Friday 17 June 2011

A monastic education - John Senior writes


Excerpted from The Death of Christian Culture by John Senior (1923-1999) [re-punctuated]:


"For the training of the body there is the ascetic life - the habit, the fare, the manual work; and for the soul - the liturgy (the Opus Dei as St Benedict called it), the continuous immersion in a very few texts.

"The Psalter [i.e. Book of Psalms] learned by heart in the first year of the novitiate and finally the whole of the Old and New Testaments in St. Jerome's Vulgate Latin.

"Beside the Bible were the Rule (of St Benedict] and a few select commentaries.

"No single monastery had anything like the bulk of the Patrologia. The monks read very little of their own tradition and still less of the liberal arts.


"Few in those days read the Greeks at all, or even any classical Latin other than some schoolboy books for learning grammar.

"As soon as Plato was taken up by St Augustine, there was no longer any need for Plato.

"As the children of Israel took vessels of Egyptian gold and silver with them into the wilderness, so Christendom took some of this and that - but not very much. As with Buddha's raft across the Ganges, it would be absurd, once having used the classics to get to St Augustine, to strap them on one's back and continue studying Virgil and Cicero on the dry land of Christendom.


"Old GG Coulton was right, I think: they were a narrow, antiliberal lot, if you measure them by the world's standards.

"Even the most learned of them, such as Alcuin, was no Socrates or even a Flaccus, as they jokingly called him; and when you consider the millions of monks in all the monasteries across the Dark Ages for a thousand years from the bitter Western Isles of Britain to the deserts of Egypt, those ages really were dark.


"[Yet] In what sense is the mind narrow that has not studied so much as become the substance of the Psalms?

"Day after day, hour upon hour, summer, winter, through the watches of the night, humming with a resonating sound that buzzes in the skull and bones, the long, slow-balanced verses and antiphons in the singular, sonorous silence of the Gregorian tones.

"We have confused simplicity with impoverishment and poverty with destitution."


John Senior, whose career was mostly as a Classic professor in the University of Kansas, is probably (in two books: The Death of- and then The Restoration of- Christian Culture) the clearest, most eloquent, most rigorous, and most convincing recent expositor of the nature of traditional Roman Catholic Christianity that I have yet encountered.

And yet, for me - at the end of all this - I felt (rather than perceived) something missing from the vision of an ideal full Roman Catholicism: a dryness, an incompleteness.

And this prompted me to keep looking, and to explore Eastern Orthodox Catholicism (mostly via Seraphim Rose), where I felt (rather than perceived) exactly that warmth and wholeness which I had felt was missing from the vision of ideal Roman Catholicism.


Nonetheless, John Senior is a marvellous writer, with acute insights into modernity.

 And his point about the benefits of immersion in relatively few texts is one which has always appealed to me - despite the fact that I have read such a lot!

I tend to regard my wide reading as more of a compulsion and a shallow search for distraction, rather than any sign of wisdom.

And I am a great re-reader (as my Tolkien blog demonstrates) - I am only really happy reading a book which I know (even during the first reading) that I will be re-reading; otherwise I feel the time is probably being wasted.



I have unfortunately under-sold John Senior in the above, by my excess emphasis on autobiography: his books on Christian culture are very good indeed, and very well worth reading.



Gabe Ruth said...

I think perceptions of dryness and warmth have more to do with the modern practitioners than with the nature of the tradition. And Catholicism certainly has its share of warm saints. The monastic life will always sound dry from the outside. Can't say much about the Eastern tradition though, as most of my impression of it is from The Brothers Karamazov.

Brett Stevens said...

"...they were a narrow, antiliberal lot, if you measure them by the world's standards."

Open-mindedness means perceiving many things, making hypotheses, testing them, and then remembering them until they are contradicted.

Our modern mindset makes us think that we're not open-minded unless we never get beyond the first stage.

I couldn't do without Plato however :(