Category Archives: Monasticism

On Bede and the Psalms

I have taken St. Bede as my patron because he represents an ideal for me: a spiritually grounded interpreter who fundamentally exists within the cycle of the church’s prayer and who reads and interprets Scripture in conscious connection with the Fathers, with intellectual rigor, for the purpose of edifying souls. I’ve not written anything on why I’ve specifically adopted him as patron of the St Bede Psalmcast as well aside from a general sense of consistency, but I couldn’t resist sharing this quotation from M. J. Toswell’s The Anglo-Saxon Psalter (pricey, I know, but *awesome* nonetheless…) which can go a long way towards doing that job for me:

For Bede, then, the psalter was a kind of intellectual home base. It was a text he could call to mind at will, probably even without volition, and use as a bridge from the Old Testament to the New, from prophecy to fulfillment, from literal and historical analysis to allegory. Bede made mention of the psalms as part f the ordinary course of his writing, interleaving quotations from the psalter so deeply into his works that at times it becomes difficult to tease out the original text. The psalms were alive in Bede’s mind; because of his own deep spirituality, daily butressed by the singing and recitation of the Office, and because of his constant interweaving of them into his thinking about every other question of Christian doctrine or ecclesiastical history that he chose to explore. The psalms were Bede’s spiritual companions; like many others, he chanted them on his deathbed during every part of the day not already occupied with other matters. Psalm reference made understanding Christian doctrine easier for the laity, and Bede used the psalms to encourage devotion and deeper thought on these issues. His lifelong engagement with the psalms was a lifelong engagement with the challenge of understanding and explicating the fundamental text of Christian spirituality. At the same time, Bede is in no way unusual amongst the church fathers. His engagement with the psalms was the engagement of a committed Christian intellectual. It offered a model, and a challenge, for other Anglo-Saxon Christians. (Toswell, A-S Psalter, p. 63)

Emphasis is my own…

Floating along with St. Brendan

Now—in something completely unrelated to prayer book revision plans, I have a new post up at Godspace. This one is a musing around the concept of pilgrimage, and my way into it is a brief meditation on the Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. If you’ve not encuntered this text before, I’d urge you to do so. It’s quite fascinating. I have a feeling I will drill into it quite a bit deeper at some point in time.

But that time is not now.

Too many other plates in the air at the moment…

A Treat for Alcuin’s Day

Happy feast of Alcuin!

Obligitory collect rant…

If you did Morning Prayer today according to the Episcopal scheme you probably saw this collect…:

Almighty God, who in a rude and barbarous age didst raise up thy deacon Alcuin to rekindle the light of learning: Illumine our minds, we pray thee, that amid the uncertainties and confusions of our own time we may show forth thy eternal truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

…which has to rank among my least favorites. “Rude and barbarous age”? Really? Here’s the one I’ve proposed in its place:

Almighty God, who didst raise up thy servant Alcuin as a beacon of learning: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that in our generation we may show forth thy praise, for thou didst call us out of darkness into thy marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Light remains the theme, but I think this one works a bit better than the other.

Ok—here’s an Alcuin-related treat for those of you with an interest in the early medieval stuff. Over the past month or so, I’ve been slowly working through this dissertation from the University of York: The Meaning, Practice and Context of Private Prayer in Late Anglo-Saxon England (PDF). Here’s the abstract:

This thesis is a detailed discussion of the relatively neglected subject of private prayer in late Anglo-Saxon England, mainly focusing on three eleventh-century monastic codices: the Galba Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton Nero A. ii + Galba A. xiv), Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii + xxvi) and the Portiforium of St Wulstan (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 391). Chapter One provides a background to the following chapters by introducing a wide variety of English and Continental texts from the ninth century. This chapter demonstrates the many different prayer genres, prayer guides and attitudes to prayer which would be inherited by the late Anglo-Saxons. Chapter Two, which focuses on private adaptations of the canonical Offices, examines the different manuscript contexts in which private prayers were found. It argues that series of prayers were combined into increasingly sophisticated ordines for personal devotion, and that it was from these that the Special Offices arose. Chapter Three applies these concepts to prayers to the Holy Cross. After a discussion of the evidence for prayer before a cross, and involving the sign of the cross, it examines private prayer programmes based on the liturgy for Good Friday and those from which the Special Office of the Cross developed. Chapter Four turns to private confessions, arguing that these prayers were somewhat different from those hitherto discussed. It therefore begins with an exploration of the many kinds of confession which existed in the late Anglo-Saxon church, before examining a number of private confessional prayers in detail. Throughout this thesis, emphasis is placed on the bodily experience of prayer in its time and place, and upon the use of each text as it is found in the prayerbooks of eleventh-century England.

