Monastic Life: Passing from the Practical to the Speculative

Written by on September 24th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Monasticism, about Benedict Christianity

||| Miller, Walter M. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Eos, 2006.|||

St. Benedict Brother Kornhoer hesitated. ‘My vocation is to Religion,’ he said at last, ‘that is—to a life of prayer. We think of our work as a kind of prayer too. But that—’ he gestured toward his dynamo ‘—for me seems more like play. However, if Dom Paulo were to send me… p. 225.

  • Saint Benedict: Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s Service… Prologue, 45.

I suppose much “devotional” ink has been spilled over this second line from the Rule of St. Benedict and what one is to make of the so-called dominici schola servitii. As edifying as such exercises might be, I have a slightly different agenda in this article. In particular, I would like to make several observations regarding the significant ambiguities that lie at the core of the western monastic vision. Likewise, I intend to present (in the course of several articles) a number of corollary reflections about how that ambiguity has settled out in several signal cases. A few prefatory remarks might be helpful, however.

It is true to say that much of Western history is unthinkable without consideration of the role of monasticism. The remark, however, is a truism, and as with all truisms risks being used for whatever apologetical or less savory purposes might be desired. First, let us dispel the notion of an “institution of monasticism,” as though one could espy a univocal historical essence in the history of the Middle Ages. Likewise, let us be careful even with usages like “Benedictine monasticism” or “Benedictinism,” as though either of these represented a simple form of spiritual life in the Middle Ages (let alone in contemporary history). The historical roots of monasticism are extremely difficult to trace. Certainly, major lines arise from the Egyptian fathers, but the history of reforms, colonizations, missions, and foundations all lead to a bewildering network of interrelations. As Pope Leo XIII is reported to have said of the Benedictine monasteries of his time: Ordo sine ordine [an order without order]! So it goes likewise through much of history of monasticism in general.

Indeed, can we even say that monasticism is the signal bearer of the ideals of the Middle Ages? Certainly, the Catholic Church had assumed a significant and important role in the civic life of the era. However, one must even be careful in saying that the rule of St. Benedict was the single banner under which monasticism progressed during this era. One need only read the histories of the long epoch to realize that the semi-triumph of Benedictinism was not a simple march, and while so much of the tone of post-Carolingian monasticism was Benedictine, many other elements (and numerous reforms and diversifications) were quite well involved.1 Within this broad schema, the monastic life would play a particularly important role, and where persons of financial means would not give their lives to lofty contemplation, there was always the option of endowing monasteries with benefices in exchange for the spiritual goods supposedly gained by the intercession proffered by the monastic advocates. This picture is somewhat “high level,” but the truth of the fact can be shown by the wealth that was to become problematically centralized with in monastic hands (and the grave spiritual problems of commendatory abbots, who received revenues of the lands while leaving the care of religious duties to the prior). Res ipsa loquitur.

To prove that I am not meandering upon the superficies of history but am instead making a point, I will now return to the quote taken from Miller’s novel. In said text, the good monk (Brother Kornhoer), has already shown the scholar Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott the amazing arc lamp that he had fabricated in the post-apocalyptic monastery in which he lives. Thon Taddeo is impressed but likewise is indignant that the manuscripts of the monastery of St. Leibowitz had been seemingly sequestered in the monastery. Upon being offered a stipended research position, Br. Kornhoer admits his perplexity at the offer. The matter is of course left up to his abbot (having once been a Benedictine monk myself, I know the reality of obedience, a hard and fast constituent of the religious life). However, Miller is driving at something deeper than this matter. Instead, the monk can only be befuddled because the whole of his life has been oriented to one practical goal–the contemplative monastic life. The questions posed by monastic life are not those of the academic life as much as they are a more general “way of life.” Such a manner of living need not be inimical to making clear any necessary speculative distinctions, but such an “ordering of the intellectual house” will require a certain reflexive action bringing out a number of non-instrumental aspects in various speculative (and, perhaps, even practical) matters. The goods of (e.g.) technical science will thus be subordinate to man’s final end, but this subordination will not be in itself purely instrumental, as though science didn’t have its own proper domain–its own “infravalence” to use a hoary scholastic term dear to my heart.

