestants and non-denominational Christians, and some are even seekers who would rather not restrict themselves by any religious labels. All of us have found meaning and depth in monastic patterns even though we make our homes outside of monasteries and abbeys.

St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 543?) never intended to start a movement. He just wanted to live a Christian life. Trying to find his way through the tumultuous Italian 6th century—subject to three different invasions, a disastrous plague, and at least one major regional famine—he fled city life to become a hermit in the wilderness. Drawing a following, he reluctantly became the leader of a group of monks and founded monasteries at Subiaco and later Mount Cassino. His wisdom comes down to us in the Rule of Benedict, a brief—but important!—document that lays out the spiritual and practical principles to guide his monks into living the Christian life. His intention, of course, was to provide instructions for full-time renunciants: people who had turned their backs on secular society and who intend to live out an arduous life of prayer and service without hindrance of family or children. For hundreds of years, this was the way it worked.

His Rule spread beyond Italy, was used in combination with other monastic rules to ground the practices of hundreds of monasteries, until it was adopted as the official monastic rule of the 9th century Carolingian Empire in modern-day France and Germany. His rule became the de facto Rule across Europe for centuries, and many of the towering figures in the 12th century Monastic Reformation shook up the system and founded new orders—like the Cistercians—to get back to the core principles that Benedict had elaborated. After the upheavals of revolutions and wars that accompanied the start of modernity in Europe, Benedict’s Rule was again identified as a vital source for Christian living and a wave of monasteries were begun or refounded in Europe. These spread to America as Roman Catholic immigrants brought their faith to the New World. By the late 19th century even Anglican Christians were founding monastic institutions that either used adaptations of Benedict’s Rule or had rules of their own that partook of Benedict’s spirit.

But—Benedict’s spirit did not simply find a home within monasteries, with cloistered professed religious who had no contact with the world outside their walls. Monasteries were places of pilgrimage and spiritual vitality within medieval communities. For many centuries, monastic priests were the local clergy, and taught the laity the spirituality they knew. Until the rise of the mendicant orders (the Franciscans, Dominicans, and their kin) the spirituality taught to nobles and commons alike was Benedictine in spirit and focused on the psalms. In Handbook for William, a book of advice dictated by the 8th century Frankish noblewoman Dhuoda to her son, she spends time focusing on his spiritual responsibilities and includes part of a treatise attributed to Alcuin on the importance of praying the psalms. Nobles would commission beautifully written and lavishly illustrated psalters for their daily prayers in imitation of monastic patterns; as centuries wore on, these would morph into the Books of Hours where Offices of the Blessed Virgin, Passion, and the Holy Spirit (among others) taken from monastic models would nourish the spirituality of the literate.

Even the illiterate knew of the the monastic patterns even if they could not participate within them. Early in its development, the fifty beads of the rosary were prayed through three times with an “Our Father” on each; praying 150 prayers allowed the illiterate to imitate the monastic recitation of the 150 psalms even if they did not have access to the words of the psalms.

Even while the Protestant Reformers railed against the theology of monasticism, they did not reject its spirituality entirely. In the early days of the Reformation, the Church of England made the conscious decision to retain daily Morning and Evening Prayer, and Thomas Cranmer’s introduction to the first Book of Common Prayer explicitly appeals to early medieval monastic models several times.

While monastic vocations fell off sharply after the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962-5), a spirituality recalling the principles of monastic life is alive and well. In recent years Christians of all stripes have discovered monastic patterned prayer in some version or other of the Daily Office. Sacred reading, Benedict’s lectio divina, is practiced and taught in and beyond Roman Catholic circles.

So—what does all of that have to do with a book on the psalms? You should be getting a few hints by this point… The psalms are the center of classic monastic spirituality. The spiritual habits borrowed from monastic models like praying the Offices and doing lectio divina are aided tremendously by a solid knowledge of the psalms—and also understanding how monastics were taught to encounter the psalms.

You may have an attraction to the monastic way of life, whether formal or informal. Formally, many monastic houses have oblate programs. Oblates are laity who live and work, and have families in the world but who are bound through love and prayer to a monastic house and return there often for spiritual renewal. Even if this is not your cup of tea—or too complicated or burdensome in an already over-scheduled life—an informal appreciation of monastic models can be nurtured by occasional visits to monasteries, reading books (like this one), and actually practicing the practices found therein.

On the other hand, you may be like my mother-in-law. Growing up in Catholic schools in 1950s and ‘60s New Jersey, she has a reflexive dislike of nuns. As far as she’s concerned they are the mean people with rulers who whacked you if you ever strayed out of line. If you can relate or simply don’t have any attraction to monasticism at all, don’t worry—I’m not going to try to make you like them. We’ll keep talking about monks because we need to explore these practices in their original context, but I’ll not force you to try and become one. What I do want to do is to introduce you to a way of experiencing the psalms borne out of a millennium of monastic experience. Hundreds of thousands of our ancestors in the faith have used these patterns to enrich their lives of prayer—and I believe they still have important lessons to teach us today.

