Category Archives: Monasticism

Random Thoughts on Monastic Bishops

The kids are already on vacation and we go to join them tomorrow meaning that M and I got to run together this morning (I just did a light 10 then relaxed while she did another 8 miles…). In the process, I found myself pondering once again Sulpicius Severus and the transmission of the monastic tradition from East to West. In particular, I’m considering the shift of the ascetic ideal from, essentially, hermits to bishops.

Consider–the main texts of the monastic movement in its initial eastern flourishing were Athanasius’s Life of Antony and the various collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. These were then translated into Latin by Jerome & friends. Suplicius who, in an unguarded moment in the Dialogues, lets slip that he hopes to replace Jerome altogether writes the Life of Martin, the Dialogues, and the Epistles. He shifts the ideal away from the unlettered desert hermit and places it onto the noble Gaulish bishop. Likewise, among Jerome’s correspondents are a number of letters to bishops–like those to Paulinus of Nola who turns out to be a friend of Sulpicius as well.

I’m not making an argument at the moment, more lining up some evidence and seeing what patterns emerge. It is fair to say, though, that both Sulpicius and Jerome seem to assimilate monasticism into the western hierarchies more firmly than what we see in the first generations of monastic writings from the East.

Furthermore, I’m now suddenly intrigued by the Celtic bishops. Authentic classical “Celtic Christianity”–as we’ve discussed before–was far more similar to desert asceticism than other models, and one of its most recognizable features is that the bishops were usually abbots. Is this some kind of anomaly or is this the logical outcome of the strand of tradition that runs through Sulpicius Severus?

Still pondering…

Monastic Theologies of the Trinity

I’m feverishly working away in my spare hours on a presentation for Ka’zoo. I’ll regrettably not be able to attend, but a comrade has graciously agreed to read the piece in my place. I’m writing on Ælfric’s supplemental homily XIa which I argue is a composition designed to summarize the core of the Christian message by explicating the Trinity using a life of Christ constructed through the liturgical year. Ælfric doesn’t go speculative (much), but rather chooses to go liturgical. It’s quite an interesting text and I’ve used it when I’ve taught both preaching and the Church Year.

It’s in light of this context that I was greatly amused to read the following from Br. Stephen:

And, if you were checking in today for religious insight, here’s an explanation of the Trinity given to me on last night’s walk at recreation, which perfectly encapsulates the healthy disinterest that monks generally have in systematic theology:

You have an old man with a beard, a young man with a beard, a dove, and a triangle that connects them. The Athanasian Creed explains the diagram. Go beyond that and you’ll probably get yourself into trouble.

He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Revisiting Jerome

Who are the great Doctors of the Church in the West?

Conventionally, there are four: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome. Boniface VIII declared them such in 1298 and was establishing by statement what had been implicit in Western practice for centuries.

Why Jerome?

It’s a simple question with an obvious answer which, I believe, is not necessarily the best answer. The simple answer is that Jerome was the translator and editor of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Scriptures that has served as the basis for Western practice down to the Enlightenment and beyond. Indeed, one of the greatest ruptures of the Reformation was a move away from the Vulgate and back to the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. Related to Jerome’s work on the Vulgate is his profusion of biblical commentaries and other resources, particularly his work on places names and his (often fanciful) etymologies of Hebrew names.

The knee-jerk answer, then, is that Jerome’s place is due to his biblical work. And there is a great truth to this answer—but it is incomplete.

A more complete yet disconnected answer is provided by the editor to Jerome’s work in the NPNF:

St Jerome’s importance lies in the facts: (1) That he was the author of the Vulgate Translation of the Bible into Latin, (2) That he bore the chief part in introducing the ascetic life into Western Europe, (3) That his writings more than those of any other Fathers bring before us the general as well as the ecclesiastical life of his time. (NPNF 2.6.ix)

The more I read early Western monastic sources, the more clearly I see point 2 and its wider influence. Furthermore, I think we err if we see his biblical and his monastic work as separate and not intimately related.

