One of the major distorting factors in the formation of Western Christianity was the unnatural focus on celibacy due to the Platonic denigration of matter and elevation of “spirit” to a separate metaphysical substance. Sometimes celebrated with allegorical erotic imagery from the Biblical “Song of Songs,” celibacy was often taken literally as a “marriage” with God. Those and associated distortions were borne forward by the monastic movement that became the principal residence of those ideals. But it would be shortsighted in the extreme to identify monasticism solely with its principal flaw and overlook the millennia of struggle it contributed in the pursuit of an earthly human happiness.
It might seem strange to characterize the monastic quest as “this worldly” when, here in the West at least, it comes attached to a Christian religion whose fixation on Plato’s other world built an extraordinary civilization powered by an inverted dynamism of fear and alienation. The fact is that monasticism antedated Christianity by many centuries and ascetics who were not yet caught in the trap of Plato’s imaginary world had already established the terms of the search, and those terms were happiness in the only world there was. Western monasticism inherited that movement, and offers an ultimate happiness whose achievement, reversing the priorities of Christianity, is explicitly conditioned on abandoning any desire for possessions of any kind, and that includes after death.
Benedict of Nursia
The Benedictine Order has long been acknowledged as the beginning and epicenter of western monasticism. Its founder, Benedict of Nursia, lived from 487 to 547. His order became a widespread, multi-community phenomenon and his ancient Rule was used in one form or another by later religious orders. The Rule was written by Benedict himself, and will be the subject of our inquiry.
Even though celibacy was an unconditional requirement of Benedict’s Rule, it seems its significance came more from Plato’s spiritualism than as a by-product of interpersonal relationship with “God.” Not only is nuptial imagery not found anywhere in the Rule, but the “love of God” or “love of Christ” are sparsely mentioned and then mainly as motivational formalities. There is no direct and explicit focus on a personal relationship with God or Christ as the driving force in the monastic pursuit as conceived by Benedict’s Rule.
But a thorough reading reveals much more. The Rule tells us about the way The Christian message was understood and transmitted in the west in Late Antiquity, and how monasticism conceived its role in that context.
For example, the Rule as written is not centered on Catholic sacramental ritual and the necessary role of the priest. The word “eucharist” never appears in the Rule, and where “mass” occurs it is always a schedule reference, as in “such and such will be done after mass.” Sacramental “grace” seems not to even have been a theological category and “confession” was understood generically and not as a sacramental event made available by priestly absolution. The Rule seems to consider the entry of priests into the monastery as something of a problem; the Rule makes it quite explicit that they should not presume to perform any sacerdotal functions outside of the direct orders of the abbot. Clearly the monastery wasn’t just a parish for the spiritual elite.
The Benedictine rule has guided the Christian monastic search for wisdom and human fulfillment for 1500 years. It is a short, simple document, produced in the middle of the sixth century. Scholars agree that it is a milder redaction of one written some decades earlier anonymously known as The Rule of the Master. Benedict’s Rule reads more like a friendly letter designed to outline the general intent of the monastery than a systematic document laying out a detailed program and daily schedule.
Clues to the unsophisticated nature of its recommendations are found throughout. Chapter 7, which will be our principal focus in this essay, is a prime example. The Chapter is exclusively devoted to humility. It lists in total 12 “degrees” of humility, no one of which could ever be considered a greater degree than any other. The reader gets the impression that by making a cumulative list, Benedict was trying to emphasize what Elliott would say 1500 years later: “humility is endless.” The unique focus of the chapter and its central location in the rule suggest that humility might be considered the leitmotiv of the Rule.
But the importance of humility was not a personal insight of Benedict’s. John Cassian, who brought the experience of the Eastern desert hermits to the West, listed “10 rungs on the ladder of humility” in his Institutes written around 420. The Rule of the Master which was composed later by someone who clearly was influenced by Cassian’s text, expanded the list to the 12 “degrees” later repeated by Benedict.
In chapter 5 of Benedict’s 73 chapter Rule, he gives away the game and says that the first degree of humility is “obedience.” He says nothing more about it at that point. But by chapter 7 it sounds like he has decided to work from a different paradigm because there, without acknowledging that he had already declared himself on the issue, he says: the first degree of humility is the “fear of God.”
This is a key oversight and a clue to Benedict’s whole vision. By fear he’s not kidding. He’s talking about being terrified of “the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God.” As becomes clear by the end of the chapter, this first degree really means “first step;” it is one of the two brackets that frame the entire discussion. The Chapter opens by declaring that the monk is expected to begin out of fear of punishment and hope for reward. But after he has mastered the whole 12 degrees of humility, it is hoped he will be a changed man. The last paragraph of chapter 7 reads:
Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.
This clarifies the matter. The phrase “fear of God” was not a generic placeholder, an hyperbole for taking your moral responsibilities seriously. In Benedict’s view you come to his program because you’re scared. You can’t live a Christian life and you know what that will mean for you in the end. But he has no problem with that. In fact it seems quite natural, and the alert reader even gets the impression that this fear and the monastic program work in tandem.
