Saint Benedict of Nursia

Saint Benedict of Nursia

Carlos Alberto Disandro

(Translator: Franz Berg)

St. Benedict of Nursia (480 – 547)

Saint Benedict is a powerfully Romanized Italian, perhaps of Umbrian-Sabine race and native to Umbria, that mysterious Italic land the mother of poets and saints, which encourages us to imagine him as a distant effulgence of Numa Pompilius. He was no dialectician of illustrious academies, but instead wielded the Virgilian plow in the fields of his parents and his race. Not a theologian of great conciliar debates, but a maker of men, a maker of indestructible paths for men. He is not a poet of happy lyric utterances, like his compatriot Propertius; he is a founder who modified and perfected the world with his Rule. He is not the artist of great Augustan convocations, but a new man inspired by the Muses for the high arts of the Europe then newly born. As his illustrious disciple St. Gregory the Great has said, his doctrine is his life: quia vir sanctus nullo so potuit aliter docere quam vixit (PL LXVI. col. 200 C-D). This life, or rather this teaching, or doctrine, or life, is built simply as the life of praise, with no other principle than the bonds of hierárkhico between men, angels and the Trinitarian Life. In 480 when St. Benedict was born everything seemed lost. Yet in praise nothing is lost, as our Maestro says and teaches. In the fifteenth centenary we are celebrating, the far-reaching impact of his Rule, or his doctrine, or his life, pleases and encourages us. Against the gloomy kingdom of the Antichrist, already installed, we piously recall the triumph of Saint Benedict, victorious through song, praise and work. Cf.Dom Paul Delatte, Commentaire sur la Regle Saint Benoit, Paris, Plon 1913. Cardinal Ildefonse Schuster, Saint Benoit et son temps, Paris, Laffont 1950.

Contents:

Saint Benedict and the Transfiguration of Absolute Man and Woman
Saint Benedict and the Empirical Foundations of Western Monasticism
Saint Benedict, Gregorian Chant and the Feeling of Divine Manhood
Saint Benedict and the Transfiguration of Absolute Man and Woman

The understanding of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the original genius who makes intelligible the open nature of man, must be difficult in the darkened contemporary Western world. An almost unknown name in the Americas, these vast territories linked to the dispensation of post-Tridentine rationalism, yet also to vast expectations for the new beginning of a cycle declaring the celestial home of man through song and prayer. Fifteen centuries after his birth, Saint Benedict proclaims and proposes the primacy of the contemplative life, art and aesthetics with the same amazing characteristics as in his own tumultuous times. And as in that Sixth Century, in the midst of daily contempt for contemplation in praise, Saint Benedict no doubt shines for his prudence, density and creative interior provocation. But the characteristic connotations of our century are also immense, in which despite everything the circumspect persistence of the Benedictine life remains with us, or the outline of a founding aura is consolidated according to an historical-philological reflection able to honour the Americas with the establishment of the life of praise.

Meanwhile, vast spiritual modulations stand between those Benedictine origins and the decadence of contemplation in the West. I mention several milestones that certainly pertain to the emergence of a new sense of man, and therefore new spiritual resources, that nullify or divert precisely that nostalgia for the heavenly mysteries, although ostensibly done with the same human face. Between Saint Benedict and those everyday trends there is therefore a radical opposition.

Those milestones or modulations also act with contrasting force and have left or leave a serious illusion in the body of a civilisation, founded in cognitive power and magic, in the image and in their intervening instruments, and which illusion also keeps other deep energies away from that same heavenly mystery.

Among those milestones or modulations we must note the currents during the Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries that can be symbolised in their definitive maturity as Franciscan ideals. Then came the transformations of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, proof of which can be adduced in Lutheran, Erasmist and Jesuit ideals. In 1580, that is eleven centuries after the birth of Benedict of Nursia, we can say that Benedictine ideals were in retreat or withdrawal, were not involved in the construction of modernity and that from the Fifteenth Century Benedictine men were in radical contradiction with Lutheran, Erasmist and Jesuit men. The four subsequent centuries, until this Fifteenth Centenary, are precisely those of the construction of modern man, those of the competing spiritual claim by routes opposed to those of the Benedictine monastic way. To what extent this monasticism also suffers from the impact of modernity is certainly another fundamental question, yet one that does not override the profound denotations of the origins, here considered in their own particular way. We should therefore address this vast historical philological curve until 1580, to confirm the uniqueness of each semantic field. Historical, since in the order of empirical manifestation men make men according to complex temporal functions. Philological, since in so far as we would have recourse to unmistakable texts reserved within their own considerable semantic undercurrents for an intelligibility of man according to men. A text thus retrieved is categorised as foundational and as a guiding light, more profound than crude facts that have already happened.