For one thing, a great portion of Jerome’s biblical commentaries are properly translations rather than “original” works (recognizing that the term “original” makes little sense and holds little value in the patristic/medieval world). Origen looms large throughout Jerome’s corpus.  The Origien connection in particular reminds me of points made by Jean Leclercq to which De Lubac assents:

Medieval monastic culture is based on the Latin Bible. But the Bible cannot be separated from those who commented it—that is to say, the Fathers. Often called simply the expositores, even in their writings which are not commentaries they did little else but explain Holy Scripture. Moreover, monasticism is inclined toward patristics for a very special reason: its basic text and its origins. One one hand, the Rule of St Benedict itself is, in fact, a patristic document; it assumes, it evokes an entire ancient spiritual milieu. On the other, St Benedict prescribes the reading in the Divine Office of the expositiones written by those he calls the Fathers; in his last chapter, he again urges the monks to read the Fathers. The word occurs four times in this chapter and designates more especially the Fathers of monasticism. The latter are Easterners, and this fact results in something new: Benedictine monasticism is attracted, not only to patristic sources in general, but Eastern ones in particular. (Leclercq, Love of Learning and Desire for God, 89)

If we read the introductions to the different volumes of the critical edition of the Latin Origen, we note that almost all the manuscripts are of monastic origin and that most date from the ninth and the twelfth centuries. Other indications point to the conclusion that in every period or place where there was a monastic renewal, there was a revival of Origen. It is true of the Carolingian reform; it is even more definite, or in any case more readily apparent, in the monastic revival of the twelfth century. (Leclercq, Love of Learning and Desire for God, 94)

To separate the Scripture from the commentaries from the ascetical writings is a fool’s errand and the academic balkanization of the study of religion that perpetuates it in this era obscures from the eyes of the Church important pieces which must be seen in relation.

All of Jerome’s writing is ascetical even if not all of it is explicitly so.

Speaking of the strictly and explicitly ascetical, though, there are two genres in particular where Jerome’s ascetical doctrines are most clearly laid out—the lives and the letters.

Jerome wrote three documents that fall under the category of lives: the Life of Paul the Hermit, the Life of Hilarion, and the Life of Malchus, the Captive Monk. As I’ve alluded in an earlier post, the third is more properly thought of as the first monastic novella. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a fictional vehicle for communicating Jerome’s theology of the ascetical life which is focused primarily (and perhaps overly) on the centrality of chastity. The second, the Life of St Hilarion, is a life in the conventional sense, written concerning an historical figure who lived in Palestine and Cyprus. The first is a toss-up as to the balance between empirical history, theological reification, and fiction. As the introduction to the Life of Hilarion makes quite clear, questions as tho the historicity of Paul the Hermit are not simply modern:

And so we in taking up the work begun by [Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis] do [St Hilarion] service rather than wrong: we despise the abuse of some who as they once disparaged my hero Paulus, will now perhaps disparage Hilarion; the former they censured for his solitary life; they may find fault with the latter for his intercourse with the world; the one was always out of sight, therefore they think he had no existence; the other was seen by many, therefore he is deemed of no account. It is just what their ancestors the Pharisees did of old! They were not pleased with John fasting in the desert, nor with our Lord and Saviour in the busy throng, eating and drinking. But I will put my hand to the work on which I have resolved, and go on my way closing my ears to the barking of Scylla’s hounds. (Life of Hilarion, 1; NPNF 2.6.303)

What Jerome did do—and quite cleverly—was to piggy-back on the most successful work of its kind, Athanasius’s Life of Antony. With his Life of Antony, Athanasius single-handedly created the genre of the ascetic biography and introduced the monastic way of life to the Christian world. Jerome’s one-time bishop Evagrius of Antioch (not the other Evagrius) translated Athanasius’s work into Latin and Jerome “linked” to it with a vengeance; the Life of Paul the Hermit isn’t properly a life at all, but after an introduction to Paul details a meeting between Paul and Antony. Likewise, Hilarion also meets with Antony who praises the Palestinian monk. Due to these links, Jerome’s lives are almost invariably found in western manuscripts that contain Athanasius’s Life of Anthony, then Jerome’s other three—the first two as further records of Antony, the third trailing along to round out Jerome’s set.

As far as the letters go, Jerome wrote many letters of advice to correspondents across the Mediterranean, often giving direction on living the ascetic life or raising children to be ascetics. (Yes, Jerome is the ultimate source of the comment from Benedict XVI a year or so ago when he said something to the effect that marriage is a wonderful institution because it creates people who can be celibates… [“I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins.” (Letter 22.10; NPNF 2.6.30)])

Several letters are justly famed as being central ascetical documents, especially Letters 22, 52, 107, and 130. That having been said, cherry-picking is the least pleasurable way to encounter Jerome; his letters deserve to be read through. In doing so you’ll be introduced to a man with few illusions as he looks at others, and receive confirmation that an acid and sarcastic tongue is no bar to becoming a great saint! (Come to think of it, given Luther, perhaps that’s a prerequisite for being a major biblical translator…)

Jerome deserves to be revisited and read more widely especially given his place in the ascetic life of the West. Jerome is a primary conduit for the ideals of the monastic life moving from East to West. In his transmission of Origen and Origenian spirituality, in his evocative construction of the monastic life in his Lives, and in the practical and theoretical directions found in his letters, he is truly one of the founding fathers of the ascetic life in the West and justly earns the designation Doctor of the Church.

