PC: The Tradition and its Supplements

Desert Fathers

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.

2 Replies to “PC: The Tradition and its Supplements”

  1. Apologies if you’re already going to bring this up, but Saint Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus gives a pretty full explanation of the value of the psalms. There is also Saint Basil’s homily on Psalm 1. Both of these texts often appear in Orthodox psalters.

  2. Yes, I give a good portion of a chapter in Honey of Souls to the Letter to Marcellinus and will mention him and Basil as well as Evagrius in an upcoming bit!

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