Love Song to a Psalter

Here’s a section from the manuscript. The poem stays in, but I’ve trimmed away most of the supporting material…


People who are familiar with the Bible are usually aware of the rather scandalous contents of the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs): it’s erotic love poetry narrating an unnamed woman’s quest for her lover, King Solomon. Clearly some of the more prudish interpreters in the Christian tradition have sought to downplay the literal sense of the text and have interpreted it in a spiritual direction. Thus, to some it is the soul’s quest for God, or perhaps the personified Church’s quest for God, or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s quest for God. And, thanks to the power of multi-level reading, at can be all three at the same time!

But readers formed in a modern Protestant perspective may not know that there is a complementary style of lyrics tucked away in the Wisdom Literature where a man is portrayed questing and lusting after a woman. While there are references and early forms of it in the books of Proverbs and Job, it reaches its apex in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach). To medieval readers, these two books were simply “Bible” but Protestant reformers placed them in the Apocrypha, a section of literature dating from between the Old and New Testaments, and even most faithful Bible readers never read them.

In these poems, the sage is questing after wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman. She is to be preferred above all else, and he will spend his time, effort, and wealth in order to woo her. There is a long section from chapter 6 to 9 in the Wisdom of Solomon that recounts Solomon’s wooing of Lady Wisdom in terms parallel (although not as explicit) as the Song of Solomon:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. . . . I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. (Wis 6:12–14; 7:8–14; 8:2–4)

Needless to say, monks were quite familiar with these texts and often cast themselves in this same role: forsaking all else in search of wisdom and in service to the Gospel.

These wisdom lyrics are the necessary context for a poem written by an old monk at the furthest range of the time period we are considering. The Irish monk Mael Isu O Brolchain died in 1086 in a monastery in Armagh having received the title “chief sage of Ireland.” At some point, he wrote a poem which for many years was assumed to be about an elderly nun in a kind of ascetic marriage. However, James Carney, a specialist in medieval Irish poetry, recognized the true object of the poet’s affections:

The problem lay upon my mind for many years before the easy and natural solution suggested itself: it was a poem written by a religious in his old age to an old and tattered copy of the Psalms which had been his first lesson book. The solution, which has found general acceptance by scholars, emerged quite clearly when I noted that in early Ireland a boy destined for the Church began his education at the age of seven, and that the Psalter, from which he learned Latin, reading, singing and religion , was his first lesson book. This book which he had used in his youth in its virgin freshness passed through four generations of young scholars before by some chance it came back into the old priest’s hands again.[1]

We have talked at some length in these two chapters about the Psalter and about when and how a student would have encountered it. What this poem reveals, though, is what they felt about it. Here, with the sages’ songs to Lady Wisdom echoing in our heads, we see the thoughts of an old man taking in his hands again the book of his youth:

 

Crinóc, lady of measured melody,

not young, but with modest maiden mind,

together once in Niall’s northern land

we slept, we two, as man and womankind.

 

You came and slept with me for that first time,

skilled wise amazon annihilating fears

and I a fresh-faced boy, not bent as now,

a gentle lad of seven melodious years.

 

There we were then on that firm Irish earth

Desirous, but in pure and mystic sense;

Burning with love my flesh, still free from fault

As fool of God in smitten innocence.

 

Your counsel is ever there to hand,

we choose it, following you in everything:

love of your word is the best of loves,

our gentle conversation with the King

 

Guiltless you are of any sin with man,

Fair is your name, and bright, and without stain,

Although I know that when you went from me

Each in his turn, four lay where I had lain.

 

And now you come, your final pilgrimage,

Wearied with toil and travel, grimed with dust,

Wise still but body not immaculate:

Time it is that ravished you, not lust.

 

Again I offer you a faultless love,

A love unfettered for which surely we

Will not be punished in the depths of hell

But together ever walk in piety.

 

Seeking the presence of elusive God

wandering we stray, but the way is found,

following the mighty melodies that with you

throughout the pathways of the world resound.

 

Not ever silent, you bring the word of God

to all who in the present world abide,

and then through you, through finest mesh,

man’s earnest prayer to God is purified.

 

May the King give us beauty back again

Who ever did his will with eager mind,

May he look on us with eagerness and love,

Our old and perished bodies left behind.[2]

 

In Mael Isu’s poem, Lady Wisdom—the beautiful, the desirable, the beloved—is none other than the Psalter itself. Images of fleshly intimacy are cooled with a spiritual admonition, but the monk paints with exquisite colors a lover who initiates him into the arts of love and directs him to ultimate love in God: the Psalter is his Diotima.

