Why Thomists Need St. Benedict

In his talk at the University of St Thomas, F. Russell Hittinger, explains that one thing that St. Benedict taught the dark ages (his and ours) is “The slowness of the good, which is experienced as incredibly rich if one becomes as a child.” It is about a way of learning, indeed a way of life. Our society, and surely our educational institutions, are based upon both the speed and ambition of learning. I can think of no better example than the AP tests of the high schools — but the attitude extends all the way up. Learn the most, quickly, and advance to a new height, or put it all to some use. We do not dwell with the topic, we do not savor it. Benedict teaches us how to savor the good. Russell said: “The life envisaged by Benedict is not like a five-year plan, or a senior thesis, or a job report.  If one is obsessed with big projects under the strict temporal limits he will go starkers in a monastery.  The longest span of time worth considering is a liturgical season:  four weeks of Advent, forty days of Lent, fifty days between Easter and Pentecost.  Again, Ps. 90:  ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.’  From a point of view within the monastery, it doesn’t matter whether one’s allotment of time is an hour, a day, a week, a season, or many seasons.”

The evening of Newman’s conversion

Russell brings to his aid the writing of John Henry Newman on Benedict. Thus he says “If a Rule for Beginners is to take root, it must do so in a way fit for a child – or someone child-like.  One teaches a child through the senses and the imagination. In one of his greatest essays, ‘The Mission of St. Benedict’ (Published in Atlantis, Jan. 1858) John Henry Newman reckoned that Benedict taught poetically (find it online here).   By poetry Newman did not necessarily mean the craft of poetry, which is the craft of constructing metered verse.  Rather, he meant a way of learning that arises from sense, experience, and imagination.  Its special feature is wonder, or what the Latin speaking peoples called admiratio.  Admiration, is taken from the adjective mirus, wonderful.  We could call it knowledge touched by the thing being known.”

In the article by Newman, Hittinger finds this idea of poetical learning: “But as to the poetical, very different is the frame of mind which is necessary for its perception. It demands, as its primary condition, 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. 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 lesson Hittinger would have learn from St Benedict is this —

Wisdom is more like poetry than proof.  In Latin, the word sapiens denotes a person who can savor or taste.  Wisdom is knowing something that one can savor.  In Ch 19 of the Rule, Benedict prescribes that psalms are to be chanted sapienter, wisely.  Appropriately enough, in his life of St. Benedict, Gregory the Great comments that he was scienter nescius et sapienter indoctus, Learnedly ignorant and wisely uninstructed.  Benedict did not have a scientific theology of the Psalms, but rather a Rule for savoring them.”

Newman refers to a “Poetry of life, the poetry of ceremonies, — of the cowl, the cloister, and the choir…”  It’s all rather Harry-Potterish.  First, the black hood, the cowl, or what was called the cucullus – a poncho worn by children in ancient Rome.  Then, the cloister – the internal space of the monastery, like a child’s house or bedroom.  Finally, the choir which is the place of beauty.  Newman notes that in this kind of world, a person can take “each new day as a whole in itself … and doing works which cannot be cut short, for they are complete in every portion of them.”  Imagine, now, chanting all 150 psalms once a week.  The variety of images, moods and emotions.  Each psalm is chanted, and is complete itself; the one psalm repeatedly is complimented by next psalm, and by the next office, and the next day without any effort to tie disparate parts together into a scientific system of theology.  Lectio divina – a snippet of scripture, that suffices unto itself. 

I think that this lesson that Russell proposes that we learn from St. Benedict has a particular relevance to the Thomists who wish to restore learning along the lines of St. Thomas — to reintegrate faith and reason, and to build up the science of theology using the solid reasoning of philosophy. Some Thomists are focused upon solid reasoning, the scientia, of philosophy and may not even get to the theological synthesis. But we are missing the most important thing, the true center and heart of the enterprise, and to this St Benedict can lead us. The sapiential dimension, via the poetic mode, described by Russell in the passages above.

I pointed out to my brother that Newman also discusses Benedict in his sermon on the “Mission of St Philip Neri” (part 2) [found here].

Newman champions St Philip Neri because he comprehended the charisms of Benedict, Thomas (Dominic) and Ignatius. “He learned from Benedict what to be, and from Dominic what to do, . . . from Ignatius he learned how he was to do it.”

Newman admires the achievement of Thomas and Dominic: “It was the magnificent aim of the children of St. Dominic to form the whole matter of human knowledge into one harmonious system, to secure the alliance between religion and philosophy, and to train men to the use of the gifts of nature in the sunlight of divine grace and revealed truth.”

But the magnificent aim of the science of theology and philosophy, its great scope and synthesis, must be rooted in something deeper. This he learned from Benedict — thus at Monte Casino Philip immersed himself in the Benedictine prayer, and found himself, Newman explains —

no longer amid the mediæval grandeur, but among the Saints and associations of primitive ages; it is no longer the busy, gaudy town, but the calm and pure country; no longer cloisters and paintings, but rocks and sea, leading to meditation; .  .  .  .  no longer the holy doctrines and devotions of later piety, but the aboriginal mystery, contained in Scripture, Creed, and Baptism, and battled for in the first centuries, the dogma of the most Holy Trinity. Thus, everything about Philip threw him back into the times of simplicity, of poverty, of persecution, of martyrdom; the times of patience, of obscure and cheerful toil, of humble, unrequited service; ere Christianity had gained a literature, or theology had become a science, or any but saints had sat in Peter’s chair; while the book of nature and the book of grace were the chief instruments of knowledge and of love. Such was the school of St. Benedict . (Emphases added)

Faculty and students alike need to find and dwell in that “aboriginal mystery” of God. Theology must be rooted in an awareness of the real presence, and philosophy rooted in the intuition of being. How can one teach theology as a science without an acknowledgment of the mystery of God? Why even bother with the Catechism if there is no elan for the things of God? Like St. Philip Neri, Christian educators must remember what to be, not just what to do. Where is the “rule,” the habit, for savoring the truth? Where is the all important poetry inspired by creation and fall, the heart and imagination formed by the incarnation and passion? Who dwells daily in the “aboriginal mystery” through prayer and sacrament? Catholic identity depends on much more than the checked box of religious affiliation and the disjointed distribution requirements that pass for a curriculum.

The late John Senior, teacher of Abbot Philip Anderson, wrote: “monastic education is essentially static — quiet and still — a curriculum no longer running anywhere; a course but not a track. It does not move across any measurable distance but only somewhere in the trackless wastes of Egypt, or inside the hortus conclusus in some unnumbered house in the heart of a city and in the heart of someone in that house, as in the depths of a sealed well. Such an education does not submit easily to tests and measurements; it baffles registrars; one never graduates. It seems like a retreat, a vacation but not an indolence — it is a zealous leisure; careless of footnotes and bibliographies, its sources are within. One doesn’t read the hundred books or even the book reviews. A single verse suffices for an hour or a year and one forgets the chapters and numbers. . . . The student is like a bee gathering honey from several flowers. . . . And all through the long afternoons in the  quiet  . . . listening in the interior silence . . . reading and rereading . . . the liturgical year moves about the fixed point of the turning wheel.” The Death of Christian Culture (1978) pp. 176-77..

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