Alcuin is a major figure in the first two chapters. Alcuin’s letters speak quite a bit about private prayer in connection with the psalms, and the thesis investigates a major treatise attributed to Alcuin, De laude psalmorum.

I’ll be writing more about this thesis and the material it works with in the future, but if you have the time and interest, I highly recommend it!

Reading Matthew with Monks: Physical Edition!

When M, the girls and I got back from the Boston Marathon late last night, there was a slip indicating that a package was waiting for me at my neighbor’s house. After taking the girls to school this morning, I went by and collected it. And here’s what it contained:


Fifteen copies of my first full-length single-authored book!

As a few of you may remember, I originally started this blog ten years ago to provide an outlet for both thoughts and distractions while working away at my dissertation. That process finished in 2009 with my defense, and then officially with my graduation in 2011. Now, that work is being made public in (hopefully) a more accessible form than than the dissertation in this handsome publication from Liturgical Press.

I’m ecstatic that this work is finally here, and the fact that it is exists is, naturally, the result of a lot of patience and prodding from both my wonderful wife and also my incredible dissertation director who was kind enough to write the Foreword for the book.

I’ll have more to say about it later, most likely, but I’ll leave you here with the Table of Contents:

  • Introduction (Introductions to Hermeneutics, Reading Cultures, and Ælfric)
  • Chapter 1: How Monastic Living Shaped Reading
  • Chapter 2: How Monastic Praying Shaped Reading
  • Chapter 3: The Temptation and the Beatitudes (Ælfric’s sermons on Matt 4 and 5 put into context and placed in conversation with modern commentators)
  • Chapter 4: Two Healings and the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens (Ælfric’s sermons on Matt 8 and 25 put into context and placed in conversation with modern commentators)
  • Conclusion: Bringing Early Medieval Voices into the Conversation
  • Chapter 4:

It had been showing in a “pre-order” state on its page on Amazon; now it says “Temporarily out of stock.” In any case, it exists now in physical form!


Psalms and Monastic Education

It’s impossible to overstate the intimate connection between early medieval monastic education and the early medieval monastic liturgy. Learning was about acquiring the skills to participate within the liturgy, to comprehend the depths of the liturgy, to incorporate it into monastic practice, and—in turn—to enrich it.

At the heart of this educational program was mastery of the psalms.

You have to imagine what it would be like entering a monastery in 10th century England. A child, somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11 would be taken from their family, mother tongue, and the world of fields and woods and home handcrafts, and would be placed within an utterly alien environment. The central experience would be that of trooping into the oratory many times a day to sing unknown songs in an unknown tongue. One scholar of the period has reckoned that, in summer time, the monks would be awake for nineteen hours of the day; about eleven of these would be spent in song!

At first, no doubt, new boys and girls would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unfamiliar material. They would mumble along, trying to follow the pitch and to throw in a word or two when they could. At least they would have the benefit of singing alongside a number of other people—strong voices from whom they could take their lead. As daunting as this sounds, children are adaptable, and the presence of music itself would be a help.  It would be something like the experience of singing along to the radio in a foreign language. A number of times my wife and I have been surprised to hear our daughters (ages 8 and 10) singing along to a new song that we don’t remember hearing before—how, we wonder, could they have learned it so quickly!

