Previous Page Table Of Contents Next Page

 

MAINTAINING THE TRADITION
OF BENEDICTINE SCHOLARSHIP
AND LOVE OF LEARNING

Shawn Carruth, O.S.B.

There are, of course, a number of possible approaches to the topic of this session. What I would like to do is consider first whether we can justify the claim implicit in the title, that is, whether there is, indeed, a tradition of Benedictine scholarship aside from the fact that there are Benedictine scholars. If we can justify that claim, then I would like to ask what are the distinctive sensitivities of that tradition. Do we recognize those sensitivities in ourselves? Is there any reason to identify with them?

How do we make claims for an integral place for learning in Benedictine monastic life? I begin with the evidence of the fourth century when Christian ascetic life became visible and began to be institutionalized as monastic life. According to Douglas Burton Christie, one of the things the ascetics who went to the desert in that era were about was the development of a new paideia. Paideia is a Greek word from which come the English word pedagogy and related terms. In the Greek world, paideia referred to the training of a young person to take ones proper role in the culture. There were basic texts, most importantly, Homer. But the goal of paideia was not primarily the mastery of a text or a body of knowledge but the formation of a person and the development of those virtues that fitted one for life in a particular culture. The desert ascetics had their text as well, the texts of Holy Scripture. They made a life's work of the study of these texts, not simply to know them in an abstract, intellectual sense, but to be formed by them and to act in accord with them. They studied in order to embody a culture, a culture that was Christian.1

Learning based on a text and learning with a practical and ethical goal was, thus, central to the life of the desert ascetic. The contemporaries of these ascetics noted the ways in which their pursuits and their lives were analogous to those of pagan scholars and called them philosophers. Like their philosopher counterparts Christian ascetics assumed that their knowledge emerged in practice and led to a life of blessedness.2

The fourth-century ascetics of the city, women like Marcella, Paula, and Melania, were also engaged in intensive study of the Scriptures. Jerome, for example, has something of a complaining tone when he talks of all the questions with which Marcella prodded him. But he also acknowledges her expertise when he says that, on his departure from Rome, she remained as the expert.3 Paula and her daughter Eustochium mastered the biblical languages and delved deeply into biblical interpretation.4 According to Palladius, Melania was a very learned woman who loved the word. She read Origin and a number of other erudite authors, not just once, but several times over.5 The study habits of these women, too, were inextricably linked with formation in an ascetic lifestyle and in Christian virtue.

Benedict was heir to this ascetic tradition and presumed the association of monastic life with texts. He implies that the monastery is a place for learning by calling it a "school for the service of the Lord" (Prol 45).6 He puts time for reading and study into the daily schedule (RB 47.4, 10, 14, 17-18, 22); he allows the provision for books to be read during Lent (RB 47.15-16); he encourages the further reading of the Fathers (RB 73.2-6). Jean Leclercq notes a number of other ways that reading and writing skills are presumed of members of Benedict's monastery.7

Just as in the fourth century Christian ascetic life and practice became visible insofar as it could be distinguished from a Christian culture become increasingly more mainstream and from the culture of the philosophers, so in the twelfth century the monastic culture of learning can be more clearly delineated as its long practice has taken a discernible shape and it can be distinguished from another approach to learning practiced by Christian scholars, namely, scholasticism. It is to the study of this monastic culture of learning that Jean Leclercq's The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is given. I would like to highlight some of the characteristics of that monastic culture as they are described by Leclercq. By the twelfth century in Europe two of the primary centers of learning that had developed were the monastery school and the cathedral school and from these two environments distinctive approaches to learning were developing. With the emergence of scholasticism out of the cathedral school we have a way of making a comparison between its goals, methods, sensitivities and typical genres with those maintained in the monasteries.