However our purpose is much more modest. Against the resplendent or hazy unfolding of that curve and its complex resonances through four dense centuries, we attempt to reflect on Benedictine ideals per se, so that the contour of their prophetic-celestial aura will stand out and so that through an inevitable confrontation we may detect the other lines of a prophethood that in my view excludes the essence of Benedictine life, or conversely indicates that Benedictine life implies the renunciation of worldly prophecy of man by man. In any case, the positive collateral lines of approach will be dealt with, following somewhat the model of Saint Gregory the Great in his presentation and interpretation of the Great Western Patriarch. Thus when Saint Gregory, in an often quoted passage from his biography, emphasises the coincidence between experience and life, interiority and manifestation, mystic depth and temporal realisation, he places Saint Benedict in the perikhóresis of the Spirit, for whom there is henceforth no difference between inspiration and manifestation. The aforementioned passage (PL. LXVI. Prolegomena, chapter XXXVI, column 200 C-D) says: Hoc autem nolo te lateat, quod vir Dei inter tot miracula quibus in mundo clarit, doctrinae quoque verbo non mediocriter fulsit. Nam scripsit monachorum regulam, discretione praecipuam, sermone luculentam. Cujus su quis velit subtilius mores vitamque cognoscere, potest in eadem institutione regulae omnes magisteri illfus actus invenire: quia sanctus vir nullo modo potuit aliter docere quam vixit. That is: “Nevertheless I do not want to hide from you that among so many miracles with which this man of God shone in the world, he was also quite significantly resplendent through the vocation of doctrine. Then he wrote the Rule for Monks, notable for its discretion, and full of substantial reflexions. If someone is more insistent to know his style and life, in this same Rule every action of his teaching can be found. Thus this holy man could not teach differently from the way he lived.” (See the Spanish translation of Bruno Avila, O.S.B., Bs. As. 1938, page 95).

The passage occurs within the pious hagiography, in the midst of the Golden Legend of Saint Benedict himself, relevant testimony for a remarkable empiricism, as befits the style of Saint Gregory. Concerning this Life one often reads mismatched superficial judgments, incoherent discriminations and corrections in the costly style of 19th Century philology. It is not my present intention to review those frontiers. One just emphasises that this paragraph makes the greatest miracle of the Spirit stand out with a concise and clear imprint, present in the empirical evidence of the Rule that anyone can review, almost everyone can understand and only a few can comply with. But Saint Gregory discretely defines the inspired bond that, through the mediation of Benedict, unites in him the depths of the Spirit and the concrete mystic historic event, and what is from above with the magisterii actus. or with the embodied achievements of a century, in the tumultuous and tragic critical situation of the Empire and the confusion of Roman institutions, resulting in a work unmistakeable for its balance and beauty coordinated with celestial virtue restoring the unity of verbum doctrinae and actus magisterii. Through this heavenly virtue even the moderation of fallen nature is restored and the abyss between word and thing vanishes. In the period preceding the definitive restoration and exaltation of man, Benedict inaugurated with his founding gesture (in which verbum and actus aligned and converged) a path of return to the original plenitude, a way of passage through the Post-Adamic and Post-Cainite contradiction, a purgative and illuminative way on which to reach the Mystery of Transfiguration.

The importance the theme of the mystical paradise has among the Fathers (as much among the Latins as among the Greeks) is well-known. With Saint Gregory himself this mysticism decides fundamental aspects of the Gregorian doctrine at the dawn of the Middle Ages, even though veiled by his Roman temperament and contained within everything suggested by the expression actus magisterii. So that the empirical evidence of that unfathomable depth is the Institutio Regulae Monachorum, which is in turn to us many centuries later the clear conjunction of mysticism and culture, art and theology, empirical dispensing and alert creative imagination, in summation the government of men and full exercise of aesthetic virtue as something much more vast than moral virtue. The Regula Monachorum is for Saint Gregory nearly contemporary with his original background, engaged in his mysterious expression of life and doctrine, the true testimony of his primary fundamental resources and hence the Rule is for the great Pontiff the numeric figure and empirical-doctrinal sum of religion and culture, understanding for the former the everyday living together amid divine banquets and for the latter an act of coherent fertility that for man recovers a certain aftertaste of paradisical labours thereby transcending the immense labours of Virgil and Augustan Rome. In turn the Rule is for us after the first Benedictine millennium, or rather until the birth of Martin Luther (1483), the inequivocable sign of an affirmative demiurgic function founded in the power of song, and after the five subsequent centuries during which the forces destructive of the Old Christendom are seen, the Benedictine Rule defines, in contrast with the dismal and contradictory pedagogies of modernity, the refuge of a fruitful leisure, the veneration of men’s hands, excluding Cainite violence, and above all the certainty the banqueting life of the Gospels that is summarised in a certain way in one of the fundamental sentences of the Prologue to the Rule: Constituenda est ergo a nobis dominici schola servitii; in qua institutione nihil asperum nihilque grave nos constituturos speramus (See PL. LXVI. column 218 C; Dom P. Delatte, page 21 – 22). Once more we face a semantic problem. What does the following mean: dominici schola servitii?

