Life as a Long Lenten Fast

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them; then on that day they will fast. (Mark 2:20)

The days when the bridegroom is taken from us have now come. He has not been entirely taken taken from us; he is really, truly, and substantially present, but in a hidden way. We wait for Him to come again, and celebrate the definitive wedding feast. St. Benedict tells us that our whole lives should be a Lenten fast, awaiting the Easter of eternal life, but since in our weakness we are unable to fast always, we should at least use the holy forty days to separate ourselves from attachment to earthly things, and long with holy joy for the coming of the bridegroom:

Although the life of a monk ought at all times have the aspect of Lenten observance, yet, since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all during these days of Lent to lead lives of the greatest purity, and to atone during this holy season for all the negligences of other times. This we shall do in a worthy manner if we refrain ourselves from all sin and give ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and to abstinence. Therefore during these days let us add something to our ordinary burden of service, such as private prayers or abstinence from food and drink, so that each one may offer up to God in the joy of the Holy Ghost something over and above the measure appointed to him: that is, let him deny his body in food, in drink, in sleep, in superfluous talking, in mirth, and withal long for the holy feast of Easter with the joy of spiritual desire.

An Education in Desire

Titian Introduction   - 38

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (detail)

The words “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” have been much in my mind of late, and I thought of them again as a read a brilliant thesis on Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited by Elizabeth Quackenbush, a senior at Thomas Aquinas College this year. I suppose I must have been about 14 when I first read Brideshead, and I was completely dazzled. As Thomas Howard once wrote, Continue reading


562013_10151408917209021_196141803_n (1)Pater Johannes Paul, who was ordained to the priesthood last Sunday, entered the monastery at the same time as I did. Watching him be ordained, and then next day celebrate his first Mass, was extraordinarily moving. Pater Damian, who was also in our novitiate, preached at the first Mass, and recalled the our entry into the monastery, when we had lain on the floor of the Church (in the same place where later we were to lie for the Litany of Saints at our ordinations) and how the Abbot had asked “What do you want?” and we had answered “The mercy of God and the Order.”

Pater Johannes Paul has always been a great example to me of the monastic life as a passionate response to the question “What do you want?” He has often recalled how his own path into the monastery began when he was listening to a CD with quotes from Pope John Paul II. At one point Pope John Paul said: “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” The future Pater Johannes Paul says that he realized that his life was mediocre–that he did and thought whatever happened to be fashionable, and wasted his time on mediocre joys–he decided to try to find life in its fullness.

And that is the promise of the monastic life: fullness of life, a life directed entirely toward the infinite good, that tries as far as possible to resist resting in the second best. As St Benedict puts it in the Prologue of the Rule:

And the Lord, seeking his laborer in the multitude to whom He thus cries out, says again, “Who is the one who will have life, and desires to see good days” (Ps. 33[34]:13)? And if, hearing Him, you answer, “I am the one,” God says to you, “If you will have true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips that they speak no guile. Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps. 33[34]:14-15). And when you have done these things, My eyes shall be upon you and My ears open to your prayers; and before you call upon Me, I will say to you, ‘Behold, here I am'” (Ps. 33[34]:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9). What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.

The funniest line in Bl. Columba Marmion’s letters

I have been reading a collection of the English letters of Bl. Columba Marmion. Unlike in the more famous collection of his letters, the letters here are given in full – including the funny parts. Here is the funniest bit of all, from a letter of spiritual direction to an English nun:

I should be so glad to complete what I consider to be God’s work in your soul, by delivering you over completely to Our Dear Lord “Who has looked down on your lowliness” and wants you all to Himself (no accounting for tastes) .

No accounting for tastes! He isn’t just being flippant either; he was very aware of the dangers of flattery. In another letter to the same correspondent he gives the theological point which makes his joke the opposite of cruel:

God’s glory, as derived from us, consists principally in the infinite condescensions of His mercy. The more miserable and unworthy we are, – provided we have a good will and seek Hirn sincerely, – the more is His mercy exalted in stooping down to our misery. “There is more joy in Heaven before God’s Angels for one sinner who does penance, than for the 99 who need not penance”; and there is more glory given to God when He condescends to stoop down to a poor, mean, selfish, ordinary creature, than when He communicates Himself to one of those grand, noble, superior natures which, to our eyes, seem to claim His notice. St. Paul understood this so weIl: “He hath chosen the weak and despicable things of this world to confound the strong,” etc; ut non glorietur in conspectu ejus omnis caro,” “That man should not glory in His sight.”


