an outline of ascetical theology
according to the english pastoral tradition

an excerpt

Martin Thornton

Authorized Reissue


Chapter 6


Like many another of his Order, Dom Cuthbert Butler denies any such thing as “Benedictine spirituality”; it is simply Catholicism, simply Christianity. All the later medieval schools of spirituality have their roots in Benedictinism, even if, as Dom Cuthbert is first to admit, some of them departed a good way from the parent tradition. But there is another sense in which this claim is true: it is that the genius of Saint Benedict cannot be confined within the walls of Monte Cassino or any other monastery. The Regula is not only a system of monastic order, it is a system of ascetical theology, the basis of which is as applicable to modern England as it was to sixth-century Italy. Our task is to abstract these practical principles from their necessarily “occasional” setting.

The greatest Benedictine achievement (from this point of view) is the final consolidation of the threefold Rule of prayer which is absolutely fundamental to all Catholic spirituality: the common Office (opus Dei) supporting private prayer (orationes peculiares) both of which are allied to, and consummated by, the Mass. To call this the greatest Benedictine achievement is not to exaggerate, for here Dom Cuthbert is unquestionably right. Here is the basic Rule of the Church which, varying in detail, is common to East and West, monastic and secular, to all the individual schools without exception, and which forms the over-all structure of the Book of Common Prayer. Amongst all the tests of Catholicity or orthodoxy, it is curious that this infallible and living test, is so seldom applied. We write and argue endlessly about the apostolic tradition, about episcopacy, sacramentalism, creeds, doctrine, the Bible—all very important things—yet we fail to see that no group of Christians is true to orthodoxy if it fails to live by this Rule of trinity-in-unity: Mass-Office-devotion.

Whenever this has become unbalanced, error has arisen. Later Benedictinism, as at Cluny, so elaborated the Office as to squeeze out devotion and recollected work; this was one of the major factors behind Cistercian reform. The Franciscans, in an over-zealous thirst for evangelism, began by minimizing the Office and ended by creating the modern Breviary! In spite of such ups and downs, the Catholic Church has always reformed itself back to Saint Benedict. Protestantism tends to distrust the common Office in favour of personal religion; the result is subjectivism and moralism. Some schools have reversed the emphasis and ended with formalism. And it is ironical that some of our Tractarians, isolating the Mass and deriding Morning and Evening Prayer, even replacing these by more “Catholic” devotions, were in fact overthrowing the first principle of Catholicism. To-day irony becomes ridicule when the Office is either turned into a subjective devotion, or omitted in favour of intricate methods of private meditation, for which Saint Benedict, the Prayer Book, and the English tradition have never had much use.

In the Regula, thirteen chapters of minute regulation are devoted to the opus Dei, and all is centred upon it. It is not always realized that a good two-thirds of the [1662] Prayer Book are concerned directly with the Mass and Office. Both exhort to private devotion, both insist on habitual recollection, neither teach any methods. The principle maintained, so obvious yet so forgotten, is that you cannot classify the unique. Private devotion can be guided by competent direction but it cannot be regimented: the Salesian method may be useful but it cannot be imposed even on all Salesians.

Why is this simple threefold scheme so important? The short answer is: because it effects everything that ascetical theology is supposed to effect; it provides a system of prayer which translates all the clauses of the Creed into practical terms and manifests a living faith with them. The Benedictine threefold Rule expresses faith in the Holy Trinity, in the Incarnation and Atonement, in the threefold Church and the Communion of Saints. Loyalty to this Rule also guards us from error and forms the basis of a continuous, and progressive, Christian life. A more detailed examination of these claims will be made when we study the Benedictine influence on the Book of Common Prayer.[1]

The threefold Rule ensures the most perfect possible balance between the corporate and individual aspects of Christian life. It manifests both the corporate nature of the Body of Christ into which we are incorporated by Baptism, and the unique value and glory of every individual soul created in the image of God. That is why the common Office must be common, without deviation by a syllable, and private prayer must be private, not regimented by method but unique to each person. With the use of both Office and private devotion, the Christian beings to our Lord in the Eucharist both selfless loyalty and his own unique gifts of oblation.