First, let us cite the testimony of a distinguished commentator, a master of the Benedictine life itself. I refer to Dom Paul Delatte, then Abbot of the Abbey of Solesmes. In effect he says in the pertinent passage of his commentary on the Rule: “In what comforts and stimulates souls, St. Benedict was finally obliged to define the particular form of the religious life, which he came to offer to them in the name of the Lord. Until this moment (in the Prologue) he limited himself to enquire whether they were able to embrace the Christian life in all its depth. Here he states what a monk is: a dominici schola servitii. Let us hold forever this definition of our monastic life. The monastery is not a place of dispensations, not a house of retirement, nor a branch of Academia. It is no doubt a place of leisure, liberty and calm (hence the primitive meaning of the term schola: skholé); but this leisure has for its end the study of the things of God, the understanding and education of his warriors. The Ancients gave the name schola to the places where Belles-Lettres, the sciences, liberal arts, gymnastic and military exercises were taught. As well as to military companies forming the palace guard and personal guard of the prince, to those places reserved for their barracks or where they performed their military exercises. It is not impossible that Saint Benedict also referred to meeting places of the Roman colleges or associations.” (The author refers to the work of G. Bossier: La religion Romaine d’Auguste aux Antonins, Book III, chapter III.)

Hence the monastic life is the “school of the Lord’s service”, the school in which one learns how to serve him, where the only exercise consists constantly in this: In the noviciate that lasts an entire lifetime. However, the service of God consists of two elements: worship or the exercise of the virtue of religion, and since the value of worship is confirmed according to the dignity of adoring, also personal sanctification in fidelity to the law of God, through the union of our will with his. This is an adoration in spiritu that comes from the interior man, in veritate, or rather from where none of the faculties of men are excluded. (…) Finally this adoration is collective, social and public”. Thus far the words of the illustrious Abbot. Without intending to thereby complete the page, but rather to reread the Rule and his magisterial commentary with philological listening, there subsists in the Latin expression of the furnished text an unexpected semantic vibration we must unravel. Well, everyone knows what servus means, servitium, servile in Classical or Imperial Latin; everyone knows what dominus means with its derivations and compounds. But what is surprising is the slant given to the meaning of the epitet dominici, being syntactically the ultimate stage of the subordination, therefore semantically reiterating the meaning of each term and context, exchanging the meaning with the working framework of the divine humanity of Christ.

Much ink has flowed from the Sixteenth Century to the present day on the dialectics of servus and dominus; much debris has accumulated from these dialectic, speculative, semantic and empirical ruins, which seem to take care not to notice that the expression of Saint Benedict echoes the theology of Saint John which precisely rescinds such dialectics: ouketi lego hymas doulous, hoti no doulos ouk orden ti poiei autoú kyrious, hymas de eíreka philous, hoti panta ha hekousa para tou patrós mou, egnoórisa hymin (XV. 15). From this beloved theology comes the empirical expression of the Rule, and this through a passage that goes from time to the Transfiguration presenting the characteristics and effective conditions opening, deciding and completing this itinerary.