Some Observations on the Dialogues of Suplicius Severus

The Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus are a fairly little-known work by one of the more obscure Western Fathers. Nevertheless, he forms an important part of the flow of information and theology of the early monastic movement from East to West. When we think Gaulish monastic father figures these days, John Cassian springs to mind; however, Sulpicius Severus played a complementary role.

More needs to be said about Sulpicius than what I will say now, but a few items must be mentioned to give a proper context for these notes.

First, while Cassian used the dialogue form for the purpose of teaching ascetical practice, spirituality, and theology, Sulpicius preferred to describe lives and events that focused upon proofs rather than techniques. That is, his works tended to be stories about Martin of Tours (his main work being the principal Life of St Martin) and other monks but while Cassian used stories to identify practices or to make an ascetic point, Sulpicius preferred tales of the miraculous to confirm the efficacy of the monastic way of life. (If I had to offer one theory as to why modern students of Christian spirituality know Cassian and not Sulpicius it would be  the modern disdain for miraculous elements that strain the bounds of credibility.  Sulpicius tends not to strain the bounds of credibility, rather he blows past them at a tremendous speed…)

Second, Sulpicius stood in conscious literary relationship with Jerome. This deserves an examination in its own right—there are some very interesting passages in the Dialogues that wrestle with Jerome as a teacher and author where Sulpicius both attempts to cast himself in direct relationship with Jerome but also attempts to supplant him literarily.  In any event, Sulpicius was very much a student of Jerome’s writings and if Sulpicius tended to the miraculous, it was a technique he learned from Jerome and his three monastic lives: the Life of Paul, the Life of Hilarion, and the first monastic novella, the Life of Malchus the Captive Monk.

In the literature from the desert there are a number of fairly common topoi that serve as miraculous confirmation of ascetic practices. These include clairvoyance, miraculous healings, ascetics appearing in dreams, vivid encounters with demons, vivid encounters with angels, supernatural feeding, ascetics exhibiting angelic properties, and honor shown to holy men by wild and vicious creatures. Jerome especially picks up the last in his two more imaginative lives, the Life of Paul and the Life of Malchus. In the Life of Paul, Antony is given directions to Paul’s cave first by a centaur (VP 7), then by a satyr (VP 8), and finally by a wolf whom he sees entering Paul’s dwelling (VP 9). During their conversation, a raven brings them bread (VP 10). Likewise, in the Life of Malchus, the centerpiece of the dramatic escape of Malchus and his chaste wife comes when they take refuge in a desert cave that turns out to be a lions’ den and their pursuers are killed by the fierce beasts but the chaste couple are left unharmed.

So—these are the literary models from which Sulpicius is drawing. The whole point of the Dialogues is similar to that of Cassian’s Conferences, namely, how can the life and piety of the Eastern monks be translated into religious life in the West? Sulpicius seeks to establish that this translation has successfully occurred in the preeminent person of Martin of Tours. Indeed, Martin has so successfully accomplished this feat that his signs and wonders surpass those of the Eastern monks.

To make his point, he casts a first-person narrative where a far-traveling friend, Postumianus, returns from a voyage East and regales Sulpicius and his companion “the Gaul” with tales of the Eastern monks. This occurs in the first book of the Dialogues; the second and third books are the rejoinder where Sulpicius, the Gaul and a host of other eyewitnesses describe tales of Martin of Tours and his mighty miracles.

Stepping back from the particulars, Sulpicius seems to be working with a particular problem of place and social location. The lure of the desert is bound up with the solitary life, the pure life. Even the Eastern monastics who lived in communities were living away from the rest of sinful humanity. How, then, could Martin have the same kind of holiness without the physical remove from society? Furthermore, one of the wonders of the Egyptian monks in these early days was their refusal to distinguish between persons based on their status. A bishop would receive the same reception as a peasant; rulers and prelates came to them in the desert. In the West, it was Martin who was traveling to see the royal and the powerful. How could these be explained without compromise?

Sulpicius begins by focusing his first book on three miraculous topoi in particular: supernatural feeding, ascetics with angelic properties and the reception of ascetics by vicious beasts. I’m going to suggest that he selects these for a very particular reason and that in doing so, he is communicating one of the theologies at the root of the early Eastern monastic movement: the return to Eden. That is, the solitary monk through the ascetic process can conditionally recover elements of the Edenic state where, like Adam, he dwells in constant communion with God, enjoys an angelic state of being, the little food he requires is supplied without toil by nature itself, and he lives in harmony with the wild beasts.

