Benedict’s abbot as guide

Benedict’s abbot is a discerning man. Different means are to be employed with the undisciplined and the disciplined.  The undisciplined monks are to be reprimanded and taught by example, less by words. The disciplined, receptive to words, are to be entreated gently ‘to do better.’

Benedict’s abbot is self-integrated. His words converge with his deeds, his speech silent and limited, his examples embodying this way of life.

Benedict’s abbot is attuned to equality. Though he employs different means according to circumstance, case, and person, he treats each man with ‘equal love.’

An abbot must not favor any individual in the monastery. No one is to be loved more than another, unless he finds him better in good deeds or obedience. A free man is not to be preferred to one entering monastic life from servitude unless there is another good reason for it.

Equal love does not mean the same treatment. On the contrary, each man is to be taught in keeping with the particular set of virtues and vices he exhibits, so that each will require something different from him. The abbot, a moral particularist, reasons case by case, day by day.

Benedict’s abbot is continually humbled by the presence of what is higher. Each day and on the final day he must ‘render an account’ to God. He will be answerable for the life of each monk, including his own; for the robustness of his monastery; and for the abundance of his flock.


In an endnote to Chapter 6 entitled ‘Silence,’ the editor Bruce L. Venarde tells us that ‘Taciturnitas traditionally means limited speech, but Benedict generally uses it to signify silence.’ The senses are not unrelated. Silence can lend its ear to limited speech, and limited speech rests and resounds more readily than it wriggles.

In the Chapter 8, ‘Humility,’ Benedict speaks of 12 steps, each step being a spiritual exercise, the whole not reducible to an algorithm. Attentively, we read that ‘The eleventh step of humility is that when a monk speaks he does so gently and without laughter, humbly, seriously, in few words and reasonable ones, not noisily, as it is written, “A wise man is made known by his brevity.”‘

Upon meeting a patron this past week, I wrote,

To loose my words

Off this heavy branch–

Each one, lightly, without counting.

‘Inclining the ear of the heart…’

‘Listen carefully, my son, to the teachings of a master and incline the ear of your heart.’ So begins the Prologue of St. Benedict’s Rule.

How carefully must one listen to incline the ear of the heart. To what? To the teachings. Of whom? Of the master whose words come from elsewhere, the teachings he imparts. But why him? What makes him a master? Why these teachings? Too soon, young man: first there is submission, the humbling to the humble one, the bowing of the tongue, the inclining of the ear. After, there is questioning yet not with the lavishing tongue but with the speaking ear.

(Doubting too early is a child dragging his heels. Do not be a child. In the beginning is ‘obtuse devotion’ (Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery.))

‘Listen carefully to the teachings of the master and incline the ear of your heart.’ I listen and incline. ‘Become listening and inclining.’ Listening and inclining, the heart becoming ear.

On invitations to have philosophical conversations, disciplines of eating, smallholding farming, and much more on Pindar and St. Benedict

In the spirit of giving, I’d like to invite you to have a philosophical conversation with me. Let’s call it philosophical conversation as gift giving. I’ve been meeting a lot of people this way in the past couple weeks. My strolling card is filling up, but let’s see if we can make it work.

What’s philosophical counseling, you ask. My latest essay: “Philosophical counseling is the art of putting lives in order.”

You can read more about my invitation here. You can also re-tweet this invitation if you’d like.

I’ve had 2 questions fermenting in my mind–

  1. What is the nature of good institutions? (I’m returning to Pindar and St. Benedict.)
  2. What is the nature of good authority? (I’m querying the possibility of crossbreeding Aristotle with St. Benedict.)

–and so far I’ve got only half-chewed answers. It’s a start.

I haven’t gotten very far in my investigation into the “discipline of eating,” but I have made some progress in my understanding of good organizations and viable practices. I’m trying to sketch a picture of a small community that would realize a Benedictine-Aristotelian vision of social order.

How did I get here, and what am I talking about?

The First Step: I re-read Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic After Virtue which ends with a stirring call for a very different St. Benedict for our time.