Servitium dominicum and opus divinum are two semantic marks with strong transformative meaning that lead back to the sources of Christian Antiquity and propose an order of realisation that attempts to codify the Rule within the meaning of high art in a living form. The Orphic-Pythagorian congregations of Magna Grecia and the Platonic Academy in Athens were moved by the splendour of poetry, the Aristotelian Lyceum and Epicurean communities in the South of Italy, among whom Virgil lived during his first spiritual turn, presented in Greco-Roman Antiquity features we can reencounter in the monastic foundation of Saint Benedict. But what seems absolutely characteristic as the centre of totalising reference in the work of this Patriarch is precisely the foundation of man in the perspective of the Transfiguration. This in turn provides us with two fundamental recapitulatory phases: the restoration of the creative energies oriented by that word servitium and that word otium, which are both opus divinum (what has been called in a general and allusive way the mystica paradisíaca) and the real though inchoate actualisation of the eschatological Transfiguration according to the Rule proposed as a certain scope of theandric activity. Mystica paradisíaca and magical Transfiguration renew the roots of the Kosmos, resume the operational paradisiacal ties between visibilia and invisibilia Dei; faced with the task of preparing the New Heaven and the New Earth, and therefore anticipating in time the audition and vision of God: from audition in vision and from vision in audition progresses the ascent or anabasis of the monk, the analogy between his hands and mind and comes the expectation of the final cycle in the manifestation of Spirit. But in turn the monk also has the characteristics of a Platonic demiurge because he allows the temporal society of men, or what we call culture, to be imbued with such servitium dominicum, and such opus divinum becomes the space of the tenth choir of praise, as Dom Delatte defines collective, social and public worship. Thus the ascent or anabasis of the monk is premonition of the descent of the Pneuma, which as Saint John says does not measure its gifts (ouk gar ek metrou didoosin to Pneuma). So one discerns, on the monastic horizon so described, the Mystical and Angelic Theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, except that within the space of the Benedictine Abbey there appears the schola, opus, one could almost say workshop when we consider the powerful images of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Scola because each monk, the community of monks and the temporal city that shelters them live amid leisure. Hence the link between verbum and actus, life and doctrine, the image heard and the image of realised forms as well. Opus, because men enter into the sense of being founders and finally into the consummative sense of coronation. Workshop or studio, because although each celestial stone or gem corresponds to the mystery of a word pronounced only for She, who is the feminine Mysteries, nevertheless the sense of the realisation of Absolute Man and Absolute Woman always corresponds to their mutual insertion into the living display of those luminous, clear and incorruptible walls. Interestingly enough, in this transfigurative itinerary the monk rediscovers the supreme divine community, the intimate commerce of the spirit and every trace of loneliness vanishes.

Saint Benedict and the Empirical Foundations of Western Monasticism

The first section of these reflections came from a text of Saint Gregory the Great. We now confront the interpretation of a modern historian who relocates Saint Benedict in a vast phenomenological system of Hegelian origin, vigilantly focusing on the semantic centre, highlighting partial operational aspects without hint of some primary development of the whole. I refer to Arnold J. Toynbee. In the Third Volume of his Study of History, after systematising what he calls the “growth of civilisations” in his chapter on “the process of growth”, Toynbee analyses the dialectic of “retirement and return”. There among the models studied from East and West, which are numerous, appears the subtitle: “Two Saviors: Saint Benedict and Saint Gregory”. It is not my purpose here to confront Toynbee’s questionable thesis, neither to minimise or to readjust it. I just want to recap a modern critical counter melody that is nevertheless an obstacle to understanding the whole. Therefore let us read the fundamental passages of this critical reconstruction (op. cit. Vol. III, page 295). Toynbee writes: “One of the most important features of the Benedictine Rule was the prescription of manual labour, since first and foremost this meant agricultural work in the fields. In fact, economically the Benedictine movement was a resurrection of agriculture, the first successful resurrection of agriculture in Italy since the failure of innumerable attempts made since the destruction of the old Italian peasant economy during the Second Punic War, seven and a half centuries earlier. The Benedictine Rule managed to achieve what not even the Agrarian Laws of the Gracchi or imperial power had done.”

