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What St. Benedict Teaches the Dark Ages – His and Ours

January 1, 2021 40 min read
By Dr. F. Russell Hittinger Emeritus Professor of Religion, University of Tulsa
Mont-Saint-Michel, France
Mont-Saint-Michel, France

The following text is found in Renewal of Catholic Higher Education: Essays in Catholic Studies in Honor of Don J. Briel, published in 2017 by University of Mary Press.

The Renaissance humanist Petrarch first introduced the term tempus tenebrae in the 14th century in order to mark and to scorn the time in which the barbaric tribes had defiled Latin language and literature.1 Later, Enlightenment thinkers would see the dark ages not so much in terms of literary snobbery, but as Immanuel Kant put it, a “self-imposed immaturity.” “Immaturity,” he explained, “is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.”2 But the Gospel of John speaks of a deeper darkness and a different light:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John [as a voice “calling in the desert”] testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, ‘This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”
In the wilderness, the Gospel sounds the most profound theme of Christian experience: A Light appears in the darkness of the fallen world. For the Christian imagination formed in Scripture and monastic culture, the Evangelist’s “dark age” did not represent a period of cultural history, as it did for the Renaissance.

Rather, for the monastic culture, the notion of a “dark age” was drawn from theological anthropology and Christology. The story was summed up in the first chapter of John and the fourth chapter of Luke. Adam and his progeny were cast from paradise into a desert—into what St. Augustine called “a region of dissimilitude”—where the race of men were caught in the brambles of sin, knowing not the Light, and therefore not truly understanding themselves. And so the New Adam went into the desert in search of the old Adam. Praying, fasting and being tempted by the devil for 40 days, the Incarnate Word showed the way back to the house of the Father.

St. Benedict was not the first Christian who went into the desert to discover this Light. But he is justly renowned for molding a simple but sturdy institution for those who are in search of it. At least in this sense—and also in a secondary, historical and cultural sense—Benedict is the patron saint of Lent, the season of the desert and for overcoming darkness.

I would like in this essay to suggest the significance of St. Benedict for his “dark age” as well as our own by means of four little compositions along the lines of nocturnes. Nocturnes, of course, were the night offices said in a monastery, a spiritual analogue to the nocturnal plant; in biology, a nocturne can mean a plant that flowers in the dark. But in modern times, a nocturne is a musical composition evoking a nighttime theme or being performed at night. And so I offer the following four vignettes: Owl of Minerva, Dark Ages, Curriculum and Harkening.

The Owl of Minerva: Wisdom in Twilight

Hegel once wrote:

One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gloomy picture, then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the [philosopher’s] gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.3
Hegel’s aphorism can be interpreted in different ways. He probably means to say that life rather than philosophy is prescriptive. The Philosopher can grasp the whole of a thing only when it is complete, in the face of which there is no point legislating what ought to be. Perhaps Hegel also means that only when a civilization approaches its demise can the Owl of Wisdom take stock of its essential genius, which Hegel calls its life form (Gestalt). Only at the end of a civilization do its geniuses appear, like a swan who sings one beautiful song before it dies. Hence, the Owl of Minerva takes flight not at the morning star or in the noonday sun, but in the dusk.

From a monastic perspective, the Minervian moment is marked at the seventh liturgical office of the day, which Benedict calls Vespers. The word Vesper is taken from Greek mythology: Hesperus is the personification of the evening star, the planet Venus in its evening appearance; the Vespera, then, are prayers at the time of shadows. Measured from the first light of morning-tide, the vespera fall sometime between the 10th and the 12th hours, between 4 and 6 p.m., depending on the season. In chapter 41 of the Rule, Benedict prescribes that these prayers are to be chanted before the need of artificial light.

This time is distinguished from the very end of the day, which is marked by the office of Compline [from the verb complere, to complete]. Compline is chanted at about 8:30 p.m. With it, the hours of the day are finished, and the monks, in hope of the resurrection, submit themselves to the Great Silence: to a darkness that swallows all human knowledge, like the tomb that awaits every son of man. Wisdom therefore must come in the shadows, just as Hegel suggestedin the dusk, rather than the night; just when things are complete enough for us to take their measure and to consider “what the world ought to be,” but not so complete that wisdom itself slips into the oblivion of darkness.

For the monastic tradition, the vespera represent a time of judgment—of the hours of the day, of the individual soul, of the people, of the race of man. No less an authority than St. Augustine himself speculated that after Adam and Eve sinned, and hid from God, He came to find and to judge them at the hour of vespers.4 Why at this time? God can judge the defendant while there is still light—not just physical light, but more importantly the lumen synderesis, the light of conscience, which was already partially in eclipse by the shadows of sin.

