(This is the second of a two-part series. To read part 1, click here.)
But to this end, the monastic “school” has need of a handbook, curriculum, and curriculum objectives, which are contained primarily in the Holy Scriptures, but also in the Rule itself and in the various writings of the Church Fathers which it recommends “for anyone hastening on to the perfection of the monastic life.” In the Rule St. Benedict lays out in painstaking detail how the “school” is to be organized, even down to the exact daily schedule and arrangement of the services to be carried out and Psalms to be chanted in the church. The times for prayer, work, and individual study of Scripture, all summarized in the famous motto Ora et labora (“Pray & work”), are delineated. There are exact prescriptions of punishment for various offenses. The way in which meals are to be taken is described at length, with allowance for the different fasts of the Christian year.
This strict organization of life as a “school for the Lord’s service” suggests obvious parallels to the efforts of those of us involved in classical Christian education today. But while one could easily discover applications to the life of a classical Christian school in basically every line of the Rule, this is not the place for a such a painstaking procedure. Instead, I’d like to look at the opening lines of the Prologue alone, where if we read thoughtfully we find a beautiful distillation of what classical Christian education must assume at the outset. The late John Senior, one of the founders of the renowned Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, has taken each of the four imperative verbs of these opening sentences in the Latin text and shown clearly how relevant and challenging they are for both students and faculty.
The very first word, ausculta, means “listen.” Senior points out that this reminds us that education begins with quietly listening, for “it is only to the just, gazing in rapt silence like a lover on his beloved at the art or thing, it is only to the patient, silent receptive listener, that the meaning of the poem, or the mystery of the number, star, chemical, plant—whatever subject the science sits at the feet of—is revealed…”
The next imperative is inclina—“attend” or “incline the ear of your heart.” Perhaps the most foreign concept to modern education, according to Senior, “This means students must love their teachers and teachers must be worthy of such love. Learning is a motion of the heart and not a mercenary contract in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ where the natural desires of youth to reach the stars are distracted from their aim by catalogues, orientation sessions and academic advising impelling them to marketable skills and government grants.”
The third imperative is excipe, that is, “accept” or “welcome the admonition of a loving father freely.” In other words, the student must freely accept “not just the precepts and the counsels but accept the correction and rebuke of the teacher who stands in loco parentis as the strong, gentle, pious father. Humility is a necessary condition of learning. The relationship of student to teacher is not one of equality, nor even of quantitative inequality as between those advanced and less advanced on the same plane; it is the relationship of disciple to master in which docility is an analogue of the love of man and God, from Whom all paternity in Heaven and on earth derives.”
Finally, the last of the four imperatives is efficaciter comple—“faithfully put it into practice.” According to Senior, “The student must not only receive the knowledge, counsel and correction of the teacher, he must fulfill them …” To do this, the student must ultimately move beyond merely parroting or complying to truly understand what he is taught, “and by learning, become assimilated to the spiritual, intellectual and moral model of the teacher. . . . [Faculty and students] according to this rule should be better than the rest of the community, not only in intelligence but in manners, morals and taste as well.”
It was not the encyclopedias and the structure of the Empire which saved civilization and souls, but St. Benedict’s Rule.