No doubt the diligence that was and is constructive, ceaseless and fundamental in the hands of Benedictines for fifteen centuries cannot be unknown or begrudged by anyone. But certainly this is not the deep historical-theological meaning of the Rule, or Saint Benedict or the complex European millennium marked by those virtues that, as previously noted, prepare for or make a man destined to Transfiguration. Hence it is also true that the specific Roman virtues of Benedict and Gregory correspond to the Virgilian dimension of the land, the empirical ability to found, order, administer, lead This is a height of initiating dispensations without which it is impossible to understand the character of this monasticism and the sense of its insertion among the ruins of the Empire. In this regard Jacques Fontaine, in an interesting paper entitled Antiques valeurs and valeurs chretiennes dan la spiritualité des grands Terriens propriétaires á la fin du IV siècle occidental (in Askese und Mönchtum in der alten Kirche. Herausg von K. Suso Frank. Wissenscht. Buchgeselschaft. Darmstadt. 1975. Page 281-324) has drawn attention to the link between Western monasticism, its development and initial expansion and the situation of rural properties whether affected by the diffusion of the Church and Christianity or by the collapse that accompanied the Germanic Migrations. In Gaul, Italy and Spain the religious conversion or continuity of some of these families or owners would not be outside the physiognomy taken by the monastic foundations and the style of this monasticism, or in its connection with the land, as seen in the history of the Benedictine Rule, and in the same Saint Benedict, a powerfully Romanised Umbrian, or in Saint Gregory, Prefect of the City of Rome, as they surely transferred the empirical Roman sense or administrative ability to be initiator, executor and solicitous appeal over to an expanding and consolidating order achieved within their monastic foundations, within a broad horizon of tensions, ruins, wars, pillaging, depredations and looting. Nevertheless however important this Benedictine stamp, this is not the in any way the semantic centre of their dispensation of restoration. Toynbee simply misinterprets the totality of the Benedictine visage when he illicitly stresses the rural economic aspect of an agriculture that reestablished itself amid the ruins. That semantic centre on which Benedictine agrarian work depended between the Sixth and Ninth Centuries is what we call the existence of praise. Without losing its rooted telluric Roman context, this semantic centre opens to the advancement of paradisiacal magic and takes its landscape, foreshadowing and mundane resonance in the Mystery of the Transfiguration of men. In the Rule we see precisely the contours of that praise-filled existence in which we intuit the historic arc that stretched between Saint Benedict and Saint Gregory compares to a rousing backdrop whose only comparison is with the origins of Greek civilisation, but that in the case under consideration involves the ultimate revelation of men in their active status of praiseful worship. In this sense the first Benedictine millennium, from the Sixth to the Sixteenth Centuries, would suggest a level then different from the experience of Deity and Kosmos through what is primordially aesthetic, lyric, poetic, or as we would say in a phrase already expressionless for us, a musical manner. We shall consider this issue later.

Saint Benedict in effect presents a physiognomy that surprises his biographers and researchers, whether ancient or modern, in sum the interpreters of monastic life or the medieval origins. Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster in his beautiful and notable reconstruction of the Sixth Century (Saint Benoît et son temps, French translation by Dom J.-B. Gai. Laffont. Paris 1950), in order to relocate the saint and his work into the context of his dramatic century, never stops raising questions about the spiritual direction of this Umbrian who founds a new Empire against the ruins of the Roman Empire that is then accepted and enables his fecund shift between them. For our part we intend to define the specific features of a fructifying, ordering and regent talent, the unitive character of musical life and the worshipful life of praise. Because ultimately everything tends to ensure the exercise of choral monastic life, without which the unmistakable seal of the order cannot be explained.

In effect, Saint Benedict went to Subiaco after his terrible experience with the monks of Vicovaro, preparing the foundation of the twelve monasteries that can be said to be the cradle of the Benedictine Order. Among the landscapes of the former imperial villa of Nero and Claudius, the Order rearranged abandoned lands and this would be the mark of their indispensable crop cultivation. The story of the German who asked to be accepted as a novice and who the Saint dedicated to working the land, the loss of the sheet iron from his work tool (hoe or sickle), the miracle of the Saint who recovered the tool from the lake bottom with only the wooden handle damaged in the tranquil waters, no doubt presents us with a Saint Benedict as the Maestro of Agriculture.

Then when he moved to Monte Cassino thirty years after moving to Subiaco, he promptly transformed the ancient buildings of walls, temples, spaces for old altars, sacred woods, aqueducts, etc. Saint Benedict personally oversaw what appears to be the distribution of parcels of land, certainly involving the entirety of Benedictine life. Hence Saint Benedict as Maestro of architectonic space in this unusual acropolis in the Campania will order vast cosmic-telluric relations, retrieving a religious past otherwise outdated, establishing the mystery cult of choral celebrations.

Finally this monk who was first a hermit and then the founder of a cenobitic rule retains the features of his Roman studies and in some manner, about which we are uninformed, is deeply attached to the literary culture of his era, which is to say the knowledge of biblical texts. Therefore he is the magister litterarum for the young novices. But above all this, and this is the question we should ask, where did Benedict learn the art of music? What teachers did he follow in Nursia and Rome, or did he take with him to Subiaco and Monte Cassino? What place did musical training occupy in the monastic outline of the early years and how was the culmination reached, implicit in the Rule?

