Part III: Benedictine Infrastructure

 

The fundamental issue facing modern society is the issue of religion: in what does it believe? Which god will it serve? The nations as nations, especially as they come increasingly into the orbit of Western civilization, will find this question rearing up with ever-increasing regularity and ever-intensifying forcefulness. Material development only exacerbates this. While it destroys traditional foundations, it creates a vacuum which must be filled. The church faces the other side of the same question: will she recognize that her spiritual power concerns the building and guardianship of the public character and life? That her mission is aimed straight at the soul of a people as such?

Liberalism’s establishment of a naked public square gave us the recipe for the culture war which now rages around us. The church must now pick up the pieces. Liberalism was nothing but a temporary cease-fire; its solution never could be more than that. As libertarians jump ship for a more amenable live-and-let-live with just-as-godless socialists who have more or less come to terms with the “free market”, the church must purify herself of the unholy compromise made by her sons in earlier days: rendering allegiance to that standing joke, the neutral state. Both libertarians and conservatives seem ready to accept a watered-down compromise with the left while in the wings looms yet another form of neo-pagan totalitarianism. Will the church – i.e. the churchgoers who are the bricks which make up the edifice – finally gather the courage to make a clean break?

As usual, the pagans think they own the future. How often has this been the case? The last time pagans ruled the West, they ran it into the ground – pace Edward Gibbon. The church picked up the pieces, and midwifed a new society.

The church still holds the reins of this civilization. Its collapse can be averted. And yet, although the whole of material culture may not, by the grace of God, disintegrate, the spiritual core is in an advanced stage of decay, and cannot much longer endure the weight of civilization. From this simple reality stem such contemporary cries as those for “investment in infrastructure”. Everyone now senses the fundamental decay at work, worming cultural strength away at its roots. The fracture lines are becoming increasingly visible on the face of the edifice. What do our sycophants come up with for an answer? Roads, factories, investment in high-tech, competitive advantage for nation against nation, so-called education. Sophists never learn.

Something much more radical is needed: the recovery of the original mission and function of the church. The consciousness must be recovered that the church – the juridically-organized body of those juridically (covenantally!) bound to God through Jesus Christ – is the Temple of God on earth, and the Ark of His Covenant, an ark that safely conveys its passengers through the perilous waters of a corrupt society – itself wishing to corrupt everything it touches (e.g. sodomization as the meaning of life) – and God’s judgments (e.g. AIDS) upon that society. The church is such an ark, and only the church is such an ark. No political party can be a substitute. No spiritual Lone Ranger vigilantes can substitute. Only the corporate exercise of the keys of the kingdom of God.

In the days when civilization as they knew it was collapsing all around them, Roman Christians did what they knew they must. They gathered together the elements of their culture essential to its continuity and deposited them in their Ark of the Covenant. That ark was the monastery.

Monasticism was far more than a simple flight from the world. It was a flight to a new civilization. It signified a total break with a civilization built upon the natural man. It was the embodiment of the living sacrifice, acceptable to God: a renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, upon which had been built the City of Man; a world which had to be crucified and buried before it could be resurrected.

It was Augustine who, humanly speaking, laid the groundwork for this effort. He more than any other realized how total was the need for the natural man to die, to rise again as a new man through the resurrection power of Christ. And yet he understood that it was not the creation itself, nor the cultural efforts of fallen man, which were evil, but the evil will with which these were infused. Man’s flesh and his works needed to be purged, not destroyed. This purgation would prove to be salvation; Roman civilization would live on, because it would first die, as it had in this man, this preeminent Roman.

Augustine’s attitude to culture was therefore momentously unambiguous. The inheritance of classical civilization could serve the spiritual end of man if it were properly subordinated to that spiritual end. The crown of classical civilization was formed by the artes liberales, the Liberal Arts – literally, the arts of freedom. True freedom, Augustine knew only too well, came only in a release from bondage to sin and the flesh. By recasting this inheritance of liberty in terms of the liberty in which Christ sets men free (cf. Ephesians 5:1), this entire civilization could gain a new lease on life.

This process of assimilation took place in the monastery. The civilization which had become Christian in name, but remained pagan at heart, underwent a baptism. The monastery reconstructed the material world in terms of the spiritual; it placed the keys of God’s kingdom at the center of earthly life. Liturgy was its lifeblood, and from this life flowed the power to purge, renew, and restore the life of this dead civilization.

