In his profound critique of modern ethics, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame philosopher Alisdair Macintyre famously wrote, “We are waiting, not for a Godot, but for another, doubtless very different, St. Benedict.” The reason for these words is that St. Benedict, traditionally known as the “Father of Western monasticism,” was responsible for the formation of small communities committed to the cultivation and teaching of virtue even as the world around them lost all cohesion. They are communities to which we would do well to look for inspiration today.
Indeed, civilization as a whole owes a very great debt to these monks. Benedictine monasticism, that is, monasteries which were organized and lived according to St. Benedict’s Rule, were the ark in which all of the classical culture of the Latin world was preserved from the flood of barbarism and the seedbed in which germinated much of the great monuments of medieval culture. In the words of Dom Jean Leclercq, “education” in the sense of instruction in grammar, of reading and writing, “is not separated from spiritual effort” in the Benedictine vision. The medieval Western theologian par excellence, Thomas Aquinas, was raised and educated in St. Benedict’s own monastery of Monte Cassino, and the greatest poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, has St. Benedict guiding the reader through the sphere of the contemplatives in Heaven, till
Collegiate to collegium withdrew
and the great Abbot ascends that ladder which,
‘. . . at its full extent,
Steals from thy view, since yonder is its goal.’
But to produce Aquinas and Dante, Latin-speaking Christendom had to begin from the ruins of Roman civilization. The English historian, Christopher Dawson, described St. Benedict’s as “an age of insecurity and disorder and barbarism,” in which “the Benedictine Rule embodied an ideal of spiritual order and disciplined moral activity which made the monastery an oasis of peace in the world of war.” C.S. Lewis’s good friend and fellow Inkling, Charles Williams, credits St. Benedict with benevolently imposing “the decent obedience of holy order.” But John Henry Newman emphasizes the gradual nature of the great Abbot’s achievement:
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 work 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 copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who 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.
St. Benedict’s Rule was a powerful agent in the civilization of Europe, a project which, for the Rule’s author as well as its followers through the centuries, was explicitly educational. In his Prologue to the Rule, St. Benedict quotes extensively from the Scriptures on the importance of holy living and concludes, “Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service [dominici schola servitii].” This reference to the monastery as a “school” should not of course surprise us, however, since already in the opening words of the Rule, St. Benedict has addressed his readers, “Listen, my son, to the lessons [praecepta] of the teacher [magistri].” Indeed, the Rule assumes throughout that the monks are discipuli, or “students,” and that the abbot is their magister, or “teacher.” In the words of the late Dom Adalbert de Vogüé, “the task of the monastic school is to educate us in the life of perfection according to the Gospel.”
(This is the first of a two-part series. To read part 2, click here.)