Recension: The Community and Abbot in the Rule of Saint Benedict

ADALBERT DE VOGÜÉ, La communauté et l’Abbé dans la Règle de saint Benoît; Desclée de Brouwer, 1961.

It would seem anachronistic to present D. de V.’s book, fifty seven years after its publication, in addition to which, we have had the subject dissected and addressed in several prestigious journals in international circulation. Valid as a justification by the fact of having been found virginally intact in some library, or with its pages only half cut and pasted in some other …

D. de V., in his dense introduction, saves us half of the work, when he realises that his purpose is none other than to meditate on the meaning of the relations that mediate between the Abbot and his monks, and of the society that is formed with them (p.11) “Theology of the abbacy and the particular station of the Abbot,” he states sometime later (p.14). The examination of the nucleus aspect, so to speak, of the Rule of Saint Benedict, converged on the axis of evangelical obedience, could not be done without the critical study of the extensive literature that preceded on the same subject. It is here ‘in the first place, where we begin to perceive by what prudent modesty and natural defect of perspective that the author could neither grasp nor manifest. The criticism of the commentators that precede it – and in particular the most modern ones – is of an exceptional objectivity, precisely because the informing criterion of which it consists by filling the hiatus introduced between the Rule and its sources, and it is this aspect, this objectivity in addition to exceptional we would say that it is really “raw”, which places us in front of a brave and faithful book, without ever falling into polemical tone. D. de V . wrote:

St. Benedict

“The spirit with which we approach the RB is by no means the same as our predecessors did … An intense filial piety is the common denominator of all these modern works, mostly the work of Benedictine monks. But the cult that is thus paid to St. Benedict is not without its drawbacks in terms of the exact interpretation of his thought. Often, in fact, veneration leads to magnify its historical role and the scope of its rule. There has been a real inflation here, extremely detrimental to the interpretation of the RB; it is exalted systematically, at the expense of everything that proceeded to it; an innovative intention is lent to its author; it is placed in opposition to all previous legislators or theorists.” (p.15).

Consistent with this severely critical attitude, D. de V. does not hesitate to analyse —  or, more accurately, to question — the notes of the “founder” and the “Roman”, traditionally attributed — and we would almost write “totemically” – to the Patriarch. But, above all, as a methodical patrologist, his review of traditional commentaries — without excepting the most illustrious, some of which inspire him the denomination of “historical novels” — tends to save the disconnection “introduced” between the RB and his sources, which, in his opinion, obeys the desire to “bring the Patriarch closer to us.”  “The Benedictine monasticism of our times,”  D. de V. states, “seeks to justify itself in this way. It is believed that Saint Benedict can be attributed the tendencies that have in fact prevailed. For our part, our preoccupation to edify (in the noblest sense of the term), which could be that of Abbot Paul Delatte OSB, Fr. Alban Butler, Abbot Ildefons Herwegen OSB, must remain alien to the comment we undertake to express. There is no intent on our part, like those great abbots, to extract from the Rule what seems to best suit the possibilities and needs of a contemporary monastery.  And even less, write a “mirror of abbots!” (P.19).

In the same way, driven by the historical rigour of D. de V., we will see other “certainties” disappear.  Thus, for example, that Saint Benedict gave his monastery a “family appearance”  which was missing from the Egyptian monastery, “faithful heir — in this sense —  of Saint Basil.” “This feature, in our opinion, does not characterise the Benedictine community more than that of Pacomio … The ideal of monasticism — continues D. de V. — has not evolved towards a more complete cenobitism, but is still dominated, as in the past, by an eremitical aspiration. It is the misery of men, and care to ensure the minimum of honesty, which have led to the development of common life.” (p. 26)

One could resist the persuasion of D. de V. — a risk, of course, to ignore his erudition, not share their conclusions on these aspects; but no one could fail to recognise, serenely, without obfuscation, that he had seldom heard a language so loyally addicted to the truth without partisanship.

At this point of the question it could be believed that we are in the presence of another iconoclast, and that, following the same method, D. de V. will turn, after the figures, the concepts. None of that. His exegesis of the holy Rule is very far from the spirit of novelty.  Boasting of erudition, it is at the same time boast of fidelity to the “per ducatum Evangelii;”  and if we discover some new approach, it is also situated in the line of fidelity to the “nova et vetera.” Commenting on the two Gospel texts (Luke 10:16 and John 6:38) in which Saint Benedict refers the monastic obedience to Jesus Christ, which sometimes makes the Abbot the  example of the Lord, D. de V. writes this comment evenly and beautiful (which we transcribe by way of example — or indication if you prefer — of that fidelity):

“The first (Luke 10:16) presents Christ as the one who is obeyed. In this perspective, it is the Abbot. His mission is to transmit the divine word, to speak in the name of Christ who sent it. We find here the abbot who was conceived as a ‘vicarious’ authority, as a ‘doctoral’ charisma, as a hierarchical authority … .” 

