+cspbAssociation of Benedictine Colleges and Universities


Benedictines and Higher Education
American Style, Part I

by Hilary Thimmesh OSB


My topic is Benedictine higher education but I want to begin by examining Ignatius of Loyola and his provisions for Jesuit education. The advantage of this approach is that it provides a point of comparison for Benedictine education. It also sets the mission of our Benedictine colleges and schools of theology in the larger context of Catho lic education. In the end it will help us to describe some of the changes and some of the challenges that American Benedictines face in post-secondary education today.

To begin then with Loyola. For the sake of brevity I must omit the fascinating story of his spiritual conversion at the age of thirty and simply say that in pursuit of his religious calling he undertook studies at the University of Paris in 1528. He was a student there for seven years at a high point in that great university's history. He took h is master of arts degree at the age of forty-two and completed his university education with two years of theology under the Dominicans, already long renowned for their learning and intellectual brilliance.

In short, although he came late to formal education, Ignatius of Loyola was a university man. It was a group of his fellow students at Paris who joined him to form the Society of Jesus, and when he set about drawing up the Constitutions for the Society some ten years after leaving Paris he had no doubt that his followers would need to be learned men and that education should be one of their missions.

Part IV of the Constitutions describes how this is to be done. In the words of a contemporary Jesuit historian,

Ignatius devised a series of successive, integrated studies from Latin grammar up through theology.... He was large and liberal enough to cling to what was best in medieval education, especially philosophy and theology. He discarded what was obsolete, a training in philosophy or theology grown excessively and needlessly subtle.... Finally, he had vision enough to absorb the best elements in the educational theory of his day.

He was an admirer of Thomas Aquinas who, we might recall, had his pre-university education at Monte Cassino and he gave pride of place to the study of theology as the chief source of the well-reasoned Catholic outlook, and the most efficacious motive of vigorous Christian living. He wanted education to be both intellectual and moral so he urged his professors to take a personal interest in their students and he established a program of religious observance for Jesuit and lay students alike. It is worthy of note, however, that he set a limit on the time to be devoted to religious practices, cautioned against an asceticism that might conflict with rigorous study, and prohibited either teachers or students from accepting pastoral commitments, which, in his words, much distract from study and interfere with the attainment of the aim envisaged in these colleges for the service of God.

Ignatius died in 1556. In the last ten years of his life he had approved opening or taking over the direction of thirty-nine colleges and universities. In 1586 his followers drew up the famed Ratio Studiorum that embodied the Jesuit philosophy of education in a plan of studies to be followed at hundreds of Jesuit colleges and universities in the next three centuries and widely imitated by Catholic schools under other auspices, Benedictines among them, until well into the 20th century. By a judicious blend of medieval humanism, scholastic philosophy and theology, and the new learning of the Renaissance, all strongly oriented toward the service of God and the Church, Ignatius in effect defined Catholic education in the post-Reformation world.

A thousand years before Ignatius, Benedict of Nursia went to Rome as a young man to study the liberal arts but after a time broke off his studies out of concern for his spiritual welfare. He retired to religious solitude, preferring, in the words of his biographer, Gregory the Great, to be scienter nescius et sapienter indoctus, knowingly ignorant and wisely unlearned. A 20th century Benedictine scholar, Dom Jean Leclercq, who has written the authoritative work on medieval monastic learning, says that "All Benedictine tradition was to be made in the image of St. Benedict's life." He comments: "According to St. Benedict, monastic life is entirely disinterested; its reason for existing is to further the salvation of the monk, his search for God, and not for any practical or social end" (The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.)

Far from preparing monks to be teachers, then, or monasteries to conduct schools, not to mention colleges or universities, the founder of the Benedictines would seem at first glance to rule out education as a Benedictine mission. I say at first glance because quite apart from the subsequent history of the Order, a reading of the Rule itself leads us to conclude that Benedict was neither unlearned nor opposed to learning for his followers in those studies that could enrich their vocation.