Tonight my monastery begins its annual retreat. So I won’t be replying to any comments or e-mails for the next five days. In explanation of the curious fact that monastic communities go on retreat one can take what St Benedict says on Lent, mutatis mutandis:

Although a Monk’s life ought at all times to resemble a continual Lent, yet because few have such virtue, we exhort all in these days of Lent to live in all purity, and during this holy season to wash away all the negligences of other times. (Regula Benedicti 49)

Virgil and St Benedict

labor omnia uicit improbus et duris – Geor. I,145-146

In Spe Salvi, no. 15 the Holy Father notes that Christian Monasticism inherited its teaching on the nobility of work from Judaism. That may be, but St Benedict’s doctrine of manual labor is also influenced by Virgil’s Georgics. At least that is what Theodor Haecker claims in his book Virgil: Father of the West:

The First Monks of the West had St Benedict as their spiritual father, but their worldly father was Virgil. They did not scruple to bring Virgil’s Georgics with them – along with the Holy Scriptures and the Rule. They set out for the North as sons of St Benedict to clear the “forests” of wild souls and to cultivate them for the reception of the word of God, and this they did through their orare through their prayer; but they also set out as sons of Virgil to clear the forests of the wild lands and to cultivate them for the reception of grain and vine, and this they achieved through their laborare, through work ‘in the sweat of their brow’ – a biblical expression which is still the best translation for the Virgilian labor improbus. They were Benedictines according the order of grace, Virgilians according the order of nature.

Through the magic of google books I find someone  has made a close comparison of the Holy Rule with the Georgics:

In its emphasis upon regulation, [Renaissance georgic] literature has much in common with the spiritual “georgic” of St. Benedict, the Rule. Benedict’s Rule is founded in the “Roman” idea that common profit should take precedence over individual. He consequently seeks to create a rule that can be internalized by each member of the order. He addresses the reader as “son,” recommending that his spiritual son welcome the “labor of obedience” in order to help create the Lord’s community. He describes the “instrumenta bonorum operum” that the monk will need to build this community as love of God, humility, obedience, self-command, and patience. He divides the day and the year into cycles of spiritual labor (the “opus dei”). He insists upon daily manual labor, saying that idleness (“otiositas”) is inimical to the soul. Labor (as opposed to idleness), the common good (as opposed to individual satisfaction or sorrow), order taken into the soul and then imposed on the cycles of nature: these are the themes of the literature of the household, whether that household is a Roman villa [or] a Christian monastery [… and these themes are] georgic. (Lynn Staley)

Haecker, on the next page from the above text, makes a stab at showing the Georgics as the foundation of Western “culture”:

 The word “culture”, which today preoccupies and moves all minds of the West, does not come from the Greeks, who otherwise gave us almost all catholic words, but it is rather the gift of Roman farmers and signifies the essence and art of cultivating land. Culture is the inseparable unity of three things: [1] a given inanimate or animate matter, which man does not make, but from which he is himself made, of which he is himself a part; on which [2] the mediating labor improbus of man must necessarily be imposed; and from the union of these two – the first of which the first of which is gratuitous the second has the charachter of meritorious works – comes [3] the perfection of the fruit […]

He goes on at great length. The passage seems to have influenced T.S. Eliot, who read Haecker carefully:

There is I think no precedent for the spirit of the Georgics, and the attitude towards the soil, and the labour of the soil, which is there expressed, is something that we ought to find particularly intelligible now, when urban agglomeration, the flight from the land, the pillage of the earth and the squandering of natural resources are beginning to attract attention. It was the Greeks who taught us the dignity of leisure; it is from them that we inherit the perception that the highest life is the life of contemplation. But this respect for leisure, with the Greeks, was accompanied by a contempt for the banausic occupations. Virgil perceived that agriculture is fundamental to civilization, and he affirmed the dignity of manual labour. (“Virgil and the Christian World” – helpfully posted by laudator temporis acti)

Isidore of Seville and Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel Defend the Seminar Method Against the Immoderate Attacks of John Senior