If one can attempt to understand the monk’s quizzicalness, I think it is possible to begin to see the sources of many historical issues on which I will focus in the next several articles. Medieval monasticism existed under an extremely practical banner. To quote St. Benedict again: “The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life.”2 For the philosopher, practical science is no simple affair in general, but for a Christian attempting work by “reason alone,” one understandably is confounded by the claim that (e.g.) the human person has a supra-temporal final end. If ends play the part of principles in practical science, how can it be that one can ignore such matters if they believe in the Gospel? As Jacques Maritain once remarked, ethics has a way of cutting across all levels of abstraction3–and mind you, abstraction had a significant, central, undeniable importance for Maritain. When we consider ethical concepts, we so quickly find ourselves swept along into a dynamic current leading to directing particular actions. (So many moralists’ “problems” are formed as questions about “problematic cases.” This should indicate to us the profound temptation involved here. It is not insignificant, and it risks mixing what is a speculatively practical science with purely practical matters.4 The temptation is even greater when the moral life is lived in actu exercito with vigor and without reflexive, critical evaluation.)

Dear Br. Kornhoer is an excellent example of what it is for a monk to live in an unreflective (but quite genuine) manner in the midst of this “practical gale.” So long as it is a matter of ordering one’s life, the complexities involved do not need to befuddle the agent. The monastic rule represents a way of life that organizes a number of standard moral factors, particularly those most vexing ones about how to live in a community ordered to a common (here, supernatural) good. One can live a good life without giving a full speculative account of ethics (let alone all the necessary data of the philosophical sciences)–“Men did not wait for the reflections of moral philosophy and the theories of ethicists in order to begin living and acting.”5

However, when the influx of texts and social pressures begin to mount and lead to the posing of questions modo speculativo in a very explicit manner, things begin to change tone in a qualitative manner. It is at such periods that one finds someone like the dear abbot of Forde abbey and tumultuous archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Exeter. Of course, in both the East and West there had been luminaries of theological thought. However, the culture of western monasticism was far more one of Biblical interpretation through reminiscence and allegory than a systematic approach to theology as a science. The numerous texts that are admirably gathered together in the Cistercian Fathers series by Cistercian Publications provides ample evidence of the simultaneously predicatory and ruminating nature of much of this thought. Baldwin, in the twelfth century, shows evidence of the numerous conflicts arising, as well as the growing stress placed upon the “monastic style” of expression, which was primarily directed to contemplation on Scripture, having a certain “practical” cast that did not lead to clear-cut distinctions. His Commendation of Faith6 is a striking example of an attempt to bridge scholastic thought with the earlier tradition of monastic wisdom, though it is rather impish and lacks the profound depth that one finds in that great Latin father, St. Augustine, whose work in a sense had already accomplished something akin this, though not in a fully articulated manner and in a different culture of Roman philosophy.

In the following four articles, I will consider some specific thematic examples of this history. The first topic will concern one basic aspect of the differentiation that occurred between theology and philosophy, particularly during the 12 to 14th centuries, and how this period of differentiation marks a cultural shift from the practical age of monasticism to modernity (merely noting several dangerous ambiguities that then are bequeathed to the latter).

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. For an excellent, if at times tedious, history of medieval monasticism in the West, see Peter King, Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church, vol. 185 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1999). 

  2. St. Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St. Benedict: In Latin and English with Notes, ed. Timothy Fry et al., trans. Timothy Horner et al. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981), 73:1. 

  3. See Maritain, Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. Gerald Phelan et al. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2002), 332. 

  4. See ibid., 329-335, 481-489. Although he would later qualify his position on this point, an excellent (and very lucid) presentation is given in Yves Simon, A Critique of Moral Knowledge, trans. Ralph McInerny (New York: Fordham University, 2002). 

  5. Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems, vol. 1, ed. Joseph Evans, trans. Marshall Suther et al. (New York: Scribner, 1964), 31. 

  6. See Baldwin of Forde, The Commendation of Faith, ed. David N. Bell, trans. David N. Bell and Jane Patricia Freeland, Vol. 65 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2000). See especially Bell’s introduction, 13-31.