15 April 2013

'The Light that Makes Us Like God'—RB Prol 9

An expression in the Prologue of St Benedict’s Rule struck me as interesting today. I had looked for my usual reading copy—Abbot Justin McCann’s bilingual edition—but not finding it and being in a hurry this morning, I brought along my little pocket-sized edition of Leonard Doyle’s translation. There I read a translation of RB Prologue 9 that I don’t believe I’d seen before: 

Let us open our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with attentive ears the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us... [1] 

I had never before noticed the use of the word ‘deifying’ in any translation of this passage that I recalled, and of course, as an Orthodox Christian I immediately took notice. At school I found McCann’s edition, and looked up the passage in question. In the Latin, I saw that the passage read: 

Et apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen, attonitis auribus audiamus divina cotidie clamans quid nos admonet vox... [2] 

It certainly seemed to me, a rank amateur I admit, that deificum warranted the translation as ‘deifying’. But McCann had rendered the same words: 

Let us open our eyes to the divine light, and let us hear with attentive ears the warning that the divine voice crieth daily to us... [3] 

Furthermore, McCann had already defended his translation in an endnote on the passage in question. Of the words deificum and attonitis, he wrote: 

It is characteristic of Late Latin that strong words have less than their full value. Thus these words are equivalennt respectively to divinus and attentus, and we must resist the temptation to translate ‘divinizing’ and ‘astonished’, or ‘deifying’ and ‘astounded’. We might find a parallel in our own language in the colloquial depreciation of such words as ‘awful’ and ‘terrible’. [4] 

But an Internet search for the phrase deificum lumen yielded an argument opposed to McCann’s. Abbot Patrick Barry, formerly of the famous Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, UK, has written in the introduction to his own translation of the RB

St Benedict wrote ‘apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen.’ Most modern scholars play down the meaning of deificum lumen as though the dramatic word deificum means for St Benedict no more than ‘divine’, and so they translate the phrase as ‘with our eyes open to the divine light.’ Others give it a more literal meaning, ‘the light that makes us like God.’ I think the latter translation is right. It may shock us into perceiving the astonishing, exhilarating meaning of our baptism into Christ. 

The ‘shock value’, however, is not the only reason Barry advocates the more literal translation: 

If we remember how through lectio St Benedict’s mind was saturated with Scripture, it is evident that he was referring to a passage from 2 Corinthians: ‘All of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is in the Spirit.’ Then a little later Paul sums up in this way: ‘It is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ.’ (II Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6) [5] 

Accordingly, Barry renders the passage in question, giving a citation of II Cor. 3:18 in a footnote to suggest the allusion: 

Let us open our eyes to the light that can change us into the likeness of God. Let our ears be alert to the stirring call of his voice crying to us every day... [6] 

Unfortunately, consulting the other commentaries I possess does little to help either way. The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé does not seem to mention it in his magisterial Doctrinal & Spiritual Commentary, [7] and in his Reflections on the Rule written for novices, he identifies the deificum lumen with Scripture in a very brief reference: ‘Scripture thus enters the stage both explicitly and massively. Its importance is paramount in the monk’s life. It is both “light from God” and “voice from heaven”—one and the same element through which the Lord touches all our spiritual senses.’ [8] While shedding no light on whether the light is ‘deifying’ or merely ‘divine’, Dom Paul Delatte makes the same identification in his commentary but then goes further: 

We must open our eyes; for it is thus that one begins to shake off sleep and recover consciousness. We must open them to ‘the deifying light’, which phrase may be understood of the Scriptures, ‘Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my paths’ (Ps. cxviii. 105), or of faith, or better of Our Lord Himself, the true Light who walks before us and guides us: ‘He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life’ (John viii. 12). [9] 

Note, however, the translation of the phrase. Surprisingly, the English translation of Dom Delatte's commentary was made by Abbot Justin McCann! While I do not know what French phrase Delatte himself used, however, ‘deifying’ here is the rendering of a much younger Justin McCann than the one who later (1951) translated the RB himself and gave us ‘divine light’ with such insistence. According to McCann’s preface to the Delatte commentary, the translation was made in 1920 at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford. [10] At that time, it seems, McCann was largely content to rely for the translation of the RB itself on the authority of what he calls ‘the excellent Rule of St Benedict of Abbot Hunter-Blair’, [11] the latter being Dom Oswald Hunter-Blair of Fort Augustus Abbey, Scotland, who published his translation in 1886. Dom Hunter-Blair renders our passage: 

And our eyes being open to the deifying light, let us hear with wondering ears what the Divine Voice admonisheth us, daily crying out... [12] 

I for one find Barry’s defence of the more ‘shocking’ translation by means of the comparison with II Corinthians rather persuasive. Certainly, it strikes me as a valid move to note that the ‘divine light’ is spoken of by St Paul as transforming us ‘into the image that we reflect’, and the use of the stronger word deificum rather than merely divinum seems to me to suggest that St Benedict wanted to at least hint at this fuller understanding of God’s light. 

[1] Leonard J. Doyle, tr., St Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1948), pp. 1-2. 