Of course, this is one look at the Psalter from the far end of the learning process. Undoubtedly other young Irish lads did not feel this way while slowly learning the text. The second earliest evidence of the Psalms we have in Ireland is a student’s tablet, wooden boards covered with a layer of wax, into which has been scratched with a stylus Psalms 29-31 in the Gallican translation. This artifact is known as the Springmont Bog Tablets because that is where they were recovered. While we will never know how they came to be there, I like to imagine a particularly willful student hurling his tablet into the bog in a fit of pique after a difficult time with his lesson!

[1] James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. xxviii.

[2] Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, p. 75-79.

Tour de Cassiodorus

There were articles up at Covenant the past couple of days that I’d like to respond to (This one by the Bishop of Dallas which implicitly defines “traditionalist” in an exceedingly narrow fashion, and this one by Zach that begins by quoting me) but I must refrain for now.

I had a conversation with my publisher yesterday: the Cassiodorus books are late and he’s not happy…

So—from now until their hopefully swift completion it’ll be all Cassiodorus, all the time. I’m letting a number of things go in order to make this happen which I don’t necessarily want to do but which I have to do. If you email me, please be aware it might be a while before I get back to you…

As M and I were discuss this last night, I said I felt like I was girding myself for a marathon. After a moment’s reflection, we both knew that wasn’t it. We both run them: a marathon is a pain but it’s over in less than four hours (quite a bit less for her!). She said, “No, this is a stage race–because you need to put in sustained effort over many days.” We ended up dubbing this push the Tour de Cassiodorus.

Hence, I’ll be going into hiding now. I am intending to post some stuff here to gauge reader reaction, but know in advance it will be patristic and psalm-y.

On John Cassian’s Method of Reading Scripture

I’m jumping around quite a bit in the Cassiodorus books as I write them… This is a section of what I believe is going to be Chapter 3. Basically, in Chapter 3, I’m going to be diving directly into Cassiodorus’s great Psalm commentary and discussing what he thought a commentary was for, our stereotypical view of allegorical interpretation  (based largely in the High Medieval period with extra fuel on the fire a la De Lubac), and then an investigation of how Cassiodorus actually read, focusing on methods from Classical Antiquity, Augustine, and John Cassian. Here’s the Cassian bit… So, yes, it starts in the middle of a larger argument that isn;t conclude here either, but I think is sufficiently robust to stand on its own as well.


John Cassian’s Conferences are a strange and wonderful collection of conversations. The story goes that John Cassian and his friend Germanus, after spending some time in a monastery in Bethlehem, took the theological equivalent of a Gap Year trek and set off to see the sites—in the Egyptian deserts. They hiked around the wastelands of Northern Egypt, meeting and interviewing the famous hermits of the desert and gaining wisdom from them about the spiritual life. Many years later—probably in the opening decades of the fifth century—after founding two monasteries around modern day Marseilles, Cassian wrote down the conversation as the Conferences and, in so doing, created the first great work on the nuts and bolts of Christian spirituality in the West.

Translating and transmitting a spirituality born of experience in the desert, rooted in the teachings of Origen, Cassian’s writings were invaluable to the emerging monastic movement in the West. Benedict praises him, and advises his monks to read Cassian (RB 73.5). As monastic reformations periodically swept through the Church in the course of the Middle Ages, John Cassian’s books in general and the Conferences in particular are cited again and again with approval.

John Cassian’s fourteenth conference portrays a conversation between Cassian, Germanus, and an old man known as Abba Nesteros which is focused on the topic of spiritual knowledge. As they delve into the topic, Abba Nesteros begins talking about the ways to interpret and understand the Scriptures. First, he separates spirituality in general into two parts. The words that he uses are the “practical” and the “theoretical,” but it’s better to say that one part is the active external part while the other is the internal meditative part. That is, the central task of the active/practical part is the control of the body and mind—built on a foundation of fasting and self-mortification—whereby one focuses on sinning less. Once that has task has been fully engaged and some progress has been made will the turn to the interior life bear fruit. This is where he gets to the Scriptures.