If we accept the assumption of Dom Schuster that there was a relationship between the families of Benedict, based in ancient Nursia, and the family of Saint Gregory, certainly securely placed in Rome; if we notice the presence in the first half of the Sixth Century of figures like Cassiodorus and Boethius, and if we remember the radiant influence of Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine; if we consider these as complementary pieces of information, we must agree there is a rare artistic-theological equilibrium prevailing in Saint Benedict, a rare sense of the mysterious sacredness of the cult. In his active hands the plow transfigures the earth in Virgilian perspective; in his powerful ideas of space sealed by the Vitruvian science we see the accurate gaze of the Roman augur. But it is his subtle ear that separates and transfers and finds in the Pythagorean mystery of rhythm and interval the definitive model for the Transfiguration of men: the union of diatonic musical rhythm and Latin semantics reconciles the secret of this new Orphic power. Over the abolished temple of the ancient Apollo on Monte Cassino, ending perhaps a millennium of ancient and sometimes corrupt consecrations, now rises up the sung prayer which opens with the impetus of its constructive pace and semantic unison into the anabasis or ascent of men: first the abbey, then the surrounding lands, then the village, city, culture, science, knowledge as subtle congruence of correlative pairs enter into the Benedictine anabasis and secure what can be called paradisiacal mystic magic, return to the origins, foundational donation of grace, sublime harmony of souls in the objective glory of song.

It is thus not surprising how much the compositional structure of the Rule teaches in this respect, as Saint Gregory says, everything then known by empirical data. Dom Delatte observes that in effect the structure of the Rule itself enables us to establish what in another language we call the semantic centre, and thus the meaning of Saint Benedict as founder of the life of praise. After the Prologue and Chapters One to Seven, which according to the illustrious Abbot refer to the education of the individual monk, the text then proceeds to delineate in Chapters Eight to Twenty the life of the monastic saint and magician. Dom Delatte says: “Is there not then an intention in this Order? It is licit to think so, although it may be difficult to define a concrete proof. The evidence is clear that Saint Benedict has clearly defined the character of the cenobitical life; what holds the decisive place in his Rule is the liturgical life which organises the official prayer with more precision and care than anything else, leaving the extent and manner of private prayer to each soul; and that finally emphatically recommends nothing be preferred to the work of God, the sacred choir. In fact ever other monastic labour is referred to the chorus which determines the cycle of every schedule; virtually every hour calls for choral song and the better part of the monastic day. While a life consecrated to study makes use of the silence of the early morning hours and the mental lucidity that accompanies them, in order to progress in the consistent effort of the intelligence, the monk consecrates those hours to sing the same Psalms before the same God. (…) Moreover it matters little whether the world actually comprehends this work of sung prayer, or that it can not discern the true value of their mandatory presence. No monk would give a thought to reduce his life to what the world can understand; this life is what God, Saint Benedict and the discrete Benedictine temperament have established. The disagreement with the world, is that not for us a principle as old as the Gospels and the Rule: a saeculi actibus se facere alienum? Is not irreligion the character of the age, the parti pris of atheism, an atheism sometimes measured knowing how to distribute the dosages of its malice, but at the same time frequently a militant atheism that does not flinch from any procedure or proscription? If the world understands nothing about the work of contemplatives, why then does the world find its true predilection in their persecution? Because the hatred of those who inspire the persecution is much more clairvoyant. To irreligion must be added the vague religious sentimentalism of so many Christians and in an age of frenetic activism and unlimited utilitarianism, an almost general lack of knowledge concerning the value of prayer. Fas est et ab hoste deceri: in the face of this naturalist and impious conspiracy the duty of the monk is to be, more than anything, completely uniquely religious, frankly affirming what they deny or forget”. Nothing is wasted in these ten pages of Dom Delatte who with his masterly experienced hand and with diaphanous knowledge sets forth the essence of the Benedictine life and Regla Monachorum, and finally according to the paradigm of Saint Gregory, illustrates his actually plain and profound prose, vita et doctrina Benedicti, and thereby opens the upright intelligence of our theme: the transfiguration of man.

We are not monks. We adopt the masterly interpretation of Dom Delatte without hesitation, but we must relocate Saint Benedict into a vast semantic curve able to define our present situation. Hence the claim to establish a Christian humanism, detached from these venerable currents, has misinterpreted the opus divinum of the Regla Monachorum and caused inestimable doubts throughout the final spiral of Western man, now standing before the abyss of his own hubris, exactly opposed to Benedictine Transfiguration.
Saint Benedict, Gregorian Chant and the Feeling of Divine Manhood

As I said, it is impossible to answer questions about the musical education of Saint Benedict, and to us the question even tends to resonate with modern connotations. So let us first outline the contours of the question and then establish the requirements affirmed in the Benedictine musical experience of a millennium, fundamental to aesthetic intelligence.