Furthermore, once the initial tsunami of unfamiliar experiences had passed, the children would discern (perhaps with the help of their peers or teachers) that certain songs show up far more frequently than the others. In a Benedictine Reform monastery, the seven penitential psalms were sung several times every day as part of the payers for the king, queen, and benefactors (the trina oratio). Too, the Night Office invariably began with a recitation of the fifteen gradual psalms (Pss 120-134). Indeed, it would be a slow monk who didn’t quickly learn Psalm 51: during Lent, it would have been sung at least 8 times a day! Charting out the liturgical provisions of the Regularis Concordia, there were 35 psalms that would be sung every single day. Surely the young novices would have learned these quickly, at least to the point where they could confidently sing them in the midst of a group who knew them well. Naturally, they would have the additional impetus of knowing that those who made faults in the singing of the songs were subject to punishment during daily Chapter!

Thus, the constant liturgical cycle was a means for passive education. The children would sing along as they were able, and would absorb a massive amount of Latin. But—it would only be meaningless sounds to them without further help. The Old English of Ælfric’s Colloquy opens with this exchange between teacher and student:

Teacher: What is your work?

Student: I am presently a monk and I sing seven times each day with my brothers, but meanwhile, between them, I want to learn how to speak in the Latin tongue.

Both monastic rules and surviving educational books help give us a sense of how this mass of memorized sounds was converted into useful language. First, memorization of the psalms outside of the choir was an essential activity. A song you think you know well, that you can can belt out at the top of your lungs alongside the radio, can have some embarrassing sections of mumbling the first few times you try to sing it by yourself. In a similar fashion, despite the passive learning of the choir, the monks worked with teachers, other students, and by themselves to memorize the psalms. Benedict’s Rule specifically identifies the time after the Night Office in winter and after None throughout the year as a period to learn the psalms and readings. (A bit later in the text, Ælfric’s Colloquy clarifies that it is taking place after None.)

Benedict’s source, the Rule of the Master, describes the process in detail demonstrating that the active memorization of the psalms occurs in parallel with the learning of literacy. The passively memorized sounds are transformed into written words as the process of active memorization unfolds:

During these three hours [between Prime and Terce] the boys, in their deanery [groups of ten], are to learn letters on their tablets from someone who is literate. Moreover, we exhort illiterate adults up to the age of fifty to learn letters. Again, we wish it kept in mind that during these same periods the psalms are to be studied by those who do not know them, directed by the deans in their respective deanery. So during these three hours, they are to read [aloud] and listen to one another, and take turns teaching letters and psalms to those who do not know them. (RM 50:12-15)

And throughout [the] summer season, whether the meal is at the sixth hour or at the ninth, for whatever time remains between None until time for Vespers to begin, the various deaneries having been separated from one another in different places, some as directed by their deans are to read, others listen, others learn and teach letters, others studied psalms which they have transcribed. When they have mastered and memorized them perfectly, let their deans take them to the abbot to recite by heart the psalm or canticle or lesson of any kind. And as soon as he has recited it in its entirety, let him ask prayers for himself. Then when those present have prayed for him, the abbot concludes and the one who has done the reciting kisses the abbot’s knees. Either the abbot or the deans immediately order something new to be transcribed [for memorization], and after anything has been transcribed, before he studies it, let him again ask those present to pray for him; and in this way the learning of it is to be undertaken. (RM 50:62-69)

Now, there’s one other factor we have to account for. The Rule of the Master was written in the early sixth century somewhere in the region of Rome or Campania. The Latin of the psalms would still be largely comprehensible to the monks. To the 10th century English novices, it would have been a completely foreign tongue.

The manuscript British Library, Royal 2 B V gives us a fascinating perspective into how this challenge was addressed in England. The manuscript is a liturgical psalter that includes all 150 psalms plus the monastic canticles. It does not seem to have been used in choir as it lacks the psalm divisions necessary, but was a classroom book. The psalms are written in clear large letters. Above these, between the lines, is a running gloss in Old English explaining the meaning of the Latin words. In the margin are excerpts from Cassiodorus’s commentary on the Psalms. Working through this book a student would be learning to read Latin, learning to read Old English, acquiring an understanding of the Latin text, and beginning to learn how the psalms were interpreted by an important monastic author. A companion book written by the same scribe and presumably used alongside it (or at least in the same classroom) contains Jerome’s 59 homilies on the psalms.

