Tag Archives: church

The Man Behind the Rule: St. Benedict of Nursia

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The magnitude of Benedict’s significance in church history is not matched, unfortunately, 

by the knowledge of his life. About forty years after his death (and the year of his death is not known), Pope Gregory I wrote a series of dialogues on noteworthy Christians of previous times; his account of Benedict contains almost all the solid biographical information we have.

 

He was born in about the year 480 in Nursia in north Umbria in Italy, along with his twin sister St. Scholastica. Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia. He was educated at Rome, where he was repelled by the vices of the city and in about the year 500, he abandoned the city and fled to the mountainous town of Subiaco, some forty miles away. He seems to have been about nineteen to twenty years of age. 

 

On his way there, he met a monk named Romanus, whose monastery was on a mountain overhanging a cave. The wise monk discussed with Benedict the purpose which had brought him to Subiaco and gave him the monk’s habit. By his advice, Benedict became a hermit and lived for three years, unknown to men, in this cave above a lake. Romanus served Benedict in every way he could. The monk apparently visited him frequently and on fixed days brought him food. 

 

During these years of solitude, Benedict matured in mind and character and in his knowledge of himself and his fellow man. Despite his desire for solitude, his holiness, austerities and spiritual insight became well-known. He secured the respect of those in the area, so much so that upon the death of the abbot of a monastery in the neighborhood, the community at Vicovaro came to him and begged him to be their abbot. Benedict consented. 

 

But the monks came to resent Benedict’s attempts to reform the monastery along with his strict rule of life and the monks tried to poison him and he returned to his cave at Subiaco. The legend goes that they first tried to poison his drink. He prayed a blessing over the cup and the cup shattered. They then tried to poison his bread. When he prayed a blessing over the bread, a raven swept in and snatched the bread away. This is why Benedict is sometimes portrayed with a raven. From this time forward, the miracles seem to have become quite frequent and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to be under his guidance and Subiaco became a center of spirituality and learning. For them, he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of them he placed a superior with twelve monks. 

 

In 525, he moved south to Monte Cassino where he destroyed a pagan temple to Apollo on its crest, brought the neighboring people back to Christianity and in about 530 he started to build the monastery that was to be the birthplace of Western monasticism. The monastery exists to this day, sitting on a hilltop between Rome and Naples. He remained the father or abbot of all the monasteries he founded. Soon disciples again flocked to him as his reputation for holiness, wisdom and miracles spread far and wide. Benedict organized the monks at Monte Cassino into a single monastic community. It was most likely after the arrival at Monte Cassino and as part of the effort to reform the general practice of monasticism that Benedict composed his regula  or Rule prescribing common sense, a life of moderate asceticism, prayer, study and work, and community life under one superior known as an abbot or father. It stressed obedience, stability, zeal and had the Divine Office as the center of monastic life. It was to influence spiritual and monastic life in the West for centuries to come. 

 

This famous Rule soon won nearly universal approval as providing shape for monasticism in the West. Benedict’s Rule was also read with appreciation in the East. It became the norm for tens of thousands of new monastic communities in Europe and it served as an inspiration for the slightly altered ideals that created the Mendicant Orders (or “friars”) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. “Never in the recorded history of Christianity has a person whose own life remains so obscure,’ writes historian Mark Noll, ‘done a deed with greater public consequences.”  While ruling his monks, most of whom including Benedict, were not ordained, he counseled rulers and popes and ministered to the poor and destitute around him. 

 

Benedict died of a high fever at Monte Cassino at its magnificent abbey, while standing in prayer to God. According to tradition, this occurred on March 21, 543 or 547. But due to the observance of Lent, he is commemorated on July 11, including in the Anglican Church.  He was buried with his sister in the same grave. 

 

He is the patron saint of Europe, students, monks, against poison, farmers, cave explorers and many more. It is quite an impressive list and it shows how influential St. Benedict is. In fact, the early Middle Ages have been called “the Benedictine centuries.” Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian hordes. It was the Benedictines who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland.” During the Dark Ages, Benedictines taught people how to read and write, to cultivate the soil, to develop crafts and the arts, and to pray. In short, Benedict helped bring about stability during a very unstable time period.

 

In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the influence St. Benedict had on Western Europe. The pope emeritus said that “with his life and work St. Benedict exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture” and helped Europe to emerge from the “dark night of history” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Benedict of named the patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared him co-patron of Europe, together with Saints Cyril and Methodius. To this day, The Rule of St. Benedict is the most common and influential Rule used by monasteries and monks, more than 1400 years after its writing. 