As the character Postumanius narrates his trip through Egypt, we see this theme playing out in a number of ways. Section 1.13 gives us a solitary who, through the help of an ox and a well has created a garden paradise in the desert:

There was also a garden there full of a variety of vegetables. This, too, was contrary to what might have been expected in the desert where, all things being dry and burnt up by the fierce rays of the sun produce not even the slenderest root of any plant. But the labor which in common with his ox, the monk performed, as well as his own special industry, produced such a happy state of things to the holy man; for the frequent irrigation in which he engaged imparted such a fertility to the sand that we saw the vegetables in his garden flourishing and coming to maturity in a wonderful manner. On these, then, the ox lived as well as its master; and from the abundance thus supplied, the holy man provided us also with a dinner.

Further, even the desert provides this holy man with the fruits he needs complete with a requisite vicious beast:

Then after dinner, when the evening was coming on, our host invites us to a palm-tree, the fruit of which he was accustomed to use, and which was at a distance of about two miles. For that is the only kind of tree found in the desert, and even these are rare, though they do occur. I am not sure whether this is owing to the wise foresight of former ages, or whether the soil naturally produces them. It may indeed be that God, knowing beforehand that the desert was one day to be inhabited by the saints, prepared these things for his servants. For those who settle within these solitudes live for the most part on the fruit of such trees, since no other kinds of plants thrive in these quarters. Well, when we came up to that tree to which the kindness of our host conducted us, we there met with a lion; and on seeing it, both my guide and myself began to tremble; but the holy man went up to it without delay, while we, though in great terror, followed him. As if commanded by God, the beast modestly withdrew and stood gazing at us, while our friend, the monk, plucked some fruit hanging within easy reach on the lower branches. And, on his holding out his hand filled with dates, the monster ran up to him and received them as readily as any domestic animal could have done; and having eaten them, it departed. We, beholding these things, and being still under the influence of fear, could not but perceive how great was the power of faith in his case, and how weak it was in ourselves.

The lion not only does not eat the ascetic but has returned to the vegetarian state of the garden.

Similarly, section 1.14 gives us a she-wolf who eats bread from an ascetic’s hand and who apologizes in canine form when she takes two biscuits one night instead of her accustomed one. In 1.15 a lioness beseeches healing from an ascetic for her five cubs born blind. He heals them and she brings him the skin of a rare animal as a cloak as thanks. In 1.16, an ascetic new to the desert ate poisonous roots which put him in torment. Accordingly, an ibex came and taught him which roots were safe and which were dangerous.

Section 1.17 makes a deliberate connection with the two great (literary) monastic exemplars, Antony and Paul. Within this same section, connected as it were to these figures, is the preeminent Edenic anchorite:

I saw the Red Sea and the ridges of Mount Sinai, the top of which almost touches heaven, and cannot, by any human effort, be reached. An anchorite was said to live somewhere within its recesses: and I sought long and much to see him, but was unable to do so. He had for nearly fifty years been removed from all human fellowship, and used no clothes, but was covered with bristles growing on his own body, while, by Divine gift, he knew not of his own nakedness. As often as any pious men desired to visit him, making hastily for the pathless wilderness, he shunned all meeting with his kind. To one man only, about five years before my visit, he was said to have granted an interview; and I believe that man obtained the favor through the power of his faith. Amid much talk which the two had together, the recluse is said to have replied to the question why he shunned so assiduously all human beings, that the man who was frequently visited by mortals like himself, could not often be visited by angels. From this, not without reason, the report had spread, and was accepted by multitudes, that that holy man enjoyed angelic fellowship.

Like (the pre-Eve) Adam, the anchorite was entirely solitary, he held converse with angels and, like both prelapsarian humans, was naked yet not ashamed.  While Postumanius goes on to describe some marvels in a monastery, he then goes on to recount ascetics who failed. Though he continues on for several more sections, it becomes evident that the nameless ascetic of Sinai is the pinnacle of the Eastern monastic exemplars.

After Postumanius finishes, the Gaul begins to hold forth on Martin. The central thesis of the Dialogues is laid out in 1.24 thusly:

Indeed, Postumianus, replied I [Sulpicius], while I was listening attentively, all this time, to you talking about the excellences of the saints, in my secret thoughts I had my mind turned to my friend Martin, observing on the best of grounds that all those things which different individuals had done separately, were easily and entirely accomplished by that one man alone. For, although you certainly related lofty deeds, I really heard nothing from your lips (may I say it, without offense to these holy men), in which Martin was inferior to any one of them. And while I hold that the excellence of no one of these is ever to be compared with the merits of that man, still this point ought to be attended to, that it is unfair he should be compared, on the same terms, with the recluses of the desert, or even with the anchorites. For they, at freedom from every hindrance, with heaven only and the angels as witnesses, were clearly instructed to perform admirable deeds; he, on the other hand, in the midst of crowds and intercourse with human beings— among quarrelsome clerics, and among furious bishops, while he was harassed with almost daily scandals on all sides, nevertheless stood absolutely firm with unconquerable virtue against all these things, and performed such wonders as not even those accomplished of whom we have heard that they are, or at one time were, in the wilderness.

