24 February 2009

'Rekindle in Us That Love of Solitude'—St Benedict of Aniane

On this day, 11 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate two holy followers of the Rule of St Benedict: the namesake of the great abbot, St Benedict of Aniane (750-821), and the first known vernacular poet of the English language, St Cædmon of Whitby (7th century).

In the English-speaking world, the first is probably the lesser known of these two. As a young man, St Benedict of Aniane was a courtier under King Pepin and Charlemagne. But according to his biographer, St Ardo Smaragdus, ‘Grace made him sensible of the vanity of all perishable goods, and at twenty years of age he took a resolution of seeking the kingdom with his whole heart.’ He continued for three more years at court while already practising quite severe asceticism, but when he nearly drowned when rescuing his brother, he received the blessing of a holy anchorite and quietly slipped away to the Abbey of St Seine (Sequanus) near Dijon. Here, St Benedict gave himself over to great austerities, and St Ardo tells us:

He frequently passed the whole night in prayer, and stood barefoot on the ground in the sharpest cold. He studied to make himself contemptible by all manner of humiliations, and received all insults with joy, so perfectly was he dead to himself. God bestowed on him an extraordinary spirit of compunction, and the gift of tears, with an infused knowledge of spiritual things to an eminent degree. Not content to fulfil the rule of St Benedict in its full rigour, he practiced all the severest observances prescribed by the rules of St Pachomius and St Basil.

When the brotherhood at St Seine decided to make him abbot, St Benedict withdrew to his native region of Languedoc, and built a cell on the brook Aniane. According to St Ardo, ‘Here he lived some years in extreme poverty, praying continually that God would teach him to do his will, and make him faithfully correspond with his eternal designs.’ But soon, this too attracted attention, and his hesychasterion began to develop into a sort of skete, and eventually into a proper monastery, and finally, St Benedict became a respected overseer of several monasteries throughout the region. He ‘learnedly opposed’ the heresy of adoptionism and participated in a council against it at Frankfurt in 794.

In the second decade of the ninth century, St Benedict was placed in charge of the reformation of monasticism under Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. This consisted to a great degree of either introducing, bringing into line with, or giving sole authority to the Rule of St Benedict to the exclusion of other rules. This was not, however, a strictly ‘legal’ matter. According to Leonard von Matt’s and Stephan Hilpisch’s beautiful book, Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), p. 163:

With an earnestness born of conviction, he reminded abbots and monks of the prescriptions of the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule must be the standard by which the whole life of the monastery was to be ordered and directed. Benedict of Aniane recalled to their minds the monastic ideals of those fathers whom the father of monks had held in such high esteem that their precepts had become the seed-plot of Benedictine monachism. There were values that must not be lost, namely self-denial, silence, contemplation and separation from the world: secure must be their place in the monastery and in the hearts of its inmates. External activity must be restrained if the monk’s soul is not to suffer loss.

This introduction of uniformity is sometimes lamented today (see the relevant chapter in Dom Bruno Hicks’s The Benedictines here, as well as Jordan Aumann’s observations here), and as Fr Seraphim (Rose) has observed, the dominance of St Benedict’s Rule, ‘for all its good points, also indicated a waning of the early monastic fervor of the West’ (‘Introduction to Orthodox Gaul’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 94). But Fr Seraphim also points out that this enabled monasticism to ‘spread farther and have more lasting influence’ (p. 138). St Benedict of Aniane was carrying out a necessary, and even holy work. Keep in mind as well that he also compiled all of the previous monastic legislation he could find (the ‘Concord of Rules’) and set it forth as a source of good counsel and spiritual teaching. Jean Leclerq acknowledges the extent of the change, but then writes, ‘Nevertheless, the traditional ideal had survived. The quest for union with God through prayer and asceticism had preserved its priority . . .’ (‘Monasticism and Asceticism, Part II: Western Christianity’, Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGinn, et al. [NY: Routledge, 1986], p. 124).

At last, worn down by his labours and by illness, St Benedict of Aniane fell asleep in the Lord at the Monastery of St Cornelius in Inde in 721. He was buried in the monastery where he reposed and many miracles were performed through his relics.
The Life of St Benedict of Aniane by St Ardo Smaragdus has been translated into English by Allen Cabaniss and is available for a very low price here. Fr Mark Kirby at Vultus Christi did a post on St Benedict of Aniane a couple of weeks ago. Among other things, he included his translation from French of the Cistercian variant of the Collect for the Feast:
Lord our God,
Who called Saint Benedict of Aniane
to restore the monastic fervour of earlier times;
rekindle in us that love of solitude,
relish of the Divine Office,
and zeal for unity,
that inspired him in his work of renewal.

I shall relate the story of our second Saint, Cædmon of Whitby, in a second post.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful St. Benedict of Aniane! One of my favorite saints, though sadly one of the most poorly known saints.

Thank you, Aaron, for making him better known, and for all the work you do on this inspiring blog.

- Fr. Benedict Crawford

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for your kind comment, Father. It's always nice to hear from people who know and venerate these more obscure Saints. I only wish I had had St Ardo's Life to work from for the post, rather than the fragments I found online. But I'm making it a point to order it after our next paycheck goes in!

Anonymous said...

Until then, here it is free of charge!


Fr. Seraphim Rose's comment about the Rule of St. Benedict indicating "a waning of the early monastic fervor of the west" - so typical of the Eastern monastic attitude - may be true, but I personally view it more as the dying down of a wild fire into a controlled fire that was far more stable and effective at producing holiness for those who were not particularly inclined to become stylites.

- Fr. Benedict

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the link, Father, that's quite handy! Unfortunately my Latin needs a good deal of improvement, but maybe this is just the thing to improve it on!

Point well taken about the 'waning of the early monastic fervor of the west'. Fr Seraphim had a sort of daring pioneer spirit when it came to monastic life. Perhaps it's for the few, not the many!