When we speak of “musical formation” we do not allude to anything that recalls the studies of composition theories, tonal structures, suitable instruments or musical compositions or genres that open the way to aesthetic innovation. Hence we must represent something completely distinct from the musical training of the past five or six centuries, particularly since the Seventeenth Century. We must moreover also put aside the consolidated training and rigorous aesthetic plenitude of the Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries, whose creations correspond to an artistic expertise contained within the conditions of late medieval life, as much religious as profane. Therefore the musical formation of Benedict is situated between the final stage of the music of the late Roman Empire and the institution of the Rule. Nevertheless such training corresponds with a highly refined Christian cultural environment that retained from Ancient music the rhythmic capacity for union with the word, and also incorporates the experience of the goal of an objective diakósmesis teándrica that therefore excludes every subjective psychic connotation, including what might correspond with the fervour of individual prayer. The speculative sense derived from the Greek philosophical schools found in writings such as those of Saint Augustine or Boethius, for example, should also be emphasised. To this should be added the sense of Latin phrasing, the religious density of Latin semantics and the recovery of an expressive rhythm in harmony with the sacred action of the cult.

These are the unmistakable conditions to represent the musical environment in which the skill of the monk flourished, applying with artistic rigour the definition of the line between text and melody, between semantics and rhythm, between the ascent of the soul and resulting interval, according to the sonorous resonance of the chorus of praise. We thus obtain the elemental setting of the music, seen anew again with the original and originating virtues, stripped of the luxuriant claims of post-classical Greek music and with the Dorian severity of the lyric or tragic chorus restored. Although the comparison may seem exaggerated, in empirical terms Saint Benedict and his monks reconciled the tradition of a melody preserved through vast historic cycles and the agapeistic religion of the Gospels during the first half of the Sixth Century. This is what reopened the Kosmos and mankind to a new sense of the whole, and therefore to a new semantics and a new music. The archaic resonances of racial origins, in which words and melody flow from identical correspondences, in which rhythm and meaning buttress one another, such resonances purified by the requirements of the mystery cult define the character of the song and melody such that we can intuit them through the Gregorian heritage. They consolidate the subjection of the Biblical letter to a living essence of that totality in progress, making the end of the musical experience of monastic life the point of departure for a recovery of the origins of revelation, without denying the constructive drive that identified and transformed their empirical and historic surroundings. In this sense the union of music and prayer, mystery rite and agapeistic song, prayer and poetry, aesthetics and doctrine, empirical gesture supercharged with transrational semantics and fitting all-encompassing rhythm, repeats the Greek aesthetic model, even though the elements of space, situation and the complex resonances of this transfiguring and docent song is quite different. In the ontic melody of the Greek chorus and Benedictine chorus we may find the interface enabling us to understand the growth from remote origins then purified in another historic cycle, to the mature aesthetic-religious manifestation of Gregorian Chant, whose power would no doubt saturate the medieval millennium.

We spoke precisely of a new feeling of totality that guides us through the conditions of this ontic music. First they incorporated with new melodic features what could be considered the presence of cosmic-physical relations and their opening to a Kosmos that is invisible and noetic, yet actual. Such is the powerful semantics, expressed theologically by the Nicene Creed, and no doubt recovered in the aesthetic of Gregorian Chant and the forms preceding it since the Sixth Century. We call this first condition the praising totality of Ktisis, expressed by the Christian theology in the Davidic text: caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.

Then comes the spectacle of man, his location in paradisiacal and theandric mystic magic. The sentiment of divine-humanity invades the mind of Saint Benedict in a particular way and is unambiguously expressed in the art of opus divinum, or rather primarily in the entire art of unisonous expression of the choir, the sensible, audible and intelligible expression of the Theandric Mystery: semantics and melody, image and rhythm, narrative and mystic magic proclamation, resuming within the totality of the ktisis, the link of the God-man union, or man-within-God. Here the Benedictine chorus of Subiaco or Monte Cassino, however incipient their forms, however simple and solemn the resulting rhythms, intervals or cadences, has a theological integration in the cultic mystic magic that completes and perfects the heavenly mysticism or magic and therefore reflects the substantival resources of the priestly gesture of men consecrated to prayer.

Finally, while the monk is worker, reader and architect; clears the land, founds and builds; defines an empirical itinerary in a suitable institution within which choral singing, as we have said, represents the guiding plan of that monastic pedagogy, a powerful link must be supposed with the concrete-historic surroundings (Italy, Gaul, Germany, etc.) in a double sense: in so far as the chant clarifies the spiritual and cultural trends on the one hand and on the other in so far as the chant is sung with the greater or lesser density and prolix lushness of the objective conditions of this human environment. This aesthetic-religious interrelationship between monastic chorus and historical dimension is essential in the Benedictine origins, although after an entire Gregorian millennium it is not easy for us to reconstruct the empirical conditions of the relationship, or its semantic and structural effects. But that connotative power and its effects are real, and without them we would lack the key to interpret Germanic-Roman history during a decisive millennium.