In monasteries under the Rule of Benedict, four consecutive psalms are usually chanted at Vespers: Psalm 109 (“He judgeth among the nations, making their ruin complete”); Psalm 110 (“He hath shown His people the power of his works”); Psalm 111 (“Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord… He shineth to the righteous as a light in darkness”); and Psalm 112 (“From the rising of the sun to its going down let the Name of the Lord be praised”). Then the monks proceed to chant an ancient hymn entitled Lucis Creator with its verse: “Creator of Light, who joins morning and the shadows, and for our instruction calls it a day.” Wisdom depends on our ability to know a day and how to take its measure. Thus were monks enjoined, at Compline, to say with the Psalmist: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12; cf. RB 18).5

Let us return, for a moment, to Hegel’s image of wisdom arising, phoenix-like, just as a civilization reaches its demise. The clear and the obscure are mixed together, such that what is clear is all the more intelligible because of the shadows. Applied to history, we see the beginning only at the end—but the chiaroscuro consists chiefly in this: that the beginning is the very thing that is ending, and ending is the beginning of something else. The greatest historical figures occupy this time of vespers. They represent with a proper and profound ambiguity the best of what has declined and the seeds of what will come. The Catholic Church of Late Antiquity provides us with two such Minervian figures: Augustine and Benedict.

Augustine was born in 354, the son of a minor official in a provincial town in Roman North Africa. He was formed in the trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic. Although he complained about the intellectual shallowness and the moral turpitude of his own education, anyone who would pick up his work is bedazzled by what he learned. For elegance of style and for the power of speculative intellect, Augustine was, I dare say, the greatest thinker produced by Roman culture. When he died in 430, his city was surrounded by the Vandals. In retrospect, we are entitled to think that this was the vespers of the ancient world. Augustine himself didn’t think so; he believed that he lived in the very thick of the cultural-political world of Graeco-Roman civilization. All of Augustine’s fathers—which is to say, his teachers—were ancient grammarians, rhetoricians, philosophers and theologians. And one is always laid to rest with one’s fathers, not with one’s great-grandchildren.

For his part, Benedict was born in 480, 50 years after Augustine’s death. He, too, came from a provincial Roman town, Nursia (today, Norcia), in the mountains of Umbria; going back some 1,200 years, this was the borderland of the Etruscans and the Samnite tribes. He too was the son of a Roman civil official. As an adolescent, Benedict was sent, along with his nanny, to Rome to learn the very same trivium studied by Augustine. First, he needed to become a grammaticus. What was grammar? The knowledge of words. According to the ancient wisdom: “Everything which does not deserve to pass into oblivion and has been entrusted to writing, belongs necessarily to the province of grammar.” Like Augustine, Benedict absorbed himself in grammar but worried that rhetoric was morally corruptive. Augustine did not pray for an emancipation from rhetoric until his was in his mid-30s (indeed, in Bk. 9 of the Confessions he describes his baptism as a liberation from rhetoric); in stark contrast, Benedict renounced rhetoric at the age of 16 or 17. So far as we know, he studied only the first segment of the trivium.6 He never renounced grammar—indeed his Rule requires that the brothers learn to read, in order to appropriate the external word of scripture 1) as it is on the page and 2) as it is expressed as a liturgical word in choir. And thus Benedict represents the via media between the loquacious Augustine and the hermit monk St. Antony, the greatest of monks, who remained illiterate in order to attend only to the internal word that manifests itself in the desert and brambles of the soul.

Abandoning his formal education, Benedict tried to live the monastic life as a hermit in caves in the vicinity of Subiaco, not far from Rome. Like the desert father, St. Antony, Benedict learned experimentally. He became so proficient in knowledge of the divine word that other monks asked him to be their master. In the Rule, Benedict says that he intends to found a school—in Latin, a schola—for the service of God.

Yet his first attempts to educate and govern other monks were troubled, to say the least. On at least two occasions, his monastic sons tried to murder him—indeed, in the old-fashioned Italian way, which was by poisoning. Benedict was discreet and prudent, eventually learning how to govern monks—he even went so far to allow a bit of wine every day to combat “sadness” and to relieve the temptation of “murmuring.”7 Control over murmuring is a greater achievement than eloquence in letters.

Learning by trial and error, he went on to found 13 monasteries. Moving to Cassinum, some 70 miles southwest of Rome, Benedict ascended the 1,800-foot-high Monte Cassino in 529, and there, at the summit, over the top of a demolished temple of Apollo, he laid the altar for his greatest monastery. A year later, he began to write his Rule. Written in vulgar or ordinary Latin, and amounting to fewer than 9,000 words, it is quite different than Augustine’s work. It has neither eloquence nor speculative power. Untold thousands of souls have been converted by reading Augustine, but it is hard to imagine anyone being converted merely by reading Benedict’s Rule.

If Augustine was the greatest stylist and speculative thinker of the Roman world, Benedict exemplified, in the vespers of that civilization, the genius unique to Rome. Romans always knew that their language and speculative tradition were inferior to the Greeks; that their religion was inferior to the Eastern religions, especially the Egyptians; that their aesthetics were inferior to the Greeks and the Carthaginians. Rome’s destiny was different. As Virgil boasted in the Aeneid:

Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth's peoples
—for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered [and] battle down the proud.
The shadows had lengthened since the time of Augustine. Benedict was born 70 years after Alaric and his Vandals sacked Rome, less than 30 years after Attila’s Huns had swept through Italy, and only two years after the demise of the last Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus. In this senseand only in this sensecan Benedict be regarded as a Minervian owl. As Roman civilization collapsed around him, he established a Christian institution that nevertheless carried the stamp of Roman genius. Albeit in ways unimagined and unanticipated, Benedict’s Rule proved to be the greatest pacification program in Western history. Otherwise, there is no evidence that Benedict thought of himself or his monastic Rule as either the end or the beginning of any epoch. As a man of the ancient world, he had no intention to transmit any wisdom other than the ancient one.