Abba Nesteros explains that the study of Scripture is divided into two main parts: “historical interpretation and spiritual understanding.” In making this division, he lays down the two major modes of interpreting that writers of the early medieval period will prefer. He splits the spiritual interpretations into three subcategories: tropology, allegory, and anagogy. After identifying these, he explains them a bit. The historical sense is not just about the past but includes what we would consider the literal meaning of the text. In particular, the Abba says that history pertains both to things that happened in the past and to visible things. Hence, an interpretation relating to natural science would be an historical reading in the sense of the phrase “natural history.” Allegory is the mystery that is prefigured by the historical/literal events. Said another way, allegory is the means “by which the things that the historical interpretation conceals are laid bare by a spiritual understanding and explanation.” Anagogy “mounts from spiritual mysteries to certain more sublime and sacred heavenly secrets.” This is restated a little better to clarify that it is the means “by which words are directed to the invisible and what lies in the future.” Tropology, at least, is more clear: “moral explanation pertaining to correction of life and to practical instruction.” More helpful than his definitions, though is his example where he demonstrates what these four look like in practice:

The four figures that have been mentioned converge in such a way that, if we want, one and the same Jerusalem can be understood in a fourfold manner. According to history it is the city of the Jews. According to allegory it is the church of Christ. According to anagogy it is that heavenly city of God ‘which is the mother of us all.’ According to tropology it is the soul of the human being, which under this name is frequently reproached or praised by the Lord.

While a theoretical distinction is made between these four senses, as far as early medieval writers are concerned, there are two broad sense: the historical and the spiritual. Only rarely will an early medieval author specify what kind of spiritual interpretation they are using and, in practice, the categories are very fluid. Indeed the fact that only three kinds of spiritual understanding are described seems to have more to do with scriptural prooftexts than actual practice. Abba Nesteros cites two different biblical texts, one which refers to three things, Proverbs 22:20 (”…have I not written for you [three] sayings of admonition and knowledge…”), and one that refers to four, 1 Corinthians 14:6 (”…if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching…”). In each case, you get the sense that the numbers recorded in Scripture are driving the enumeration of elements rather than the methods themselves. In practice, there are many more modes of spiritual interpretation than three, and not all of them are clearly defined or delineated. We will come back to this point a little later as we discuss how we actually see spiritual interpretation happening in Cassiodorus and other authors.

Modern readers—and especially biblical scholars looking for the history of the discipline—tend to focus in on this section of this conference. However, this is just one part of a larger argument, and it deserves to be put into the proper context. Again, this whole conference begins with the idea that first step of proper interpretatin is the purification of the body, mind, and spirit. The undisciplined who persists in their sin simply cannot read the Scriptures rightly—they don’t yet have the right frame of mind to read what is found there. As a result, after talking interpretive method, Abba Nesteros returns to hammer this point again:

Maintaining the diligence in reading that I think you have, then, make every effort to get a complete grasp of practical—that is, ethical—discipline as soon as possible. For without this the theoretical purity that we have spoken of cannot be acquired. The only people who attain to it, possessing it as a reward after the expenditure of much toil and labor, are those who have found perfection not in the words of other teachers but in the virtuousness of their own acts.

This is a key point and leads to an emphasis on doing rather than teaching. Scripture must be put into practice; any one who wishes to teach it must first demonstrate with their actions their deep grasp of its teachings. Knowing with the mind is not enough; no one should presume to teach Scripture until its truths have been—literally—embodied in their habits and actions. Abba Nesteros explains that this is essential for two reasons. First, because you cannot presume to teach what you do not know and knowledge only comes by putting it in action. Second, because putting the teaching of Scripture into action is itself a sign of the converting presence of the Holy Spirit—the true guide to right reading and interpretation: “For it is one thing to speak with ease and beauty and another to enter deeply into heavenly sayings and to contemplate profound and hidden mysteries with the most pure eye of the heart, because certainly neither human teaching nor worldly learning but only purity of mind will possess this, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.”

Humility and the other virtues, then, are the central prerequisites to reading Scripture well. From that point, Abba Nesteros describes the proper practice of engaging Scripture. While he had talked about technical matters of interpretation in the earlier part of the dialogue, he now turns to what this looks like in day-to-day experience:

Then, once all worldly cares and preoccupations have been cast out, you must strive in every respect to give yourself assiduously and even constantly to sacred reading. Do this until continual meditation fills your mind and as it were forms it in its likeness, making it a kind of ark of the covenant . . . All of these are guarded by two cherubim—that is, by the fullness of historical and spiritual knowledge, for the cherubim are interpreted as the breadth of knowledge. . . . Hence the successive books of Holy Scripture must be diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed. This continual meditation will bestow on us double fruit. First, inasmuch as the mind’s attention in occupied with reading and with preparing to read, it cannot be taken captive in the entrapments of harmful thoughts. Then, the things that we have not been able to understand because our mind was busy at the time, things that we have gone through repeatedly and are laboring to memorize, we shall see more clearly afterward when we are free from every seductive deed and sight, and especially when we are silently meditating at night. Thus, while we are at rest and as it were immersed in the stupor of sleep, there will be revealed an understanding of hidden meanings that we did not grasp even slightly when we were awake. But as our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, the face of Scripture will also begin to be renewed, and the beauty of a more sacred understanding will somehow grow with the person who is making progress.