This initial stage of education—the passive acquisition of the psalms, their active memorization, and an introduction to the exegetical method of the Church Fathers—provided a foundation that the monks and nuns would use the rest of their lives. This childhood memorization would be reinforced daily as the psalms were sung in the Daily Office. Too, psalm verse and portions were sprinkled throughout Office and Mass in the form of prayers, responsaries, and minor propers. Furthermore, the monks were to continue running through these memorized psalms outside of the oratory as well. The Regularis Concordia, in harmony with longstanding monastic tradition, recommends that the psalms be silently recited and meditated upon during the periods of work when the monks were at work in the fields or in the workshops.

This initial stage of education would be complete once the entire psalter and canticles were committed to memory. Exactly how long that would take depends entirely on the student, but contemporary sources do give us a sense of the range. In speaking of an early medieval saint, Gregory of Tours expresses his wonder that the saint was able to memorize the entire psalter in only 6 months instead of two or three years. It’s hard to say if two to three years was normal or if Gregory was exaggerating slightly for the sake of promoting the saint. Either way, this does give us something to go on—exceptional students might be able to get through this process in six months to a year while more ordinary students could take as long as three years.

[To Be Continued…]

Cassian: Discipline in Prayer

In doing some research for the next section, I ran again across this passage which was marked with double lines, underlines, and a star in the margin in my copy of the Conferences and which must be shared:

For whoever is in the habit of praying only at the hour when the knees are bent prays very little. But whoever is distracted by any sort of wandering of heart, even on bended knee, never prays. And therefore we have to be outside the hour of prayer what we want to be when we are praying. For the mind at the time of its prayer is necessarily formed by what went on previously, and when it is praying it is either raised to the heavens or brought low to the earth by the thoughts on which it was dwelling before it prayed. (John Cassian, Conferences 10.14.2)

I’ll have to stick this back into the Disciplines section somewhere…

Bits on the Night Office

A few thoughts on the Night Office, some from the previous post, others not.

On the Patristic Readings

Within the early medieval English system with which I’m most familiar, a regular ol’ weekday ferial Office usually had one nocturn. A nocturn is a hunk of psalms, then a reading broken up by 3 (secular) or 4 (monastic) responsaries. On a weekday, this single nocturn took its reading from Scripture, hearkening back to the Night Office lectionary of Ordo XIII or one of its derivations.

On Sundays and feast days, there were usually 3 nocturns. The first nocturn was often like a regular night, meaning that its reading came from Scripture. The second nocturn had a patristic reading that, in Paul the Deacon’s system at least, was referred to as a sermo and was a general seasonal text from a patristic source or a was a particular sermon about the feast being celebrated. Again, in Paul’s system, Leo and Maximus were often favorite sources (and some of the sermons traveling under the name of Maximus were actually by Caesarius of Arles). The third nocturn was an exposition of the appointed Gospel for the feast. Paul seems to have called this the omeilia or “homily.” [The distinctions we think Paul was trying to draw broke down fairly quickly and the terms “sermo” and “omelia” tended to be used in an interchangeable fashion by the 10th century.] Paul’s go-to guys for the omeilia were Gregory and Bede with some Jerome and Augustine thrown in where warranted (i.e., Augustine’s tractates on John and exposition of the Sermon on the Mount; Jerome from his commentary when a Matthew text popped up with no other texts from Gregory or Bede).

So—on special occasions, there were two patristic pieces in the Night Office, one focused on the season/event, the other on the appointed Gospel text.

Patristic Creep: Office to Mass

Perhaps the greatest conceptual shift in the study of early medieval preaching in the last half of the twentieth century was the recognition of the role of Night Office homiliaries (collections of sermons typically from patristic sources often but not always in liturgical order) within apparently Mass-focused preaching. Determining how patristic homiliaries functioned is tricky. Some, it’s clear, were used for the second and third nocturns of the Night Office. Some were clearly used for spiritual reading in lectio divina. Whether and how they were used at masses in the period is a complicated question with few easy or clear answers.

We can say three definite things about mass preaching in the Late Anglo-Saxon/Benedictine Revival period in England.

