On “Abstinence”

“Abstinence is the origin of fruitfulness, the blossom and beginning of the practical life.”
~ Evagrius Ponticus, Eight Thoughts.
Just like the beginning of “fruit” is a “blossom” likewise “abstinence” is the beginning of the “practical life.” It simply is not possible to practice Christianity (practical life) so long as we are full of ourselves. We must decreases so Christ can increase. We must learn to “abstain” to make room as it were for Jesus Christ in our lives.
“Against the thoughts that seek without the labour of fasting to cultivate the rational land:
Issachar has desired that which is good, resting between the inheritances. And because he saw that the resting place is good and the land is fertile, he subjected his shoulder to labour and became a farmer (Gen. 49, 14-15 LXX).”
~ Evagrius Ponticus, Talking Back, 1.1.
Abstinence does not mean cutting back on being active. To do less. It involves discipline such as fasting. Cultivating the “rational land” – receiving and providing spiritual knowledge – requires outer work. We need to gain control over our outward behavior by shedding vices and gaining virtues. This is also shown in Evagrius’ Praktikos where he begins his treatise by observations concerning monastic clothing. The same is said by St. John Cassian (perhaps even more pointedly). The “normal” clothes are taken off (shedding vices, which is the labour of abstinence) and the monastic dress is put on (gaining virtues). This does not amount to self-salvation as is clear from the fact that the new clothing is received – given – not gained.
Should the temptation (temptig thought) come up that we do not need to labour, that no effort on our part is required, we ought to block this thought’s path with the verse from Scripture concerning Issachar. The Scripture (word of God) is an effective means to stop temptations and it re-directs our attention away from the tempting thought. Our focus on the good and fertile land we can sow our seeds and grow our fruit.
Fr. Gregory Wassen

Psalmody and the Holy Rule

Steps of humility, Holy Rule, Chapter VII

For the past few days, we have heard St. Benedict tell us about the steps of humility. These are steps, which if we ascend them, lead us to “heavenly exaltation.” The latter is the eschatological goal of human life but is attainable in this life by means of humility. That is interesting. St. Benedict is saying nothing less but that humility is what leads to deification. This is the second time Benedict brings up deification. Though often not translated or even placed in a footnote Prologue 9’s “divine light” is more accurately translated as “deifying light.” In Prologue 9 there is a passivity – listening – involved which requires hard work: obedience. “For we must at all times use the good gifts He has placed in us (Prologue 6).” But here we must devote our attention to humility.

“Brothers, holy Scripture cries aloud to us …” (Holy Rule, vii, 1). The teaching on and of humility begins with holy Scripture. This is not a proto-Protestant move of Benedict. Whereas for the Reformers (including our own Anglican Reformers) Scripture always speaks to us and stays on the outside as it were (Cranmer and the Continental Reformers were committed nominalists). For Benedict Scripture is to be practiced, put on, produce an inner transformation. This is not unlike the Reformation controversy concerning justification. To the Reformers justification concerns a declaration whereas for the Catholics it concerns a transformation. John Henry Newman wrote at length about this issue in his Lectures on Justification. Benedict, being a Platonic realist (common currency in his time) views the speech of Scripture as transformative (not unlike Newman in the lectures mentioned above).

St. Benedict immediately quotes from the Gospel of St. Luke (18, 14): “for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted .“ Humility is here presented as a virtue mandated by the Gospel. In other words, the teaching to follow is, according to Benedict, to be understood as the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself mediated by the ministry of St. Benedict. The importance of humility could not be emphasized more strongly. Humility is the virtue taught by Christ Himself as the path to walk to attain to “heavenly exaltation.”

The Psalter has a key role to play here. Benedict spends no less than 11 chapters on the specifics of how Psalmody is to be performed. In fact, the recitation of the Psalms (and specifically the Psalms ! ) is so important that if a situation should occur where abbreviation of the Office is necessary it is the Responses and the Readings from Scripture that are to be shortened. Never the Psalter (Ch. XI, 12-13). Why this emphasis on the Psalter? A close reading of chapter VII will give us some important clues. As the reader will notice, perhaps aided by the footnotes in the translations of the Holy Rule, St. Benedict cites the Psalms more than 20 times in just this chapter ! Other Scriptural books are also cited but much, much less frequently. There is something peculiar about the Psalms …

Immediately after Benedict has provided the passage on humility from Luke’s Gospel he follows up with a double citation from the Psalms: 131:1 and 131: 2-3. The point being made in the Psalms is that humility implies an inner transformation. Humility is not a matter of mere outward behavior. It is an inner reality which finds expression outwardly. At the conclusion of the first step St. Benedict makes an interesting suggestion:

“In order then to keep his perverse thoughts under careful control, the profitable brother should repeat in his heart. ‘Then I shall be spotless in his sight if I keep myself in check against my sinfulness.’”