After all, Christianity and monasticism first arose and were practiced as an ancient wisdom. Benedict perhaps first learned of monasticism from Syrian hermits who lived in caves around Norcia. These and other monks simply believed that they were imitating Christ and his apostles. The monks had read the scriptures and sought to imitate Luke 4: Led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, Christ prayed, fasted and was tempted by the Devil. We return again to the story recapitulated by the monastic search. The first Adam sinned and was expelled from the garden of delights—thrown into a wilderness—like the Prodigal Son in the plantation of sorrows, eating food not fit for the swine and not knowing the way back to the house of the Father. As Augustine explained: “For on whatever place one has fallen, on that place he must find support that he may rise again.”8 The new Adam begins where the old Adam fell. Christ went into the desert to confront Adam’s nemesis.

Many things and institutions have their origin in the medieval centuries: parliament, romance vernaculars, the heavy plow, tidal mills, cannons, the spinning wheel, universities, glass mirrors and percussion drilling, invented by Cistercians. But monasticism is not an invention of the Middle Ages. It comes instead from a more ancient light discovered in the desert, from an ancient wisdom molded by Benedict’s Roman genius. In the last chapter of the Rule, chapter 73, entitled, “The Whole of Just Observance Is Not Contained in This Rule,” Benedict insists that whatever is taught in this Rule is only a part of what is transmitted from the Holy Fathers. And by the “Fathers” he meant 1) the Apostles, 2) the authors of Holy Writ, 3) the example of the Desert Fathers and 4) those who have written Institutes for the governance of monks. He concludes: “Whoever you are [quisquis] hastening toward your heavenly homeland; fulfill with the help of Christ this little Rule for beginners ... ” And this is perhaps the key sentence in the Rule. Benedict founds a school for beginners.

To be sure, it includes rules for reading and writing, for chanting, for using and cleaning farm implements, for greeting strangers, for determining prices for goods sent to market, for the organization of crafts and many other simple, practical details. The school is free—no tuition by way of social class or money. We learn in chapter 58 that the only thing necessary is a willing heart to seek God (quaerere deum) and adherence to the Rule under the Abbot. Benedict’s Rule governs a monastery in which the rich and the poor alike begin as beginners. And these beginners begin where the Light first appeared—in the desert.

But Benedict’s wisdom, genius and “legacy,” for which history rightly esteems him, certainly extend beyond the modest walls of the monastery or the humble souls of the monks. If one goes to Benedict’s hometown of Norcia, a little town of about 4,600 souls nested in the mountains of Umbria, one quickly happens on the Piazza di San Benedetto. On the far end of the piazza stand a church and a monastery built over the top of the Roman-era apartment building in which Benedict was raised. In the center of the piazza is a statue of Benedict, made by Giuseppe Pinzi in the late 19th century. The inscription reads:

Founder and Father of Monasticism in the Western regions, he was driven by the Spirit to a life hidden from society. From whence there arose a renaissance of letters, the useful arts, agriculture, and sciences.
The inscription is quite astute. Benedict, it suggests, is the patron saint of Europe not so much because of the civilizing of culture accomplished by his monasticism but because he went into the desert. This reveals the spiritual root of European culture. Europe’s claim to fame, in other words, is not so much that it relearned and perfected the arts and sciences preserved by monks during the Dark Ages, but rather that Europe is a civilization grown from a cultivated desert. This is a quite radical claim, made in our own day more than once by Pope Benedict XVI, who suggested that the current crisis of European identity should be understood in terms of what the Benedictines did in the wasteland: Were they merely technicians who invented tools to till the soil, or were they about the business of clearing the weeds growing in the human soul?9

If Benedict’s Rule established nothing but a trade school for learning the useful arts—slightly eccentric monks who figured out how to build windmills—it quickly would have made itself obsolete. For it is in the very nature of such an enterprise to graduate its students into more advanced skills. This is how humanists in modern times interpreted the story of Benedict’s “school.” But if the monastic school teaches its students to awake from the mortal slumber of the Old Adam, and like the Prodigal to run to the Father, no one (in this life, anyway) can claim to be a graduate, and the capacity of monastic culture to renew culture from within is truly boundless.10

How to be “a beginner”: This is the first thing Benedict teaches the Dark Ages, his and ours. To be a beginner in this way is not a primitive condition to be outgrown but rather a sign of advancement and the mark of a return to the most essential. It is what everyone needs to relearn each Lent and learn again amid the vespers of our present age.