  1. There was an expectation that preaching was supposed to happen. English editions of the Rule of Chrodegang require that secular canons (so, priests at cathedrals) preach at least every other Sunday and on feast days. Furthermore, the Canons of Ps.-Egbert which Aelfric quotes in one of his letters on clerical duties states that clergy should preach every Sunday and on major feast days. Manuscript evidence supports these mandates (but says nothing about their fulfillment…) in that Aelfric’s two cycles of Catholic Homilies and supplemental sermons gave preachers texts to read on these occasions. Furthermore, Ursula Lenker’s work has proved to my satisfaction that the Old English Gospels were used by canons for sermon preparation.
  2. It’s clear that Aelfric uses patristic materials from the Night Office and specifically re-purposes them for proclamation at Mass. In a sense, I think the written sermons of Aelfric (in the vernacular) give us a sense of what most of the preachers did. That is, those who were bilingually competent took their homiliary from the Night Office into the pulpit with them and used the Latin as source material for a vernacular sermon, either translating on the fly, or trying to hit the major points in a loose paraphrase. The problem is that not all of the clergy at the time were that competent in Latin—a situation Aelfric bemoans on a regular basis and is the reason for his English homily collections.
  3. Sometimes the preaching had no relation to the Night Office (or the texts at all…). The mass of anonymous vernacular Old English homilies shows quite a bit of disparity. Some are exegetical with patristic sources. Some are composites where a preacher patched several things together. Some are basically direct translations of banned apocryphal works. (What, you think when your preacher starts working off The Shack that this is a new thing? Hardly…)

So—among preachers who cared about passing on orthodox Christian teaching, there was often quite a bit of carry-over between what the clergy and monks heard in the Night Office and what the laity heard at Mass. But that wasn’t necessarily the case and it might have been spotty.

On the Night Office Lectionary

I believe that Ordo XIII and its later evolution into breviaries has had and continues to have a significant impact on how we understand the readings for the Daily Office. In particular, I think we can identify four major characteristics of the “Ordo XIII pattern” that have significance for how we assess any modern Office lectionaries:

  1. Maximum Coverage. The goal of reading was to move systematically through the entire canon.
  2. Yearly Cycle. One of the defining features of the the early medieval pattern is that it demonstrated a clear intent to get through all of Scripture within the space of a single liturgical year. This is one of the points that Cranmer and other Office reformers have consistently gone back to.
  3. Liturgical Coherence. The books read tend to have a seasonal connection with the Church Year. Particular books are read at particular times because the text as a whole has a coherence and significance with the time.
  4. Blocks of Text. In the Night Office, you get a long stretch from a single book. There’s a continuity of narrative or, at least, text. Of the four main characteristics I identify, this is the one that tends to be honored the least in modern schemes. That is, while Cranmer legislated a narrative flow in taking sequential texts from OT, NT, and Gospel works, he divided them up at the start so that the readings were disjointed. So at each Office you read an OT reading, then an NT—the flow was broken up.

There’s no particular point I’m trying to make at the moment about these, I’m just identifying these four characteristics and holding them up for discussion.

Cafe Post and Jerome’s Ascetic Writing

I have a new piece up at the Cafe. I wrote it while in the midst of researching and writing a conference paper that I gave a few weeks ago at the instigation of Larry who then had the nerve not to show up… My retaliation was to promptly not save the file with its final pages (whoops!) which, Larry, is why I never sent it along.

In any case, here’s the first half of the paper that prompted that reflection. My topic was doing a comparison of two texts, Aelfric of Eynsham’s Letter to Sigeweard and Jerome’s Letter 53 to Paulinus of Nola; this part contains the first half on Jerome. The second half was the part on Aelfric which I’ll need to somehow reconstruct…

Both Ælfric of Eynsham and Saint Jerome are known for their biblical work. Jerome who died in 420 is, of course, best known as the translator and editor of the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Scriptures that would serve the church as the authoritative version of the Bible through the medieval period. Too, the commentaries from Jerome’s pen—whether his own work or translations and adaptations of Origen—further confirmed his place as one of the greatest interpreters of the Patristic period.

Likewise, Ælfric of Eynsham is responsible for turning large swathes of Scripture into English usually in the form of paraphrase rather than direct translation, and his many exegetical homilies and other general works kept alive the orthodox interpretation of Scripture, standing firm on its patristic roots, in the otherwise chaotic environment of the Old English homilies.