But a young man in the sixth century, afraid for his “soul,” who read the Rule before he entered, would realize that the monastery’s goal is precisely to cast out the very fear that brought him there. He would know up front that the monk is someone in the process of having his motivation transformed from selfish to selfless, from fearful to fearless, from self-protective and acquisitive to abundantly generous, from a resistant and grudging compliance to a zest and pleasure in aligning oneself with LIFE itself. Benedict’s word for this transformation is “humility.” That one word, in Benedict’s Rule, I believe, contains the very essence of his view of human happiness as understood by a sixth century Christian in the Latin West.
It’s difficult for us not to question the source of that initial fear. Why should the Christian message ever have inspired fear? Obviously in the sixth century there was real fear of “God’s” punishment and the eternal damnation that would cap it off. And I believe it would also be fair to say that if “fear” could be identified by Benedict as the universal and necessary source of the monastic vocation, fear must have been the prevailing motivation proposed by the official Church — in its preaching, sacramental rituals and personal counselling — for all Christians.
I want to point out that most people throughout history and probably even today, would see nothing extraordinary in this. It is exactly what they think religion is all about: people doing what they are supposed to do (as commanded by “God”) and by that means establishing the rule of justice — peace and harmony among men. Failing to obey entails punishment. Religion, and in this case, Christianity, is envisioned primarily as a behavioral program, subordinate to the good of society and therefore something of an ancillary political ideology. In this case perfect obedience — universal moral compliance by all members of the community at all times — would usher in the millennium. It would correspond to the definition of the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus spoke of so often. God will reign over the earth when humankind obeys his commands.
Some, like myself, would challenge this interpretation. As I read it, Jesus’ message was not some kind of re-promulgation of the “law,” but rather the definitive announcement of the love of a “Father” whose irreversible benevolence translates into a forgiveness without limit. The keynote is mercy born of compassion. Our Father’s love for us then becomes the model and motivation for our behavior. It is no longer a matter of law, if it ever was. We are to imitate “God” not obey him. It was a message that was intended to cast out fear. If Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” he meant the community of people who had heard the message of God’s endless forbearance and lived compassionate joyous lives in the knowledge of their unbreakable bonds of fearless intimacy with the source of LIFE.
Was Benedict one of them? Is the Rule’s explicit declaration that the very purpose of “humility” was to cast out fear, an indication that Benedict recognized a seminal defect in the secular Church’s message? In other words, did he see monasticism as an evangelical corrective, healing the distorted souls of men who had been deformed by the Imperial Church’s flawed transmission of the gospel and thereby bringing it back to its proper bearing?
Wasn’t there another possibility? Wouldn’t an obedience habituated by years of repeated practice, reinforced by a rule, an abbot and a community of fellow participants, give confidence and peace of mind to the fearful monk, a confidence that would also appear to cast out fear? I believe this amounts to asking: in Benedict’s view, does fear remain an aspect of motivation throughout the monk’s life, or does it actually get cast out?
The Rule says (7:11)
The monk is always to turn over in his mind how all who despise God will fall into hell for their sins, as well as the everlasting life prepared for those who fear God.
So fear remains — in the background, for sure — but it’s always there. It seems that Benedict and the “secular” Church were on the same page, after all. Claims that monasticism was a reaction on the part of persecution-hardened Christians to the sudden wealth, ease and luxury that accompanied Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, did not correspond to the inversion of gospel values that turned Christianity into a quid pro quo moral enterprise. That inversion had to have preceded Constantine’s conversion and, in my opinion, in fact made the latter possible. With the class division of Christian society into elites and commoners, the investiture of the clergy with magical powers, the transformation of the sacraments into quasi-hydraulic suppliers of “grace,” and the fear of eternal damnation for failing to obey the law, Greco-Roman Christianity represented a significant reversal of the egalitarian structures, symbolic rituals and free forgiveness of the Christian communities founded in the apostolic age.
So it’s no surprise that the monastic reaction would also have occurred earlier. Antony and the first of the Eastern desert Fathers began their ascetic experiments in 270, an entire generation before the Diocletian persecution of 303 which was terminated by Constantine’s victory in 312. From Antony’s own writings and his authoritative biography by Athanasius of Alexandria it is more than clear that the essential structures of Greco-Roman Christianity had already displaced the formations evident in Paul’s epistles. Gone was what Luther would identify as Paul’s emphasis on “free forgiveness,” in favor of a quid pro quo system in which moral behavior — obedience to God’s law — was rewarded or punished according to your level of compliance. Gone also was any enthusiastic anticipation of an imminent return of Christ. Eschatological urgency had been transferred to the personal Judgment facing each individual “soul” at the time of death and was the new source of the “fear” that western religions offer as their “stock-in-trade,” proven effective in the running of the far flung and culturally diverse Roman Empire.
It’s important to elucidate the link between these issues. The “fear” and “hope for reward” that is generated is exclusively connected to compliance with law. “Obedience” is the subjective disposition that activates compliance. So the fear that serves as the motivation for entering the monastery is the antithesis of obedience: fear arises precisely from disobedience. Therefore it should come as no surprise to learn that humility, clearly identified by the founders of western monasticism as the apex of Christian perfection, should be primarily the work and result of obedience.
