RSB: Dinner

Rule of St. Benedict: How Should I Eat Dinner?

One of the interesting features about St. Benedict’s Rule is how it envisions the ritual of dinner.  After prayer, the monks eat in silence while one designated brother reads aloud through the entirety (or near entirety) of the meal.  As elsewhere in the Rule, St. Benedict takes the reading of the text very seriously: not just anyone can read, but only those well-suited to the task and always on some kind of schedule so as to avoid chaos.

If we contrast this with some earlier monastic practice, it becomes the more interesting.  Earliest monks observed complete silence at table, giving the meal an unearthly quality as a time of meditation or reflection, or merely as the avoidance of garrulous distraction.

St. Benedict’s most direct influence, the Rule of the Master, goes in the opposite direction.  That rule specifies that the table reading be from the Rule of the Master itself, as a kind of training.  The training goes a step further: the abbot will put his monks to the question on what they read, like a lunch-table seminar.

St. Benedict himself insists that there be reading and that there be no distractions, but that’s it.  Most feel safe in assuming that he means reading from Scripture, but centuries of practice have broadened the standard Benedictine table-reading to be anything thoughtful or edifying.

Kardong’s commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, to which I have finally returned after a long pause, raises an interesting question which regrettably goes unanswered: what are the merits and demerits of having the communal meal in some kind of silence?  We tend to take for granted that conversation is a natural and healthy part of the meal.  Why do all the monastic legislators seem keen to change that?  Is that such a good idea?

I have two practical interests in this regard:

  1. How should I conduct the dinner table at home with my own children?
  2. How should a Benedictine school conduct the table at lunch with students?

Continue reading RSB: Dinner


A Benedictine Joke

How can you tell the difference between a Benedictine and a Dominican?  A Dominican thinks the Latin word conversatio means “conversation” [insert sarcastic guffaw].

In a Benedictine author like St. Anselm, if you see conversatio it should almost certainly be translated in light of the Benedictine promise of conversatio morum, or “daily conversion of one’s life.”  This is made a little trickier by the fact that St. Benedict’s use of the word would be something of an archaism by the time of St. Anselm, but we are going to trust his grounding in the Rule.

So when a Dominican author copies a Benedictine author’s use of conversatio, now how should we translate it?  The standard use of the word by the time of Aquinas is simply “conversation” as we would use the term.  See opening joke of this post: my English translation of St. Thomas’s prayer gives “discourse” where the saint has conversatio.  He’s only a Dominican, right?

But he is lifting directly from St. Anselm’s prayer, another way in which the Abbot of Bec exerted enormous influence over the scholastic era.  Here’s the side-by-side: Continue reading A Benedictine Joke

Rule of St. Benedict: Freedom

This is a copy of a short talk I gave to our student body two years ago.  Definitely needs some more work to tie it into the Rule but it was a fun one:

Benedictine Hallmark: Freedom

The Gospel is the greatest force of liberation in the world. The whole point of it is to make us free—free in a very specific sense. And the Rule of St. Benedict is a program for living out that gospel. Even though it doesn’t have a chapter specifically devoted to freedom, or even directly mention the word much, the Rule is a project of freedom.

But again, freedom in a very specific sense. Living the Rule doesn’t free me from paying my taxes or cleaning my gutters. It doesn’t free you from doing your homework, listening to your parents, or having to get a job. Barring an exceptional miracle, living the gospel won’t liberate any of us from the prison of a tyrant. It’s not that those freedoms are bad. They are just not our most pressing problem.

The ultimate slave master is myself, wounded by sin. The things I want are stopping me from wanting the things I want to want. Wounded by sin, I want bad things. I make myself the most important thing in the universe. It’s natural for me to love God more than myself, and it’s natural for me to love my neighbor as myself—but I don’t. I resist it because it feels like the inside of a cage. I can’t love my wife or my children as much as I should, can’t do my job with complete joy and confidence, can’t love and serve God with a whole and undivided heart. I know those things will make me happy and I can’t do them—I can’t even bring myself to WANT them properly. The effect of sin is to make me hate the things that will make me happy. It turns me into my own slave master, and into the worst kind of slave—the slave who doesn’t want to be free. The inside of the cage feels like the outside.

