benedict: from the valley to the high plateau


I probably shouldn’t say (or write) this in public, but I feel like we Camaldolese, especially we American Camaldolese, have always had a sort of ambivalent relationship with the Benedictine Confederation to which we belong now since 1964 (as one untimely born, as St. Paul might say) though we have been under the Rule since our origins. This is also in spite of the fact that we are the oldest surviving Benedictine reform and congregation. (We are, I was told, the only congregation who dared to add extra initials to the sacred OSB––OSB Cam., indeed!) And because of that ambivalence, I feel like we only have a kind of grudging respect for the great Saint Benedict, patriarch of Western monasticism. Since my time as prior, while recognizing the uniqueness of the Camaldolese charism and particularly of a Camaldolese hermitage such as New Camaldoli, I have tried to emphasize the universal evangelical monastic values that are embedded in Benedict’s Rule for Monks, and use those underlying values to understand wthhy our Holy Father Romuald left us securely with the Benedictine container to hold our Camaldolese energy.

There were several pivotal moments in the life of Saint Benedict. The way Saint Gregory the Great lays it out, one significant one was when Benedict left the remote Anio Valley where he had lived as a hermit for three years in the sacro speco near Subiaco and also had his first experiences as an abbot, and moved up to Monte Cassino, a plateau that can be seen from very far away. Some would suggest that this move from the valley to the high plateau had a symbolic character. As Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote, in his wonderful essay on his namesake, a hidden monastic life has its own reason for existence (it’s own raison d’etre); but a monastery, a monastic community, has another one, a more public purpose both for and in the life of the Church, and for and in society, the purpose of giving “visibility to the faith as a force of life.” As Abbot Jeremy Driscoll says, this is our evangelization as monks––our life itself is an evangelizing word. And that’s what the Rule is, and the Benedictine heritage in general: faith as a full force of life: “I believe this and so I live like this.”

Take a quick look at the late fifth/early sixth centuries: the Roman Empire had officially come to an end when Romulus, the last emperor, was deposed in 476 by the barbarian leader, Odoacer, who himself was later overthrown by Theodoric the king of the Ostrogoths. And now Benedict (who is born around 478) is watching the collapse of the entire Roman civilization as the barbarian tribes begin to dismember an empire that was “already seriously weakened from within by misgovernment and oppressive taxation, and scourged by famine and pestilence.” In Gaul, the northern provinces are being sacked by barbarian invaders; the Vandals are spreading pillage and terror in Africa; Italy is prey to the Goths, the Huns and the Vandals.[i] Monastic life in various forms is holding on, extant throughout Italy and other parts of Europe, including a widespread hermit tradition. Fortunately the breakdown of order in society and all the pillage and destruction didn’t destroy monastic life. On the contrary, what it tended to do instead was draw monks out of their isolation and drew them to band together more in communities. There were still lots of hermits, but this is when more communal (cenobitic) life grew in popularity.[ii] It’s not much different 50 years after Benedict’s death when Gregory the Great is writing his Life and setting up Saint Benedict as a model. The Roman Empire was in the last stages of collapsing by then, the Emperor had abdicated, Rome was infected with famine and pestilence, floods and earthquakes, and the Greeks and barbarians were invading.

In some way Pope Benedict did something similar to what Pope Gregory the Great did in his “Life of Benedict” in the Dialogues: he set Benedict up as a paradigm, someone with a solution for what he saw as troubled times in Europe. Pope Benedict’s memory of course is such that he speaks with the authority of someone having had a front row seat in history. He is speaking of Europe only recently emerged from “a century that was deeply wounded by two world wars and the collapse of the great ideologies, [which were] now revealed as tragic utopias.” He wrote, “Europe today is in search of its own identity. Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic, and juridical instruments are important; but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal that draws on the Christian roots of the continent.” Without this “vital sap,” he says––without ethical and spiritual renewal––we are exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem ourselves by ourselves.[iii]

The ancient temptation of seeking to redeem ourselves by ourselves… This is the problem with ideologies and even of philosophies: they can give a rational outline of what we think should be, but in some way, just like the Law itself, as St. Paul rails against it, philosophies and ideologies do not have any power. As Etienne Gilson wrote about Saint Augustine and his being influenced by the Neo-Platonist Plotinus, for instance, we shouldn’t confuse adhesion with conversion, that is adhesion to a philosophy versus conversion to spiritual renewal. “That Plotinus should advise us to rise above sense, to rule our passions, and to adhere to God, that is all well and good! But will Plotinus give us the strength to follow this excellent advice?”[iv] And he appeals to Romans 7: We do not do what we want but what we hate––in this case, we do not always, we can’t always follow what we think is the right thing to do, the way to live; we can’t count on our ideologies and philosophies to save us. There has to be something more to give us the strength. And so we heard the famous phrase from John 15 as our Gospel passage today: ‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in me, neither can you unless you abide in me.’ And so St. Paul says, Who will save me? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

And so for Benedict: the experience of God came first; without an experience of God we may have the knowledge but we do not have the strength. Philosophers and idealogues rationally figure things out and then hope to climb that ladder to union with God or some other utopia. But monastic life isn’t based on an ideology or a philosophy. We start out with union with God and then try to make sense of it; but even more importantly we build a life around that experience of the Divine, to protect it, to nurture it, to deepen that experience, then to pass it on and share it. What Robert Taft says about ritual applies here: Our life is ideology and experience in action. Our philosophy is the way we live. I think of the desert fathers; their response to a query might very well be, “Come and live with me, see what I do, see how I live.”

From the valley of Anio to the high plateau… “Benedict’s spirituality was not an interiority [that was] removed from reality. In the midst of all the anxiety and confusion of his day, [Benedict] lived under God’s gaze and in this very way never lost sight of the duties of daily life” and the duties of the human person with his or her very practical needs. Seeing God, Benedict understood the reality of the human person and humanity’s mission.[v] That’s why he said that his monastery was a “school of charity.” One place where I respectfully disagree with the great Thomas Merton: during that last conference he gave in Bangkok, Merton told a story about a Tibetan lama who escaped his country to save his life. Before leaving, when still faced with the decision of whether or not to go, he sent a message to an abbot friend, asking: “What do we do?” The answer that came back was: “From now on, Brother, everyone stands on his own feet.” That doesn’t completely work for me. If he meant that we cannot rely on social, political, or economic forces to shore us up, that’s fine. But if there is anything we have to model in the name of Jesus it’s that––just as the monks gathered in communities as the Roman Empire collapsed and offered an alternative society––from now on we have to take care of each other.

And so, what are we facing now in 2016, and what is our response, our solution; what is the alternative that we are proposing? In the face of domestic and foreign terrorism––from Columbine and Sandy Hook through 9/11 and ISIS; in a day and age of “Black Lives Matter” and policemen being gunned down; in a political arena that is as ideologically polarized as anything we’ve ever seen and an election cycle that one Republican senator described the other day as “a dumpster fire”; with a global immigration crisis due to warring states… Political, economic, and juridical instruments are important; but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal. That’s the vital sap. We sons of Benedict and Romuald have been placed on a high plateau, a city built on a hill, responding to the call of the Gospel and being an evangelizing word by how we live individually and communally, offering an example of faith as a full force of life.

[i] RB 80, 65-66.

[ii] RB 80, 67.

[iii] Great Christian Thinkers, 129.

[iv] The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 30.

[v] Great Christian Thinkers, 127.

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