… Listening and doing …


The entire Rule of St. Benedict is enveloped by two words: obsculta (listen) and pervenies (arrive, reach). Benedict, of course, intends that it is his Rule that is listened to, here “listened to” is not a mere hearing but a putting into practice. The Rule, however, does not stand on its own. Benedict places it in the context of the teachings of the holy Fathers (RB 73, 2) of whom two are singled out: St. John Cassian and St. Basil the Great. It seems good to take Benedict’s advise and sit down at the feet of St. John Cassian.

The first book coming from Cassian’s pen is the Institutes which are mentioned by name in the Rule of St. Benedict. Before the Praktkios (the one struggling against the vices to attain the virtues) turns to the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues [of the holy Fathers] (RB 73, 9) as found in The Conferences we need to make our way through The Institutes. This is the foundation upon which the higher summit is built. Without this foundation the summit is not difficult to attain but entirely impossible to attain!

There is an important structure to be taken into account when beginning to listen ( ! ) to John Cassian’s Institutes:

  1. Concerning the dress of monastics
  2. Concerning the Divine Office (in two books)
  3. Concerning the governance of the monastic community
  4. Concerning the 8 kinds of vices & evil spirits

This order is not accidental. First it is pointed out (by symbols) that the clothing of the monastic is different from non-monastics. By monastics I intend to indicate all who struggle to renounce the vices and put on the virtues. Obviously, it is not the clothes themselves that interests Cassian. Rather it is their inner meaning that is relevant to him and by extension also to us. Essentially the we are to take off the vices and put on the virtues. The items of monastic dress are connected to spiritual truths (and virtues) by means of allegory. We move from the outward facts to the inward facts. The basic work of praktike is here indicted: to rid ourselves of the vices and to gain the virtues. It is by means of the virtues that health is restored to the soul and that purity of heart is achieved: apatheia which is freedom from the vices. This freedom enables us to gain knowledge of God. So long as our hearts (minds) are darkened by the vices we cannot see the light of God. It is absolutely necessary to listen in the full sense that Benedict intended this word to be heard!

Secondy there needs to be a consistent and stable rule of prayer. This rule is not made up but is received. Cassian points to the traditional Divine Office as that which is so received. In the Rule of Benedict we are also given a specific ordering of the Divine Office (though it is not identical to Cassian’s). The core of the Divine Office is the weekly recited Psalter and the (specifically) arranged reading of Scripture. This Psalmody and Reading of Scripture is not separate from the teachings of the holy Fathers as intended by Benedict but rather Scripture (Old and New Testaments) are the first (and foremost) core of these teachings. But NOTE that the Old and New Testaments cannot be read, understood, nor applied separate from the rest of these teachings. They constitute one whole. It is to be noted here that the Rule itself has precisely 73 Chapters as does the Bible ( ! ) as St. Benedict knew it. That does not mean that there are not differences of perspective to be found in these teachings. Rather in these teachings in all of its differences the same goal is nonetheless attained: knowledge of God through shedding vices and practicing virtue.

The third element consists of regulating the life in and of the community. No-one is saved alone. Not even hermits. Some sort of community life is always presumed because that is what Christianity ultimately is: communion. As we live our lives in our communities (family, Church, monastic, etc) we inevitably run into the vices. We run into them because others have and display them, but mostly because we have and display them. Having taken on the baptismal garment of Christianity (the basic dress of Christians), having submitted to a rule of prayer, and living in a community of faith we now need tools to deal with the vices we will be running into. This is the final element of The Institutes.

There are, according to Cassian, 8 basic patterns of vice. The descriptions Cassian provides of these patterns of vice help us to recognize them and to counter them. The patterns Cassian informs us about are:

  1. Gluttony
  2. Fornication
  3. Covetousness
  4. Anger
  5. Dejection
  6. Accidie (Despondency)
  7. Vainglory
  8. Pride

Correctly understood and applied these 8 patterns are a powerful tool to live as a Christian and to attain the end-goal of Christian life: knowledge of God. The sixth chapter concerning fornication was not translated in the volume put online by osb.org. This is because Cassian is quite practical in his descriptions and suggestions to remedy the struggles that deal with sexuality. The Victorian attitude was too prudish to be properly instructed and thereby had lost the battle against “the spirit of fornication” before it was even begun.

Once this has become a regular – even habitual – process in our lives are we in a good position to begin The Conferences and On the Incarnation. In the former we find advanced teaching on monastic practice whereas in the latter we find Cassian setting out the catholic doctrine concerning the beginning, middle, and end of Christian faith: Jesus Christ. I am not here trying to say that Cassian himself so ordered his works to be read in this order: Institutes -> Conferences -> Incarnation but to me reading them in that order makes sense. This way of reading implies there is a progression from the rudiments of Christian practice to knowledge of God. For to have knowledge of Jesus Christ is to have knowledge of God. There is, in fact, no other way!

Listening (obsculta) involves not only hearing. To reach (pervenies) the goal doing is necessary. Refracting Benedict’s admonition to listen through John Cassian’s teaching shows great promise in both understanding and practicing the sort of monastic living St. Benedict envisions. It seems to me that here and now we have already gained some knowledge of the very teachings Benedict mentions in the concluding chapter of the Holy Rule

Gregory Wassen +

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About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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