It is a mistake to think that Saint Benedict detracts from either individuality or personal devotion—he strongly insists on habitual recollection—but he reverses the Cassianic preference for the eremitical against the cenobite ideal. To Cassian, life in community was a preparation for solitude; to Saint Benedict, the common life is an essential element in Christianity itself. It is here that Saint Benedict supplements a deficiency in the ascetical teaching of Saint Augustine. Augustine taught a full doctrine of the threefold Church: in the Donatist controversy he defended a comprehensive Church embracing all kinds of people in all kinds of spiritual states, and at Hippo he surrounded himself with a group of priests under Common Rule, but his teaching remained largely individualistic. The Church was still the “ark of salvation” for individual souls; there was little sense of vicarious responsibility either within it or towards the world around it. Had it been otherwise, the problems of personal predestination, and of prevenient and irresistible grace personally received, could have been alleviated.[2]

To Saint Benedict the emphasis is domestic, the Church—whether at Monte Cassino or outside—is a united family of God; self-contained is a complete life covering every aspect from making shoes to the opus Dei. But if Monte Cassino was complete and self-contained it was not the insular “ark of salvation.” Saint Basil had formulated a monachism which was to serve the world in good works; in visiting the sick and succouring the poor. Saint Benedict followed him in the strong insistence on hospitality and on education. It is doubtful if either developed a doctrine of the full vicariousness of the Church; of the Body of Christ as the redemptive channel through which the love of God flowed on to the world. But the idea of monks as the world’s intercessors is a short step from his corporate ideal and this was Saint Augustine of Canterbury’s method in the mission to England. No doubt he and his forty companions preached and taught, but the converting power of the mission was plainly in the stable Canterbury community life.[3] And at the centre of that was the threefold Rule.

The first two points form Saint Benedict’s most vital message to the Church to-day: that loyalty to this basic threefold Rule—Mass, Office, devotion—is always the prior ascetical discipline. It is the foundation of all Christian life, the essential work of the Church, the supreme intercession, the power of evangelism. It is of incalculably greater importance than all fasts, mortifications, and works whatsoever; the only function of which is to support it, without it all is a sham. As spiritual guides we must insist upon it; if we are true to our medieval heritage, we must insist upon it; if we think of Anglicanism in a narrower sense, let it be remembered that the seventeenth-century battles between Puritan and Caroline churchmen were fought over the Prayer Book, especially over “set prayers.” They were battles for and against Benedictine principles.

As Saint Basil had taught a century earlier (and no doubt this was the source of Saint Benedict’s teaching) obedience, poverty, and chastity are not monastic but Christian virtues. According to most Benedictine commentators, including Saint Bernard, obedience is to be “according to the Rule”; what we might call canonical obedience, holy obedience, or even loyalty, but certainly not servile submission.[4] This is to become even more pastoral with the interpretation of William of St Thierry, and is plainly needful in any Christian life.

Poverty may similarly be seen either as a part of monastic organization or as an ascetical principle, or both. It is the latter in which Saint Benedict is most interested: it is, in Bishop Augustine O’Neill’s striking illustration, “the poverty of a workman’s home,—who is earning good wages.”[5] “For Benedictines to emulate the poverty and nakedness so admirable in Franciscans would not be admirable but fanatical. Benedictine virtue in this, as in most other things, consists in keeping a happy mean between rigorism and laxity that is the perennial problem of Black Benedictinism.”[6] How very Anglican!

Again following Saint Basil, chastity is both a practical monastic rule and a general Christian virtue, applicable to both married and single alike. The evangelical counsels have properly acquired a monastic stamp, but in Benedictinism they are never isolated virtues. They are always part of a composite ascetic-moral system, and their absence, in any context, invariably means the presence of all the capital sins. And that means the end of spiritual progress towards the love of God.