So—both of these authors are known for their command of Scripture. Both of them are known for their interpretation of Scripture and, it turns out, both of them wrote letters that serve as comprehensive introductions to the biblical canon. But here’s the kicker—in neither case were these written primarily as interpretive works. Instead, they were written as letters of ascetic instruction to nobility. The books of the Bible and the fundamental structures of Scripture are presented for a purpose: for the sake of instruction in the Christian life which, for Jerome and Ælfric is, fundamentally, the ascetic life.

Let’s turn to Jerome first.

The standard collection of Jerome’s letters contains a round 150, including a few at the end that are either suspect or spurious. Of these, 21 are specifically letters of ascetic instruction. The majority of these are written to an extended family with whom Jerome has carried on an extensive correspondence on a whole host of matters; the Paula and Eustochium to whom many of Jerome’s letters were addressed were members of this family. Based on the relationships that Jerome had with them, we can subdivide these 21 ascetical letters into two further categories.

Seventeen of these are treatises, exhortations to the ascetic life. In fact, Jerome explicitly refers to them as such and, towards the end of Letter 130 which he wrote to Demetrias in 414, he makes the following comments: “It is about thirty years since I published a treatise on the preservation of virginity in which I felt constrained to oppose certain vices and to lay bare the wiles of the devil for the instruction of the virgin to whom it was addressed. . . . I have also written short exhortations to several virgins and widows, and in these smaller works I have gathered together all that there is to be said on the subject.” (And there’s Jerome’s characteristic modesty there at the end…) For the most part the various letters treat a number of set topics: he talks about how one should and shouldn’t dress, what level of fasting is appropriate. How you should conduct yourself around people of the opposite sex, what sort of companions and servants you ought to have, the importance of disposing of your property, and the nature of the life of prayer and study to which you are called.

I’ll highlight three as being particularly exceptional and indeed, Jerome himself in his correspondence refers several times to the first two. The first is letter 22 to Eustochium. He calls her the “first virgin of noble birth in Rome” and whether that’s a historical reality or a rhetorical flourish it’s hard to tell—knowing Jerome, I’d guess the latter myself. In any case this is a very thorough letter describing what the life of virginity is supposed to look like and includes the famous passage where he dreams that Christ accuses him of being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian. In any case, this is the text that he refers as “the treatise on the preservation of virginity” in the quote I just read.

The second is letter 52 to Nepotian written in 394 on the life of the clergy. Again, Jerome saw this letter as his grand statement on clerical life and refers to it in his correspondence, refer other clergy and bishops back to this text.

The third is letter 107 to Laeta who was the daughter-in-law of Paula and sister-in-law of Eustochium. Laeta had decided to raise her daughter, also named Paula, as a consecrated virgin and asks Jerome for his advice on how to do this. He responds with this letter in 403 which lays out a whole plan of education and a course of conduct for little Paula. For an author who’s frequently judged as being misogynistic, it’s fascinating to see how large a role education and literacy play in this process down to his recommendation that she start playing with alphabet blocks as soon as possible so she can begin learning how to read and then to write.

So—of these 21 ascetic letters, 17 are best defined as treatises, exhortations to the ascetic life. The remaining 4 are encomia written to relatives on the death of these ascetics. So, Letter 52 contains instructions to Nepotian on how a cleric should live; Letter 60 is addressed to his uncle the bishop Heliodorus on the occasion of Nepotian’s death. So, here Jerome praises the dead and, in looking back over a life well lived uses this as an opportunity to both remember them to their relative and to memorialize them as a model of ascetic life. Thus, we get a very idealized image of the dead that tells us just as much about Jerome’s ascetic ideals as it does the dead person themselves.

So it’s these ascetic writings that serve as the fundamental context for Jerome’s letter 53 to Paulinus of Nola in 394. Paulinus was a wealthy senator of the best education and credentials and he had just been ordained by force in Spain that year. He had some ascetic tendencies but Jerome sought to reinforce those very much in this Letter 53 which appears to be Jerome’s first letter to him, sent in response to a letter that Paulinus had sent to him requesting advice.