The method of “keeping control” here is that of antirhetikos (contradiction or as David Brakke translates the word “talking back” ). This method contradicts the tempting thought attacking the monk. In this case, it seems Benedict recommends that Psalm 18: 24 be used to contradict the thought which tempts the monk to “forgetfulness” (HR, VIII, 10). Here the Psalm is weaponized in the fight against sin. A major source for this practice of contradiction is Evagrius Ponticus. The latter wrote one of his longest works dedicated to precisely this practice. It is not unthinkable that Benedict was – at least – familiar with this Evagrian practice if not necessarily with his works.

Moving on in our reading of Chapter VII we find that Benedict uses the Psalms in yet another way. By means of the Psalms he tells us that God knows even our deepest thoughts and motivations (Ch. VIII, 15-18), that doing our own will is to indulge in our own corruption ( Ch. VII, 23), that God is very much aware of our inner state (whether outwardly expressed or not) (Ch. VII, 23). These verses of the Psalms (and other Scriptures passages) are to be memorized, internalized so that their “keeping them in our minds” brings about inner transformation. The Psalms are like building blocks, living building blocks, that (if Benedict’s advice is followed) will re-build our inner self. The obedience Benedict subjects us to is to break down the inner self we have constructed so that it may be rebuilt. This time not ego-centric but Christo-centric.

Something similar is going on in St. John Cassian’s Institutes. He opens his book with a prologue and immediately goes into a description of monastic dress. The point St. Benedict’s hero is making is not about monastic fashion preferences. There is no Kim Kardashian-esque obsession with what to wear. The items of the monastic dress are couched in Scripture verses and are thereby placed in a narrative which begins in the Old Testament (Elijah & Elisha), continues in the New Testament (St. John Baptist, St. Paul), and is presently represented by Cassian and the Egyptian Fathers by whom he was taught. The Scriptures cited and alluded to also serve to focus on the inner transformation of the monk. When the monk enters he takes off his old, worldly clothes and puts on the monastic dress. This indicates a break with his previous life (the old self) and the putting on of the new dress indicates an entry into a new life (a new self). Cassian uses Scripture as a tool to effect a transformation of the inner self. It comes as no surprise that Cassian too taught obedience, humility, and placed a heavy emphasis on the recitation of the Psalter. In fact, the chaotic state of Gaulic Monasticism (from Cassian’s point of view) is shown in their individualist use of the Psalms. Every monk has his own way to recite them and in so doing so shows his ignorance as to what Psalmody is even for!

Cassian is even more adamant than Benedict that Psalmody is essential to a monk’s daily practice. The correct way to recite them is given by the mediation of angels (like the Law of Moses) and thus enjoys super-human authority. Interestingly, the reading of Scripture is added by the Fathers upon their own human authority and insight. It is not essential, and it is not what the Divine Office is about to Cassian. It would seem that Benedict is a close reader of Cassian! Having arrived once again at the recitation of the Psalter it is now time to reveal why in the Office it is more important to recite the Psalms than to read Scripture. One thing should be clear by now: the Office is not about the public reading and proclamation of Scripture. The Office – at least as Cassian and Benedict see it – is about the regular recitation of the Psalms in the order and manner taught by Cassian and Benedict.

The Psalms contain all of Scripture in them. They re-tell the story of the Old Testament and they prophetically tell of Jesus Christ. In other words, the one who knows the Psalms – in real sense – knows all of Scripture (generally but not specifically so that Scripture reading is still mandated for every monk ! ). Another point is that the Psalms, in particular, seem to contain medicine against the disease of vice. The more the Psalms become the building blocks with which our minds are put together, the more Christ-like we will become. Here is the entire point! The deifying light which brings us to heavenly exaltation comes to us in a very special way via the Psalms. Their recitation is a fundamental technique to effect deification. As we absorb the Psalms we are absorbed by them. To put that differently: as we consume the words of God we are consumed by the Word. The recitation of the Psalter is the “opus dei (the work of God)” to which “nothing” is to be preferred because in this opus dei we perform the work of God (reciting the Psalter) and as we do so (and insofar as we do so) God performs His work on us (deification).

The Psalter as used in chapter VII in the Holy Rule shows what to do with the knowledge of the Psalms gained by their continuous recitation. The reason that both Cassian and Benedict attribute less value to the reading of Scripture in the Office is to be sought in the fact that the Psalms contain all of Scripture and that they are specifically designed and given by divine authority to be the basis of our prayer. The rest of Scripture is equally divine in authority but cannot generally be used in the same way the Psalms can be. For this reason, the recitation of the Psalter is the core of the Divine Office.

“Holy Scripture cries aloud to us” in and through the Psalms in particular. Psalmody is a way enable the monk in the struggle against vice and the attainment of virtue, and as we perform the “work of God” it is God who work in us. The 11 chapters to follow are therefore an essential part of “setting the fear of God always before our eyes and to utterly avoid forgetfulness.” Familiarity with the Psams at the level which is produced by their weekly recitation is where we start to be “always on our guard” (HR VII, 29) and how we “act wisely and seek after God” (HR VII, 27). The Psalms firmly place us before God and in His presence, we are transformed. Our transformation will show outwardly in our humility. Step 1 has been achieved … the other steps can be ascended in the same way.

Fr. Gregory Wassen