The holiness of the Eastern ascetics cannot only be matched but entirely surpassed. While their virtues and miracles were spread amongst many men, all of these virtues and miracles can be found in Martin himself. By extension, therefore, if Martin can surpass the Eastern ascetics, there is no good reason why western ascetics (especially through the intercessions of Martin) cannot thereby equal or surpass them as well.

I’ll not go through Dialogues books 2 and 3 in detail here but will make some pointed observations in regard to the foregoing section. Two items in particular seem to occupy the attention of Sulpicius. First, can the active life of a bishop be as virtuous as the monastic life? Second, Can the more active life impart virtues and benefits that the solitary life cannot?

In regard to the first, Sulpicius makes acknowledgment that the purely contemplative life is more perfect. He is, after all, an ascetic writing for ascetics. This point is made most specifically in section 2.4 in the words of the Gaul:

I have often noticed this, Sulpitius, that Martin was accustomed to say to you, that such an abundance of power was by no means granted him while he was a bishop, as he remembered to have possessed before he obtained that office. Now, if this be true, or rather since it is true, we may imagine how great those things were which, while still a monk, he accomplished, and which, without any witness, he effected apart by himself; since we have seen that, while a bishop, he performed so great wonders before the eyes of all. Many, no doubt, of his former achievements were known to the world, and could not be hid, but those are said to have been innumerable which, while he avoided boastfulness, he kept concealed and did not allow to come to the knowledge of mankind; for, inasmuch as he transcended the capabilities of mere man, in a consciousness of his own eminence, and trampling upon worldly glory, he was content simply to have heaven as a witness of his deeds. That this is true we can judge even from these things which are well known to us, and could not be hid; since e.g. before he became a bishop he restored two dead men to life, facts of which your book has treated pretty fully, but, while he was bishop, he raised up only one, a point which I am surprised you have not noticed.

Thus, Martin the monk raised two people from the dead while Martin the bishop restored only one. (This is Sulpicius’s idea of “less power” when it comes to extolling his patron!)

What I’d like to focus on, though is the second point. Martin orders around some domestic animals—a possessed cow in 2.9 (compare the possessed camel in the Life of Hilarion)—but Sulpicius makes a deliberate transfer of the “domesticating” power of ascesis.

Martin does not dwell in the deserts; he is in the cities. As a result, his power isn’t over the savage animals of the wastes but over the nobility. While desert ascetics have the power to tame creatures, Martin is given power over kings and queens. Furthermore, while the desert ascetics can only save themselves and their comrades from beasts, Martin’s effect upon the nobility has the potential for much wider social change.

The Gaul presents an extended  narrative that lays the foundation for this. First, he shows the hostility against which Martin contended:

Well, just about the time when he first became a bishop, a necessity arose for his visiting the imperial court. Valentinian, the elder, then was at the head of affairs. When he came to know that Martin was asking for things which he did not incline to grant, he ordered him to be kept from entering the doors of the palace. Besides his own unkind and haughty temper, his wife Arriana had urged him to this course, and had wholly alienated him from the holy man, so that he should not show him the regard which was due to him. (2.5)

Mere royalty, however, are no match for Martin:

Martin, accordingly, when he had once and again endeavored to procure an interview with the haughty prince, had recourse to his well-known weapons— he clothes himself in sackcloth, scatters ashes upon his person, abstains from food and drink, and gives himself, night and day, to continuous prayer. On the seventh day, an angel appeared to him, and tells him to go with confidence to the palace, for that the royal doors, although closed against him, would open of their own accord, and that the haughty spirit of the emperor would be softened. Martin, therefore, being encouraged by the address of the angel who thus appeared to him, and trusting to his assistance, went to the palace. The doors stood open, and no one opposed his entrance; so that, going in, he came at last into the presence of the king, without any one seeking to hinder him. The king, however, seeing him at a distance as he approached, and gnashing his teeth that he had been admitted, did not, by any means, condescend to rise up as Martin advanced, until fire covered the royal seat, and until the flames seized on a part of the royal person. In this way the haughty monarch is driven from his throne, and, much against his will, rises up to receive Martin. He even gave many embraces to the man whom he had formerly determined to despise, and, coming to a better frame of mind, he confessed that he perceived the exercise of Divine power; without waiting even to listen to the requests of Martin, he granted all he desired before being asked. Afterwards the king often invited the holy man both to conferences and entertainments; and, in the end, when he was about to depart, offered him many presents, which, however, the blessed man, jealously maintaining his own poverty, totally refused, as he did on all similar occasions.