Dark Ages

In 1911, the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica stated that the period from the fifth to the 10th centuries is called “the dark Age.”11 Yet by the time of the Second World War, the 14th edition had a change of heart, now insisting that “the contrast, once so fashionable, between the ages of darkness and the ages of light has no more truth in it than have the idealistic fancies which underlie attempts at mediaeval revivalism.”12 No self-respecting scholar today, it suggests, would use the term “dark ages” to periodize, categorize or otherwise to mark historical time and events, much less culture.

In my view, however, it is a mistake to drop “dark ages” altogether. The collapse of Roman order in the West was devastating.13 That Roman order was urban and urbane; in the early fifth century it included something like a thousand municipalities, bound together by a civilian, demilitarized aristocracy that spoke Latin and Greek. At its zenith, the city of Rome had more than a million inhabitants; it was served by 11 aqueducts bringing water from as far as 59 miles, over arches 100 feet tall.

These cities, including those of much smaller caliber, were the center of civilization: of business, politics, fine art, patronage, libraries, buildings on a large scale, artisans, diplomacy. The patriarchs and metropolitans of the Christian Church led Christians from the major cities: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Milan, Ravenna.

Stationed along the Empire’s borders was an army of roughly a half million men, along with a couple hundred thousand auxiliary and part-time units. All told, it was about the same size as the U.S. Army and Marines Corps today. To equip and provision this enormous and highly mobile force required more than 50 state factories, which made swords and arrows, processed leather for various gear and made woolen products such as socks and shirts. About half of the imperial budget went to feeding, equipping and paying the army; another third went to the maintenance of key cities, including the grain and oil handouts to the urban masses; and the rest to the bureaucracy. It is estimated that taxes on agricultural yield from land was constant at about 25 percent. This was the cash cow that maintained the army and the urban projects.

But when the barbarians penetrated and then overwhelmed the imperial armies beginning in the fifth century, the tax revenue evaporated. The agriculturally rich North Africa, where Augustine lived, was lost to the Vandals in 439, causing an 80 percent reduction in taxes from that region alone by the sixth century. In the aftermath of all this, what emerged in the West was a Libertarian heaven—monies for large public projects would disappear for hundreds of years. But so would cities of more than 50,000 people. By the 13th century, only a handful of cities in the West could support 100,000 people: London, Paris, Milan and perhaps Genoa. Here are just a few things that indicate the “darkness” that fell upon this period:

  • Fourth-century levels of maritime trade across the Mediterranean would not be restored until the 19th century.
  • Drilling through the ice pack in Greenland, scientists have discovered that as the factories closed, the pollution caused by the smelting of lead, copper and silver fell to prehistoric levels, not to be regained until the 17th century.
  • The art of making pottery on a wheel disappeared from Britain for more than three centuries.
  • Abundant coinage disappeared; household utensils, such as cups with glossy surfaces, easy to wash and easy to stack due to standardized shapes, became unknown to men.
  • With the demise of cities came the demise of literacy. Consider that Charlemagne, the emperor, circa 800, never could quite get the hang of writing.

It is possible to continue for some time in this vein, simply enumerating all of the things that vanished first from the earth, and then from common human memory.

But what is most important to understand for our present purpose is why the falling dominoes were so hard to put back into place. The answer is that the Empire depended on an extraordinarily far-flung division of labor and knowledge. A northern Italian peasant of the third or fourth century might eat off tableware from Naples, store liquids in amphorae from North Africa, sleep under a roof consisting of tiles from the south of Gaul and be governed by a civil administrator from Tuscany. Along the Tiber as it snakes through Rome is a place called Monte Testaccio. Here, archaeologists discovered the remains of some 53 million amphorae, all imported from Iberia, in which approximately 6 trillion liters of oil were imported from overseas.

It is important to draw the right moral lesson from this story. The Dark Ages were dark not merely because the lights of technology were extinguished, but because no one knew how to reproduce the whole of the civilization. The “light” that was lost was not the tool or techne but knowledge and wisdom. And we too are capable of losing that light even in the midst of our highly advanced tools and technology. A “dark” age does not consist merely of technological ignorance; worse yet is having forgotten how to live a good life rather than a life of mere subsistence. Consider all of the things we might not know how to do without sharing in a tradition of wisdom.

  • Prepare a corpse for burial.
  • Decide whether grandma is dead.
  • Adjudicate conflicting legal claims between business enterprises.
  • Recite from memory Jewish and Christian scriptures. Throw in the U.S. and state constitutions.
  • Remember all of the countries.
  • Judge what is an authentic and an inauthentic copy of a book.
  • Recall one’s paternal ancestors by name five generations back.
  • Distinguish carefully between what is established fact and what is mere speculation in any given physical science.
  • Distinguish between law and mere force.
  • Distinguish what is pleasant to the senses from what is good.
  • Distinguish what is good from what is morally good.
  • Distinguish between transitory relationships keyed to survival and enduring memberships, such as one’s status in a family or in a polity.

Every day would be a disorganized disaster. It is worth reflecting on the possibility that technology alone is not the only factor that marks civilization from a dark age. The European Dark Ages teach us that the more diversified the functions of a civilization, the more necessary it is that at least some people know what is a life worth living versus a life worth merely enduring. The Dark Ages were dark because people simply forgot what the Owl of Minerva understands—namely, the way the world ought to be or, at least, the way it once was.

