15 January 2012

'A School for the Lord's Service': St Benedict's Rule & Classical Education

This was an article I wrote for our school newsletter, Remarkable Providences. I have corrected a passage which got seriously distorted in the print edition thanks to my own hasty perusal of the proofs, and also added notes and links.

In his profound critique of modern ethics, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously wrote, ‘We are waiting, not for a Godot, but for anotherdoubtless very different—St Benedict.’ [1] 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, civilisation as a whole owes a very great debt to these monks. Benedictine monasticism, that is, monasteries which were organised 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 many of the great monuments of mediæval 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. [2] The mediæval Western theologian par excellence, Thomas Aquinas, was raised and educated in St Benedict's own monastery of Monte Cassino, [3] and in his Divine Comedy, the greatest poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, has an important exchange with St Benedict in the heavenly sphere of the contemplatives. [4] But to produce Aquinas and Dante, Latin-speaking Christendom had to begin from the ruins of Roman civilisation. John Henry Newman emphasises 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 city. [5]

St Benedict’s Rule was a powerful agent in the civilisation 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].’ [6] 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].’ [7] 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.’ [8]

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’. [9] In the Rule St Benedict lays out in painstaking detail how the ‘school’ is to be organised, 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 summarised in the famous motto Ora et labora (‘Pray & work’), [9] 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 organisation 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. In the opening lines of the Prologue, 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 [and sadly long defunct] 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... [10]

The next imperative is inclina—‘attend with' 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. [11]

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. [12]

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 . . .’ [13] 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.’ [14]

We at Providence Hall would do well to heed the teaching of St Benedict's Rule if we too wish to be ‘a school for the Lord's service’.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984), p. 263. I have written a post on MacIntyre's reference to St Benedict called ‘Waiting for St Benedict: MacIntyre, Monasticism, & the New Dark Ages’.

[2] Dom Jean Leclercq, OSB, The Love of Learning & the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, tr. Catharine Misrahi (NY: Fordham, 1961), p. 24.

[3] This was first called to my attention by James Taylor in Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998), pp. 39-40: ‘It was, then, into a society, a culture, built on centuries of slow Benedictine influence so eloquently described by Newman [see above], that Aquinas was born in the thirteenth century. . . . Certainly to be considered is the fact that Thomas was placed with the Benedictines of Monte Cassino at an early age.’ But I later discovered that Taylor's teacher, John Senior, emphasises the point much more strongly: ‘St Benedict, Patron of Europe, founded Monte Cassino in 529. St Thomas as a little boy of five entered there to go to school around 1229—seven hundred years in the womb of Benedictine work and prayer and then you have St Thomas! The seedbed of theology is the Benedictine life, without which no one has the prerequisites’ (The Restoration of Christian Culture [Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008], p. 87).

[4] Paradiso XXII. Dante’s choice of words in l. 98 to describe St Benedict rejoining the other contemplativesCosi mi disse, e indi si raccolse / al suo collegio, e ’l collegio si strinse (‘Thus he concluded and the voice was stilled. / Collegiate to collegium withdrew’)seems to highlight in a fortuitous way the connection between St Benedict and education. The Italian I’ve taken from Dante, Paradise, tr. & ed. Anthony Esolen, illust. Gustave Dore (NY: Modern Library, 2007), p. 240; the translation is Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds, The Divine Comedy 3: Paradise (London: Penguin, 1962), p. 252.

[5] John Henry Newman, ‘The Mission of St Benedict’, {410}.

[6] Here I quote RB1980, but throughout the article I have in some cases given my own translation to emphasise the point I want to make, or I have offered alternatives from various translators. For the Latin text, I have used Abbot Justin McCann, OSB, tr. & ed., The Rule of Saint Benedict in English & Latin (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.).

[7] My own translation.

[8] Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, tr. Colette Friedlander, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994), p. 34.

[9] I have written on this motto in the post, ‘Ora et Labora?

[10] Senior, p. 93.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 94.

[13] Ibid., p. 95.

[14] Ibid.


j w said...


Joe said...


Benjamin Ekman said...

Nice to have you blogging again!

You might be interested in checking out the website of the research I work as a research assistant for here at Lund University in Sweden:


This project seeks to deal with the idea of monastery-as-school in the early eastern monasticism of e.g. Egypt and Palestine. It is led by Samuel Rubenson who has done research on the learning of early Egyptian monasticism as seen in the Letters of St. Antony.

Pax et bonum,


aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for letting me know, Benjamin. I'm definitely interested! I read a bit of Rubenson's book on St Antony's Letters, and found it pretty fascinating.