But the issue is more complex.
The means to humility, in Benedict’s strategy, was obedience. Not only the initial announcement in chapter 5, but then in chapter 7 the second degree of humility reverts to “doing the will of him who sent me.” The third follows hard on the second and counsels the monk to “submit to the Superior in all obedience.”
The fourth degree of humility is that the monk “hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even, possibly, injustice, enduring all without growing weary and running away.” The unapologetic concatenation of humility with obedience in step after step as the driving force in spiritual development in Benedict’s mind is not disputable.
It’s hard to miss the point. These first four degrees of humility are simply different ways of restating that the most important tool for personal development, a tool the monastery is intent on utilizing, is obedience. This is more important than it may seem at first. For I contend that after Benedict’s establishment of humility as transformative of human motivation, his coupling of humility with obedience makes it unmistakably clear that not only is obedience a means and not an end in itself, but that the “kingdom of ‘God,’” for those who might have been erroneously deceived by the de facto preaching and pastoral program of the Church into thinking that it was essentially compliance with law, is to be identified as precisely this personal moral/affective transformation, and nothing else. The “kingdom of God” is the community of the humble: those who have gotten beyond frightened obedience.
This is a complex and somewhat convoluted point; but I hope I can make it clear: Regardless of the distortions of the gospel message that propelled compliant obedience into prominence in the Christian life of Late Antiquity, the monastic ideal as re-presented by Benedict is personal transformation — human healing and the creative energy it releases — not social harmony, distributive justice, or any other community goal, however noble, achieved by a dead, fearful, forced or self-interested compliance. The fact that the pastoral program of the “secular” Church served to provide a solid first step on the road to perfection would have fit perfectly into Benedict’s generally accepted scheme of things. But however valid that first step of fear was, Benedict was also very clear that it had to be transcended. It was not the fullness of Christian life; and it was the monastery’s job to start from there and carry it to fulfillment.
I believe Benedict’s Rule is indirectly stating that the purpose of the monastery is not to make men obedient … or to get a particular pattern of social behavior habituated, rooted in place and running smoothly. Obedience, in other words, was not an end in itself, necessary for social harmony. While the common good was clearly an indirect beneficiary, peace in the community was not the very purpose for demanding obedience. If it were, the motivation that the monk brought to the performance of this compliance would be irrelevant. The end would be the compliance itself, nothing else; the “12 degrees” and endless pursuit of humility would be superfluous. There would be no talk of “casting out fear,” for fear would continue be the most effective driver of compliance.
Benedict’s rule was not a program of social compliance. The Kingdom of God had to be established not in behavior but in the rectification of the emotions, the alignment of the human individual with the joy of LIFE and compassionate service toward the universal suffering LIFE entails. Moral behavior, thirst for justice, peacemaking, mutual aid, would necessarily follow; hence obedience was also a bell-whether: it was an indicator of who was humble. Only those who had gotten past having their own way were capable of obeying with a full heart and there would be no way to hide it. Where there was that kind of obedience, there had to be humility.
From the very first it is made abundantly clear that the most important tool for the achievement of humility is obedience. This immediately gives obedience a much higher purpose than the good order and efficient running of the monastery. By making obedience the servant of humility and not of good order, Benedict made obedience subordinate to personal growth and spiritual expansion, and not the suppressive submersion of the individual in a well-oiled machine. Did his successors all share that priority?
Humility, obedience and the nature of “God.”
There is much to reflect on as we look at this important development in our religious history. It illustrates with great clarity the issues we have been confronting in our pursuit of a new understanding of the “nature” of God as revealed by modern science. It doesn’t take long to realize that the sixth century Roman Catholicism that began to push people into monasteries was not very different from the Tridentine Catholicism that many of us were formed in prior to the Second Vatican Council. I would also wager that in many places not much has changed.
The “fear” that drove Christians into monastic life could only have been provided by a personal, punishing “God.” That means that somewhere along the line those who were in charge of the Christian communities had to decide that the loving, forgiving “Father” they had received from the parables of Jesus had to be re-imagined and re-issued as a wrathful punitive authority whose primary concern was compliance with commandments, not compassion for the self-lacerating grasping generated by the harshness of life. The tradition that Benedict inherited understood Jesus’ message, and utilized its distorted application to reverse the intent of that application and its effects. By making obedience ancillary to humility, it placed the broken human heart and the abject poverty of humankind in a position of revelatory prominence. It was humility that told us what “God” was really like: a “God” that “divinized” the humble, not the compliant. What was that all about?
In the next post I will turn to another monk, Johannes Eckhart, a fourteenth century Dominican whose radical re-conceptualization of “God” — in terms I believe consistent with modern science — was elaborated together with an equally radical re-conceptualization of the significance of obedience. Eckhart’s vision will help us move toward an ascetical practice that is consistent with the best insights of our ancient tradition while functioning totally within the sphere of the transcendent materialism that explains the reality of our universe and our place in it.