As one will discover when reading the Rule, in addition to their commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience, like other consecrated religious, the Benedictine monks also promise stability (stabilitas) and reform of manners (conversatio morum). Stability was perhaps the most important vow for the Dark Ages. For when the Benedictines established a community, they were there to stay. Unlike the warrior class, which was mobile and just short of nomadic, the monks would arrive, clear the forests, and irrigate and cultivate the land. Within earshot of the bells, laypeople could begin again to measure time. From the monks they learned how to properly bury the dead, how to read and write—how to do things that transcend a life of mere subsistence. In summary fashion, this is what Benedict taught the Dark Ages: how to live life as a whole when forces of disintegration and confusion abound. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success. Not only how to divide a day, but how to divide it unto wisdom.


If monastic life according to the Rule, as a “school for beginners,” can be said to follow any “curriculum,” this is because Benedict taught an integrated and integrating knowledge. This he did along three fronts: He taught materially, politically and poetically. But it is the poetic that suffuses the Benedictine school. All three return us to the fundamentals of knowledge, to the “beginning” of that wisdom and integrity of life still possible in the desert and evening of an age.

First, as regards the material of life, nothing is more important than light and dark: namely, an answer to the question, “What suffices for a day?” Infants and very young children are ignorant of what constitutes a day. I am told that even college students have problems in this regard—that a collegiate “day” is a 24/7 flow of flickering images resembling a casino in Nevada. Like the practical wisdom displayed in Genesis, Benedict begins with a Day. A day equally measured: eight hours of prayer, eight hours of labor, eight hours of rest, adjusted for the seasons.

A day having been properly established, the Rule prescribes a unity of things that the ancient world had usually kept apart: on the one hand, the free or liberal arts and sciences, cultivated and practiced by the nobility. This was called a universitas personarum, things tending toward one in and for the dignity of human persons. On the other hand stood the work of artisans and manual laborers. This was called a universitas rerum, a unity for the sake of the things being organized: the bricks, the streets, the monies. Benedict taught the proper order of these things. Tools for the sake of monks, monks for the sake of God—hierarchy of action without distinction by class.

In the ancient world, personal dignity was measured by its remotion or distance from tools and labor. Indeed, the rural warrior class in these centuries of the Middle Ages did not work the land. They killed with their hands, but they did not work with them. Benedict’s motto was Ora et Labora et Lectio: prayer, work and reading.14 The monks therefore are at once contemplatives and laborers.15

Reading is essential in Benedict’s school, for it joins together prayer and work. Consider the acts associated with reading, and the materiality involved: speaking; meditating, cogitating; imagining; remembering, understanding, desiring.16 By summoning so many different mental and physical actions or postures, reading can be profoundly integrative. It forms a clearing in the forest of the sensations of the soul and creates a place for study and prayer. Lent, whether liturgically speaking or culturally speaking, should be a time for reading, at least in the sense understood by the monastic culture.

As regards the social organization of human persons in the monastery (political knowledge), three things are extremely important from a sociological perspective: First, it is characterized by easy entrance and difficult exit. The monastery is a voluntary society that is not especially picky about who joins. Within a month or so, the applicant is inside the walls; a few years later he is professed, and solemnly professed a couple of years after that. Yet the learning curve is long—the rest of one’s life. Second, each abbey is quasi-autonomous and self-sufficient under the rule of its own abbot. The key to self-sufficiency is the vow of stability. This is the Benedictine understanding of 1 Peter 2:5: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” Third, the Benedictine Rule emphasizes equality among the brothers. For most public purposes, monks are distinguished only by their date of entrance—that is, according to a principle of seniority. Even the youngest monks can vote in an abbatial election.

All of these add up to a sturdy social structure in the wilderness: literate men or women, under a common rule and superior, knowing how to divide a day and how to live a stable life in a certain place, not only within a day but over years; competent to contemplate and to work with their hands; having as their only standard of admission that the novice have a willing heart; and all of them counting themselves as beginners from the day they enter the monastery until they die. From inside the monastic perspective, it does not really matter too much whether the whole thing is destroyed so long as it starts again—since it can always begin again. It was never meant to be anything but a school for beginners. And there is always another child of the Old Adam who awakes from slumber and will become a brother.