The First Martyrs: Holy Innocents

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Today (December 28) is the day the church commemorates the Holy Innocents. The event remembered is the infanticide carried out by the soldiers of Herod the Great. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all male children under the age of two, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to the newborn king, born in Bethlehem, whose birth he had heard about from the Magi. Unwittingly, he fulfilled biblical prophecy; Jeremiah prophesied, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” The number of infants killed is not known. With Bethlehem being a town of around 1000 inhabitants, the number there could be around twenty. Although not Christians these children have been seen by the church as the first martyrs. 

The account of the massacre is found in Matthew 2:13-18:

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Coventry Carol is a Christmas carol dating from the sixteenth century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play entitled The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It’s the only carol to have survived from this play. The author is unknown. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella. 

The theme of the Massacre of the innocents has provided many an artist of multiple nationalities with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. Its popularity decreased in Gothic art but revived in the large works of the Renaissance. The massacre also provided a comparison of ancient brutalities with early modern ones during the period of religious wars that followed the Reformation. Bruegel’s versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Hapsburg double-headed eagle (often used at the time for ancient Roman soldiers). The 1590 version by Cornelius van Haarlem also seems to reflect the violence of the Dutch Revolt. Guido Reni’s early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents is at Bologna. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted the theme more than once. The French painter Nicolas Poussin painted The Massacre of the Innocents (1634) at the height of the Thirty Years’ War. 

The massacre is the opening plot to the 2006 film The Nativity Story (great film). 

The commemoration of the massacre of the Innocents, considered by some Christians as the first martyrs for Christ, first appears as a feast of the western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6); Prudentius mentions the Innocents in the hymn on the Epiphany. Leo in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. This day is also known as Childermas or Children’s Mass. 

Red is the color worn on this feast day which is the traditional color for martyrs. 

Various Catholic countries used to have a traditions of role reversal between children and their adult educators, including boy bishops. In some cultures, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started. In addition, there was a medieval custom of refraining where possible from work on the day of the week on which the feast of Innocents Day had fallen for the whole of the following year until the next Innocents Day. This was presumably the custom observed mainly by the better-off. Phillipe de Commynes, the minister of King Louis XVI of France tells in his memoirs how the king observed this custom and the trepidation he felt when he had to inform his majesty of an emergency on the day. 

 

 

 

A Famous Sunday School Song: Onward Christian Soldiers

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Whitmonday was a festival for schoolchildren. During the day children would march to neighboring villages carrying crosses and banners. In 1864, local pastor Sabine Baring-Gould wanted a new hymn to encourage the children in their marching. In just fifteen minutes, he wrote a song called “Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners.” It was later renamed “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He had no intention of it ever being published, especially in adult hymnals. Sabine-Gould was at the time a curate of a parish in Yorkshire county in northern England. He recounts how and why he wrote the song:

“It was written in a very simple fashion…Whitmonday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire, and one Whitmonday it was arranged that our school should join its forces with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to another, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up one night resolved to write something myself. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was the result. It was written in great haste and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its great popularity.”

Though it was never intended for publication, it found its way into a periodical later that year and soon into English hymnals around the globe. Louis Benson suspects that it caught on in the U.S. because it tapped into the “soldier spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by four years of Civil War” which had just ended. 

The music was composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871. Sullivan named the tune “St. Gertrude” after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymour, at whose country home he composed the tune. The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favored processional. The piece became Sullivan’s most popular hymn. The theme of the hymn is taken from New Testament references to the Christian being a soldier such as II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): “Thou therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1941 on the battleship Prince of Wales to agree to the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose “Onward Christian Soldiers” and he made a radio broadcast afterwards explaining his choice:

“We sang Onward Christian Soldiers indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals…it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”

The hymn has been sung at many funerals, including that of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the National Cathedral in D.C. in March 1969. Apart from its obvious militant associations, the songs has been associated with protest against the established order, particularly the civil rights movement. An attempt was made in the 1980s to strip “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the United Methodist Hymnal and the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 due to the perceived militarism. Outrage among parishioners caused both committees to back down. However, the hymn was omitted from the 1990 hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Australian Hymn Book. 

Largely because of its association with missionaries of various types, the song has been sung in a number of movies and television programs including M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie and The Simpsons. 

I grew up with this hymn being sung at church and from my days in the church’s youth handbell choir. So it has great sentimental value. And indeed it is one of the great hymns of the church which has inspired and roused the hearts of generations of believers. 

