For this week of St. Anselm, God has so ordained things that two of my hobbies–Orlando Furioso and the Rule of St. Benedict–converge. In his super-subversive Canto XIV, Ariosto lets us know what he thinks about the Benedictine monasteries of his day (XIV.75-95)
As the siege of Paris is about to go down, God tears a page out of Juno’s playbook and sends
Alecto St. Michael the Archangel down to earth to make sure things play out according to divine plan. “Michael! Go find Silence and have him help the Christian reinforcements arrive undetected! While you are at it, send Discord into the Muslim ranks to sow chaos.”
So–hmm? Where’s an Archangel Defender of Paris to find Silence these days? A moment’s thought by that pure intelligence reveals the answer: a place of prayer, naturally, where vows of silence prevail. To a Benedictine monastery we go!
Well…sure, Michael thought he was going to find Silence. And wouldn’t Peace be there, with Charity and whatnot? Right? Things aren’t looking so good in the cloister, sadly. Discord’s there, along with every other horrid vice, but Silence? Nope, never seen him. Sorry! Maybe Fraud knows?
Poor Michael is confused, having expected to have to try out Avernus to find Discord among the damned. He regains his balance and heads on over to Fraud, dressed in a beautiful robe to cover her deformities and her poisoned dagger. And now we really condemn the monastery (more, even, than comparing it to hell):
Of her the good archangel made demand
What way in search of Silence to pursue:
Who said; “He with the Virtues once was scanned
Nor dwelt elsewhere; aye guested by the crew
Of Benedict, or blest Elias’ band,
When abbeys and when convent-cells were new;
And whilom in the schools long time did pass,
With sage Archytas and Pythagorus.
“But those philosophers and saints of yore
Extinguished, who had been his former stay,
From the good habits he had used before
He passed to evil ones; began to stray,
Changing his life, at night with lovers, bore
Thieves company, and sinned in every way:
He oftentimes consorts with Treason; further,
I even have beheld him leagued with Murther.
Sure, Silence was here back in Benedict’s day. And the philosophers were totally into Silence. But monks? Today? Pshaw! Silence is the ally of criminals now, not monks!
But that is hardly a help for a busy Archangel. Criminals are everywhere and only congregate in guildhalls in video games. The only place you can ever find Silence pinned down is the abode of Sleep.
So Michael sends Discord on her path to Agramant’s army and then wings off toward the abode of Sleep: a tree-shielded grotto in Arabia. Meet the new monastery:
Beneath the shadow of this forest deep,
Into the rock there runs a grotto wide.
Here widely wandering, ivy-suckers creep,
About the cavern’s entrance multiplied.
Harboured within this grot lies heavy Sleep,
Ease, corpulent and gross, upon this side,
Upon that, Sloth, on earth has made her seat;
Who cannot go, and hardly keeps her feet.
Mindless Oblivion at the gate is found,
Who lets none enter, and agnizes none;
Nor message hears or bears, and from that ground
Without distinction chases every one;
While Silence plays the scout and walks his round,
Equipt with shoes of felt and mantle brown,
And motions from a distance all who meet
Him on his circuit, from the dim retreat.
And from there it’s a small matter for St. Michael to direct Silence on his path to aid the Christian army under Rinaldo.
But wow, talk about a Christian Europe badly in need of reform! If Ariosto’s view of the monasteries is even remotely representative of European sentiment, the upheaval of the 16th century is no surprise. Remember, this poem is composed between 1506 and 1532.
This clear-eyed, brutal take-down betrays a real love and admiration for the monastic life. This is a morality tale, after all, where the virtuous ideal often finds expression in the negative. To tear down something like this–or the papacy–requires you to really love it. Otherwise you wouldn’t hate what it has become under greedy and unworthy hands. I don’t know if this is a uniquely Catholic phenomenon, but it’s definitely one of its marks of distinction.
Anon I’ll consider his commentary on the power of Silence and explore another highly subversive side of Canto XIV. TBC.