The third of Benedict’s ways of teaching, and to my mind the most important, is one fit for a child—or someone seeking to be childlike. One teaches a child through the senses and the imagination—that is, poetically. In one of his greatest essays, “The Mission of St. Benedict,” John Henry Newman reckoned that the three great paradigms of teaching in Latin Christianity were Benedict, who taught poetically, Dominic, who taught scientifically, and Ignatius of Loyola, who taught practically.17

By poetry Newman did not necessarily mean the craft of poetry, which is the craft of constructing metered verse. Rather, he meant a way of learning that arises from sense, experience and imagination. Its special feature is wonder, or what the Latin speaking peoples called ad-miratio. Admiration is taken from the adjective mirus, wonderful. We could call it knowledge touched by the thing being known. For his part, Aristotle used the word “thaûma” (θαῦμα), meaning “miracle” and “thaumazein” (θαυμάζειν), which means “to admire.” Wonder lies at the root of knowledge, which begins in the senses: “ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight.”18

Thus, the genius of the Benedictine method of teaching and learning involves knowledge touched by the thing being known through the senses. Newman contrasts this “poetic” pedagogy to the “scientific” approach:

Reason investigates, analyzes, numbers, weighs, measures, ascertains, locates, the objects of its contemplation, and thus gains a scientific knowledge of them. Science results in system, which is complex unity; poetry delights in the indefinite and various as contrasted with unity, and in the simple as contrasted with system. The aim of science is to get a hold of things, to grasp them, to handle them, to comprehend them; that is (to use the familiar term), to master them, or to be superior to them… But as to the poetical, very different is the frame of mind which is necessary for its perception. It demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet; that we should feel them to be above and beyond us, that we should look up to them, and that, instead of fancying that we can comprehend them, we should take for granted that we are surrounded and comprehended by them ourselves. Hence it is that a child's mind is so full of poetry, because he knows so little; and an old man of the world so devoid of poetry, because his experience of facts is so wide.19
As Newman sees it, the scientific mentality requires one to stand above the things being studied. Here the dignity of the mind tends to replace the worth of the object.

Poetic learning is for the youth, scientific proof for the mature and perhaps wisdom for the old. But wisdom itself is more like poetry than proof. In Latin, the word sapiens denotes a person who can savor or taste. Wisdom is knowing something that one can savor. In chapter 19 of the Rule, Benedict prescribes that psalms are to be chanted sapienter, wisely. In his life of St. Benedict, Gregory the Great comments that he was scienter nescius et sapienter indoctus, “learnedly ignorant and wisely uninstructed.” Benedict did not have a scientific theology of the Psalms, but rather a Rule for savoring them: “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2).

The Rule was written for youth in a world grown old. Not the world as it ought to be but, alas, cannot be; rather the world as seen by a youth—which is to say, a world that is admired just the way it appears and is first known through a contact suffused with emotion.

Benedict’s “poetic method,” moreover, extends to the entire range of material and symbolic culture of the monastery. Newman refers to a “Poetry of life, the poetry of ceremonies,—of the cowl, the cloister, and the choir...” (Today the power of this “poetry of life” helps explain the enduring fascination children have with the world of Harry Potter.) First, the black hood, the cowl, or what was called the cucullus—a poncho worn by children in ancient Rome. Then, the cloister—the internal space of the monastery, like a child’s house or bedroom. Finally, the choir, which is the place of beauty. Newman notes that in this kind of world, a person can take “each new day as a whole in itself … and doing works which cannot be cut short, for they are complete in every portion of them.”20 Imagine, now, chanting all 150 psalms once a week—the variety of images, moods and emotions. Each psalm is chanted and is complete itself; the one psalm repeatedly is complemented by the next, and by the next office, and the next day without any effort to tie disparate parts together into a scientific system of theology—any synthesis is left to the poetic imagination under the regime of the Holy Spirit.21

In view of such poetic, childlike instruction, one becomes aware of the slowness of the Good. We may remember what it was like to learn that way, when we were younger: when a summer seemed like a lifetime. Almost effortlessly, a youth can learn more in three months than an adult in three years. The life envisaged by Benedict is not like a five-year plan, or a senior thesis, or a job report. The monk’s life is rolled out like the verses of a psalm—little parts that cumulatively become something more.22 Benedict’s poetic teaching calls him to become again like a little child, to begin again.

Again, this is what Benedict taught the Dark Ages, his and ours. The slowness of the good, which is experienced as incredibly rich if one becomes as a child. Tertullian said of the incarnate Christ, that He “suffered Himself to be conceived in a mother's womb …. [and] wished to be sated with the pleasure of patience.”23 In the Middle Ages, Lent was taken from a Germanic word for long; in Benedict’s school, however, the Latin adverb lente (slowly) is the better term. Life in the Benedictine monastery was to be a perpetual Lent, a linking of patience with poetry.


Finally, and briefly, let me take you to the beginning of the Rule, where, presumably, all of us who read Benedict’s Rule begin. The first words: “Harken, my son, and with the ear of your heart hear the precepts of your Master.” The poetical approach jumps right off of the page. Harken! Not read, study or merely listen. To harken is to attend to something that is immediate. The notion of a knowledge touched by the thing being known is highlighted (auscutator, a hearer who heeds) by means of the scriptural image of the ear of one’s heart (from Psalm 44). One is bidden to incline, to turn toward something as from an inner principle. Benedict continues:

Readily [libenter] accept and faithfully follow the advice of your pious Father [admonitionem pii patris], so that through the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you, whoever you are [quisquis], who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience.
Here, Benedict embeds the story of the Prodigal Son. The filius or filia (the son or the daughter) turns to the voice of the Father: “Therefore, let us arise..., and arising he went unto his Father.”24

The text shifts from the verb obsculta (auscultare, harken, heed) to its linguistic sister, ob-dire, to listen toward a word. Obedience. Benedict’s student would have been familiar not only with the story of the Prodigal Son but also with the ideal of the Roman father: the paterfamilias who is by right a domestic magistrate, invested with public charge inside his household, including the capital powers of life and death over his wife, sons, slaves and domestic animals. In the Roman world, what does the son owe to the father, and the father to city, and the city to the protecting gods? Pietas. It is a kind of reverence of an inferior to a superior; more precisely, pietas is the proper response on the part of someone who can never fully pay back what is received.

