As necessary as the investigation of the Fathers’ writings is to see the premises from which Benedict starts, to see what he means and where he is leading us, this investigation is still more necessary inasmuch as our times and culture are remote from theirs. For lack of knowing this context of patristic thought and primitive monasticism, we are liable to inject our familiar notions into his text and to reduce his discourse to our present-day mental categories.
This harm is felt especially in monastic circles. The monk is dedicated to hearing the Rule frequently, to venerating it and drawing from it a spiritual nourishment for his own life, and so he is particularly exposed to making Benedict his contemporary rather than making himself Benedict’s contemporary. The loss that results is not confined to the realm of knowledge. The monastic vocation itself suffers, for what we hear thus is less the provocative and fertilizing message of the Fathers than the echo of our own discourse as modern men.
Also, the discrepancy between present-day monasticism and the Rule will be strongly emphasized in this commentary. By so doing we wish to act not only as a historian but as a monk. While leaving to novice-masters and abbots the care of bringing the two terms together, we shall often place them in contrast. Our aim is not at all to invite the monks of today to estrange themselves from what remains of their Rule, but to suggest to them – and to ourselves as well – the effort that must be furnished if we will be faithful to it.
Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 4.
As I said before, this book looks challenging! In his introduction Father de Vogüé distances himself from the widespread view that because of the historical and cultural distance between Saint Benedict and us, and the impossibility of literally observing the Rule today, we should focus on the spirit rather than the letter of the Rule and ask instead: “What would Benedict do today?” He sees such a response as nonsensical, for
The only reality we possess is the Rule such as we know it, together with the related documents which allow us to grasp it. This text is a given, which we can take or leave according to whether or not we feel ourselves concerned about its message. If we choose to expose ourselves to its influence, this influence will operate in the exact measure that we can conform ourselves to what it prescribes. Since it is a matter of a rule of life, fidelity to the spirit does not go without a certain observance of the letter. The way of true renewal can only be, we think, that of a literalism that is intelligent, prudent and enlightened by spiritual discernment. Our hope in offering this modest work to our brothers is to serve such a renewal. (6)
I find myself with rather mixed reactions, the various aspects of which may become clearer in the course of the book. I don’t know of any communities who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict literally, in fact I rather doubt that it is possible or perhaps even desirable to do so today, and I am not sure that this is what de Vogüé is arguing for. However, it is clear to me that it is all-too-easy to delude ourselves on such matters, hence the importance of discernment and in this the concreteness of the Rule is a valuable challenge.
As a not-entirely-unrelated aside: I once read a little book by Fr de Vogüé entitled To Love Fasting. Unlike his other books it was a very personal account of his own experience of fasting in which he basically argued for both the possibility and the desirability of keeping the traditional fasts, something that is virtually unheard of – and often even impossible – in contemporary monasteries following the Rule of Saint Benedict. This would seem to be one area in which I suspect that a certain level of contemporary cultural delusion is operative, and in which we perhaps do need to be challenged. (Please note that this does not mean that I am particularly good at any of this myself! But I am interested in the extent to which we are capable of deceiving ourselves.)