Newman on St Benedict and the Poetical

Why does Newman attribute to the Order of St Benedict the element of poetry in Catholic culture?  He defines the poetical as follows:

“It demands that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet; that we should feel them to be above and beyond us, that we should look up to them, and that, instead of fancying that we can comprehend them, we should take for granted that we are surrounded and comprehended by them ourselves. It implies that we understand them to be vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious . . .  Poetry does not address the reason, but the imagination and affections; it leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love. The vague, the uncertain, the irregular, the sudden, are among its attributes or sources. Hence it is that a child’s mind is so full of poetry, because he knows so little; and an old man of the world so devoid of poetry, because his experience of facts is so wide.” The Mission of St Benedict, found here.

 He says that Benedict, “entrusted with his mission almost as a boy, infused into it the romance and simplicity of boyhood.” The monks turned their backs on the busy mart, the wrangling forum, and “all they wanted, all they desired, was the sweet soothing presence of earth, sky, and sea, the hospitable cave, the bright running stream,  . . . in having neither hope nor fear of anything below; in daily prayer, daily bread, and daily work, one day being just like another, except that it was one step nearer than the day just gone to that great Day, which would swallow up all days, the day of everlasting rest.”

The simplicity of life, the contemplation of God, the cultivation of the earth (ora et labora) seemed to signify “a return to that primitive age of the world, of which poets have so often sung, the simple life of Arcadia or the reign of Saturn, when fraud and violence were unknown. It was a bringing back of those real, not fabulous, scenes of innocence and miracle, when Adam delved, or Abel kept sheep, or Noe planted the vine, and Angels visited them.”

The spread of the monastic ideal and its persistent flourishing defies our calculative mind and burrows beneath our superficial, nay ideological, histories. After centuries of hostile destruction, the abbeys stubbornly remain as testimony to Newman’s account. “It has been poured out over the earth, rather than been sent, with a silent mysterious operation, while men slept, and through the romantic adventures of individuals, which are well nigh without record; and thus it has come down to us, not risen up among us, and is found rather than established. Its separate and scattered monasteries occupy the land, each in its place, with a majesty parallel, but superior, to that of old aristocratic houses. Their known antiquity, their unknown origin, their long eventful history, their connection with Saints and Doctors when on earth, the legends which hang about them, their rival ancestral honors, their extended sway perhaps over other religious houses, their hold upon the associations of the neighborhood, their traditional friendships and compacts with other great landlords, the benefits they have conferred, the sanctity which they breathe,—these and the like attributes make them objects, at once of awe and of affection.”

One must read the wealth of detail and Newman’s loving recounting of their deeds. The drained the swamps, ploughed the fields, planted the grapes, built the churches and roads. Newman says “they were not dreamy sentimentalists, to fall in love with melancholy winds and purling rills, and waterfalls and nodding groves; but their poetry was the poetry of hard work and hard fare, unselfish hearts and charitable hands.”

They brought healing and hospitality; they brought joy and song; most of all they brought “gentleness and tenderness of heart.”

St. Benedict “found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way, not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time or by any rare specific or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often, till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration, rather than a visitation, correction, or conversion. The new world which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing, and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes, and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully deciphered and copied and re-copied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one that ‘contended, or cried out,’ or drew attention to what was going on; but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning, and a city. Roads and bridges connected it with other abbeys and cities, which had similarly grown up; and what the haughty Alaric or fierce Attila had broken to pieces, these patient meditative men had brought together and made to live again.”

I would suggest that a major element of the “poetic” according to Newman is “non-reductive” and “particular.” The poetic is not anti-scientific, but pre-scientific. The scientific could pose as being anti-poetic, for example if we read Descartes’ Discourse, part II. One may fear that the poetic is naive or superstitious. But it breathes of lived human experience.

The poetry of St Benedict is nothing less than European culture itself. He is after all the patron of Europe. It is the poetry of God, the poetry of nature, the poetry of place, and the poetry of men. Its concreteness and appreciation for the particular resist the abstraction of science and the universal schemes of the technicians who seek mastery of nature and man, rather than restoration.

I have succumbed to the danger recently noted  by Anthony Kenny in a review of a new book about Newman: “anyone who writes about him quickly discovers that he is such a gifted writer, and his style is so bewitching, and so superior to one’s own, that one hardly dares to paraphrase his thought, and ends up overloading one’s text with verbatim quotations” See Times Literary Supplement 7/28/2010. Found here

A particular monastery in US, Clear Creek, may be visited at this site
Chant from Solesmes found here .

Join us!

* indicates required