The sisters recently recorded a conversation about the importance of learning in Benedictine life. The video will be posted later this year on Facebook as part of our video series. Because it is such a rich topic, I decided to share it here.
The title of this blog comes from the name of a book by Jean Leclercq, OSB, a French Benedictine monk who lived from 1911 – 1993. He spent his monastic life at Clervaux Abbey in Luxembourg. His most well-known work is entitled The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. It is a study of medieval monastic culture. In his chapter on learning, Leclercq writes that the sources of monastic life are Scripture, the patristics (a branch of theology dealing with the teachings of the church fathers), and classical literature and the liturgy is the medium through which these are received (p. 87).
One reason learning is important in Benedictine life is because we need to know the roots from which it springs and the wisdom of those who have lived this way before us. We start with the Rule of Benedict, but in his last chapter, Benedict tells us that this little Rule is only a beginning. He refers its followers to the scriptures, writings of John Cassian, The Lives of the Fathers and the Rule of Basil. This is just a representative list of what must have been read in his monasteries.
Benedict provides ample time for reading each day. Monks heard the Scriptures read at the daily office seven times a day. Meals were accompanied by reading. Benedict allotted time after the main meal to lie on one’s bed and read. The monks of his time did not all read, but their days were filled with many opportunities to meditate on the word read. As monasteries evolved, they included scriptoria where monks copied the books that were so important to their spiritual growth. Today all Benedictine monasteries have libraries, and we have access to documents and teaching online. As sisters a good portion of our leisure time is meant for reading.
A second reason learning is important in a Benedictine monastery is for service. Learning is important not just for its own sake, but in order to serve others. At Holy Wisdom Monastery, women who come to the sisters’ community are offered the opportunity to attend school and other programs to study something that will benefit their life and work in the community. I was given the opportunity to get a degree in monastic studies at St. John’s School of Theology when I was first professed. This prepared me to teach the monastic tradition to women joining the community. My study also provides me with the background to lead retreats and share the tradition with others.
Benedictine study is not just amassing head-knowledge. Benedictine learning forms both the head and the heart. Reflection on one’s experience is an important and necessary part of this formation. We ask: What does this mean in my life? How does this resonate with my experience? How does this change me? Leclercq writes “Monastic commentary [on scripture] is addressed to the whole being; its aim is to touch the heart rather than to instruct the mind.” (p. 107)
Thirdly, and perhaps most important, learning is important in Benedictine life because this life is aimed at seeking God. Self-knowledge and knowledge of God are intimately related. I cannot know God without knowing myself and vice versa. God has revealed the divine self through all of creation. So the reflective study of any part of creation, including ourselves, helps us come to know the mystery of God more deeply.
One of the Hebrew words for knowing, yada, refers to a personal and intimate knowing as between lovers. This is the kind of knowing to which Benedictines aspire. In learning about and reflecting on our relationships with our sisters, ourselves, our God, other people, God’s creation, we come to love them more deeply.
One of the things that drew me to Benedictine life was the learning and growth that it promised. After a couple of years, I joked, “I didn’t know how much I needed to grow.” The early years in monastic life are sometimes difficult because we learn things about ourselves that we might not want to acknowledge. Our notions of God will also be expanded and the learning is often hard-won because it calls for a transformation of my heart. Benedict describes this path in the prologue when he writes about the monastery as “a school for God’s service.”
In the guidance we lay down to achieve this, we hope to impose nothing harsh or burdensome. If, however, you find in it anything which seems rather strict, but which is demanded reasonably for the correction of vice or the preservation of love, do not let that frighten you into fleeing from the way of salvation; it is a way which is bound to seem narrow to start with. But, as we progress in this monastic way of life and faith, our hearts will warm to its vision, and with a love full of delight that cannot be put into words, we shall go forward on the way of God’s commandments.
Ultimately, Benedictine learning is oriented toward loving and cherishing all that God has made.