29 March 2013

RB 4, the 'Unexpected' Chapter




My friend, the infamous dissident blogger known as ‘the Ochlophobist’, posted the following comment on Facebook a few weeks ago: ‘I've pretty much decided that chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict [see some texts and translations here] is the best and most accessible summation of the Christian life to be found.’ There’s certainly something to this. As Bossuet has written, the Rule itself is ‘...an epitome of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgement of all the doctrines of the Gospel, all the institutions of the Fathers, and all the counsels of perfection’. [1] What is true of the Rule as a whole is certainly, in this instance, true of the part. Anyway, the comment made me want to post something on this chapter, preferably to coincide with the Orthodox feast of the great monastic legislator on Wednesday of this last week. The last was not to be, but better late than never, right?

Part of the interest of Chapter IV is that the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé (writing in the year of my birth, 1977) called it ‘without doubt the most unexpected part of the Rule’. Père Adalbert explains:

At first glance it astonishes the reader by its unusual make-up—a list of maxims—and by its lack of connection with the surrounding treatises. Upon further examination the reader is disappointed to find in this succession of little phrases little or no order. Moreover, if it is a program of good works to accomplish with an eye to eternal life, one would expect a different choice. Why is the important side by side with the secondary; ‘To love God and the neighbor’ with’Not to love laughter’; the solemn commandments of the decalogue with ‘Not to be a great eater’ or ‘Not to be sleepy’? A list of seventy-four maxims is either too many or too few. Why not an infinity of others, neither more nor less useful? Finally, this collection of maxims astonishes us by its indecisive coloring, its uncertain relationship with monastic reality. To whom and of what is the author speaking? To seculars who are married and exposed ‘to committing adultery’, or to monks who have made a vow ‘to obey their abbot’? [2]

Last December I finally acquired a lovely old hardcover copy of Dom Justin McCann’s [3] translation of Dom Paul Delatte’s Commentary on the Holy Rule of St Benedict (the commentary recommended to me during a school trip by one of the senior monks at the Benedictine abbey, Our Lady of Clear Creek, in eastern Oklahoma). [4] Although Dom Delatte confesses his uncertainty about what precisely instrumenta bonorum operum means, he doesn’t seem the least bit perplexed by the chapter itself. From his perspective the chapter seems to fit right into the overall structure of the Rule unproblematically:

We remember with what insistence our Holy Father declared in the Prologue that progress in the Christian life is effected by the practice of good works and the constant exercise of all the virtues; he now describes this well-regulated activity. This chapter gives a long list of the principal forms in which it is displayed; immediately after come separate chapters devoted to the fundamental dispositions of the soul, to obedience, recollection, and humility. [5]

For Dom Delatte, the chapter is merely St Benedict’s own foray into the genre of gnomic literature:

A word on the sources of this fourth chapter. Almost the entire series of instruments is to be found in the second part of the first Decretal Epistle of St Clement; but it has long been recognized that this second part is spurious and the work of Isidorus Mercator. There are certainly analogies between St Benedict’s chapter and the beginning of the Teaching of the Apostles (reproduced in the seventh book of the Apostolic Constitutions); both, for example, commence with the statement of the twofold precept of charity; Dom Butler, however, holds that it is impossible to give certain proof of borrowing. One may also compare the passage of the Holy Rule with the forty-nine sentences published by Cardinal Pitra under the title: Doctrina Hosii episcopi (+ AD 397); or with the Monita of Porcarius, Abbot of Lerins (at the end of the fifth century); or again with the Doctrina of a certain Bishop Severinus, who has not been identified yet so far as I know. We find analogous collections of sentences in the pagan philosophers themselves; see, for example, the Sentences attributed to the Seven Sages of Greece, the prose Sentences which precede the Disticha Catonis, and the Sentences of Sextus, a fragment of which St Benedict cites in Chapter VII. All civilizations have left us with specimens of this gnomic literature; the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus belong to this class. We are naturally led to express our morality in mottoes, to embody it in practical axioms; it seems to us to make virtue much easier when we achieve a short, pity, and well-turned phrase, which in its very perfection has a gracious charm. The old monastic rules were generally composed in this short, sententious style. And it is from them, from Holy Scripture, and to some degree from all sources, that our Holy Father seems to have gleaned his seventy-two instruments of good works; it is not yet proved that he has only copied, with greater or lesser modifications, one or several previous collections. [6]