But that’s not all… Section 2.6 describes in servile detail how the queen, wife of Maximus, used to serve Martin hand and foot:

[Maximus] frequently sent for Martin, received him into the palace, and treated him with honor; his whole speech with him was concerning things present, things to come, the glory of the faithful, and the immortality of the saints; while, in the meantime, the queen hung upon the lips of Martin, and not inferior to her mentioned in the Gospel, washed the feet of the holy man with tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Martin, though no woman had hitherto touched him, could not escape her assiduity, or rather her servile attentions. She did not think of the wealth of the kingdom, the dignity of the empire, the crown, or the purple; only stretched upon the ground, she could not be torn away from the feet of Martin. At last she begs of her husband (saying that both of them should constrain Martin to agree) that all other attendants should be removed from the holy man, and that she alone should wait upon him at meals.

And it goes on like that for a while. The point Sulpicius is making is that Martin has totally domesticated one of the most dangerous creature in his environment, a woman who was royalty. Some of the ascetics of the desert would not so much as look at a women (see Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, 1.4-9) let alone allow themselves to be touched by one. Sulpicius uses this opportunity for scandal to reveal Martin’s greater power than the ascetics. Not only can he be safely touched by a woman, he is able to use it for godly ends. When Postumanius expresses wonder at a woman touching Martin, the Gaul responds:

Why do you not notice, as grammarians are wont to teach us, the place, the time, and the person? For only set before your eyes the picture of one kept in the palace of the emperor importuned by prayers, constrained by the faith of the queen, and bound by the necessities of the time, to do his utmost that he might set free those shut up in prison, might restore those who had been sent into exile, and might recover goods that had been taken away—of how much importance do you think that these things should have appeared to a bishop, so as to lead him, in order to the accomplishment of them all, to abate not a little of the rigor of his general scheme of life? (2.7)

Implicit is the revelation of Martin’s greater power. Due to his power over the king and queen, he is able to have profound effects upon the actions and policy of those in government.

The theme of the domestication of beasts is set forth explicitly in the description of Martin’s dealings with a nobleman named Avtianus, described in Book 3:

You knew the too barbarous and, beyond measure, bloody ferocity of Avitianus, a former courtier. He enters the city of the Turones with a furious spirit, while rows of people, laden with chains, followed him with melancholy looks, orders various kinds of punishments to be got ready for slaying them; and to the grave amazement of the city, he arranges them for the sad work on the following day. When this became known to Martin, he set out all alone, a little before midnight, for the palace of that beast (ad praetorium bestiae). (3.4)

Martin torments Avitianus in his sleep, he awakes, finds Martin there, and sets all of his prisoners free, departing from the city. Avitianus comes up later in the book as well:

But to return to Avitianus: while at every other place, and in all other cities, he displayed marks of horrible cruelty, at Tours alone he did no harm. Yes, that beast (illa bestia), which was nourished by human blood, and by the slaughter of unfortunate creatures, showed himself meek and peaceable in the presence of the blessed man. I remember that Martin one day came to him, and having entered his private apartment, he saw a demon of marvelous size sitting behind his back. Blowing upon him from a distance (if I may, as a matter of necessity, make use of a word which is hardly Latin , Avitianus thought that he was blowing at him, and exclaimed, ‘Why, you holy man, do you treat me thus?’ But then Martin said, ‘It is not at you, but at him who, in all his terribleness, leans over your neck.’ The devil gave way, and left his familiar seat; and it is well known that, ever after that day, Avitianus was milder, whether because he now understood that he had always been doing the will of the devil sitting by him, or because the unclean spirit, driven from his seat by Martin, was deprived of the power of attacking him; while the servant was ashamed of his master, and the master did not force on his servant.

Here the topos is made explicit. The beast is tamed by the holy man.

Thus, in Sulpicius’s writings about Martin, he both envisions and responds to the role of the holy ascetic in Western culture explicitly different from the Eastern model. In the East, the monk inhabits the deserts. He is a solitary. In his solitude, he can recapture the peace of Eden. In the West, though, the holy ascetic is no less a man of prayer, but is one who acts upon the whole social structure by means of his relations at the top. Through the moderating influence of holiness upon the nobles, a “peaceable kingdom” may be achieved.