In this set of statements, Abba Nesteros speaking to us through John Cassian reveals the incredible profoundity that we encounter again and again in the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: they have a remarkable grasp of the habits of the mind, displayed here in the discussion of the processing power of the subconscious mind, that seems amazingly modern—yet is centuries old. In the spiritual laboratory of the desert, these hermits and anchorites observed and taught about the power of habit and the functions of the conscious and subconscious mind in ways that would not be replicated again until the rise of psychology in the twentieth century.

The pattern, then, is clear: memorize and rehearse. Soak the soul in Scripture, and Scripture itself would transform the soul to be more like Scripture. In so doing, the soul’s perception of Scripture will be transformed and freed to perceive more and deeper meanings within Scripture.

 

Jerome and the Two Paulas

I’m picking up where I left off with Caesaria and Radegund, but going back in time, heading to the beginning of the 5th century…


Radegund and Caesaria were part of a larger movement sweeping through the church, a movement that would shape the contours of the Western Church for several centuries. The principles of this monastic movement were forged in the deserts of the East, in Egypt and Palestine. Their communication to the Latin-speaking West begins with the great translator Jerome. Jerome is one of those teachers known as the “Church Fathers”; from this term, “Fathers” (pater in Latin) we derive the label for both the kind of theology that they did and the period in which they wrote: patristic. The patristic period is usually defined as the first five or six centuries after Christ and these writers receive special emphasis in certain church circles because they lived within the same fundamental thought-world as the very first Christians. They existed within that Greco-Roman milieu that brought the church to birth and were native inhabitants of the languages and customs in which the church arose. For centuries, then, especially since the rise of historical consciousness in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Church Fathers have held a special status because they still lived on the far side of what Lessing referred to as the great ditch of history that separates our present age from the time of Jesus, his disciples, and the first generations of the Church.

One of the questions that has arisen in recent years, though, asks the very obvious question: where were the women? If we revere the writing and thinking of the Church Fathers—where were the Church Mothers? What were they writing or thinking or doing? Despite some of our conceptions about the place of women in the Late Antique world, there were women writing works of theology and spirituality; one of them—Proba—will appear later within the circle of Cassiodorus. What we learn from Jerome and his letters, though, is that large sections of the work of the Church Fathers would never have been accomplished if it were not for the encouragement, support, and considerable financial assistance of the Church Mothers.

In particular, Jerome lived and worked in close relationship with a set of interrelated families guided by wealthy Roman matriarchs. While we have letters that Jerome wrote to popes and theologians, most of his letters were written to these women and their relations. He served them as a spiritual advisor and as a translator. Most of the biblical commentaries for which Jerome is known were either written by him or translated from Greek sources at the behest of three women in particular, Paula, Eustochium, and Marcella. Paula was the great matriarch of the XXX clan. Widowed at age ? After bearing five children, she embraced the new ascetic spirituality coming from the East, fostering it among her children and grandchildren, before embracing it wholeheartedly to the point where she moved to Bethlehem to build and then rule the women in the double monastery where Jerome would also live and work.

One of our best windows into the lives of the Church Mothers are the letters of Jerome where he described how they served God. Among his many letters, some are explicitly formational. In these works he lays out a vision for how exemplary members of the various roles within the church ought to be educated and behave. Other letters are encomia, letters of praise written to grieving family members on the death of a loved one, recounting their fame, their virtues, and their qualities. These tend to be somewhat idealized portraits—Jerome is likely exaggerating to a degree—but still provide valuable insights into how the devout women of the period lived and served. The letters that appear back-to-back with modern editions of Jerome’s letters neatly encapsulate the advice he gave and what he witnessed in the lives of the great Mothers of the Church and the emphasis that he and they placed upon the psalms. The three themes we found in Caesaria’s letter to Radegund, the centrality of the psalms, the importance of literacy, and the connection between the psalms and the gospels are found within these letters as well. The first is Letter 107, written to Laeta, the daughter-in-law of the matriarch Paula who wishes to raise her daughter (also named Paula after her grandmother) as a virgin of the church. The second is Letter 108 is his encomium of Paula upon her death, written to her grieving daughter Eustochium.

Letter 107 is a broadly directive letter giving Laeta directions in a host of areas about the best way to raise her little daughter for her role as a virgin within the church. He gives instruction on what sort of friends and maids she is to have, and what kinds of toys she is to be given to play with. In particular, Jerome is very insistent upon the importance of literacy—literacy with a clear purpose:

Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the styl[us] upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. . . . The very words which she tries bit by bit to put together and to pronounce ought not to be chance ones, but names specially fixed upon and heaped together for the purpose, those for example of the prophets or the apostles or the list of patriarchs from Adam downwards as it is given by Matthew and Luke. In this way while her tongue will be well-trained, her memory will be likewise developed.