According to Leclercq, literature is the very foundation of monastic life.8 Of course monastics read Scripture and patristic writings. They also read all the ancient pagan literature. It seems they read all this classical literature in order to get a feeling for reading and writing that would help them understand Scripture. Leclercq points out that Boniface had already noted the need for knowledge of grammar in his claim that "Holy Scripture has its subtleties which are a hazard which could prevent its contents from being understood."9 All monastics were readers and what they read seems to have been everything that was available. I find it particularly interesting that, especially in reference to the pagan literature, Leclercq says that they read it because it was beautiful and they loved it. In other words, their quest was not so much for knowledge or doctrine, as it was for beauty and for the development of a taste for the beautiful, for literary subtlety, and for the moral sense of literature.10 They loved to read Origen, too. Even though they knew the nasty things Jerome had said about him, they read him because of his religious feeling.11

Monastic and scholastic approaches to learning differed with regard to methods, goals and preferred genres. Whereas scholastic lectio was directed to quaestio and disputatio aiming toward science and knowledge, monastic lectio was directed to meditatio and oratio with a goal of wisdom and appreciation.12

They were all readers and many of them, says Leclercq, were also writers.13 Their preferred genres were sermons and biblical commentary. They read and wrote history. Their histories were edifying in intent and, says Leclercq, paid more attention to ceremonies than to battles.14 They also wrote letters and dialogues. Largely pastoral in character, these genres reveal the practical outcome expected of monastic learning. A good deal of their writing was also poetic in expression. According to Leclercq, the worth of monastic language lies precisely in its evocative power. It has this power because its biblical inspiration is essentially poetic.15 Thus, it is literature addressed to the whole person, including the emotions. Comparing commentaries on the Canticle of Solomon, Leclercq notes that scholastic commentaries provided a doctrine addressed to the intelligence whereas monastic commentaries were addressed to the whole person-the aim is to touch the heart rather than to instruct the mind.16 It is the touching of the heart, the appeal to the emotions, that moves a person to action. It seems to me, then, we could say that monastic learning and its expression in monastic writing demonstrates a sensibility to the inextricability of goodness, truth, and beauty.

Finally, monastic study and writing were eschatological in direction. Leclercq makes this point with reference to the biblical narrative of the ascension. The disciples are told that instead of standing and gazing into the heavens into which Christ has been taken, they are to go out and spread the gospel. Monastics, though, have the privilege of continuing the watch. "Their testimony before the world will be to show, by their existence alone, the direction in which one must look. It will be to hasten, by prayer and desires, the fulfillment of the kingdom of God."17 The goal of monastic study is not definitive or certain solutions to questions but the stimulation of the monastic's thirst for God, that is, eschatological desire.

Monastic scholars also placed a premium on the environment in which their reading and writing was done. It was an environment of a shared, disciplined, ascetic life. It presumed the kind of spiritual leisure that the organization of monastic life is designed to safeguard.18 And it presumed humility on the part of the learner. It was the presumption of humility on the part of the scholar that prompted monastic skepticism regarding the scholastic approach. Monastics did not despise that method, but they worried that intellectual research outside the monastic setting would not have the guarantees of sincerity and humility. They feared it would lack respect for divine Truth to try to penetrate it as if by forcible entry. They worried that university studies are rewarded with titles and honors. They held that technique was not all sufficient.19

The world changed, though. As it turned out, the university became the main center of learning. Especially with the dawn of the Enlightenment, the goals and methods, the instincts and the anthropology of the scholastics prevailed. Monastic men and women, too, learned and practiced these goals and methods. We have our share of scholars and we participate in the larger scholarly world. We have become skilled. We have learned and we have taught. We have made our contributions to our culture's learnedness. Is there anything in us of the earlier monastic instincts toward study? Would it be worth finding out?

First, it is interesting to note that there are trends in what we understand as learning that would seem to reflect some of those monastic instincts. I remember, for example, a conversation with two of my colleagues-one a professor of philosophy, the other of mathematics. The philosopher turned to the mathematician and said to him something like this: "I am sure that one of the reasons you do mathematics is not only the satisfaction of a correct solution but the beauty of the solution." The mathematics professor beamed with joy and responded that, indeed, it was the beauty of the thing that kept him in mathematics. The dentist in my community knows the inseparability of truth, goodness, and beauty. She puts it this way. Whatever dental work she does should look good, feel good, and function well. She also thinks that if she gets just two of these right the third is all but free. If it functions and it feels good, beauty is free. If it looks good and it works, that it feels good is free. If she gets the science right, it's beautiful. If she gets the beauty and the practicality right, the science is free. One of my students, a mathematics major aspiring to be an architect is absolutely transfixed by the work of beauty brought to be through the exquisite mathematics of Bernini's Piazza San Pietro in Rome.

