by Fr Michael Casey
The celebrated Benedictine medievalist, Jean Leclercq, when he sought a phrase that might evoke the essential spirit of the Benedictine charism, decided on The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Desire for God is, of course, common to all who undertake the spiritual pursuit. What makes followers of Saint Benedict distinctive is their “love of learning” – or perhaps translating l’amour des lettres differently, their love of reading.
Like his contemporary Cassiodorus Senator, Benedict established monasteries with libraries full of codices. Not, however, for the purpose of preserving ancient culture from the barbarism of marauding Goths, as with Cassiodorus. Benedict wanted manuscripts not only to be conserved but also to be read. Benedictine monks lived their whole lives with books. Monks were admonished to be happy to listen to holy readings (4:55). There were several long readings at Vigils, and shorter ones at the other Hours (9:8 etc.). There was reading during meals (38:1) and in the gap before Compline (42:3-7). Besides this, several hours daily were allocated to personal lectio divina (48:1-13), and even more during Lent (48:14-20) and on Sundays (48:22-23). Visitors were welcomed with a reading (53.9), and the Scriptures were used as a medicine for recalcitrant monks (28.3). And if there were especially fervent monks in the community they were to be encouraged to read more widely (73:2-5).
It should come as no surprise to us that books were important in the early days of the Cistercian reform. One of the first things that was done at the New Monastery was to establish a scriptorium that produced codices of great value and of considerable artistic merit. I have been privileged to hold some of these early volumes in my hands. There are several catalogues of monastic libraries extant and we can learn from them something about the breadth of reading in medieval houses; in most cases, monastic libraries held more books than universities. Hundreds of these manuscripts remain, but many more were vandalized under Joseph II in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after the French Revolution.
The alternative to reading is acedia: hours spent meandering around, engaged in idle chatter. In his Statutes of 1148, Peter the Venerable complains that monks are spending too much time hanging around the cloisters, busy doing nothing. There were about 100 insurgencies among Cistercian laybrothers in the 13th century. They were mostly illiterate and when work was none they plotted revolution. The disorders in the Irish monasteries in 13th to 15th centuries were due mostly to the fact that the monks did not read Latin and there was a dearth of material in Irish. The lesson we can learn from history is that when a love for reading declines so too does everything else.
Nor is the love of reading unknown in this monastery. Let me give five local examples. If you ever wandered into the guesthouse during the reign of Fr Malachy, if he was not engaged with guests, you would usually find him in the art gallery with a book, often enough Cardinal Newman. Three days before he died Br Kevin Burke knocked on my door and presented me with what he called “me book” about which we had spoken many times. It was his personal collection of quotations from books he had read or heard read over the years of his monastic life. Copied out not once but twice, since he redid his work after he retired from the dairy. One hot night in the late 1970s I dropped in on Br Munchin to find him enthroned in his big chair reading the Council documents; he had reached the decree on the office of Bishops. I asked was it helpful. He said, “There is a lot of old nonsense in it, but if your keep reading you come across something good.” Fr Stephen, while he was undergoing chemotherapy and the outlook was pretty grim, fell back on a lifetime habit of reading to find some solace in working his way through the several volumes of Harold Macmillan’s autobiography. Br Joachim was an avid reader right up to the end, not only of books about the New Testament but also anything he could lay his hands on about World War II. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
The invention of printing and the digital revolution have made reading matter ever more accessible. Whatever the form, a love of reading is important in monastic life. Reading is more than a means of keeping monks out of mischief, though it is that. Dom Kevin once remarked to me that when monks give up serious reading, they usually drift away from other components of monastic life. Reading does more than provide us with useful information, although it does that. The great advantage of serious and expansive reading is that it invites us to enter into a conversation with great minds and, by reflection, to bring what we have learned back into our own lives. While our minds are occupied with what we have been reading, our vision is enlarged and our lives are enriched.
Reading is a primary means of gaining spiritual literacy – the ability to understand what is happening interiorly and to put words to it. By monitoring our own responses to what we read, we begin to understand who we are and what lies deepest in our hearts. We begin to perceive the lineaments of our unique spiritual identity. Books serve as spiritual mirrors.
Spiritual literacy is another way of describing the functioning of conscience. It is no accident that we find a strong emphasis on conscience in the Western monastic tradition as well as the early development of moral theory based on intention – that is to say one that focuses on the interior or subjective component of acts more than on their external expression. Monks understood that an action is good not because it is listed as such in the books, but because it concords with the deepest aspirations of the heart. Embracing such an approach leads to a more generous living of the Gospel than simply following the rules.
Reading, reflection, spiritual literacy, conscience – these are the interior dynamics of the Benedictine tradition. It is the love of reading that feeds our desire for God and helps it to grow. It is evident that Saint Benedict himself possessed this love of reading, as did Saint Bernard, as did Abbot de Rancé. And so may we, if we have a care to.