At the very outset of the letter, Jerome thanks Paulinus for the little gifts that he had sent along with his letter, then says this: “A true intimacy cemented by Christ Himself is not one which depends upon material considerations, or upon the presence of the persons, or upon and insincere and exaggerated flattery; but one such as ours, wrought by a common fear of God and a joint study of the divine Scriptures.” He then draws on a whole host of examples of both classical scholars and biblical characters who travelled great distances to attain knowledge. He sharpens his point with the observation that “want of education in a clergyman prevents him from doing good to anyone but himself and, much as the virtue of his life may build up Christ’s church, he does it an injure as great by failing to resist those who are trying to pull it down.” It’s not enough to be virtuous. You have to use knowledge to refute the heresies that threaten the church.

Jerome then goes through a whole chain of passages that emphasize that getting wisdom is difficult and hidden.  Jerome writes, “These instances have just been touched upon by me (the limits of a letter forbid a more discursive treatment of them) to convince you that in the holy scriptures you can make no progress unless you have a guide to show you the way.” The pay-off here is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, when it comes to Scripture you need direction.

Let me be real clear on one point here—Jerome is clearly denying from his perspective a Reformation-notion of the perpecuity of the Scriptures which suggests that the meaning of the Scriptures is plain and accessible to anyone who is reading in the Holy Spirit. Instead, he’s balancing in the middle of two interrelated theological controversies—the fight against Origenism (or more specifically, the teasing out of what Origen got wrong and what Origen got right) and the Anthropomorphic controversy which, in reaction to an overly subtle Origenism took the opposite road into a naïve literalism. Jerome is thoroughly invested in Origen’s hermeneutics and categories which assert that the primary meaning of the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament is at the Spiritual level of the text and that can only be discern through training.

Jerome’s rehearsal of the books of Scripture follow. While he begins by making references to the contents of each Scriptural book, then gives some basic fundamental directions as to where the spiritual and/or typological level of the book can be found. For instance he writes the following concerning Leviticus: “The meaning of Leviticus is of course self-evident, although every sacrifice that it describes, nay more every word that it contains, the description of Aaron’s vestments, and all of the regulations connected with the Levites are symbols of things heavenly!” So it’s completely self-evident but it all points to heavenly symbols. Clearly, Jerome and I mean two different things by the word self-evident!

Another example regards the books labeled today as 1 and 2nd Kings: “The 3rd and 4th books of Kings called in Hebrew Maláchim give the history of the kingdom of Judah from Solomon to Jeconiah, and of that of Israel from Jeroboam the son of Nebat to Hoshea who was carried away into Assyria. If you merely regard the narrative, the words are simple enough, but if you look beneath the surface at the hidden meaning of it, you find a description of the small numbers of the church and of the wars which the heretics wage against it.”

So, what he’s doing here is giving Paulinus a set of hermeneutical skeleton keys—they’re the briefest outline of pointers towards unlocking the spiritual meaning of text where the meat really lies.

After going through all of the canon, then Jerome concludes the letter with a more or less standard exhortation for Paulinus to divest himself of this wealth. Sell what you’ve got and give it to the poor—you can’t be a real Christian if you’re tied to your possessions.

So, the leetr’s overall shape is a quick intro, an exhortation on the difficulty in searching out wisdom, a sketch of the canon with hermeneutical pointers to the spiritual sense of the text, and a concluding exhortation to holy poverty and alms-giving.

The rhetorical function of the canon list here is to point Paulinus to the real meaning of the Scriptures, to the spiritually beneficial contents and some basic directions on what that is and how to dig it out. Does Jerome believe that Paulinus is going to go and read through all of these books? Absolutely yes, no question. He exhorts him to “live among these books, to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else.” And this is entirely in line with his understanding of the ascetic life. To be an ascetic is to be saturated in the text of the Scriptures and to understand its spiritual meanings. In his letter to Laeta, he lays down for her the order in which little Paula should begin memorizing the books of Scripture. Not reading, memorizing. As he writes to Eustochium, “Read often, learn all that you can. Let sleep overcome you, the roll still in your hands; when your head falls, let it be on the sacred page.” As he eulogizes Paula, Eustochium’s mother he writes, “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 she raised within her soul.” Again in Jerome’s second letter to Paulinis, written a year later while it largely goes over the ascetic principles for the letter to Nepotian hits again the necessity of reading Scripture and the necessity of grasping the Spiritual sense. He says, rephrasing Paul, “This veil rests not only on the face of Moses, but on the evangelists and apostles as well.” So it’s only through spiritual exegesis that proper reading happens.