It is true that schools are not mentioned in the Rule, nor is any other kind of mission to the larger church or secular society. In this sense it is quite accurate to describe Benedict's version of monastic life as disinterested. However the Rule includes a reference to assignments that concern the world (Chap. 64) and give directions about prayer for monks who work at a distance from the monastery (Chap. 50). While these provisions may refer only to unavoidable business outside the cloister, a note in Gregory's Dialogues tells us that some of the brothers at Monte Cassino we re sent by Benedict to give spiritual instruction to a neighboring community of religious women (Chap. 19), and it does not seem farfetched to conclude that from the first the disinterestedness of the Rule in any particular mission allowed individual communities the freedom to undertake various apostolic works in harmony with their monastic calling.

That monasteries would provide schooling at least for their own candidates who entered as children or illiterate adults is implied by the important place of reading in monastic observance. Perhaps this is why a stylus and writing tablets are among the personal articles regarded as necessities (Chap. 55). The monastery is to have a collection of books large enough to issue every brother his own reading matter for Lent (Chap. 48). Meditative reading, lectio divina, is accorded a generous three to four hours a day throughout the year (Chap. 48) with more for those who prefer reading to a siesta. From the start, then, Benedictine life required a certain level of disciplined intellectual activity. It assumed familiarity with a sizable body of sacred literature and by implication knowledge of the classical authors whose study provided a foundation in grammar. Remember that grammar had a larger meaning for the ancients than it has for us. In Leclercq's words grammar was the first stage and the foundation of general culture, and the two terms grammaticus and litteratus designate "one who knows how to read," that is, not only how to decipher the letters, but to understand the texts.

Given this orientation to the world of letters, it is not surprising that in the centuries following Benedict, monasteries became centers of literary culture, preserving the ancient texts in new copies and composing a body of liturgical texts, homilies, commentaries, and chronicles of their times. Nor it is surprising that schools became attached to well-established monastic communities, particularly as a result of the Carolingian renaissance in the 9th century. Without drawing up guidelines for education under monastic auspices, Benedict had provided for a style of religious life that lent itself to teaching children by drawing on the monks' own foundation in the liberal arts, forming them morally and religiously at the same time, and fostering the literary and theological interests of individual monks. We know the names of the most illustrious Bede, Anselm, Bernard and medieval historians single out many others in the Benedictine centuries, roughly the 7th to the 12th, when it can be said that monastic teachers were the schoolmasters of Europe. It is from those centuries that we derive the tradition of Benedictine education.

Having said this, we need to note that the medieval monastic schools did not develop into universities or produce a class of speculative scholars. Why this is so is worth looking into, for it tells us something about tensions inherent in monastic life which have a bearing on Benedictine higher education in our day. A passage in the monk Eadmer's life of St. Anselm cited by R. W. Southern is instructive. Anselm was wrestling with how to prove the existence of God and Eadmer says that his thoughts took away his appetite for food and drink, and what distressed him more disturbed the attention which he should have paid to the morning Office. He began to think that his intellectual struggle was a temptation from the devil but he couldn't still him mind until at last one night during vigils the grace of God shone in his heart, and the thing he sought became clear, and filled his whole being with the greatest joy and exaltation.

Commenting on this passage, Southern notes: Personal dilemmas of this kind cannot have been uncommon, especially when new and challenging ideas were in the air, but they subjected the Benedictine Rule to a strain for which it was not adapted. He adds that by contrast an atmosphere of intellectual effort and strife was to be the very condition of life of the Dominicans whose constitution laid down that the friars were to be intent on study...; to stay up at night if they wished to study; and to make their church services brief so that this aim should not be impeded. This feverish spirit was quite foreign to the Benedictine monasteries where study was incidental to the duties of a long day.

This assessment comes from a scholar who rates the Benedictine contribution to European civilization very high. It accords with Jean Leclercq's observation that monastic culture in the 11th and 12th centuries was increasingly personal and creative but more literary than speculative, concerned more with experience than with abstract thought, more with esthetics than with dialectics. He sees this culture as distinct in its time from both nascent scholasticism and a new current of secular humanism. This monastic humanism, as he calls it, read the authors of classical antiquity in an explicitly Christian framework, moralizing them as necessary. It valued the whole quality of life, the prose of daily work and mutual service as well as the poetry of graceful writing and psalmody and contemplation. It integrated the life of the mind with the steady and demanding round of work and prayer that the Rule of Benedict calls a school of the Lord's service.

Continued in Part II.

Belmont Abbey College's "Founder's Day Symposium," 22 April 1992.


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