Cassiodorus, a Roman who spent 40 years of his life in public service to the Gothic king Theodoric – then reigning over the western fragment of the empire – spent the last part of his life gathering together and preserving for posterity the classics, both Christian and pagan, of his dying world. He set aside his patrimonial estate as a monastery, to bring together spiritually-minded brothers and sisters to share in death-unto-life. He set them upon the task of copying the manuscripts which embodied their civilization. Cassiodorus’s innovation initiated the monastic tradition by which the classical-Christian inheritance was transmitted to new times and to new stewards.

Cassiodorus’s contemporary, Benedict, devised the rule by which Western monasticism would henceforth be governed. Benedict’s Rule captured the Roman genius for discipline, order, organization and practical bent. The Rule was a rule for a common and social life rather than for a life of isolation. Honest labor was established as one of the pillars of a monk’s routine. It was also relatively flexible and mild, compared with other monastic regulations, such as the Irish.

At the center of monastic life Benedict put worship, the chanting of Psalms, the preaching of God’s Word and the celebration of the sacrament. The entire Psalter would be gone through each week; the greater part of the Bible would be read aloud each year.[40] There was obligatory time set aside for reading and study, transmitting the sanctified wisdom and culture of the past; it was also obligatory to work, out in the fields or perhaps in the kitchen, on tasks essential to the upkeep of the monastery. Work was necessary; diligence was good for the soul, idleness, the Devil’s workshop.

The Rule embodied the kind of rigid discipline which the times required. Every aspect of life was regulated; orders were unquestioningly obeyed. Stubborn and willful human nature was thusly to be put to death, leaving behind a humble and submissive spirit, exercised in patience and forbearance. Membership in the monastic community was established by oath, after the model of the Roman legions: these were spiritual warriors, forged into a disciplined fighting machine.

The monasteries were the outposts of civilization in a barbaric world. The world of the laity, of material culture, clustered about them, giving the civilization-in-the-making a new center of gravity. The presence of a monastery sanctified the surrounding countryside, giving spiritual security to a world terrified of roaming devils and demons. Public order arose upon a new spiritual base, purged of the demonic. Consider the importance assigned by contemporaries to a newly-founded abbey:

The abbot is armed with spiritual weapons and supported by a troop of monks anointed with the dew of heavenly graces. They fight together in the strength of Christ with the sword of the spirit against the aery wiles of the devils. They defend the king and clergy of the realm from the onslaughts of their invisible enemies.[41]

The monks of the Dark Ages lived and preached a world-and-life-view radically opposed to the prevailing barbarian culture, but one of which that culture became fascinated and by which it eventually was conquered. Monastic discipline and piety served to demonstrate the demands of the gospel to a culture which knew nothing but blood and honor. The renunciation of the things which that society most valued – territory, kinship, prowess – resulted in the development of a lay piety and ethic in which these things were restored to their proper role. For example, the ideal of celibacy and the renunciation of the “family values” of the day, the values of a clan society, brought about the transformation of the family. It eventually resulted in the rise of an ethic centered on the nuclear family rather than the clan, which upheld the mutual fidelity of husband and wife rather than the loose ethic which permitted adultery and incest and allowed for no family surname because brothers’ and sisters’ fathers and mothers so often did not coincide. This transformed institution formed the building block of the budding social order of the West.[42]

The monasteries instilled the Augustinian understanding of freedom in barbarian society. In so doing, they made possible the rise of Western civilization. Our civilization was built not upon on the abstract notion of innate human freedom. Much rather, it was built on the idea of human corruption, human depravity, and the necessity to submit to authority. The truly free man was the man who humbled himself, who recognized his fundamental corruption and bewailed it rather than gloried in it. He was one who could love his enemies, pray for them, and forgive the wrongs done against him. The slave was the man who was enslaved to glory, to vengeance, to mastery. He was caught in a snare of his own device, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The only reason for the dominium of man over man was his own sin. Because man lacked self-control, an external restraint had to be placed upon him. No man was better than another simply because he exercised dominium over the other. The slave subject to Christ was the true freeman; the dominus wrapped up in his own vices was the true slave. Only grace could restore the condition of self-control, and so the original condition of man, exercising dominion over the creation rather than over his fellow man.

This was the message brought by the church to a society based on, in Duby’s words, “war and slavery.”[43] The church held the rulers accountable to a standard of justice consistent with this fallen state. Yes, rulers held a near-absolute authority over their subjects, but to what end? Not to serve their own lusts, but to further the good of those very subjects. Not only that, but it was to their own benefit to grant their subjects as much liberty as they could exercise consistent with the claims of order. The manumission of slaves and serfs was a blessed act. The church, herself a domina with slaves and serfs under her control, showed the way here, as witness an act of Gregory the Great:

Gregory to Montana &c.

