Tag Archives: Benedict of Nursia

The wisdom of Benedict: God in all, and Christ in the other


Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order

Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order

At this point in the draft of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I move from general remarks about monasticism to a reflection on the specifically Benedictine form that has long dominated Western monasticism. This is a distillation of the wonderful work of Benedictine scholar Columba Stewart:

We need something like monasticism because community is necessary for growth

The overwhelmingly dominant form of coenobitic monasticism in the West after the 9th century was the Benedictine form. When we talk about Benedict of Nursia’s (480 – 534/7) Rule, my students are conflicted. He insists on rules and disciplines, actual obedience, humility – all those things we free, democratic, individualistic Americans find so difficult. Benedict structures his monastic rule in a communal way that builds on the relational wisdom of Antony, but feels constricting to us. “For Benedict, as for the whole tradition before him, the key to monastic life was accountability to God and to other people.”[1]

Why is he so insistent on a lifelong community commitment?

First, because we hear God through each other – and this requires not just attentiveness but obedience

Benedictine scholar Columba Stewart identifies two fundamental insights in the Rule: First, “the divine presence is everywhere,” and second, “Christ is to be met in other people.” I’d call these the sacramental and the communal principles.[2] “The best kind of self-awareness,” says Stewart, “the kind leading to deeper and deeper awareness of God, occurs in the company of others. For most people, to become truly individual before God requires immersion in the common life.”[3] Continue reading

Monks, illness, demons, and sin


Monastic hospitalFitting right into the modern Monty Python stereotype of medieval people as backward, ignorant, and superstitious is the assumption that especially the monks of the Middle Ages sought only supernatural explanations for things. Understanding that up to the 12th century, healthcare took place almost exclusively in the monasteries, we jump to the logical conclusion: such care couldn’t possibly have attended to the physical causes of illness. Didn’t those monks just believe that illness was caused either by demons or by the sins of the sick person? There’s a germ of truth here (pun intended), but the reality was quite different. That’s the subject of the next section of the hospitals chapter in my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis.

Monastic phase

The distinctly monastic flavor of healthcare during the Middle Ages – even when it was provided by lay orders like the Hospitallers – deserves a bit more probing. From the beginning, monasteries in the West took Benedict’s cue and made caring not only for ill monks but also for needy travelers one of their primary tasks. The “stranger” was always an object of monastic charity. This “rather broad category,” says medical historian Gunter Risse, included “jobless wanderers or drifters as well as errant knights, devout pilgrims, traveling scholars, and merchants. . . .”[1] Monastic care for the stranger and the ill was formalized in the 800s during Charlemagne’s reforms, as assemblies of abbots (leaders of monasteries) gathered to reform and standardize that aspect of monastic life. At that time many of the scattered church-sponsored hostels (xenodocheia) across the Holy Roman Empire were given “regula”—quasi-monastic rules, and “monasteries . . . assumed the greater role in dispensing welfare.”

Organized, ubiquitous, stable, pious: the monasteries of the West became sites of care and of medical learning. “Benedict’s original rule ordered that ‘for these sick brethren let there be assigned a special room and an attendant who is God-fearing, diligent, and solicitous.’ This monk or nun attending the sick—the infirmarius was usually selected because of personality and practical healing skills. The latter were acquired informally through experience, as well as through consultation of texts, medical manuscripts, and herbals available in the monastery’s library or elsewhere. . . . The infirmarius usually talked with patients and asked questions, checked on the food, compounded medicinal herbs, and comforted those in need. . . .”[2]

“A rudimentary practice of surgery (‘touching and cutting’) at the monastic infirmary was usually linked to the management of trauma, including lacerations, dislocations, and fractures. Although these were daily occurrences, the infirmarius may not have always been comfortable practicing surgery on his brothers, for it was always a source of considerable pain, bleeding, and infection. Complicated wounds or injuries may have forced some monks to request the services of more experienced local bonesetters or even barber surgeons. . . .”[3] Risse notes other popular healing practices of the Middle Ages that were integrated into the monastic medical routine, including herbology, bathing (not otherwise common!), preventive bloodletting, and diagnostic examination of pulse, urine, stool, and blood.

The mention of some of these “backward” medieval medical practices may raise another stereotype many have in their heads about the Middle Ages. Just as some still believe the fabrication that medieval people believed in a flat earth, some assume that medievals did not know, and were not interested in, the physical causes of illness. Instead, the story goes, they assumed all illness came from devilish or demonic sources, or, a variant, from some hidden sin in the sick person. Continue reading

From poorhouse to hospital – a medieval development


Basil

Basil (Photo credit: el_finco) Not actually Basil the Great, but the herb, which has been used since ancient times as an anti-inflammatory.

Here’s the next bit of the “hospitals chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows from this bit on Lewis, this introductory bit, and this description of the very first proto-hospitals in the earliest Christian church

Basil’s House of Healing

The hospital itself, it is generally agreed, begins to emerge in the fourth century from the compassion of a well-known monk—Basil, now called “the Great.” In setting the scene for this story, historian Timothy S. Miller reminds us that Lewis’s “two-edged” description of the faith (body affirming + spirit affirming) characterized monks as well as laypeople – in a way many moderns find surprising. Mentioning some of the monks’ more severe ascetic practices (for example, the unforgettable Simeon Stylites’ long stretches sitting atop a pole in the desert), Miller admits, “Their lifestyles of severe self-denial may seem to pull against the truth that God made us human beings and called us ‘very good’—bodies and all.”