This is what Jesus Christ frees us from. This is why the Rule lays down 70+ chapters of rules on how to be free. Everything about the Rule is aimed at our freedom to serve God with an undivided heart:

  • Pray, often, ALWAYS.
  • Receive the sacraments. Only by supernatural might can we do this thing.
  • Live for others in obedience and humility.
  • Serve others, even when you don’t want to, especially when you don’t want to.

All the hallmarks, obedience, hospitality, love, all the rest, free us. As we are transformed, slowly, almost monotonously, we get better. We stop feeling good things as bad things, or at least we oppose them a little less. The result is one of my favorite antiphons:

“Lightly I run in the way you have shown; for you have opened my heart to receive your law.”

All the runners in here, I hope, have had this experience of “running lightly.” It’s when you stop feeling the weight of your shoes, the drag of your clothes, the ground under your feet, even the resistance of your own body. You are just moving, as if a pure intelligence willing something to be so. Pure movement. It’s an incredible feeling. That’s what the life of grace—the life of the Gospel, of the Rule—is supposed to be like.

“Lightly I run in the way you have shown; for you have opened my heart to receive your law.”

Rule of St. Benedict: Obedience

This is a talk I gave at a faculty retreat a few years ago.  The anecdotes I used then are not written directly into the text and so there are some small gaps (you’ll see it most when you get to the Clue reference).  Like any good talk I went off-script a few times, and I have some notes to myself that are so terse I can’t understand them anymore, so what you read here is not quite coherent.  I should have taped myself!

Obedience. “I’m going to explain the Rule of St. Benedict in ten minutes.”

Obedience is a hard saying for us and it is very easy to find ourselves qualifying it, making clear all the things it definitely does not mean.  It’s true that this word means so many things, and it really does have its roots in “to listen” and it really doesn’t mean an abdication of moral responsibility.  But let’s not lose sight of the obvious sense. Continue reading Rule of St. Benedict: Obedience

St. Bernard: Beatitudes

Quite a while back I posted a few thoughts on the Beatitudes as taught by St. Augustine.  In fulfillment of my vague threat to post on the topic again, let’s look at how St. Bernard of Clairvaux interprets them in De Conversione.

Some Context

St. Bernard addressed On Conversion to a group of potential converts to religious life.  To understand how things unfold, it will help to keep two things in mind:

  1. St. Bernard is the Mellifluous Doctor, which means when his engine gets revved he really takes off.
  2. St. Bernard really hated the worldly corruption of the clergy he saw around him in 12th century France.

His vivid opening sequence flows from this: he personifies Reason and Will as locked in a struggle for control of the Self.   Continue reading St. Bernard: Beatitudes

Bernard on Pride: Roundup

It took quite a bit longer than I expected, both in time and word count, but I made it to the end of my comments on St. Bernard’s ladder of pride and humility.  I will probably move this to the side bar eventually, but for now here’s a quick index of the posts covered.

A brief Introduction to the ladder and some general observations.

The First Step, which is Curiosity, including a comparison of the two ladders.

Steps 2-4, which culminate in Boasting.

Steps 5-6, which culminate in Arrogance.

Steps 7-8, Presumption and Self-Justification.

Steps 9-10, False Confession and the Case of the Missing Tenth Step.

Steps 11-12, wrapping things up with sins both free and habitual, and a few final words.

I had intended to stay more reflective in my remarks, but it turned book-reporty as I was getting my thoughts in order.  Perils of the medium.  Now I can move on to more general comments on the Ladder!  Or work on his take on the Beatitudes.  Ooh, ooh, I know…

Bernard on Pride: Final Steps

You’ve cast aside the brethren and overthrown the superior.  Who is left to pour contempt on?  God, of course.

The last two steps of pride are the hard case stages, served up with a healthy dose of irony.  Throughout the previous ten, one of the emergent properties has been lack of authenticity.  The exterior self in no way corresponds with the interior; the life of social interaction is completely conducted by a facade; there is no unity between perception and reality.

The abbot, or any superior, pierces that veil and confronts the deception of pride in steps nine and ten.  Assuming grace does not win out and the ladder of humility finally sees some use, the reaction is predictable:

You’re Not the Boss of Me!

You can’t tell me what to do!  The monk departs the monastery and finally embraces a certain authenticity that has been lacking all along…just of the wrong sort.  The rotten core becomes manifest and at the eleventh step we simply sin openly.

Remember, this entire business in the last few steps has been an enormous waste of energy.  There’s a grim logic to taking the next step down: why bother?  Why waste the energy?