“The second text (John 6:38) presents Jesus Christ as one who imitates obedience.  In this perspective, Jesus Christ is no longer the one who orders, but the one who obeys: the command word no longer being asked for, but an example of obedience … .” (p. 266)

Was it the critical apparatus or was D. de V.’s stance in front of his predecessors on the subject, so daring in the first approach, which muffled the resonance that this book deserved? Or perhaps it is one of those books written before their time, and intended for future generations? Perhaps his mission consisted in destroying the prisms through which we had habitually become accustomed to “think,” in prefabricated terms, the holy Rule, paving the way for its rediscovery. Opposing the “inflation” which he denounces and highlighting the dependence upon the RB with respect to the RM and its predecessors, far from undermining the merit of the Patriarch and the value of the holy Rule, it is restored in all its authenticity. “Fructus enim lucis est in omni bonitote, et justitia, et veritate  .”

Sollemnitas Sancti Tomás de Villanueva MMXVIII September.
Eremitarum Santa Maria,
Ordo Eremitae Sancti Brunónis

Author: dom.Ugo-Maria

Catholic Priest - Hermit of Carthusian Charism, following the early and stricter Coutumes de Chartreuse (Rule) written about 1121-1128 written by Guigues du Chastel the 5th prior and Father General of Grande Chartreuse. Served as a curate and priest in Ireland for a while then moving to Devon as Parish Priest. A spell as Prison Chaplain and then Chaplain to the Railways (SouthEastern). Then a few years as a Diocesan Administrator, Vicar Forane, Vicar General and called as a Bishop (which I turned down). In the past I served as an officer in HM Armed Forces, lectured at Oxford, and teacher at the Royal School for Deaf children in Margate (now closed), for a spell (13 months) run an NHS hospital where I quickly realised that if you have no medical background and tend to use spreadsheets to reach a decision then you should not be running a hospital. Now I serve as Prior to the Hermits of Saint Bruno at St. Mary's Hermitage near Canterbury in Kent. I write on the Eremitic way of life although sometimes I tend to broach other subjects of interest, and occasionally undertake translations for Bishop Alistair from English to Italian. My life as a contemplative is extremely fulfilling and busy and I no longer have a public ministry which I occasionally miss especially the out-reach ministry. I also enjoy gardening on the hermitage grounds and as most gardeners will know its a never ending task, albeit quite rewarding. The hermitage also has some other residents, there is the hermitage guardian who is a layman who lives in rooms at the front of our hermitage and acts as a barrier/intermediary with the outside world; there is Jules a 4 year old Staffordshire terrier, who seems to know the Monastic Horarium and occasionally acts as a prompt, Augustus the tom cat who is 1 year old now and spends most of his time in the fields surrounding us catching moles, mice and rabbits (not so keen on birds) or in my cell when it gets too hot outside (he occasionally assist in writing my articles - having adopted the habit of falling asleep at my desk, occasionally waking and hitting the keyboard with his paw), Buffy who is 25 years old and Terra, her daughter who is 24 years old, female cats that were with me when I was parish priest at St. John Bosco's in Barnstaple. The two hens Hildegard (von Bingen) and Rosaline (of Villeneuve) who provide the eggs that we need, and then there is Topo Gigio a mouse who lives in one of our outhouses who is not scared of cats or people, can be quite vocal if you upset him by encroaching although quite frankly is no bother at all which is why he has been left alone. We currently also have 6 sheep outside in the field (not ours) but they do keep the grass cut. We are fortunate to have several fruit trees, Apples, Plums, Cherries, Pears, and 2 fig plants which I brought back from Sicily, quite a few herbs: mint, St. John's-wort, basil, chives, garlic, oregano, lemon balm, sage, chamomile, bay, echinacea, coriander, feverfew, lavender, valerian, parsley, peppermint, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, cilantro and others, there are also many flowers, too many to list. My interests are mediaeval church & monastic history, ancient liturgies, the Old Catholic Movement, Nicene and post Nicene Fathers, Desert Fathers and Mothers and Carthusian history. I also speak Italian and German, Latin, Catalan, Sicilian and French although am rusty with some.

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