Of course, in Père Adalbert’s view, addressing the unexpectedness of Chapter IV in the context of the RB is not unconnected with this question of whether St Benedict has ‘copied, with greater or lesser modifications, one or several previous collections’. He takes it for granted—and I am not sufficiently acquainted with scholarship on the question to explain on what grounds—that St Benedict’s is later than, and largely a reworking of, the so-called ‘Rule of the Master’ (RM), a text of which Dom Delatte in 1913 makes no mention at all with regard to Chapter IV. Dom McCann, writing around 1950 or 1951, treats the RM briefly in the preface to his translation of the RB, giving his opinion that the latter is the prior work but leaving the question open. [7]

But while Père Adalbert too draws the connections to other parts of the RB that Dom Delatte does, it is first and foremost the relationship of the RB to the RM that enables Père Adalbert to resolve the problem of Chapter IV’s place in the former. Thus:

The literary genre of these maxims seems much less unusual [in context] when we have read in the Master such various sections as the mysterious parable of the spring, the commentary on the Lord’s prayer in the form of a sermon, the picturesque satire on gyrovagues, and the majestic presentation of the doctors. The reader who has become used to changes of scenery discovers this new stage setting without astonishment. [77.]

I would like to do at least one or two more posts on RB4, perhaps before Pascha, continuing to compare the commentaries of Père Adalbert and Dom Delatte and hopefully drawing other connections as well. But for now, I will let this suffice.


[1] I’m not yet sure of the original source of the quote, used famously in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. Sabine Baring Gould gives the following sentence as well: ‘Here prudence and simplicity, humility and courage, severity and gentleness, freedom and dependence, eminently appear’ [here].

[2] Adalbert de Vogüé, The Rule of St Benedict: A Doctrinal & Spiritual Commentary, tr. John Baptist Hasbrouck, OSB (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1983), p. 77.

[3] Himself a translator and editor of a fine bilingual edition of the Rule—Abbot Justin McCann, OSB, tr. & ed., The Rule of Saint Benedict in English & Latin, (Ft Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.).

[4] I can’t remember which monk it was, but he said that Dom Delatte’s commentary was the one that the Clear Creek monks themselves read, in part because as the former abbot of Solesmes, the author was part of the same Benedictine congregation and tradition that Clear Creek belongs to. Paperback reprints were available in the monastery giftshop, and I would have bought one immediately but for the cover price. As it turned out, it was a wise decision—I later found a used hardcover edition of 1959, highly reminiscent of an old Faber publication, for less than the new pb’s at the monastery.

Incidentally, and I know this will stretch the reader’s credulity to the limit, the monk did not know immediately who the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé was! Well, what can one expect of papists?

[5] Dom Paul Delatte, OSB, A Commentary on the Holy Rule of St Benedict, tr. & ed. Dom Justin McCann, OSB (Latrobe, PA: The Archabbey Press, 1959), p. 61.

[6] Ibid., pp. 61-2.

[7] McCann, pp. xix-xxi.

5 comments:

wordsandpeace.com said...

in connection with quotation 5, this passage can be viewed as Benedict's version of the sermon of the Mount, if one considers the whole Rule as an initiation into the Christian life. The idea is not mine.
other point: it is actually fascinating to take both RM and RB and see what Benedict tossed, what he kept, modified and added to make his RB 4. I did this job some decades ago; unfortunately I forgot the conclusion, but De Vogue has some passages on that, and any Benedictine/Cistercian monk/nun would know. Great stuff. Blessed continuation of Lent, and thanks for your posts. Emma, member of ROCOR, and former Cistercian!
oh by the way, you might want to change your setting to have to moderate comments instead of letting them post automatically. see the junk of comment 1...

River Cocytus said...

I think your formatting has gotten a bit out of hand! I'm seeing some white-backed text against the normal tan of the background. You can often fix this by stripping out formatting in the editor. Use with caution!

Aaron Taylor said...

Emma> Thank you for your input, as well as for your kind words. Do you know Macrina Walker by any chance? She too is a former Cistercian who is now in the Orthodox Church.

As for the settings, I'm trying to figure out what to do about that. As far as I knew, the blog was set for comments to be moderated. I'm kind of a computer idiot though...

River> Thank you for the tip! Yes, I've been experiencing this problem since last summer. I'll try doing what you suggest.

ochlophobist said...

You should be careful about what people you admit to associating with online.

Aaron Taylor said...

Och> I guess I figured that for most, at least acknowledging the fact that the people I associate with are sometimes infamous dissidents should be enough of a caveat. As for the rest, who cares, right?

By the way, a few times my students have remarked on the tremendous diversity of people that I've known, when in the middle of a discussion I will say something like, 'I had a friend who was a Satanist...', and then go on to tell some anecdote illuminating the subject under discussion. (Most of these kids lead rather sheltered lives, as you can imagine). But I haven't yet mentioned that I have had friends who were communists...