For a long time educators have talked about the importance of addressing the whole person when we think about learning and they remind us of the emotive side of the human person in this regard. Leclercq's study of monastic learning highlights just this. Monastic scholars were explicit and intentional about forming tastes and desires.

Another of the instincts of monastic learning is the importance of the application to morality. What monastic men and women studied and learned was to issue forth in life practice. Today, too, in academic circles there is talk of the place of the educator in public life. Many colleges are developing programs of service learning. In women's studies programs, especially, there is the sense that what one learns needs to give rise to some kind of action. Persons are changed by what they learn.

Post-modern insights are also helping us to be more humble in our scholarly endeavors. We used to talk about mastering a method of investigating a question, of coming to certain and clear conclusions. We talked about objectivity in our investigations. Now we are more aware of our own biases and social location. We want to bring more voices to the table and we want to listen more carefully to them. It's something like those twelfth-century monks and nuns who read everything in the conviction they could learn something from many places. And we are less confident about the human ability to master everything. Like the monastic scholars of the twelfth century, we know there are still some things about which our curiosity will be satisfied only in the hereafter.

So we see that there might be some compatibility in emerging awarenesses in academia with monastic sensitivities about learning, especially in regard to the importance of the whole person in learning, to the role of the emotions and of the power of beauty and the issue of learning in a morally good life. Yet there are some trends in the larger culture that work against us. I'll mention just two. It seems Americans, at least, don't do reading and don't do leisure. The July 19, 2004, issue of Newsweek carried an article that included this quotation from a report of the National Endowment for the Arts: "Indeed at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century." In the last decade the number of books published has increased by 58% while the number of fiction readers has decreased by 14%.

It is interesting to note here that the words "reading" and "leisure" occur in the same sentence. About our leisure Ellen Goodman wrote this a year ago: "Americans have always been a touch suspicious of leisure. Our Puritan patriarchs not only famously regarded idle hands as the devil's workshop, they believed the grindstone cleared the path to salvation. We've long been wary of both the idle rich and the idle poor as threats to our democracy." To maintain our Benedictine tradition of scholarship and love of learning we will not only embrace its instincts and sensitivities but maintain our habits of reading and learn to value a very busy leisure instead of the "working vacation" embraced by so many of our contemporaries.

What is there in our time of monastic scholarship and learning? I respond to this with a story that I find both very moving and exemplary of monastic sensitivities with regard to learning. It is the story of the Cistercian monks living in a monastery in the Algerian village of Tibherine.20 Surprising as it may seem to some, these contemplative monks were anything but shut off from the world around them.21 They interacted with the villagers on a daily basis. They provided employment for some of them and, by the 1970s, the monk who was a medical doctor provided health care for all in the surrounding area. Also in the 1970s, with the leadership of their prior, Christian de Chergé, they took up a serious and sustained study of Islam especially in reading and studying the Koran. It included organized regular conversations with Algerian Muslims as well as other Christians. This study was by no means limited to intellectual understanding. Two of the monks were described as intellectuals but as intellectuals who "disliked intellectual approaches to life-those that were abstract, doctrinal, and tended toward winning arguments."22 At one time de Chergé had said to a Christian professor in the Papal Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, "Live with Muslims and join your heart with theirs."23 Although the study was not directed toward abstract conclusion, it did result in a thing of beauty. De Chergé commissioned a crucifix for the monastic chapel, one that reflected Christian understandings, but one that would not offend Muslim sensibilities.24

In the 1990s the political unrest in Algeria and groups of militant radicals made life there dangerous for everyone and in 1996 seven of the monks were abducted and later murdered. They had known their lives were in danger, but they had chosen to stay. "They died because they wouldn't leave their Muslim friends who depended on them and who lived in equal danger."25 De Chergé had written to his family and friends months before the abduction. Here is an excerpt from what he said: ". . . my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able-if God pleases-to see the children of Islam as [God] sees them."26 This curiosity that desires both truth and beauty, that demands our moral commitment, that knows it can only be satisfied in God-is it worth our lives?