Yet it’s clear that the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule is not referring to that kind of daddy. In fact, the word paterfamilias is used but once in the Rule (chapter 2), and it pertains to Christ as the Good Shepherd. Here’s what’s important. Benedict is referring to a Father who is Himself Pius—that is, tender.Paterpiissime. A tender and merciful Father, who has the virtue of piety toward what is lower than himself. To the humanum created in his Image. And now we are back to the parable: the Father, who sees from afar the son trying to return, and who takes the initiative. This is not the stern Roman pater. The monastery is a school of the Pater Noster, the Our Father. Again, a school for beginners... to become childlike again.

Let me take you to one more paragraph into the Prologue to the Rule. We read: “Let us then at last arise, since the Scripture arouses us saying: It is now time for us to rise from sleep” (Romans 13:11). Interestingly, Benedict has embedded Lazarus (from John 11, Lazare veni foras … Come Out!) into the story of the Prodigal (Come Back), and Easter into the story of the Passion (Arise!). The paragraph continues: “And let us open our eyes to the deifying light; let us attune our ears to what the divine voice admonishes us, daily crying out: Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Benedict is evoking, along with Scripture, a favorite communion chant of the ancient church: “Come, O sons, listen…O taste and see… and be radiant” (Psalm 34). In the Prologue he writes, “Currite dum lumen vitae habetis... hasten while you have the light of life.”25

Father Benedict teaches through these verbs: “harken,” “hasten,” “awaken,” “arise,” “turn,” “obey,” “leave aside,” “listen,” “incline.” The whole Prologue bristles in this mood, but in a way that is strangely soothing—one reason, perhaps, is that this is precisely what the ear of the heart desires. The most famous monk of the Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux, said that as sin entered the world through sight (beholding the fruit of the tree), so salvation comes first through the ear. Recall Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our god is One.” Benedict requires that when the bells summon to prayer, eight times a day, the monk must drop everything, turn toward the sound (incline, awake, arise, harken) and go to prayer. Eight times a day, 56 times a week, 2,912 times a year, one leaves everything behind and turns toward the voice. Here we have a splendidly simple reenactment or recapitulation of the Gospel—come back, come out, arise. The Psalms’ interior meaning, as well as the Eucharistic liturgy, is the voice of Christ. And if you say Ego (Prologue) —“I’m the one” —then Benedict says, here is a school for the doing of it. “In instituting it we hope to establish nothing harsh or oppressive.” Whatever rules are laid down for correcting vices, maintaining equity and conserving the order of love will be hard at the beginning but not overwhelming.

Conclusion: What Benedict Teaches the Dark Ages

And so now I can conclude by summing up what Benedict teaches the Dark Ages—not from a standpoint external to the Rule (the judgment of history, economics, aesthetics, agricultural sciences and arts), but from a point of view internal to the Rule.

The monastic school does not exist for the purpose of surviving the Dark Ages or for helping barbarians to learn to count on something other than their fingers, even if it did have these results. Benedict taught the monks to have a certain contempt for all of that, although not a naïve or callous disregard of the fact of the world’s ignorance or misery (read for yourselves the chapters on feeding the poor and welcoming strangers). Rather, he taught the monks that there is something better to do, something higher and more worthy of their daily labor. The monastery is nothing other than a school that turns prodigals into pilgrims. Beginners. That is what we become, once again, each Ash Wednesday, as we commence Lent. In the last stanza of his poem “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot writes:

I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
Eliot’s meditation reminds us that the simplest, most natural and supernaturally the most urgent thing always proves to be the most difficult: to begin, to turn once again. This is the “one thing necessary.” This is what Benedict taught then and teaches now: how to begin, how to receive life as Lent and Lent as a new springtime of life, to become young and like a child again, to seek first the Kingdom. Here we discover the fine line, perhaps only a hair’s breadth, between the prodigal and the pilgrim. In the end the one infallible “solution” to the new Dark Age upon us would be to address the darkness in ourselves and turn again and again back to Him who is the “true Light” coming into the world, to the One who brings us the light, joy and peace of Easter through patient suffering in the desert and through the Cross.

1 Theodore E. Mommsen, “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages,’ ” Speculum 17, no. 2 (1942): 226-42.

2 Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983), 41.

