03 July 2009

'Here Romualdus, Here Maccarius See'—St Romuald & Dante

Having already provided an overview of St Romuald’s life and a word or two about the ‘Camaldolese’ monasticism he founded—really a continuation of the Eastern ‘lavra’—I wanted to post a couple of other things related to his spiritual life per se. First, the ‘Brief Rule’.

In a fascinating paper called ‘The Camaldolese Academy: Ambrogio Traversari, Marsilio Ficino & the Christian Platonist Tradition’, Dennis F. Lackner writes, ‘The Camaldolese eremitic tradition, established in the eleventh century by Saint Romuald of Ravenna, had close links with the ascetic tradition of the Greek Fathers . . . . manifest in the lives and writings of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, John Cassian, John Climacus, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Cappadocian Fathers . . .’ (Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, ed. Michael J.B. Allen, Valery Rees, and Martin Davies [Leiden: Brill, 2001], p. 16-7). We can see this clearly in a fairly reliable account of St Romuald’s spiritual teaching. A disciple of St Romuald named Bruno of Querfurt wrote within the former’s lifetime a chronicle of a mission to part of what is now Poland, wherein he recorded a brief account of his Elder’s teaching often known as St Romuald’s ‘Brief Rule’. Despite its brevity, however, the ‘Rule’ is a remarkably precise account of what an Orthodox Christian can only call hesychastic practice. Here it is as quoted in Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2000):

Be seated within your cell as though in paradise; cast to the rear of your memory everything distracting, becoming alert and focussed on your thoughts as a good fisherman is on the fish. One pathway [to this state] is through reciting the Psalms; do not neglect this. If you cannot manage to get through them all [at one sitting] as you used to do with the fervor of a novice, take pains to chant the psalms in your spirit, now [starting] from this place, now from that, and to interpret them in your mind [intelligere mente], and when you begin to wander in your reading, don’t stop what you are doing, but make haste to correct [emendare] by interpreting; place yourself [pone te] above all in the presence of God with fear and trembling, like one who stands in the gaze of the emperor; pull yourself completely and crouch down like a baby chick, content with God’s gift, for, unless its mother provides, it neither knows nor gets what she should eat. (p. 112)

Although there is the obvious difference that St Romuald follows what seems to be the more primitive Desert practice of reciting the Psalms (see for instance Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 1993], pp. 122-9) as opposed to the Jesus Prayer, this ‘Rule’ reminds me of nothing so much as the writings of St Gregory of Sinai, but of course there seems to be very little that couldn’t also be found in that earlier exemplar of Sinaitic hesychasm, St John Climacus. Indeed, it is interesting to compare St John’s use of the ‘ladder’ imagery—‘this spiritual and Heaven-scaling ladder, the beginning of which is the renunciation of all earthly things, and the end, the God of love’, which according to the author of the Prologue ‘was the ladder which Jacob, the spurner of the passions, saw when he was resting on his ascetic couch’ (‘Prologue’, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore], rev. HTM [Boston: HTM, 1991], p. xlv)—with the account given by Lackner of Camaldolese spirituality:

A central theme in the desert spirituality which Romuald brought to the Apennines was the theology of the mystical ascent, the scala perfectionis. Ascending hierarchies of being, the ascetic sought a vision of cosmic harmony illumined by heavenly love. Tradition related that a vision of a ladder ascending into heaven had inspired St Romuald’s foundation of the hermitage of Camaldoli. Perpetuating traditions of the Christian East expressed in John Climacus’s Scala Paradisi, the Camaldolese sought to ascend this ladder by transfiguring the desires of nature into the desire for God. ‘Physical love can be a paradigm for the longing for God’ and ‘Happy the man who loves and longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved’ (cf. St John, pp. 169, 226). (Lackner, p. 17)

Which brings us to Dante. In Paradiso, Canto XXII, Dante is led to the 7th Heaven, the realm of Saturn, the ‘belovèd regent ’neath whose might / All evil in the world it rings lay dead’ (Cant. XXI.26-7; The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine: Cantica III—Paradise (Il Paradiso), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds [London: Penguin, 1962], p. 242). There, the pilgrim encounters the contemplative Saints come down to meet him, those who, according to Peter Hawkins in Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford, CA: Stanford U, 1999)—

have prepared for their eternal experience of God in the Empyrean by following the influence of the ‘cold planet’ will still on earth. Its influence led them not to melancholia but to contemplation: they gave themselves (to quote the Postillatore Cassinese) ‘to the contemplative life in hermitage and in religious solitude . . . living in silence and in chastity’ (Il codice cassinese della ‘Divina Commedia’ per la prima volta letteralmente messo a stampa per cura dei monaci benedettini della Badia di Monte Cassino [Monta Cassino: Tipographia di Monte Cassino, 1865], p. 493). (p. 230)

So Dante is said specifically to encounter those who have been sanctified in ‘the contemplative life in hermitage and in religious solitude’, but adding to the fascination, he is shown—

‘[a] ladder, [which] at its full extent,
Steals from thy view, since yonder is its goal.