Saint Benedict’s aim was to create the best possible conditions wherein, as Saint John of the Cross was to say, “souls could best be placed so as to receive the motions of the Holy Ghost.” In Augustinian terms, it was the kind of life which gave the greatest response to prevenient grace. It was a lay movement, “a little Rule for beginners,” comprising “a regime which was no more than was often imposed on Christians living in the world.”[7] “It is worthy of note that in Saint Benedict’s instruments (Regula, 4; a list of moral and spiritual precepts for daily use) there is nothing monastic or ‘religious’ in the technical sense: they are all mere Christianity, elementary morality, fundamental religion.”[8] It is the core of practical teaching for all time, applicable in detail to the ethos of succeeding ages and conditions. Yet at first sight, the minute regulations about food, clothing, hours of sleep, and so on, seem fussy and unreal; but, like the counsels, all these minutiae contain spiritual lessons which never change. The good life is completely God-centred; Saint Benedict calls the opus Dei “the praises of the Creator”; the Church is no longer the ark of salvation, the society of saints, or the school for sinners, but “the society of Divine praise.”[9] The orationes peculiares should be “short and frequent”—habitual recollection—and all is ordered to achieve that end. The continual need to choose food and clothing is a distraction, so let all be regulated in the first place; both hunger and gluttony impair spiritual health, so let quantities be decided once and for all. It is not so much a matter of “moderation” as of getting things exactly right. What Saint Benedict is saying to us to-day is that regularity over the ordinary details of daily life helps towards continual recollective praise. If we do not have regular meals and sleep it is unlikely that we shall achieve orderly prayer. As V. A. Demant has pointed out, modern ascetical discipline might we consist in such things as regular solitude, resistance to “insidious commercial propaganda to increase our wants,” and discipline over unceasing flippancies and amusements.[10] A solid habit of the evening Office at 7.10 followed by a family meal at 7.30, overriding all demands of radio and television, could constitute a creative askesis; Christian and Benedictine. If we look at modern life in logical ascetical terms, we must conclude that the coffee bar, self-service canteen, sandwiches between radio programmes, and the inability to stay in the same place for more than half a day, are far more spirituality destructive than a regular pint of beer or a flutter on the Derby.

It is always difficult to describe the “spirit” of anything, but I hope I have already given some idea of how Benedictinism and Anglicanism have affinities in outlook and temperament. Two further aspects of the Benedictine ideal are relevant.

1. The “family” ideal is bluntly interpreted as of both supernatural and natural ties: “We find, as in Saint Thomas later, a religion rooted in Nature, an intimate relation between Nature and Grace, natural and supernatural.”[11] The theme is beautifully treated by Dom Cuthbert Butler,[12] who sees here the ideal behind the “fourth counsel” of stability. In monasticism in general, the postulant seeks admission to an Order,[13] an ethos or way of life, while the Benedictine is stabilized in a single community, a family of such importance that numbers in any one house are rigidly limited. It is to be noted that the quarrel between the Cistercians and Cluniacs was not simply because Cluny was too rich and comfortable but because it was too big.[14] The pastoral implications are far-reaching, and it is beyond our scope to discuss questions of pastoral organization, but it might be mentioned that a faithful village community could be more spiritually creative than a parish of 20,000, and constitute “more important” work for a single priest. It might also be noted that, however you arrange churches, altars, and celebrants, a congregation of 500 can never be a Benedictine “family” with all that it stands for: how the faithful, and their priest, secretly long for the Mass on Monday morning!

“It may be summed up in saying that, while for the friar or regular clerk detachment from any particular place is the ideal, in the monk attachment to his own monastery is a virtue.”[15] Here is an expression and elaboration of Saint Augustine’s doctrine of creation, and a movement towards “the first form of contemplation” in the sense of harmony with environment.[16] It is not far-fetched to see here a fundamental parochial ascetic: “The life established by the Rule is nothing else than one that aims at carrying out to the full the Gospel precepts and Gospel counsels by a body of men living together under rule and discipline. These are the common sort of conditions under which men have to live and work out their salvation, as members of societies of various kinds, the family, the parish, the village.”[17] Ch. 72 of the Regula is similarly described as “formal precepts for the community life, which indeed are golden rules for regulating the life of any family, natural no less than monastic.”[18]

Although I felt obliged to coin the phrase “parochial theology” to describe corporate ascetical principle, it is hardly a new idea!