This stage is the defiant pride that we (I, at least) most associate with Satan: a Miltonian fist-shaking at the heavens and a delight in disobedience.  I used to think of this as the rock bottom for sin, but really, how many people do you know like this?  This is a stage destined to be short-lived, I think.  Because the sins we love…

Sin?  Me?  Don’t Be Ridiculous!

…stop being sins to us.  The last reversal of the genuine comes at the twelfth stage.  St. Bernard calls it habitual sin, but we have lost the sense of how dreadful that is I think.  What’s really at stake is that we move from a defiant embrace of our sins to no longer believing that they are sins.

At the bottom of the ladder we rush about, unburdened by interior resistance or conflict.  Sinners here are the mirror opposite of those at the top of the ladder, who run unburdened in the way of life.  Free!  Free at last!  It is the broken and defective counterfeit freedom that the world loves so much.  There is no more fear, for perfect malice drives out fear.  There is no more distraction, for distraction has become the last end.

In St. Bernard’s words, “he cannot tell good from evil now.”

How do you come back from that?  It can only be grace.  St. Bernard is drawing echoes from the Rule’s chapters on excommunication, wherein St. Benedict repeatedly emphasizes the role of prayer.  Prayer is the greatest medicine for the monk of grave faults.  Prayer is the divine remedy beyond any human punishments.  To jump traditions for a moment, St. Monica did more for her son than St. Ambrose ever did.

Last Lesson

Now.  Would you ever try to convince someone to stop their habitual sin by laying out St. Bernard’s ladder for them?  The unburdened sinner who can no longer tell good from evil isn’t going to read, much less feel the impact of, a treatise like the Ladder.

The most important thing to understand about the Ladder is that the people reading it have already lived out this most fearsome stage.  It’s what they left behind when they entered the monastery or, more broadly, took up their conversion to the Gospel.

The monastery is a voluntary association of the well-intentioned, assembled by grace, trying to achieve spiritual perfection.  The very act of joining the monastery is the act of a sinner who has begun to change, who wants to climb, who wants to leave behind the evils that once sickened the soul.

When St. Bernard writes not to look back at Sodom and Gomorrah, he’s inspiring fear of God, sin, and self.  To indulge pride even in small ways is to slither back toward that life that you never, ever want to see again.  The fleshpots of Egypt, the wide fields of Sodom, that’s the old life.

On the ladder, between the top and the bottom, where interior resistance is strong and progress difficult, St. Bernard gives us the stick and the carrot, the whip and the bridle, reinforcement positive and negative.  Ahead there is Christ whom we love, to whom we rush headlong.  Behind there is our old life which we fear ever to see again.

“I have set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life.”

Get moving up that ladder.

Bernard on Pride: Steps 9 and 10

In the last post, on presumption and self-justification, I mentioned that the second contempt would reach its culmination in step ten.  Here we are!  It’s contempt for the superior.

The arrogant come to believe they are due all goods and deny the evils they do.  But denial gets old and arrogant doesn’t mean stupid.  In order to maintain the aura of perfection and their control over the people around them, the arrogant resort to a more deceptive form of denial: false self-accusation. Continue reading Bernard on Pride: Steps 9 and 10

RSB: Stability and Commitment

A somewhat looser reflection on the Benedictine promise (we don’t call them vows) of stability.

In a previous post on St. Bernard I compared stability to commitment.  Here’s a small follow-up.

Fr. Scalia tells a great story about vocations talks he gives.  20 years ago the boys were most concerned with the Girls Question.  How could you live without them?  That was the anxiety.  But now he’s rarely asked that question, or at least it’s not Concern Number 1.  Now the primary concern of his audience is, “What if you change your mind?” Continue reading RSB: Stability and Commitment

St. Bernard on Pride: Stage 5-6

Back to climbing down St. Bernard’s ladder of pride.  Through the first four steps, the soul has lost its anchor and preferred appearances to reality.  Fundamentally these have been interior disturbances–a loss of focus on the good, a loss of agency and self-governance, a sorrow that craves pleasures to drown itself, a re-orientation that focuses the surrounding world on the self.

Now the proud person transitions to external realities.  We left off with boasting, both implicit and explicit.  This leads, in the fifth stage, to making those boasts reality.  It is no longer enough simply to think of ourselves as superior: we have to be seen such by others.  We devote considerable effort to constructing a life that others will admire without actually being admirable. Continue reading St. Bernard on Pride: Stage 5-6