So, to sum up Jerome here, for Jerome, meditation on the written word of Scripture is central to the ascetic life and calling. Origenist principles of sacred reading are fundamentally required to get the deepest meanings out of Scripture. Thus Jerome’s rehearsal of the canon to Paulinus focuses on directing him to where these readings can be found.

(To be continued…)

Imprecatory Psalms

I got to scratch one item off the list last night—along with our twice-yearly crab cake supper (yum!) I taught our Christian Formation class. The title was “The Spirit of the Monasteries for the Modern Church.” The content was what you would expect, exploring the monastic roots of the Anglican Church and the prayer book with an emphasis on the counter-cultural qualities of obedience, stability, and conversion of life/habits.

I did get a good question when I was talking about the formative role of the Psalter—specifically, do the monks give us anything to help us make sense of the imprecatory psalms? These are those psalms that make us cringe when they get used in public worship (or at least have sections that do) and, as a result, have been chopped out of most denominations’ worship books and even get short shrift in the current BCP’s Daily Office lectionary: Pss 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139.

Because we headed off to talk about other difficult passages where God or the people act in ways that seem amoral or immoral, I never got back to my usual answer. My usual tack is that these psalms function akin to a mirror. When we see these thoughts expressed openly, we recoil from them—and rightly so; it means that our moral sense is fully intact. How they assist us, though, is that they confront us with their honesty. When we are truthful about ourselves and the effects of sin within us, we must acknowledge that these psalms express real feelings that we feel. When they confront us, we have an opportunity to recognize the ugliness contained in our own interior life, an ugliness that can only be addressed when it is admitted, then confronted.

So—that’s where I didn’t go. Instead, I took another angle that I think I want to explore more. The patristic and medieval Christians took much more seriously than we the notion that all of Scripture is edifying. With our modernist notions of what’s right and wrong and convinced that our moral discernment trumps the text, I think we can and do often put ourselves in judgment over the biblical text and simply reject the portions that overly offend us. That approach both is and is not how the monks dealt with both the imprecatory psalms and some of the hard sections of the Old Testament.

First off, let’s acknowledge that there are certain biblical texts that should offend Christian sensibilities. Sometimes (like with Hosea and Ezekiel), I think the author was being intentionally provocative and intended to offend. In other portions (I’m thinking events in the historical books as well as the psalms), the author thought that the behavior narrated (genocide, what have you) was completely fine. And we can’t be fine with that.

In the second case, how do we deal with the text? On the surface, both moderns and medievals do the same thing: a rejection of the plain sense of the text. The difference is what happens next. For moderns, when we reject the plain sense of the text, we tend to also reject the text as a whole. For the medievals, they remained with the text, confident that somewhere in there was something edifying. Turning again to the fundamentals of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, they kept chewing on the text until they could extract some form of edifying meaning from it, no matter how tortured it appears to us. These meanings then, would co-opt the literal meaning and would, in effect, become the new “plain sense” of the text.

For instance, a common monastic trope is to talk about dashing incipient vices against Christ. Nobody had to ask what this related to. The literature inculcates the moral meaning of Ps 137:7-9 to the point where the substitution of “vices” for “the little ones” of the “daughter of Babylon” and “Christ” for “the rock” is automatic. So on one hand, the medievals were being more obedient towards the authority of the text than we tend to be. On the other hand, they were also more subversive of its meaning to the degree where the more palatable and edifying interpretation would be adopted as a wholesale replacement for a more obvious but less edifying one.

My questioner wasn’t totally satisfied with this answer—that we just make an end-run around the literal sense—and wasn’t convinced that this is a case where the monks can inform the modern church. Perhaps he’s right. But the lesson that we could stand to learn, though, is the patience and discipline of wrestling with texts that confront us with a moral perspective alien from our own.