‘But Jacob, in the vision which was sent
Of angel figures moving up and down,
Saw where the ladder’s loftiest section went.’

(Canto XXII.71-5; Sayers, p. 251)

The speaker here is the Father of Western (contemplative) monasticism, St Benedict of Nursia, who—as Hawkins notes—has his own ladder. In RB 7 (The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English, trans. Justin McCann [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.], p. 39), we read:

Wherefore, brethren, if we wish to attain to the summit of humility and desire to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation to which we ascend by the humility of the present life, then must we set up a ladder of our ascending actions like unto that which Jacob saw in his vision, whereon angels appeared to him, descending and ascending. By that descent and ascent we must surely understand nothing else than this, that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder erected is our life in this world, which for the humble of heart is raised up by the Lord unto heaven. Now the sides of this ladder are our body and soul, into which sides our divine vocation has fitted various degrees of humility and discipline which we have to climb.

It is thus, of course, eminently fitting that we should find St Benedict indicating to the pilgrim the ladder by which contemplatives are ascending to the Empyrean. But Hawkins seems not to have noticed the further connection of the ladder with St Romuald, despite his own quotation of the following passage on pp. 235-6:

‘These other flames were all contèmplatives,
Warmed by the sun that kindles bounteously
The flowers and the fruits of holiness.

‘Here Romualdus, here Maccarius see,
And here my brothers who, in cloisters pent,
From every worldly taint kept their hearts free.’

(Canto XXII.46-51; Sayers, p. 250)

Although Hawkins notes the paradox that in the ‘sphere of Saturn, the “cold planet”, with its presumably icy austerities’, we find souls described as ‘flames . . . / Warmed by the sun that kindles bounteously / The flowers and fruits of holiness’, he takes no note of St Romuald himself, whether as one who lived ‘the contemplative life in hermitage and in religious solitude’ or as another potential tie-in to the image of the ladder (Hawkins, p. 236).

As a brief aside, the connection of contemplation with Saturn is a recurring feature in Western thought and literature. Although Hawkins observes that Saturn’s influence ‘led them not to melancholia but to contemplation’ (p. 230), in the post on St Jerome we have already seen that in the 16th century Cornelius Agrippa was to identify contemplative experiences as another species of melancholy, the ‘inspired melancholy’ of the mens, or ‘intellect’ (Dame Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age [London: Routledge, 2001], pp. 62-3), an identification that Yates believes inspired, among others, the artist Albrecht Dürer (in his 'Melencolia' series) and the poet John Milton. In ‘Il Penseroso’, the latter hails ‘divinest Melancholy, / Whose Saintly visage’, like that of the blessed souls in Paradise, ‘is too bright / To hit the Sense of human sight’ (The Complete English Poems of John Milton, ed. John D. Jump [NY: Washington Square, 1964], p. 35). Like the contemplatives in Parad. XXII.50-1, the poet asks that his ‘due feet never fail, / To walk the studious Cloysters pale’, and in language strongly reminiscent, to me, of St Romuald's life and spirituality, prays (p. 39):

Dissolve me into extasies,
And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peacefull hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every Star that heav’n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like Prophetic strain.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful post. I've long been fascinated by the ladders of Sts Benedict, John Cassian, and John of Sinai. I'm so glad you included the passage on prayer from St. Romuald - very inspiring. Do you by chance know if the early Carthusians had a similar method of (for lack of a better term) meditation? - Fr. Benedict

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Father. Unfortunately, I know very little about the Carthusians I'm afraid. I do love to look at the beautiful website of Parkminster, the spectacular Charterhouse in England. And then there's Matthew Arnold's sad but lovely 'Grand Chartreuse'...

I'd love to learn more about them one day.

Anonymous said...

The Carthusians seem to enjoy making it difficult for us to learn about them. The majority of the primary sources are still in Latin, though I suspect some have been translated into French. Still, it seems that it would be difficult to make any convincing case for the Orthodox veneration of [St.] Bruno, given the fact that he was the pope's "right hand man" for a number of years.

Forgive me if this is wandering too far afield, but if you had time, Aaron, I'd be interested in your take on the iconoclasm sometimes encountered in in Carthusian, Cistercian, and I would suspect Camaldolese churches. It has always seemed unfortunate to me that the twelfth century monastic reforms connected white washed walls to simplicity and holiness. Any thoughts? - Fr. Benedict

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Benedict> Please forgive me for taking so long to get back to you on this. I'm not sure if I have much to offer, but it's a question that deserves some careful attention. Maybe I'll have a chance to respond appropriately later today.

aaronandbrighid said...

I realise it's been nearly seven months now, and you're probably no longer paying attention to this thread, Fr Benedict, but I chanced to be looking back over it today and a thought occurred to me. Though I know little about Western Christian aesthetics, it's my understanding that the West never really developed a conception of iconography the way the East did. Perhaps if religious art is conceived of primarily in decorative, ornamental terms, white-washed walls would naturally seem more simple and holy. If it is a window to heaven, then the simplicity and holiness is contained in and expressed by the iconography itself. Just a thought...