In a sense, Suplicius tries to pull off quite a number of things here, some of which should probably give us pause. Not only does he translate Eastern piety into Western culture but in doing so, he reverses the monastic approach to the Constantinian state of the Church. While the monks reacted by retreating from it, Sulpicius fully embraces it. Martin by no means holds himself apart but actively engages the machinery of the state at its highest levels, using his influence to moderate the vicious state of the State.

On Confessors in the Sarum Kalendar

I just took a crawl through the kalendar of the Sarum Breviary (I know—a modern one…). Of the confessors listed, there are precisely two who are not listed as either bishops,  archbishops, popes or abbots:

  • Petrocii Conf. (June 4th) concerning whom I’ve been able to find no data (and who isn’t in the Warren edition of the Missal).
  • Translatio S. Edwardi regis et confessoris, inferius duplex, ix. lectiones. (Oct 13) Royalty—not clergy.

Jerome is an odd case. He’s listed as: Hieronymi presbyteri et doctoris, festum inferius duplex, ix lectiones. He’s the only “doctor” present so theoretically he ought to be considered a Confessor as well.

There’s only one saint in the Sarum kalendar designated as “presbyteri” with no other qualifications and that’s the memorial of Eusebii presbyteri. (Aug 14) whose status is questionable. This Eusebius was a priest of Rome who may be a confessor or may be a martyr—it’s unclear. In any case, he is the only “presbyterus” in the Sarum kalendar who’s not a martyr.

So—while in theory the Confessor category included all non-apostle/martyr/virgin/monks, functionally speaking it was for bishops and abbots.

Benedict of Aniane: On Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interesting Carolingian Reading List

Many of the readers here will know the name of Notker Balbus (the Stammer). He is the monk of St Gall who is famous for his chant sequences. Upon reading through de Lubac, I’ve learned that he’s also the author of an interesting little treatise called On the Interpreters of the Holy Scriptures. The scan from the PL may be found here. Fascinating stuff—it goes a quick glimpse into how these folks went about the study of Scripture, who they turned to first and how they categorized who they read. Here’s a quick paraphrase of his section on the Gospels:

…For Matthew, Jerome[‘s Commentary] should be sufficient for you. As Mark is the abbreviator of Matthew, so Bede is the abbreviator of Jerome [referring to Bede’s commentary on Mark]. So the unique Luke by the broadminded Bede so much so that everything one discovers in the Gospel is touched upon in his one volume. The cloud-soaring Augustine (among* others) pursues the heaven-seeking John [Tractates on John]. After these is the book of Augustine On the Sermon of the Lord on the Mount according to Matthew. Also his Questions on the whole Gospel. Furthermore also the Collection of Eugippus. Furthermore the homilies of John Chrysostom, Origen, Augustine, Gregory, Maximus [of Turin], Leo, Bede, and the responses of Jerome to the questions of Algasia and Denobia.

* I wonder if this should be “above” or “without equal”…

(The high-flying rhetoric around John is a trope of Augustine’s explanation of John’s symbol of the eagle at the start of Augustine’s De Consensu which, interestingly, doesn’t get a mention…)

Clearly, I’m interested in the list of recommended homilies. Does the line-up sound familiar to anyone? It’s practically the table of contents of Paul the Deacon. Also interesting is the fact that Paul doesn’t get a mention—nor does Smaragdus’s collection on the Gospels and Epistles.  Bede is the only author who could enough roughly be considered a contemporary (and even that’s a stretch).

Benedict of Aniane: A Convert to the Rule

This is the first of possibly several posts on Benedict of Aniane, reformer and teacher (750-821).

Benedict of Aniane is one of those figures in history of whom the general population is blissfully unaware, but who made great and significant changes in the way things were done. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he defined the landscape of Western Monasticism as it moved through the Early Medieval period and into the High Middle Ages.

St Benedict of Nursia gave us the Rule, but it was Benedict of Aniane who gave us Benedictine monasticism as a theological and organizational entity. In the early medieval West there were a host of monastic rules floating around, some written by famous doctors of the church—like those of Isidore and Caesarius of Arles—as well as others by lesser known or now anonymous authors. The most common was the so-called regula mixta which was a combination of the Rule of Benedict and the Irish Rule of Columbanus. English monks like Bede and Boniface were the first to push for an exclusive Benedictine observance but it remained a hard row to hoe. Without Benedict of Aniane, Benedict’s Rule would likely today occupy a place similar to where John Cassian, known by the interested but utilized piece-meal rather than whole-cloth.

