Contained in this issue, you will find an article entitled: "A Contemporary Looks at Monks: The Witness of Procopius." The piece is by Fr. Adalbert de Vogüé OSB, one of the premier commentators on early monasticism, and one whose work has often been published in these pages. Procopius of Gaza was a Greek historian of the sixth century who spent some time in Italy with the Byzantine army of Belisarius. Since he is one of the rare voices we have from that time, Fr. Vogüé considers him a precious source for background on the monastic life at the time of St. Benedict.
As it turns out, though, Procopius has not got much to say on the subject. From what we can tell, he never met Benedict and knew nothing of Monte Cassino. What is more, he rarely mentions monks in his book on the Italian war (de bello Gothico) or in any of his other books. In fact, to his surprise, Vogüé discovered that Procopius was not even a Christian! We were always aware that not everyone at that time was an orthodox Christian, for the Gothic invaders of Italy were Arians, but Procopius was simply a pagan.
Since his reading of Procopius turned up so little, why does Vogüé bother to report it to us? When documentary evidence is as hard come by as it is for the sixth century, we must collect and treasure every scrap we can get. Besides, the few comments that Procopius does make are significant because they show us what aspects of the monastic phenomena were known even by a most distant, detached observer at that time.
Nevertheless, even though this article is as elegantly researched and written as most of his works, Vogüé himself would probably not consider it particularly important. It is just one more small piece in the vast jig-saw puzzle of ancient monasticism that he and other scholars have been assembling for centuries. Why then comment on it?
The casual reader may not understand what it took to produce this article: it appears that the great French scholar read the entire corpus of Procopius to find every reference to monks. What is more, he read it in the original Greek! Although Procopius has been translated into the main European languages, there is no sign that Vogüé used any of these versions. And there are multiple indications that he is following the original.
To a monolingual American, even one like myself who reads a few other languages, there is something stunning about this kind of competence. I remember once when I was taking a course on Cassian (in fact, taught by the same Vogüé), I asked a fellow student (admittedly, another American) about a certain term. Since I was following Cassian in English translation, I used the English, but my classmate did not know what I was talking about since he was doing all the outside reading in the original Latin. At that point, I knew the difference between a smattering of knowledge and true mastery.
Getting back to Vogüé's study of Procopius, it might be good to give the reader some idea of the size of the task. We are not talking here about just one book, but five, taking up seven volumes in the famous Loeb Classical Series. For many people, such a reading project would take years and only be undertaken to produce a PhD thesis; for Vogüé it comes to one small brick in the vast edifice of his scholarly production. To someone like myself who has read a few ancient texts and written a few articles, it is an incredible accomplishment.
It also leads me to the rather sad reflection that such scholarly feats may be coming to an end. I am sure Vogüé has read Greek since his school days in the 1930s and 40s. At that time, the best education still included the Classics. Nowadays, however, only a specialist in Greek literature or history would learn the language. In monastic circles, fewer and fewer Benedictines can handle the ancient languages. Prospects for the scholarly future are not good.
One must not, however, end on a pessimistic note. We should give thanks that such competence still exists in our world. We should also be grateful that this monk of the Abbey of Pierre-qui-Vire in (Burgundy, France) was allowed enough time at monastic studies to produce an article like this. Ultimately, one must thank Fr. Adalbert himself for spending his life in such hidden, but prodigious labor that benefits the whole monastic world.
OSB Index * ABR