Jerome advises that the young Paula be taught to read and write from the earliest age, and focused upon the Scriptures. The training of the memory is important and Jerome will become even more specific about how that facility ought to be put to use: “And let it be her task daily to bring to you the flowers which she has culled from scripture. Let her learn by heart so many verses in the Greek, but let her be instructed in the Latin also.” Because the Scriptures were found in Latin and Greek, Jerome thinks it best for her to have equal command of both languages.

While Jerome wants little Paula to memorize pieces of Scripture every day, this discovery ought to take place within a clear program for biblical knowledge. There is a specific order that Jerome believes best for encountering and understanding the many parts of Scripture:

Let her treasures be not silks or gems but manuscripts of the holy scriptures; and in these let her think less of gilding, and Babylonian parchment, and arabesque patterns, than of correctness and accurate punctuation. Let her begin by learning the psalter, and then let her gather rules of life out of the proverbs of Solomon. From the Preacher [Ecclesiastes] let her gain the habit of despising the world and its vanities. Let her follow the example set in Job of virtue and of patience. Then let her pass on to the gospels never to be laid aside when once they have been taken in hand. Let her also drink in with a willing heart the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. As soon as she has enriched the storehouse of her mind with these treasures, let her commit to memory the prophets, the heptateuch [the first seven books of the Bible], the books of Kings and of Chronicles, the rolls also of Ezra and Esther. When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before: for, were she to read it at the beginning, she would fail to perceive that, though it is written in fleshly words, it is a marriage song of a spiritual bridal. And not understanding this she would suffer hurt from it. Let her avoid all apocryphal writings, and if she is led to read such not by the truth of the doctrines which they contain but out of respect for the miracles contained in them; let her understand that they are not really written by those to whom they are ascribed, that many faulty elements have been introduced into them, and that it requires infinite discretion to look for gold in the midst of dirt. Cyprian’s writings let her have always in her hands. The letters of Athanasius and the treatises of Hilary she may go through without fear of stumbling. Let her take pleasure in the works and wits of all in whose books a due regard for the faith is not neglected. But if she reads the works of others let it be rather to judge them than to follow them.

This is nothing less than a full program of instruction, moving through the Scriptures and also through the most important writings of the orthodox Church Fathers. Many clergy have a worse education than that which Jerome prescribes for this little girl! Note, though, the sequence in which the Bible is studied. Jerome insists that she begin with the Psalms. After the Psalm come the wisdom literature of the Old Testament; immediately thereafter she is presented with the Gospels “never to be laid aside.” Let’s also note his intention in directing her to these books. As he mentions in connection with the prophets, he is not intend solely that she read them—he expects that large portions (if not the totality) be committed to memory.

The Psalms are the first books to be encountered, the first books to be learned. That is because they will form a central aspect of little Paula’s devotions for the rest of her life. Jerome prescribes the round of what would become the standardized Divine Office as the monastic movement matured:

She ought to rise at night to recite prayers and psalms; to sing hymns in the morning; at the third, sixth, and ninth hours to take her place in the line to do battle for Christ; and, lastly, to kindle her lamp and to offer her evening sacrifice. In these occupations let her pass the day, and when night comes let it find her still engaged in them. Let reading follow prayer with her, and prayer again succeed to reading. Time will seem short when employed on tasks so many and so varied.

All of these hours of prayer are, as the first mention intimates, sessions with the Psalms. Every day, at every point of the day, she is to pause and sing psalms to God. Not only will this habit form her in worship, it will also ensure that the psalms become a central vocabulary of both thought and praise.

If Jerome’s Letter 107 describes what he thinks the ideal monastic upbringing looks like, Letter 108 is an ideal depiction of the monastic life well lived. He describes the elder Paula’s life in glowing terms and, though no doubt exaggerating a bit, cannot be too far from the mark as he writes to her own daughter who lived with her and succeeded her as head of the women’s monastery in Bethlehem. This is a very lengthy letter not least because he gives a description of Paula’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in excruciating detail. After describing this journey, and the generosity of Paula, he describes how she ordered the double monastery that she built. Although the women were dived into three groups along class lines, they all worshiped together: “At dawn, at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at evening, and at midnight they recited the psalter each in turn. No sister was allowed to be ignorant of the psalms, and all had every day to learn a certain portion of the holy scriptures.” The memorization that Jerome enjoined on the younger Paula is affirmed in his depiction of the elder Paula: “The holy scriptures she knew by heart, and said of the history contained in them that it was the foundation of the truth; but, though she loved even this, she still preferred to seek for the underlying spiritual meaning and made this the keystone of the spiritual building raised within her soul.” At the center of these remained the Psalms. While the memorization of Scripture in both Latin and Greek is mention in the Letter 107, both Paula and her daughter Eustochium took it one step further when it came to the Psalms. Jerome writes:

I will mention here another fact which to those who are envious may well seem incredible. While I myself beginning as a young man have with much toil and effort partially acquired the Hebrew tongue and study it now unceasingly lest if I leave it, it also may leave me; Paula, on making up her mind that she too would learn it, succeeded so well that she could chant the psalms in Hebrew and could speak the language without a trace of the pronunciation peculiar to Latin. The same accomplishment can be seen to this day in her daughter Eustochium. . .