The Second Step: I read and wrote a forthcoming book review of Benedict’s Dharma. Patrick Barry’s new translation of Benedict’s Order is magnificent: direct, lucid, and fresh. I read Patrick Henry’s introduction in which Henry suggests that a better translation of the Latin Ordo would be trellis. Ah! Trellis as an image of good institutions and good authority! Ah! I began thinking, “Could the Order of St. Benedict be recuperated for our time?”

The Third Step: I am writing an essay on Pindar and St. Benedict for Dark Mountain Project–Issue 3. Also, I had a conversation with theologian-in-residence Victor Lee Austin of St. Thomas Church. During our wonderful conversation, he mentioned that the Community of Jesus has built a monastic community in accordance with St. Benedict’s Order. I mean to go check it out and see what I can learn. To clarify: I am looking into the possibility of “lay monasticism,” a “spiritualized” but secular re-interpretation of Benedict for our time. This is not antiquarian history (cf. Nietzsche) but what I’ve taken to calling “alchemy” or “alchemical history”: the recuperation of the past but with a reinventive twist.

The Fourth Step: I am reminded, as ever, of Pindar’s line that “Human excellence grows like a vine tree, fed by the green grass,  among men wise and just, raised up to the liquid sky.” Pindar’s, en nuce, is a good story of human moral development. Here is a picture of beautiful children.

The Fifth Step: I just finished reading Rosie Boycott’s Our Farm: A Year in the Life of a Smallholding (London: Bloomsbury, 2007). The book is referenced in one of David E. Cooper’s essays about the “spiritual dispensation.” In “Food and Spiritual Reflection: The Daoist Example,” Cooper writes,

There are, then, good grounds for taking seriously, in our contemporary context, the Daoist thought that reflection on food practices belongs to a wider meditation on our proper alignment to other creatures and to the world at large. It is interesting to observe, therefore, that some of the best recent writing on food has a distinctly Daoist tone. A good example is her chronicle of a year spent on a farm in which Rosie Boycott records her conviction that ‘something’–a Way –orders and ‘guides’ the life of a person who is able to ‘let go’, and to‘let be’. It is, she continues, especially through growing food and gardening that people are best able to ‘connect their lives’ to this ‘something bigger’.

The Sixth Step: If you’ve followed me thus far, then you are mad. You’re a Mad Hatter! Mad mad mad!

The Seventh Step: In Our Farm, Rosie Boycott (who seems to know John Mitchinson who knows my friend Keith Kahn-Harris whose book on water skiers in Luxembourg has just hit its funding mark and with whom I’m chatting over Skype this week) discusses the plights and blessings of local community, the rhythms of farming life, and the economic juggernauts like factory farming and supermarkets that are crippling small town life. The book has an almanac-like quality to it. I’m especially fond of Boycott’s ability to weave together practical matters with homey scenes and spiritual concerns.

Practical matters:

Now it is mid-January 2006, under three months till the date of the first market, and we are sowing vast quantities of herb seeds: parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil, chervil, oregano, chives, mint and sorrel. I’ve found some research on the net which tells me that sales of fresh herbs have soared by 124 percent in the last five years to the value of [lb] 38 million. Despite the demand, the home market is lagging far beyond…. (92)

Homey scenes:

I unlock the back door to let the dogs out into the garden and follow them along the grass path beside the long herbaceous border, and through the crooked metal gate into the wood. (293)

Spiritual concerns:

All sadness, they [Buddhists] maintain, comes from failed expectation, from regretting what has happened and waiting for circumstances to change and make you feel better. By living with one foot in the past and another in a fantasy of how things might be, we fail to live in the present. And that way a sort of madness lies. I knew intellectually that everything in life is impermanent and that all we truly have is the moment in which we live, right here and right now. And that it is within our gift to live in that place and thus to feel and see all that is fine and right in our universe. But there is a huge divide between understanding something intellectually and finding a way to live it. (56)

That there is. And thus the longing of philosophy, the longing to make life whole.