F. R. Hittinger on the School of Benedict

The following remarks are taken from the paper that Professor Hittinger will deliver at Jones Hall, the University of St. Thomas, on Thursday at 7:30 pm. “What St. Benedict taught the Dark Ages — His and Ours.”

fulfill with the help of Christ this little Rule for beginners

Benedict was born in 480, fifty years after Augustine’s death.  He, too, came from a provincial Roman town, Nursia (today, Norcia) in the mountains of Umbria; going back some 1200 years, this was the borderland of the Etruscans and the Samnite tribes.  He too was the son of a Roman civil official.  As an adolescent, Benedict was sent, along with his nanny, to Rome to learn very same trivium studied by Augustine.  First, he needed to become a grammaticus.  What was grammar?  The knowledge of words.  According to the ancient wisdom: “Everything which does not deserve to pass into oblivion and has been entrusted to writing, belongs necessarily to the province of grammar.”  Like Augustine, Benedict absorbed himself in grammar but worried that rhetoric was morally corruptive.  Augustine did not pray for an emancipation from rhetoric until his was in his mid 30s (indeed, in Bk 9 of the Conf. he describes his baptism as a liberation from rhetoric); for his part, Benedict discerned this problem at the age of 16 or 17.  So far as we know, he only studied the first segment of the trivium. 

Abandoning his formal education, Benedict tried to live the monastic life as a hermit in caves in the vicinity of Subiaco, not far from Rome.  Like the desert father, St. Antony, Benedict learned experimentally.  He became so proficient in knowledge of the divine word that other monks asked him to be their master.  In the Rule, Benedict says that he intends to found a school – in Latin, a schola – for the service of God. 

Yet his first attempts to educate and govern other monks were troubled, to say the least.  On at least two occasions, his monastic sons tried to murder him … indeed, in the old fashioned Italian way, which was by poisoning.   But Benedict was discreet and prudent.  He learned how to govern monks – Even allowing a bit of wine every day to combat “sadness” and to relieve the temptation to “murmurring.” (Cap. 40)

Learning by trial and error he went on to found thirteen monasteries.   Moving to Cassinum, some 70 miles southwest of Rome, Benedict ascended the 1800 foot high Monte Cassino in 529, and there, at the summit, over top of a temple of Apollo, he laid the altar for his greatest monastery.  A year later, he began to write his Rule.  Written in vulgar or ordinary Latin, and amounting to less than 9000 words, it is quite different than Augustine’s work.  It has neither eloquence nor speculative power.  Untold thousands of souls have been converted by reading Augustine, but it is hard to imagine anyone being converted merely by reading Benedict’s Rule.  His genius was not in rhetoric or logic.

If Augustine was the greatest stylist and speculative thinker of the Roman world, Benedict exemplified, in the vespers of that civilization, the genius unique to Rome.  Romans always knew that their language and speculative tradition was inferior to the Greeks; that their religion was inferior to the Eastern religions, especially the Egyptians; that their aesthetics were inferior to the Greeks and the Carthaginians.  Rome’s destiny was different.  As Virgil declared in the Aeneid: 

Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law, To spare the conquered [and] battle down the proud.

Albeit, in ways unimagined and unanticipated, Benedict’s Rule proved to be the greatest pacification program in western history. 

The shadows had lengthened since the time of Augustine.  Benedict was born 70 years after the Alaric and his Vandals sacked Rome, less than 30 years after Attila’s Huns had swept through Italy, and only two years after the demise of the last Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus.  In this sense – and only in this sense – can Benedict be regarded as a Minervian owl.  As Roman civilization collapsed around him, he established an institution that had the stamp of Roman genius. 

Otherwise, there is no evidence that Benedict thought of himself or his monastic Rule as either the end or the beginning of any epoch.  As a man of the ancient world, he had no intention to transmit any wisdom other than the ancient one.  After all, Christianity and monasticism, first arose and were practiced as an ancient wisdom.  Benedict perhaps first learned of monasticism from Syrian hermits who lived in caves around Norcia.  These and other monks simply believed that they were imitating Christ and his apostles.  They had read the scriptures, above all Luke 4:

Led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, Christ prayed, fasted, and was tempted by the Devil. 

The first Adam sinned and was expelled from the garden of delights – thrown into a wilderness – like the Prodigal Son in the plantation of sorrows, eating food not fit for the swine, and not knowing the way back to the house of the Father. As Augustine explained:  “For on whatever place one has fallen, on that place he must find support that he may rise again.” (De Vera Rel. XXIV.45).  The new Adam begins where the old Adam fell.  Christ went into the desert to confront Adam’s nemesis; and where the first Adam failed the New Adam succeeds in resisting the temptations and pomps of the Devil, thus showing the way back to the Father. 

Many things and institutions have their origin in the medieval centuries:  parliament, romance vernaculars, the heavy plow, tidal mills, cannons, the spinning wheel, universities, glass mirrors, and percussion drilling, invented by Cistercians.  But monasticism is not an invention of the middle ages.  It comes instead from a more ancient light discovered in the desert. 

In the last Chapter of the Rule, Cap-73, entitled:  “The Whole of Just Observance Is Not Contained In This Rule,” Benedict insists that, whatever is taught in this Rule, is only a part of what is transmitted from the Holy Fathers.  And by the Fathers, you will see that he meant (1) the Apostles, (2) the authors of Holy Writ, (3) the example of the Desert Fathers, (4) and those who have written Institutes for the governance of monks.  He concludes: 

Whoever you are [quisquis] hastening toward your heavenly homeland; fulfill with the help of Christ this little Rule for beginners …

This school for beginners includes rules for reading and writing, for chanting, for using and cleaning farm implements, for greeting strangers, for determining prices for goods sent to market, the organization of crafts, and many other simple, practical details.  The school is free – no tuition by way of social class or money.  We learn in Ch 58 that the only thing necessary is a willing heart (quaerere deum) and adherence to the Rule under the Abbot.  Benedict’s Rule governs a monastery in which the rich and the poor alike begin as beginners.  And these beginners begin where the light first appeared – in the desert, where Christ showed the sons of Adam the way back to the Father.  There is no other curriculum in this school..

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