An Act of Recalibration

Go read Christopher’s latest post. He and I have been working around some similar themes of late especially in terms of what is going on at a national level in the church.

Christian social justice is not separate from personal holiness nor vice versa. In fact, they’re really not in opposition to one another despite what various “culture warriors” want you to think. However, both of them are only Christian when they flow from the Gospel.

Christopher makes mention of the Benedictine tradition. Now, when I think and say “Benedictine”, I often conjure up in my head a kind of idealized Benedictine spirit that I believe existed in ninth century Europe as mediated through my experience with Benedictine teachers I’ve had and monasteries I’ve visited.
But there are other very real and important parts of the Benedictine tradition that I would do well to remember.

The monastic house of Cluny, founded in 909 was by the end of the 11th century to become the head of a sprawling family of houses throughout the Continent and in England as well. At its founding it was devoted to a strict interpretation of the Rule. As time went on, things changed… Because of its later years, the name of Cluny is now associated with liturgical excess. A reading of its customaries reveals that the monks were actively in choir over eight hours a day. Now—liturgy is good; but that doesn’t mean that more liturgy is better. Rather, Cluny lost the balance of the Rule that demanded physical labor and study in addition to hours in the choir. Many scholar of the period regard the use of lay brethren as a kind of second-class citizen to do the physical work as a sign of the decay that eventually led to Cluny’s collapse.

What came in its stead was the Cistercian revolution. More ascetical, less liturgical (by comparison—still far more liturgical than anything most of us have ever known) The Cistercians re-emphasized the principle of balance. They did not jettison the old. Indeed, the use of silence outside the choir was a central feature of Cluniac spirituality retained and heightened by the Cistercian reformers. Fundamentally as an act of Reformation, it was an act of Recalibration. 

While I make no secret of my love of Cluny and its liturgies even when they tend to excess, the Cistercians proved themselves a necessary and important part of the Benedictine tradition. And, in their in their path of Recalibration it would suit us now to walk.

We face different challenges, of course. And yet—the balance of the liturgical life, the intellectual life, and the active life still, I believe, burns at the heart of the Anglican way. We would do well to recalibrate.

13 thoughts on “An Act of Recalibration

  1. bls

    Yes – and I think that recalibration is going on already.

    When I think about things like this, I go back to a point about 4 years ago, when almost none of this kind of discussion was going on. Really, things have already changed quite a bit, I think, in many ways. Anyway, I suspect we’re all going to be forced to change, whether we like it or not, by economic conditions.

    I’d also like to point out that, as I understand it, one of the reasons the English populace didn’t complain too much when Henry dissolved the monasteries was that many of the monks and nuns were rich and indolent. I suppose that’s mostly due to their land holdings – I think a lot of the people actually paid their rent money to the monasteries, in fact – but Benedictine “stability” can seemingly have a tendency to become “stagnation” and “institutionalism.” So it’s not a panacea by itself.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Precisely, bls.

    It’s quite interesting, actually—monastic houses and communities are not perpetual institutions. They have a life cycle. I haven’t made a concrete study of this but I’d guess off the top of my head that a strong, healthy monastic house has a life-span of about 300 years.

    Many late medieval Benedictine institutions weren’t anything to write home about spiritually-speaking based on the sources available to us.

    Even the Cistercians needed a shake-up after a while and so we have the Trappists…

  3. Christopher

    Funny, I conjure up images of the 6th century or of my experiences at Mt. Angel. I take it as a sign of concern that the latter now rents out its farm lands to be worked by others rather than the monks.

    One of the things I note of the former is how much involved with their surrounds these early monasteries were, often providing goods for locals otherwise not common to come by (again, a distributive justice component like the Bread of the Presence still distributed in the East). Service to lay brothers and sisters outside the monastery, rather than being served by them was the ideal.

    In reading a recent biography on Henry, who indeed had his own ideas on matters, the reform he engendered was a reformed catholicism without monasteries. Certainly excesses of the time are to be noted, though the Pilgrimage of Grace is a reminder of the complexity of dissolution. Frankly, in the end, a reformed catholicism without monasteries is in danger of becoming more clerical and of not having a significant voice of dissent especially when the state and church are so closely aligned.

  4. Christopher

    I would also note that C and I talked about this. What was interesting is that he noticed this when a TEC bishop was at C’s synod assembly this weekend and spoke. This is foreign to C, as Christocentrism is at the heart of his Lutheran self-understanding.

  5. bls

    It wasn’t concern in the 16th Century, Christopher. The monasteries at that time owned about a quarter to a third of the land in England and many or most were not at all caring landlords to the farmers they rented to.

    Also, farmers were able to buy some of the monastery land seized by the crown; that’s a much more distributive practice, IMO. Many of these were, at any rate, in favor of the dissolution.

  6. Christopher

    Actually, some of these concerns did occur in the 16th century. For example, unfortunately, it was often the landed gentry and Henry’s cronies who often bought up the land, not small farmers. It’s simply more complicated, as many were not in favor of dissolution at all, as the Pilgrimage shows. Henry used the pilgrimage as a means to further clamp down.

  7. bls

    I think that Pilgrimage was centered in the North and was probably mostly cultural in nature. And yes, the gentry bought the land – and sometimes re-sold it to the peasants, something the monasteries never did. At least it was something, and however it happened, people who once paid landlord monks ended up with property of their own.

    As far as I can tell, the monasteries deserved to be dissolved; if the people had objected Henry likely wouldn’t have dared – but they didn’t. In any case, it’s absurd for people sworn to “poverty” to be so wealthy.

  8. bls

    Anyway, we can see the Benedictine tendency to institutionalism, “Stability” taken to a fault, in Anglicanism generally and the Episcopal Church specifically as well.

    The disdain for “enthusiasm”; the tiny numbers of Evangelicals; the good ole boy/country club clericalism; the current fights over property; “the Republican Party at Prayer”; etc. All of these things point to a dislike of “making waves” of any kind – and can descend into mere institutionalism.

    I think that the wave of “changes for the sake of change” can probably be seen as a kind of rebellion against that very institutionalism in the U.S.

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    But change for the sake of change is not the remedy—especially when it because institutionalized. Then we just get the crap that’s happening at your parish.

    Hence, recalibration—restoring a proper balance. (And yes—that leads to the inevitable question so here’s the answer: Since it’s *my* blog, *I* get to decide what the right balance is… :-D)

  10. bls

    Since it’s *my* blog, *I* get to decide what the right balance is… :-D

    Of course you do. ;-)

    I totally agree about “change for the sake of change” (as you can well imagine!); it’s just my theory that reaction to staid institutionalism was the likely reason it became the “thing” in the Episcopal Church.

    I’m really quite in agreement with your post; just sayin’ that Benedictinism (is that a word?) has its pitfalls that we have to be wary of, too.

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