 

 

The American Church: Voluntary, Pragmatic, Primitive

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The American church is something unique. The dawn of religious freedom brought a whole new situation to the new nation. For the very first time, a predominantly Christian nation released the church from state control and allowed different denominations to compete for members and operate freely. The end result was that no church could rely on state imposed authority and had to work hard for the voluntary response of the people. Gone were the days when being in Massachusetts automatically made you Congregationalist. You could be a part of any church you chose. It was entirely your choice where to attend worship. And that was something entirely new.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The Americans demanded that they were free, masterless individuals; they sought absolute independence and equality of status. They imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands…They acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.” (Democracy in America)

What you had were not churches in the traditional sense nor exclusive sects, but rather denominations that were purposive in character, what Sidney Mead described as “a voluntary association of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives. Even Lyman Beecher, a Yankee Congregationalist, who had much to fear with the end of state support, came to believe that it was “the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut.” The churches were thrown “on their own resources and on God,” had increased dramatically their influence “by voluntary efforts, societies, missions and revivals.”

This meant that the church in America was anything but monolithic. One historian has written, “The colonial legacy of pluralism, compounded now by a certain propensity to divide old denominations and organize fresh ones, left many wondering how to cope with fragmentation as a central feature of church life.” Some ministers who greatly valued tradition found little consolation in the multiplication of denominations.

But the multiplication of denominations was mostly seen in a positive light. One leading evangelical said, “Each denomination is working out some problem in the Christian life, developing some portion of truth. Each has its part to perform, its particular work to do for the Kingdom of Christ, which it, in the present condition of things, is better equipped to do than any other.” As a Baptist editor wrote, “However we may wish all men to become Baptists, we will all become evangelical Christians.” It was this evangelical core that helped maintain in America a surprisingly unified Christian culture.

This voluntary principle brought the Christian faith to the common man. The arcane and abstract gave way to practical insights that could be understood by all. The Presbyterians welcomed into their ranks the young revivalist Charles G. Finney, a man without a theological education or any real knowledge of the Westminister Confession. With the undeniable power of his revivalism, however, theological objections came across as scholastic nit-picking.

An active and success-oriented Christianity perfectly suited the newborn American republic. It was an age inspired by the myths of the self-made man and made rich and prosperous by the efforts of an aspiring entrepreneurs. What you had was an American church with considerable vitality. But this also lead to problems becoming oversimplified, leaving complex issues reduced to bare choice between contrasting alternatives. The Second Great Awakening produced no theologian of great stature. It may have actually given the impression that serious intellectual activity could be counterproductive of genuine piety. One observer was forced to confess, “There is an impression somewhat general that a vigorous and highly cultivated intellect is not consistent with distinguished holiness; and that those who live in the clearest sunshine of communication with God must withdraw from the bleak atmosphere of human science…that an intellectual clergyman is deficient in piety, and that an eminently pious minister is deficient in intellect.”

Elias Smith, founder of the Christian Connection, writing around 1810, “I am a Christian calling no man father or master; holding as abominable in the sight of God, everything highly esteemed among men, such as Calvinism, Arminianism, freewillism, universalism, reverend, parsons, chaplains, doctors of divinity, clergy, bands, surplices, notes, creeds, covenants, platforms.”

Or as the Methodist circuit rider, Peter Cartwright wrote, “The Presbyterians, and other Calvinistic branches of the Protestant Church, used to contend from educated ministry, for pews, for instrumental music, for a congregational or stated salaried ministry. The Methodists universally opposed these ideas; and the illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire (the American world at least), while they were lighting their matches!”

And the American church made little use of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Being inspired by the hope of a pure beginning to which return was possible-“the New Testament Church,” Americans usually viewed the intervening eighteen hundred years as a tale of aberration and corruption which was best left ignored. And this ahistorical approach flourished in a republic which took pride in its ability to put aside the decaying traditions of Europe.

But such attitudes brought into question the traditional function and significance of the traditional church. Institutional reordering became the new norm after 1800. An example of this was the formation of the “Christians” by Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) and the “Disciples” by Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). Stone and five colleagues not just left the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky in the aftermath of the Cane Ridge Revival but went on to issue a manifesto, “The Last Will and Testament of Springfield Presbytery,” which denied the validity of any church organization whatsoever. Campbell rejected the notion that the Disciples were a church or a denomination and said that he did not want to even hear the term church government: “We have no system of our own, or of others, to substitute in lieu of the reigning systems. We aim only at substituting the New Testament.” As Campbell also wrote, “Open the New Testament as if mortal man had never seen it before.”

But the hope that a New Testament polity could emerge naturally had an unsettling effect in several denominations. Defections and splintering were rampant. The Methodists whose discipline and hierarchy never pretended to be democratic, were particularly beset with defections on issues with polity. The ideal of primitivism which American democracy had accelerated, made fragile any ecclesiastical polity that did not spring from the uncoerced will of the individual.