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

Seventeen Centuries Of Monastic life.

In 269 a young Egyptian takes the advice that Jesus gives a rich man in the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have … Then come and follow me” (Matthew 19: 21-22). Antony distributes all his goods to the poor and will live as a hermit in the desert of Thebaid, on the eastern bank of the Nile.

St. Antony retreats into the desert.

In 269 a young Egyptian takes the advice that Jesus gives a rich man in the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have … Then come and follow me” (Matthew 19: 21-22). Antony distributes all his goods to the poor and will live as a hermit in the desert of Thebaid, on the eastern bank of the Nile.

Athanasius, a bishop of Alexandria, will tell us of his life some time later. It traces the portrait of a solitary recluse, a prayerful prodigy who self-inflicts trials to enable him to resist the temptations of the devil.

St. Anthony incarnates the emergent figure of the hermit in the history of Christianity. He is considered the “father” of the anchorites (from the Greek anakhôrein, “to retire”).

In the partially evangelised East of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were already men and women who had chosen to live the radical teachings of the Gospel message, as was the case with “consecrated virgins”, who vowed celibacy and poverty. But these faithful did not leave their communities of origin.

The hermits, on the other hand, are expatriated to dedicate themselves only to God, in isolation and in their despotism. They spread during the second half of the fourth century in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia and above all in Egypt.

This phenomenon is contemporaneous with the change of status of the Christian in the Roman Empire: persecuted during the first three centuries of our era, they are suddenly tolerated in 313, due to the recognition of the religious freedom granted them by the edict of Milan; and in 337 is legitimised through the conversion of the emperor Constantine.

With the end of the persecutions, the spirituality of martyrdom (from the Greek martus, “witness”) no longer means the apogee of Christian witness. He is replaced by a monastic spirituality which presents the monk’s solitary experience as a martyrdom, no longer of blood but spiritual: a battle against evil and a path of evangelical perfection, that is, based on the gospels.

The legitimisation of the Christian religion has two other consequences: on the one hand, the influence of the imperial hierarchical model on the local Churches, which concentrate power in the hands of the bishops; on the other hand, the relaxation of the piety of the faithful, who cease to feel threatened.

Many Christians fond of their inner freedom and taken by the absolute refusal of this lukewarmness they were forced to lived. Therefore they retire to the desert to live continually in prayer and penance. Saint Anthony would be our role model. His charism will attract pilgrims and disciples until his death, at the age of 105.

Pictorial inspiration

The temptations to which St. Anthony was subjected inspired many artists. One of the most remarkable representations is that of the surrealist Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Held in 1946, after World War II, it reflects the mystical period of the author.

“His” Anthony, naked, wields a cross against a gigantic, a horse standing on its hind legs, symbolising a power that has become insane. Behind, in a scene of nuclear apocalypse, elephants with spider legs carry on the backs the temptations of lust and greed.

The Catholic Church memorialises the abbot and Father of all Monks Saint Anthony on January 17.