We stress that the three conditions establishing the sound of the monastic Chant in Subiaco, Monte Cassino and then through the immensity of medieval time is dense with mysterious space within which coexist works and lineages of doubtlessly providential weight.

First, the sound of the choir as Pythagorean model knotting together every ostensible diakósmesis, every cosmic link, every telluric dispensation. The ancestral inheritance of the ancient melody converges in this first condition in which the aesthetic principle of a founding diatonic selection occurs.

Then, the diatonic condition as such. Through her the Benedictine choral choir reopens the mystery of the humanity of Kristos, as inexhaustible paradigm of every possible creation, including a link between semantics and time that does not cancel the blind spring condition of the first nor negate the transfiguring pathway of the second.

Finally, the choral resonance that governs the experience of men beyond the scope of monasticism. This exteriority is however charged with the interior of praise and maintains the resources of a life given to transfiguration.

The three conditions for the monastic choir, namely, configurative diakosmesis, union of semantics with time, resonance beyond the abbey – these three conditions seal the beginning of Benedictine life and entail the presence through a millennium of what has been called the transfiguration of man.

We must now tie every thread provided or recovered in our brief exposition, attempting to describe a consistent and systematic pattern radiant precisely with what is called the Mystery of Transfiguration. Should we delve for a time into the reconstruction made by Dom Schuster, we would begin by first noting that the shock voltage of this monk and his monasticism, which we would call a constructive shock, is opposed to a century of manifestly devastating and tragic jolting shocks. Here we locate the operational semantic virtues of agriculture, architecture, literature and music, with which Benedict establishes an empirical foundation with remarkable conditions. The origins of these operational semantic virtues are varied and complex, but none of them by themselves explain the aesthetic-religious emersion of the living whole. And that is what matters.

Saint Benedict is hermit, monk and legislator of the monastic life. Here we discover a second contrasting theme. The confrontation with Eastern Greek-Oriental-Syrian monasticism unequivocally shows the function of these operative lines, subordinated to the community life of praise. The characteristics of Saint Basil, dead in the year 379, and the characteristics of Saint Benedict, born in 480, would suffice to resolve two fertile orientations in those Christian centuries. Benedict emphasises what I, a little improperly, call theandric Super-humanism, held firmly in place on a remarkable empirical foundation.

And should we extend our gaze to the entire Church of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries filled with profound doctrinal commotions, which is to say semantic commotions – Saint Benedict seems on the one hand to be a kind of space immune against those quakes, and to affirm traits of organic living continuity, a theological charisma that builds precisely a space of Transfiguration initiated by Chant.

Finally, one ultimate congruence of singular impact. In the Benedictine life of praise, in the labouring and musical monasticism, in the mystic magic of glory, become unifying principle of empirical pathways, knotting together undercurrents from White Hebrew prophesy, ontic resources of the Greek mind and Roman foundations and government; knotting together the superior agapeistic creativity of the Gospels thereby allowing the opening and consolidation of the path of Transfiguration of men and the world. In this sense Benedictine monasticism articulates in a remarkable way paradisiacal mystic magic and eschatological mystic magic, resurrection of the origins and translation to a novus ordo saeclorum, to a different eón that is the source of other eons unnoticed according to the resonance of Greek doxology.

Thus we close our journey. Benedict and the Benedictine monastery, at that time in the concrete kairos of the abolished and convulsed Empire, found a monastic theology of Transfiguration. That theology does not ignore the unmistakable kairos, and never has anything to do with any other through later times. The schola dominici servitii integrates the high art of joining together paradisiacal and eschatological mystic magic, and opus divinum, the life of praise we have set as the semantic centre of the Rule, proposed the founding path, the pneumatological life, where the measureless gift of the Most Holy Pneuma is achieved. The opus divinum, the life of praise and in praise, is the definitive means of Trinitarian perikhóresis that gathers together the unforeseen gyre perfecting the world and men and already in the present makes them inhabit the Transfiguration of Glory. Song articulates the entire celestial diakósmesis. We are at the threshold of what the Liturgy states in the Greek doxology.

(This is the text of the speech delivered in the city of Córdoba, to celebrate the fifteenth centenary of the birth of Benedict of Nursia. The conference occurred on May 22, 1980, in the hall of the College of Notaries of the city, and was sponsored by the Institute of Classical Culture “Saint Athanasius” (Córdoba, Argentina). The author, Carlos A. Disandro, is professor of Latin and Classical Philology at the National University of La Plata and Buenos Aires. The text was published a posteriori in the 3rd issue of the journal Caput Anguli.)

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Published in: on January 17, 2016 at 4:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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