3 George W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 12-13.

4 The Latin Vulgate says, simply, post-meridiem (Genesis 3.8), which means the afternoon. The same passage speaks of Adam and his wife hiding in the midst of trees, probably suggesting to Augustine not only the afternoon, but its shadows. St. Augustine, commenting on Genesis 3:18, put it this way:

Toward evening God was walking in paradise [Genesis 3:8], that is, he was coming to judge them. He was still walking in paradise before their punishment, that is, the presence of God still moved among them, when they no longer stood firm in his command. It is fitting [that he comes] toward evening, that is, when the sun was already setting for them, that is, when the interior light of the truth was being taken from them. They heard his voice and hid from his sight. Who hides from the sight of God but he who has abandoned him and is now beginning to love what is his own?... For the human soul can be a partaker in the truth, but the truth is the immutable God above it. Hence, whoever turns away from that truth and turns toward himself and does not rejoice in God who rules and enlightens him, but rather in his own seemingly free movements, becomes dark by reason of the lie.
De Genesi contra Manichaeos libri duo., II. chapter 16, §24, in Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina (PL), vol. 34 (Paris: Migne, 1861).

5 Psalm 90 is the only psalm explicitly used by Satan to tempt Christ. See Mt. 4:6. Hence, the monastic theme of the night and the ruler of darkness, the dragon.

6 The hermit Antony, who was a spiritual model and inspiration for both Augustine and Benedict, was illiterate, despite being reared in an affluent family. St. Athanasius says of the young Antony: “he could not endure to learn letters” (Life of St. Antony, §1). The father of Christian monasticism, he was given entirely to the “inner Word.” “His memory,” Athanasius remarks, “served him for books” (§3). Select Works and Letters, vol. IV, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 195-6.

7Rule, chapter 40.

8 Augustine, De Vera Religione, XXIV, 45.

9 Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (2007), §15. See also Benedict’s “General Audience,” April 9, 2008, and also his “Address to the World of Culture,” September 12, 2008.

10 How else can we explain the fact that, over the subsequent centuries, Benedict’s sons and daughters created thousands of these schools under the “little rule for beginners”? By the 11th century, the great Benedictine monastery of Cluny in France had nearly 1000 daughter houses and affiliated monasteries, constituting a vast, trans-national corporation. Within the Cluniac system alone, there were more Benedictine monasteries than there are McDonalds in France today. A 19th-century scholar claimed to have found evidence for the existence of some 37,000 Benedictine houses. (By way of comparison, today there are about 4,100 universities, colleges and two-year colleges in the U.S.). A mid-19th century enumeration put it down as follows: 37,000 houses, 30 popes, four emperors, 46 kings, 51 queens, 1,406 princes, 1,600 archbishops, 600 bishops and 15,000 abbots and learned men. And who knows how many souls who lived in those cloisters whose names and numbers are long forgotten! For Newman’s counting in the 19th century, see Newman, “The Mission of St. Benedict,” in Historical Sketches, vol. 2 (New York: Longmans, Greens, and Co., 1906), 372.

11 The so-called monastic centuries (or “Benedictine Centuries”) coincide with the Dark Ages. In the West, we are speaking roughly of 500 years, from the sixth century to the end of the 11th century.

12The Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th Edition, eds. James Louis Garvin, Franklin Hooper, and Warren E. Cox, vol. 15 (The Encyclopedia Britannica Company, Ltd, 1929), 449.

13 In the next few paragraphs I collate data drawn mostly from two recent books: Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) and Chris Wickham, Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009).

14 The common, shorter version of the motto, ora et labora, seems to have been invented rather recently. Paul G. Monson argues that the motto actually originates in America, not Germany, with Martin Marty: “Ora et Labora: A Benedictine Motto Born in America?” in God Has Begun a Great Work in Us: Embodied Love in Consecrated Life and Ecclesial Movements, eds. Jason King and Shannon Schrein, College Theology Society Annual, vol. 60 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015), 66-86.

15 Jedis who do the work of artisans and serfs: a very powerful and useful combination. See Jude P. Dougherty, “‘Intellectuals with dirt under their fingernails’: Attitudes toward Sciences and Technology and the Difference They Make,” Communio 9 (1982): 224-237 and earlier essay by Lynn White, Jr., “Dynamo and Virgin Reconsidered,” in Dynamo and Virgin Reconsidered: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), 57-73. Not surprisingly, it would yield great fortunes for some monasteries. Look especially at chapter 57 of Benedict’s Rule on how to price monastic products sent to market (in a spirit of charity and poverty, the monks ought to sell them under the market rate).

16 For the monk, each word is like a hook, catching hold of other words; the monk was like a living concordance. As Dom Jean Leclercq puts it, reminiscences are not quotations, but the words of the person using them. Monastic readers become like a living concordance. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 77.

17 Newman, “The Mission of St. Benedict,” 366.

18 Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I.

19 Newman, “The Mission of St. Benedict,” 387.

20 Newman, “The Mission of St. Benedict,” 409.

21Lectio divina—a snippet of scripture that suffices unto itself.

22 The longest span of time worth considering is a liturgical season: four weeks of Advent, 40 days of Lent, 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. Again, Psalm 90: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” From a point of view within the monastery, it doesn’t matter whether one’s allotment of time is an hour, a day, a week, a season or many seasons.

23 Tertullian, On Patience, chapter 3.

24 Luke 15:20.

25Cf. John 12:35. Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going.”

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