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Saint Benedict and the connection between Eastern and Western Monasticism.

7 May 2010

Jean Leclercq, a French Benedictine , was one of the leading scholar-monks of the 20th century. In his book, “The Love of Learning and the Desire for God“ he talked about some of the ways in which monasticism in the West has been influenced by Eastern Monasticism. Here is a little of what he had to say:

“…Benedictine monasticism is attracted, not only to patristic sources in general, but to Eastern sources in particular….

This is a fact which must be strongly emphasized, for St Benedict had no wish to break with ancient monastic tradition, which is largely Eastern. Quite the contrary, in the life of St Benedict by St Gregory, in the spirit of his Rule, in the readings he recommends and the observances he prescribes, everything betrays his concern for continuity and for fidelity to ancient monasticism. Not that Benedict is “an Easterner who has strayed into the West.” He is a Latin; but he respects the Eastern tradition “which is to monasticism what the apostolic tradition is to the faith of the Church.” Even more, as can be gathered from allusions found in his Rule, he feels a certain nostalgia for the monasticism of ancient times.

Consequently, it is not at all surprising that, during all the great periods of Western monasticism, the desire has been felt to renew relations with this authentic tradition. In the Carolingian period, Benedict of Aniane accords great importance to the Eastern rules in his Codex regularum. In later periods, the monks were always clearly aware of what they owed to ancient monasticism, and an Italian manuscript of the eleventh century furnishes a revealing example of this. Immediately after the text of St Benedict’s Rule, there is appended a list of those who “founded” monastic life. Out of the twenty-six Fathers of monasticism enumerated, there are only four Latins. And even among these we find St Jerome, who was often considered an Easterner. In fact, monastic observances and the texts which inspire them owe a great deal to the East and to the writings through which it was known: the Apophthegms and Lives of the Fathers, the Conferences of Cassian, the Rules of St Basil. Everything in Benedictine life is ordered according to the ideas, practices, sometimes even the words, which have come down from the monks of antiquity and which link each generation to the origins of monasticism. Furthermore, each renewal of Benedictine life is effected with reference to these same origins. For example, at the beginning of what was to become the Cistercian Order, Ordericus Vitalis, not implausibly, attributes to Robert of Molesme this characteristic speech: “Read the acts of Sts Anthony, Macarius, Pachomius. …We are no longer following in the footsteps of our Fathers, the Egyptian monks, of those who lived in the Holy Land or in the Thebaid.” Thus at every period, the monks feel the attraction of the “light which comes from the East,” from which they know they have recieved there ideas and the practices on which their way of life is founded. And William of St Thierry is speaking for all when he expresses the wish in his Letter to the Brothers of Mont-Dieu that they “may implant in the darkness of the West and in the cold of Gaul the light of the East and the ancient fervor of Egyptian religious life.” “ (pages 89-90)

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