2. Following on the first point is the problem of personal relationships, especially as they affect spiritual guidance. Here, too, the “detachment” of Counter-Reformation teachers, the clerical frigidity of the French Oratorian ideal, is repellent rather than admirable to the Benedictine spirit. It is destructive of the family ideal and incompatible with empirical guidance. With a sly little dig at the seventeenth-century teachers, Dom Cuthbert hints that they must find the friendship between SS. Benedict and Scholastica, Bernard and Gerard, most unpalatable. “Saint Bernard clearly does not come up to the standard of detachment required by Saint John of the Cross and Fr Baker.”[19] Presumably Saint Aelred of Rievaulx is quite beyond the pale and Margery Kempe’s Master Aleyne past praying for. But “This is no Platonic or even merely spiritual affection, but something very real and natural, in the good sense.”[20]
In all these things here enumerated—private prayer, devotions, austerities—Benedictines are free to follow their personal attractions, the only principle of choice being that which they find suits their spirit best and brings them nearer to God. . . . This is part of what is meant by “Benedictine liberty of Spirit.”[21]. . . His discipline is not military discipline, but the freer discipline of a well regulated family life. . . . The expression “well drilled” is sometimes applied to a community[22] as high praise; but a regiment is drilled, a family is not.[23]
It is plain that the freedom inherent in the English domestic ethos, the “homeliness” of Julian and Margery, the pastoral warmth of George Herbert, John Donne, and Nicholas Ferrar: all this is no watered-down mediocrity, no pastoral amateurishness, but a deep-rooted characteristic of Benedictine orthodoxy, springing from the doctrine of the Church. This characteristic strain of thought, beginning with the Regula, is still worthy of our serious study. We neglect it as our peril.

Consider, as but one example, current thought on the remarkable revival of the retreat movement. Book after book, conference after conference, presents us with the advantages of both Benedictine and Ignatian methods. Each is admirably presented by experts, and the methods are analyzed and compared. No one, so far as I know, has ever bothered to mention that, whatever the intrinsic qualities of the methods, it is the “older spirituality” of Benedictinism which alone corresponds with English religion: it fits easily and naturally into a retreat based on the Mass and twofold Office; the Ignatian method does not.

[1] Ch. 20, section VI, below.
[2] Saint Augustine’s individualist bias in the anti-Pelagian writings is to some extent countered by his teaching on the Mystical Body, especially in the Enarations on the Psalms. But this is still some way from the Benedictine “family” concept.
[3] Cardinal Gasquet, Rule of St Benedict (1925), introd. pp. xi-xii.
[4] Dom Cuthbert Butler, Benedictine Monachism (1919), pp. 141ff.
[5] Ibid., pp. 148ff.
[6] Ibid., p. 152.
[7] G. Morin, The Monastic Ideal (1908), p. iii.
[8] Butler, op. cit. p. 51.
[9] Cuthbert Butler, Ways of Christian Life (1932), pp. 188f.
[10] Christian Spirituality To-day (1961), pp. 52-5.
[11] Butler, Ways of Christian Life, pp. 5ff.
[12] Benedictine Monachism, ch. 13.
[13] Ibid., p. 258 “there is no such thing as a Benedictine Order.”
[14] Ibid., p. 210.
[15] Ibid., p. 201.
[16] See my Pastoral Theology: a Re-orientation, pp. 152-78, 263-6.
[17] Butler, Benedictine Monachism, p. 202.
[18] Ibid., p. 204; cf. Regula, ch. 63.
[19] Ibid., p. 56.
[20] Ibid., p. 203.
[21] Ibid., p. 306.
[22] and congregation!
[23] Ibid., p. 206.


© Akenside Press and Matthew C. Dallman, 2016. Reissued with permission of Monica Thornton. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, Akenside Press.