Since our Redeemer, the Maker of every creature, vouchsafed to assume human flesh for this end, that, the chain of slavery wherewith we were held being broken by the grace of His Divinity, He might restore us to pristine liberty, it is a salutary deed if men whom nature originally produced free, and whom the law of nations has subjected to the yoke of slavery, be restored by the benefit of manumission to the liberty in which they were born. And so, moved by loving-kindness and by consideration of this case, we make you, Montana and Thomas, servants of the holy Roman church which with the help of God we serve, free from this day, and Roman citizens, and we release to you all your private property.[44]

This was the basis for the growth of constitutional liberties, because it made possible an Augustinian-covenantal progress in liberty. The relationship between ruler and ruled was based on a covenant. This was evident in the feudal bond (lord and vassal), the manorial bond (between lord and serf), and, later on, in the growth of the cities (charter between city-dwellers and regional lord). The slave/free dichotomy was eliminated, replaced by a relative hierarchy of freedom: more freedoms one enjoyed, the more responsibilities he incurred. Serfdom was the lowest rung on this ladder, but even serfs had covenantally-guaranteed rights, focused on family and property. The church oversaw the covenantal process, ensuring that the rights and duties laid upon both parties were consistent with Augustinian principles of justice. This meant that obedience needed to be rendered to the superior, while a degree of freedom should be granted to the inferior consistent with his ability to exercise that freedom properly. The seal of these covenantal agreements was the oath, sworn to the Holy Trinity. This was the basis for the church’s oversight. Through the oath, the superior was bound to keep his agreement with his inferior. Default meant that the inferior was released from his obligation to obedience (in feudal terms, diffidatio ). Because these agreements were covenantal, they also extended to future generations. They were therefore renewed with each generation. At each renewal ceremony, the stipulations could change, thus allowing for amelioration.

It was the church’s oversight which enabled this process to succeed. Apart from her mediation, covenanting parties would be left face-to-face, each determining for himself whether the other party was properly fulfilling the conditions of the covenant. A covenanting process requires a mediator, an arbitrator; otherwise it degenerates to a relationship of force and deceit. And since the covenanting process in the West was conducted by the church, in terms of Trinitarian oaths, the eternal destinies of the covenanting parties were implicated. In an age of faith, the threat of eternal sanctions for violation of a sacred oath was enough to deter even the most headstrong.

Liberty grew in fitful stages, as the leaven of freedom through submission permeated Western society. Western liberty did not exist a priori, the patrimony of barbarian (Teutonic, Saxon, Batavian, etc.) tribe culture, a patrimony which was submerged by the church during the Dark Ages only to be recovered after that age expired (a thesis dear to Renaissance and Reformation historians, enabling them to avoid having to give the Roman church any credit for the genesis of their civilization). Through the patient work of the monks, the heart of European culture was subdued to the claims of Christ. The institutions which arose – the nuclear family, chivalry, the universities, the cities, the free market, the rule of law, constitutional government, chartered rights and liberties, even nationhood and international law – all found their roots in this labor. The monks created European civilization’s true infrastructure: the infrastructure of the heart and soul. These foundations are caving in from neglect, if not outright sabotage. This, in Kierkegaard’s words, is a “sickness unto death”. Perhaps there is nothing left but to heed MacIntyre’s advice:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.[45]


 

Notes

 

[40] “At the centre of every requirement of the Rule there lies the prescription of a daily round of divine service. For the time at which it was written the regulations for these corporate acts of worship are remarkably careful and unambiguous. The whole system is built on two biblical pillars: ‘at midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee’, and ‘seven times a day do I praise thee’ – hence the long night-office, and the seven day-offices of Matins (or Lauds), Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline. The main structure and psalmody are clearly laid out to ensure the weekly recitation of the whole Psalter and the annual reading (much less clearly indicated) of the greater part of the Bible.” R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 221.

[41] Foundation charter of King Edgar for New Minster, Winchester, 966, in the Liber Vitae, ed. W. de Gray Birch, 1892, pp. 232-46; quoted in Southern, Western Society and the Church, pp. 224-225.

[42] This development has been brilliantly traced by George Duby in his The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: the Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France (New York: Pantheon, 1983).

[43] Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 150.

[44] Epistle XII, Book VI, The Book of Pastoral Rule and Selected Epistles of Gregory the Great, trans. etc. Rev. James Barmby, D.D., in Philip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. XII, p. 191.

[45] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 263.