[2] Abbot Justin McCann, OSB, tr. & ed., The Rule of Saint Benedict in English & Latin (Ft Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.), p. 6. 

[3] Ibid., p. 7. 

[4] Ibid., 165, n. 3. I do not know firsthand whether this generalisation about Late Latin is correct, but C.S. Lewis has suggested that it is a common occurrence in language generally. He calls it ‘inflation’, and considers it ‘one of the commonest’ species of ‘verbicide’—‘those who taught us to say awfully for “very”, tremendous for “great”, sadism for “cruelty”, and unthinkable for “undesirable” were verbicides’ (Studies in Words, 2nd ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002], p. 7). Vizzini’s ‘inconceivable’ is of course a particularly famous example.

[5] Patrick Barry, OSB, Saint Benedict’s Rule, 2nd ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2004), p. 15. 

Barry refers to St Benedict’s mind being ‘saturated’ in lectio divina. The latter is a subject I have addressed a limited way on one or two occasions, but I would like to say more at some point in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend the transcription of Armand Veilleux’s talk, ‘Lectio Divina as a school of prayer among the Fathers of the Desert’, here

[6] Ibid., p. 46. 

[7] See the chapter on the Prologue in Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal & Spiritual Commentary, tr. John Baptist Hasbrouck (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1983), pp. 9-43. 

[8] Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, Reading Saint Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, tr. Colette Friedlander, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994), p. 25. 

Sr Friedlander’s translation of this commentary uses the RB 1980 translation prepared by a committee of Benedictines, where the phrase in question is ‘the light that comes from God’—a choice seemingly reflected in her rendering of Pere Adalbert’s comments. See RB 1980: The Rule of St Benedict in English, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB, et al. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1982), p. 16. 

[9] 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. 8. 

[10] Ibid., p. vii. 

[11] Ibid., p. vii. 

[12] See the complete text here.


Anonymous said...

Dom Delatte translates "deificum lumen" by "lumiere deifique". He understood it unequivocally as "deifying", the same as St. Benedict.

Aaron Taylor said...

That's great! I am somewhat curious, though, why you're so certain that that's precisely what St Benedict meant.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful lectio that you have done on St. Benedict's Rule! Such acuity, tenacious tracking of sources and balanced weighing! Thank you for offering it to us.

I wonder if Benedict did not know this light to be deifying because he himself had experienced its effects, even in an extraordinary way as when, according to St. Gregory the Great,:

"The man of God, Benedict, being diligent in watching, rose early before the time of matins (his monks being yet at rest) and came to the window of his chamber where he offered up Manuscript illustrationhis prayers to almighty God. Standing there, all of a sudden in the dead of the night, as he looked forth, he saw a light that banished away the darkness of the night and glittered with such brightness that the light which shone in the midst of darkness was far more clear than the light of the day.

During this vision a marvelously strange thing followed, for, as he himself afterward reported, the whole world, gathered together, as it were, under one beam of the sun, was presented before his eyes. While the venerable father stood attentively beholding the brightness of that glittering light, he saw the soul of Germanus, Bishop of Capua, in a fiery globe, carried up by Angels into heaven." (chap. 35)

It is interesting that in this passage the wording of the phrase, "the light which shone in the midst of darkness" is very close to that of St. Paul in the passage from 2 Corinthian's that you quoted.

There is a passage in St. Athanasius's Life of St. Anthony that mentions this ray of light:

"Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony's wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, 'Where were thou? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?' And a voice came to him, 'Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; wherefore since you have endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to you, and will make your name known everywhere.' Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old."

I tend to think Ellen Muehlberger is right, when, in her dissertation, "Angels in the Religious Imagination of Late Antiquity", she argues that this ray of light is guardian angel.

Anonymous said...

What about John 1,4-5? And Gen. 1,4? See 1Peter 2,9 and 2Peter 1, 19. It is not the guardian angel, but the unapproachable light.

Aaron Taylor said...

Hey, my friends, how about some names to go with here? ;-)

Anonymous 2> Thank you very much for your kind words. This is the sort of thing I most enjoy doing on this blog. I'm sure you're right about St Benedict's experience of deifying light, though from a scholarly perspective I still like to have solid evidence for my readings. I find it odd that other Benedictine scholars have played down the meaning so much, and I wish that there was a more solid case for the deification reading.

As for the passage from the Vita Antonii, I haven't read Muehlberger, but I'm inclined to agree with Anonymous 2 that St Athanasius is referring to the uncreated light rather than a guardian angel. Otherwise, why not simply call it an angel? On the face of it, the reading seems needlessly speculative.

Anonymous said...

Well Aaron, let's say that anonymity is closer to the "superluminous darkness of that silence which reveleath in secret". For I am not speaking on my own, but the Fathers told me what to say and what to speak.
We should forget the Muehlbergers.

Aaron Taylor said...

Um, okay. Are you Anonymous 1 or Anonymous 2?

Fr Deacon Aaron

Anonymous said...

Nr.1, the one with Dom Delatte and quotes from Scripture.