---

1 For the discussion of pagan philosophic and Christian search for holiness and the desert ascetics' new paideia, see Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: The Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (New York: Oxford University Press 1993) 54-62.

2 See George Seidel, O.S.B., "Monk as Philosopher, Philosopher as Monk" (American Benedictine Review 55.1 [2004] 74-84) who notes that the characterization of early monks as philosophers is well established. Seidel shows how the comparison is made but makes clear distinctions between the pagan philosophers and Christian ascetics showing that their cultures were, in fact, quite different. Jean Leclercq, too, notes that the Greek term philosophia "designates a lived wisdom, a way of living according to reason." He says that the use of the expression christiana philosophia to stand for monastic life was used well into the twelfth century (The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Catharine Misrahi [New York: New American Library of World Literature 1961] 107-08).

3 Jerome, Epist. 127. In the same letter Jerome attributes to her a saying that she quoted from Plato. Joan M. Petersen thinks she would have known the saying from Plato through Cicero (Handmaids of the Lord: Holy Women in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications 1996] 120, n. 56.

4 Jerome, Epist. 108. Palladius has esteem for Paula's intellectual ability, too (Lausiac History 41.2).

5 Palladius, Lausiac History 55.3.

6 This is not, of course, to assume that the Latin schola, translated as school, means what we understand by the word. For choices for the meaning of the word in Late Latin see Terrence G. Kardong, Benedict's Rule: A Translation and Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press 1996) 31-32. Kardong says Benedict's meaning can best be understood in what follows in Prol 46-49.

7 Leclercq, Love of Learning 22. He notes that the cellarer and the abbot keep accounts (RB 32.3; 35.11), records are kept in the archives (RB 58.29), community members need permission to have writing materials and to write letters (RB 33.3; 54.1). They are provided with writing materials (RB 55.19).

8 Leclercq, Love of Learning 26.

9 Cited by Leclercq, Love of Learning 46.

10 Leclercq, Love of Learning 123, 125, 139-41.

11 Leclercq, Love of Learning 102.

12 Leclercq, Love of Learning 78. Leclercq here reflects the medieval understanding of the stages of contemplation lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. In a set of lectures on RB 4 given for the CBP Renewal Program in Rome in 2004, Sister Aquinata Böckman suggested Benedict has a slightly different set of stages in a different order, namely meditatio, lectio, oratio, conversio. She says meditatio is the preparation for lectio. Her ordering of the second, third and fourth stages is derived from RB 4.55-58. RB 1980 translates meditare in RB 48.23 and 58.5 as "study." Terrence Kardong translates the verb in RB 48.23 as "meditate" and in RB 58.5 as "learn the Scriptures." He notes that most translate the verb "study" and that "most ancient `study' involved the Bible" (Benedict's Rule 467).

13 Leclercq, Love of Learning 189.

14 For the typical genres of monastic writers see Leclercq, Love of Learning, chapter VIII.

15 Leclercq, Love of Learning 59.

16 Leclercq, Love of Learning 91.

17 Leclercq, Love of Learning 61-62.

18 Leclercq, Love of Learning 15, 28.

19 Leclercq, Love of Learning 203, 207.

20 The story of the monks is movingly told by John W. Kiser in The Monks of Tibherine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria (New York: St. Martin's Griffin 2002).

21 The prior of the monastery from 1984 until his death, Christian de Chergé, "believed the contemplative life meant constantly pushing out frontiers, redefining and questioning, being willing to depart, like Abraham, for new lands. Abdelkader called this same spirit `a continual moving of the mind's eye' to different ideas and concepts to find the deeper truths that both unsettle and unite." Kiser, Monks 275.

22 Kiser, Monks 66.

23 Kiser, Monks 67.

24 For a description of the crucifix, see Kiser, Monks 135-36.

25 Kiser, Monks xiii.

26 Christian de Chergé's testament is found in full in Kiser, Monks 245.

 

Previous Page Table Of Contents Next Page