John Senior’s book The Restoration of Christian Culture  is almost pure joy to read. Senior captures so perfectly the ideals of a very good sort of person, a sort that I happen to know well. The sort of Chesterton-and-Belloc reading home-schooling mid-western American Catholic that used to write for C & T.  Only he says things better than most such people. The Restoration of Christian Culture is written in such vigor and emphasis that at times it attains to prose intoxicating enough to have been written by Belloc himself. Still, for TAC graduates the jabs he makes at our alma mater are kind of annoying. After slamming the great-books movement in general for fostering skepticism (he was at Columbia back in the day), he admits that the Catholic version is somewhat better but that it would be good if the “Thomist philosophers among them” would remember that means must be proportioned to ends, and that the medievals didn’t see any use in “class discussion.”

I was reminded of this reading Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s Diadema MonachorumSmaragdus was a ninth century French monk, who wrote the oldest surviving commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. The Diadema is a collection of quotes from the fathers to be read at the collatio, the communal reading before Compline. In a chapter on the collatio itself, Smaragdus quotes the following passage from Isidore of Seville:

Cum sit utilis ad instruendum lectio, adhibita autem conlatione maiorem intellegentiam praebet; melius est enim conferre quam legere. Conlatio docibilitatem facit; nam propositis interrogationibus cunctatio rerum excluditur, et saepe obiectionibus latens ueritas adprobatur. Quod enim obscurum est aut dubium, conferendo cito perspicitur. (Sententiae III.14)

Kees Waaihman translates as follows:

Whereas lectio is good for instruction, collatio furnishes more insight. After all, conducting a conference is better than giving a lecture. A collation makes things comprehensible. Subject matter is set in motion because questions are raised. Frequently hidden truth is proved by objections. For what is obscure and doubtful is soon made transparent by a conference.

In his commentary on chapter 42 of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict Smaragdus explains a little more what is meant by “collatio”:

A ‘conference’ means a ‘bringing, speaking and chatting together’, in which while some bring questions about the divine Scriptures, others bring suitable answers, and in this way things that had long remained hidden become open and manifest to those taking part in the conference. (Smaragdus, In RB 42; translation David Barry)

Hmm, what would John Senior say?

Jokes as Common Goods

Surely Advent of all seasons is the time when one ought especially to remember St Benedict’s warning against “speech provoking to laughter,” (Regula Benedicti, VI) and yet seldom have I heard such uproarious laughter in the monastery as at chapter the other day. We were discussing the fact that during the recitation of the rosary some people omit the “Amen” after the Our Fathers. Now, in German the last petition of the Our Father runs “erlöse uns von dem Bösen. Amen”. (deliver us from evil. Amen.) One of my confreres (the venerable old man pictured above) recounted that as a child he always heard it (an therefore prayed it) as,  “erlöse uns von den bösen Damen”. (Deliver us from the evil ladies).

Why is it that on hearing really good jokes one immediately wants to tell them to others? Continue reading

Saint Benedict and Thackeray on False Peace

Vanity Fair

S. Benedict says (RB 4,25) that not to make a false peace (“Pacem falsam non dare”)  is one of the instruments of good works. There are a number of ways to take this. Dom Delatte, glossing it together with its context, writes: “It is the glory of the monastic life to be founded in loyalty and absolute sincerity, to be delivered from all the diplomacy and shiftiness of the world.” It occurred to me that that consummate mistress of diplomacy and shiftiness, Thackeray’s Becky (Sharp) Crawly, gives an astonishing example of one sort of “false peace”:

Becky, in the course of a very few hours, found means to make [George Osborne] forget that little unpleasant passage of words which had happened between them. “Do you remember the last time we met at Miss Crawley’s, when I was so rude to you, dear Captain Osborne? I thought you seemed careless about dear Amelia. It was that made me angry: and so pert: and so unkind: and so ungrateful. Do forgive me!” Rebecca said, and she held out her hand with so frank and winning a grace, that Osborne could not but take it. By humbly and frankly acknowledging yourself to be in the wrong, there is no knowing, my son, what good you may do. I knew once a gentleman and very worthy practitioner in Vanity Fair, who used to do little wrongs to his neighbours on purpose, and in order to apologise for them in an open and manly way afterwards—and what ensued? My friend Crocky Doyle was liked everywhere, and deemed to be rather impetuous—but the honestest fellow. Becky’s humility passed for sincerity with George Osborne.