Jerome could hardly be exaggerating here; as he was writing the letter to Eustochium herself (as well as for a larger audience), he could hardly make up the fact that she and her mother both had the psalms memorized in Hebrew!

Jerome’s letters 107 and 108 became important sources for the monastic movement in the West. The educational program and the ideal of the ascetic life that he puts forth in his directions for the younger Paula and the depiction of the life of the elder Paula were to inspire generations of Christians for centuries. It’s quite likely that these very letters gave inspiration to Caesaria and Radegund as they administered convents of their own. And, again, at the center is the constant experience of the psalms, the literacy necessary to dig the most out of them, and the connection between the psalms and the person of Jesus revealed in the gospels.

Radegund and the Psalter

I’m focusing a lot of energy right now on my Cassiodorus/Psalms book and not getting a whole lot else done… I’m hoping to post here more regularly, but at the moment, most of my thoughts are occupied in the early medieval psalter… So here’s something from that!

I’ve been pondering why non-fiction books like The Art of Fermentation and Salt: A World History can become NYT Best Sellers. It has to do with well-told stories and effective hooks.  Reflecting on this, the story that I want to tell here is about far more than a single late patristic commentary on a single book of the Bible. Thus, I’m doing some experimenting with a starting hook to draw readers is, suggesting why this topic might actually be interesting after all… Here’s a shot at it—let me know what you think!


Radegund was furious. Of this, there can be no doubt. Her husband had crossed her for the last time, and she set a plan in motion to free herself from him once and for all. Within a short time she had the two letters that she needed: the one giving her leverage and the one that confirmed her spiritual path.

Sixth-century France was a hard place to be a woman. The land was in turmoil, Franks, Burgundians, and Lombards struggled for power, and violence spilled out from Italy as the Roman Emperor in the East tired to reassert his authority over his lost lands in the West. In addition to the perennial dangers of sickness and death in childbirth, war brought increased threat of rape and violent death along with its constant companions, famine and pestilence; the Plague of Justinian, one of the first recorded worldwide pandemics, swept through the Mediterranean world in the 540’s devastating Constantinople, Italy, and ravaging Gaul. While war and its effects are always hardest upon the poor, nobility was no guarantee of safety: Radegund’s life was proof of that.

Born a Thuringian princess, her uncle betrayed and slaughtered her father and took her into his household while she was yet a small child. But her uncle’s betrayals bore bitter fruit as spurned allies, the four sons of the Frankish king Clovis, sacked Thuringia, and Radegund—now 11—was carried off, fated to be the wife of one of the victorious brothers, Chlothar. Imprisoned in a villa in the north of modern France, Radegund learned reading, writing, and religion before she was married to Chlothar as his sixth wife in the year 540 at the age of 20.

By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. And, indeed, why would it be? Chlothar had been part of the original alliance that had killed her father, and he was marrying her largely to legitimate his claim to Thuringia. While Clothar was an indifferent Christian at best, Radegund was fiercely devoted to her faith and ascetic ideals—including virginity. While Chlothar’s women bore him seven legitimate children and there were rumors of many more unacknowledged offspring, Radegund remained childless. The joke around the palace was that Chlothar’s latest wife was a nun, not a queen.

The last straw came right around the year 550. Chlothar’s men murdered the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal line: Radegund’s brother. Radegund was furious, and refused to put up with it any more. She fled the palace, triggering a set of events that she had apparently thought through beforehand and cultivated strategically as she suffered through her unhappy marriage. She wrote letters to the most influential bishops in the area—undoubtedly some of her almsgiving in the years before had predisposed them in her favor whether for pious motives or base ones—and shortly she had in hand a letter that history still possesses. She proposed the establishment of the first religious community for women in the Frankish Empire where she would live according to Rule of Caesarius of Arles. The letter, signed by a host of prelates, supported her plan. It included the most dire threats for any woman who took religious vows and then wished to forsake the community and return to the world and marriage. Conversely (and more to the point) it likewise threatened anathema and damnation to any man who would attempt to remove any of the women from the religious enclosure.

The other letter that Radegund had been looking for was the blessing of Caesaria II of Arles. Caesaria, abbess of a convent in the Visigothic city of Arles, was the successor of the the first Caesaria who had been the sister of the influential bishop and theologian Caesarius of Arles. Caesarius had written a rule of life for his sister’s community, and in this letter, Caesaria II not only sends her community’s rule to Radegund as the queen had commanded, but also gave her advice based on her experience. In commending the rule, Caesaria wrote this line which neatly captures three central themes, not just of Caesaria and Radegund’s lives and spirituality, but of the time and place that we will be considering. She wrote: “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters; let all hold the psalter in memory and, as I have said, be zealous to carry out in all things what you read in the gospel.”