“But,” continues, Miller, “if monastics really thought of the body as evil, then how is it that some of the greatest strides in the history of healthcare arose within monasticism? Monks cared for the ill in Benedictine monasteries, Franciscan leprosaria, the institutions of the monastic ‘hospitallers,’ the many hospitals of the Augustinians, and so on throughout the history of monasticism.” Basil started it all, and his story “decisively dispels” our “myths of body-hating monks.”[1] Continue reading

Is everyday work spiritually second-class? Not according to these Christian thinkers


Refocused Vocation

Thanks to Leadership Journal for asking me to write the following. It’s now up at http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2013/
winter/refocused-vocation.html
.

Refocused Vocation

Over the centuries, it’s been distorted, but history also sharpens our view of every Christian’s calling.

Chris R. Armstrong

In the first history class of each new year at Bethel Seminary, I have my students talk about their sense of calling. Many of them tell a similar story: “I quit my job to go into the ministry.” What drove them to this decision was a sense of frustration and meaninglessness in their daily work. They didn’t see their workas pleasing to God or useful in the kingdom. The frequent assumption is that ordained ministry is where people are really working for God.

If that’s true, where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of their lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours in non-church work? Can they see secular jobs as a holy vocation? Can non-church work be a means to serve others, giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (Mt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Those in secular work often feel like only those doing things of significance in ministry positions will get to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This sense that ordinary work is spiritually second-class isn’t so much taught as caught. Continue reading

Monastic habits for non-monastics–Glimpses from Dennis Okholm


Cover of "Monk Habits for Everyday People...

A fascinating modern exploration of Benedictine ways

The following are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007). Along with works by Kathleen Norris, Phyllis Tickle, Leighton Ford, Karen E. Sloan, Tony Jones, and a growing group of other Protestant authors, Okholm’s book explores medieval monasticism–especially the Benedictine tradition. The forward is by Kathleen Norris.

As with the David Bell and Jaroslav Pelikan “glimpses” and the glimpses of Benedict and Francis by Columba Stewart, William Short, G. K. Chesterton, and Mark Galli, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. D means the definition of a term. “U” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

Q, 9 (from Kathleen Norris’s forward to the book, on Ockholm’s discussion of Protestants being attracted to monasteries): “He demonstrates that it is not just another case of Americans shopping around for their spirituality, but a genuine reclaiming of the taproot of Christianity, a reconnecting with a religious tradition and way of life that predates all of the schisms in Christendom.” Continue reading

Society sacralized from Rome’s fall to Charlemagne (400 – 800 A.D.)–glimpses from Bernard McGinn


Map of territorial boundaries ca. 450 AD

Image via Wikipedia

What follows are some acute observations on the Christian landscape of the early Middle Ages from Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994). For those interested in the monastic culture of the Middle Ages or the ins and outs of medieval spirituality, this is a wonderful text. McGinn has solidly mastered all that he writes about, and he communicates it in terms understandable to the nonspecialist reader.

The notes that follow are taken from Chapter 1, “The Making of Christendom.” Each note begins with the page number.

17        “The changes in Christian spirituality between 400 and 800 are especially significant for understanding the development of medieval Latin mysticism. No one disputes that these centuries saw the end of ancient Christianity, tied to the world of the late Roman city, and the birth of early medieval Christianity, more often than not rural and monastic in character. . . .” Continue reading

Glimpses into Benedict, his Rule, and Benedictine monasticism, from Columba Stewart


These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Columba Stewart, OSB, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998)

The whole Orbis Traditions series of which this book is a part is outstanding–short, affordable paperbacks that are meaty, wise, and quotable. And Stewart’s is the best of the series out of the 4 or 5 I’ve read so far. You will find here (1) a nutshell biography, (2) a lively exegesis of various sections of the Rule, and (3) succinct and penetrating observations on the distinctives of the Benedictine way: the lectio divina, the “work of God” (liturgy), silence, personal prayer, humility, obedience, and much else that I, at least, found illuminating. Continue reading

Medieval monasteries in the history of hospitals


It’s often the “just-right source” that opens up a topic for me, and as I teach it, for my students. In the Resources for Radical Living course, I will be profiling the history of Christian practices of medical healing (that is, not including “faith healing”). An excellent source on this topic just came to me via the wonderful almighty inter-library loan system (thank you Mark Nygaard in the Bethel Seminary library), and I’d like to share a bit of it with y’all. [For more of the story beyond what follows, see here and here.

Guenter B. Risse of the Department of the History of Health Sciences, UC San Francisco, provides fascinating insights into the many stages of medical practice within Christian communities from the earliest years of the church onward in his compendious book Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals (Oxford University Press, 1999).

To take just one example: I have seen it said in a number of places that the hospital was a medieval Christian invention. What follows are some excerpts from Risse on health care within medieval monasteries, from chapter 2: “Christian hospitality.” “Invention” is likely too strong a word to use of medieval developments in care of the sick–the Cappadocian father Basil the Great (330 – 379) was setting up something like ancient hospitals in Caesarea to address famine and disease in that city, and there were earlier pagan models that bore some resemblance to what later became hospitals. However, we can see from early on in Benedictine monasteries many of the rudiments of modern hospitals:

“From the start, providing hospitality and healing the sick became key responsibilities of European monasteries, reflective of both the inward and worldly missions they had assumed. As in the East, early Christian welfare in Europe targeted voluntary and structural paupers—there were few distinctions between them—as well as pilgrims. Continue reading

New monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove retells monastic history


Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)

This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).

Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading

Resources for Radical Living: The book and course, version 2.0–the revised case studies


This is the third in a series of posts on the Resources for Radical Living course(s) and book by Mark Van Steenwyk and me (Chris Armstrong). The first post presented the original version of the course. The second presented the revised structure of the course and book.

This third post presents the revised list of case studies.

Even more important, this post asks you, dear readers, to comment on these case studies and suggest any primary or secondary readings that you think will help Mark and me as we work on these new case studies and our students as they plunge into this challenging area of “radical Christian living.” Continue reading