Benedict of Aniane started out as one attracted by Benedict’s Rule but with the ascetic chip on his shoulder. Age brought wisdom. In chapter 2, Ardo tells us of his mortifications:

His face through gaunt with fasting; his flesh was exhausted by privation; his shriveled skin hung from his bones like the dewlaps of cows. Not so much taming a young but ungovernable animal, as mortifying the body, although he was compelled by the abbot to exercise rigor against himself more sparingly, he gave assent reluctantly. Declaring that the Rule of blessed Benedict was for beginners and weak persons, he strove to climb up to the precepts of blessed Basil and the rule of blessed Pachomius. However much the Benedictine Rule might regulate possible things for paltry people, our Benedict perennially explored more impossible things. Dedicating himself wholly to penance and lamentation, he could not be imitated by anyone or only by a few. But divine favor decreed that he was to become an example of salvation for many and would be enflamed with love for the Rule of Benedict, and like a new athlete just back from single combat enter the field to fight publicly. In the meanwhile he undertook to correct the manners of some, to scold the negligent, exhort beginners, admonish the upright to persevere, and upbraid the wicked to turn from their ways. (Ardo’s Vita 2.5, 68-9)

Students of the Rule will recognize the trope that Ardo is drawing on here. The first chapter of the rule, drawing on John Cassian Conf. 18.4ff, uses a martial motif to present the cenobites as soldiers who fight together in a battle-line, side by side. The anchorites are the champions who are strong enough to fight on their own, after hard training in the battle-line. Here, Ardo presents the asceticism of Benedict of Aniane as defacto anchorite training, who then returns to teach the rest of the monks rather than remaining elsewhere as a solitary. Ardo then continues to detail Benedict’s full conversion to the Rule:

After that it was enjoined on him to supervise the cellar. There he committed to memory the Rule of the aforesaid Father Benedict. He sought with all his might to comport himself according to its regulations and then without delay to be generous to those seeking lawful things, to deny those seeking in a bad way, and courteously to excuse those inquiring for impossible things. Because he did not freely provide them cups, he was not regarded with favor by many. The care of guests, children, and poor folk he exercised with assiduity. The abbot also esteemed him with supreme fondness, because he was beneficial in everything, circumspect in his own life, solicitous for the salvation of others, prompt in ministering, infrequent in speaking, ready to obey, good-natured in serving. Divine piety conferred upon him, among other virtues, the gift of understanding and a supply of spiritual eloquence. (Ardo’s Vita 2.6, 69)

I find this passage fascinating especially when read in parallel with the section just before it. the reversal on possible/lawful and impossible things is interesting. I note that in the first Benedict seems to do an awful lot of talking—memorization and internalization of the Rule leads to a lot more doing and a lot less talking. I don’t think Ardo wrote it this way on accident… And what a wise abbot! It seems like the move to cellarer (cf. RB 31) was quite a wise move. Benedict could no longer be peripheral to community life, holding himself above it, but was required to be fully integrated into themost mundane details of life together. I don’t think it’s an accident that it was this move that triggered his turn to the Rule.

That’s it for now—the next post will probably look at Benedict’s reforming work and the councils at Aachen.

Back to the Blog…

We’ve returned from Christmas and associated festivities at the in-laws. The up-coming days will probably see a number of postings on a number of new acquisitions for the library. In looking over the books I received from parents and sister-in-law I was amused at by the simultaneous breadth and coherence of the items: a taichi book and a taichi dvd, a collection of essays by Plutarch, the new Book of Common Prayer from Lancelot Andrewes Press, Ardo’s life of Benedict of Aniane, and Hymn Introits for the Liturgical Year.

I’ll say more about most of these later, but just wanted to comment on something that jumped out at me from Ardo’s life. In his discussion of Benedict of Aniane’s full output in Ch 38 he writes:

To demonstrate to contentious persons that nothing worthless or useless was set forth by blessed Benedict [of Nursia], but that his Rule was sustained by the rules of others, he compiled another book of statements culled from other rules. To it he gave the title, Harmony of the Rules [Concordia Regularum]. Statements in agreement with blessed Benedict’s book were added to show that the latter was obviously foremost. To it he joined another book from the homilies of holy teachers. These were presented for exhortation of monks and ordered it read all the time at the evening assemblies. (p. 101)

I knew of the Concordia Regularum, but this is the first I’d heard of a book of homilies along with it. I’m curious to see the Latin to see which book was being specified here for which occasion. Furthermore, there’s another interesting throw-away reference earlier. As Benedict of Aniane traveled around he: “spent days in Arles with many bishops, abbots, and monks, explaining the mysteries of the canons and expounding the homilies of the blessed Pope Gregory to the ignorant.”  What was going on here? Which homilies were these—the Moralia in Iob, Homilies on Ezekiel, or the Forty Gospel Homilies?