The first key element here is the emphasis on the psalms. This phrasing here—“hold the psalter in memory”—could simply mean something like “don’t forget about the psalms” or “don’t forget to say the psalms,” but it doesn’t. Instead, it means “make sure that everybody has all of the psalms memorized.” Looking back over the rest of Caesaria’s letter it’s quite obvious that she was following her own advice. The letter is littered with Scripture quotations; over half of these come from one book of the Bible: the Psalms. Likewise, she wasn’t telling Radegund anything new, either. The brief “Life of Radegund” written by her friend and correspondent Venantius Fortunatus mentions the psalms early and often as a part of her spiritual life as well as her devotion to singing the “hours,” a form of liturgical prayer grounded in the recitation of the psalms. Fortunatus gives us glimpses of Radegund’s future describing how, as a child, she would organize the other children and lead them into the chapel in a procession singing the psalms. Later, she would duck out of royal banquets to attend the worship of the hours, singing psalms as she left and checking to make sure the leftovers would be given to the poor.

You can only imagine how the psalms would have spoken to Radegund and sustained her as she endured her situation, married to the man responsible for the deaths of her father, uncle (however traitorous), and brother. How many times might Psalm 94 (“O Lord God of vengeance, O God of vengeance show yourself. Rise up, O Judge of the world; give the arrogant their just desserts…”) have passed through her head as she lay in bed next to her husband.

The second key element in Caesaria’s letter was the emphasis on literacy. While the phrasing sounds a bit odd in English, “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters,” the double negatives have an emphatic sense in Latin, underscoring the importance that everyone—no matter what their origin or social station—be taught how to read. As we continue, we’ll explore the close connection between the psalms and literacy in the early medieval world. Indeed, one of the terms for being literate was to be psalteratus: knowing your psalms. In a world where literacy was not common, and where women’s literacy in particular was not prized, the insistence on making sure that women of all classes within the community are able to read is a fascinating one.

The third key element is the mention of the gospels in relation to the psalms. Modern Protestants in particular may have a number of assumptions about the early medieval church, one of which is that the Bible was rarely read and even more rarely understood. Yet Caesaria makes it plain that she expects Radegund and all of the women to be reading the gospels as their most fundamental source for instruction:

Though it be holy and good and laudable that you desire to live by the Rule, there is no greater, better, more precious nor more splendid doctrine than the reading of the gospel. See this, hold this, which our Lord and master Christ taught by words and fulfilled by example, who made so many miracles in the world that they can not be counted, and sustained so many ills from his persecutors through patience, that can scarcely be believed.

The words and examples of Jesus are central to the ideal this holy woman lifts up.

Out of all of Scripture, these two sections—the psalms and the gospels—are given special attention. Coming from a liturgical perspective this is hardly surprising because in commending these texts to Radegund, Caesaria is highlighting the two central texts of the two central forms of worship in the church of that time. The Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) centered around the psalms; the Eucharist (or the Mass) centered around the gospels. But, coming from a spiritual perspective, Caesaria and Radegund would have both deeply believed that the two sections of Scripture were inextricably bound together: the heart and soul of Jesus was not just laid plain by the Gospels but was complemented and completed by the psalms. The Gospels made manifest his outward words and deeds; the psalms made manifest his inward thoughts and feelings. We will see exactly how this logic works as we go, but understanding and appreciating this link is crucial for grasping the medieval perspective on Jesus.

And Radegund? She got her community. In fact, her husband even donated the land the land for it. (After a friendly bishop had threatened him with excommunication if he wouldn’t come through!) Originally named the Abbey of St. Mary, you may have heard one of the songs celebrating its name change. In 567, Radegund and her abbey received a relic of the True Cross from the Byzantine Emperor. In honor of the event the name of the community was changed to the Abbey of the Holy Cross and Radegund’s friend Fortunatus wrote a hymn for the occasion, Vexilla regis prodeunt, translated in many hymnals as “The royal banners forward go.” When Radegund died in 587, she was buried in a chapel near the abbey. Soon venerated as a saint, the chapel was renamed the Church of St. Radegund and remains a parish church today in Poitiers.

Despite the hardships of her life—perhaps because of the hardships of her life—Radegund’s faith remained strong and powerful. Her life story recounts episode after episode focused on care for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the neglected. She used her power to create a safe space for herself and other women—rigorous and not without its own challenges to be sure—but a place where learning and faith and female authority would be respected for centuries to come. And her experience of the psalms lies at the center of it all.