Reading (XLVIII:2)

CHAPTER XLVIII. Of the daily manual labour
29 Mar. 29 July. 28 Nov.

From the first of October to the beginning of Lent let them apply to reading until the end of the second hour. Let Tierce be then said, and until the ninth hour let all labour at the work that is enjoined them. When the first signal for None is given, let every one break off from his work, and be ready as soon as the second signal is sounded. After their meal, let them occupy themselves in their reading, or in learning the Psalms. During Lent, let them apply themselves to reading from morning until the end of the third hour, and then, until the end of the tenth, labour at whatever is enjoined them. And in these days of Lent let each one receive a book from the library, and read it all through in order. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent. Above all, let one or two seniors be appointed to go round the Monastery, at the hours when the brethren are engaged in reading, and see that there be no slothful brother giving himself to idleness or to foolish talk, and not applying himself to his reading, so that he is thus not only useless to himself, but a distraction to others. If such a one be found (which God forbid) let him be corrected once and a second time; and if he do not amend, let him be subjected to the chastisement of the Rule, so that the rest may be afraid. And let not one brother associate with another at unseasonable hours.

Returning to the reading of the Holy Rule in course, we come today to the second part of Chapter XLVIII. Saint Benedict would have his monks be men who are well-read. In my own readings over the past few years, I have encountered great monks of the last century who, each one in his own way, exemplify the Benedictine dedication to consistent, continuous, contemplative reading. I am thinking, in particular of Blessed Placid Riccardi (1844-1915), of Blessed Ildephonse Schuster (1880-1954), and of Père Jérôme of Sept-Fons (1907-1985). A monk must read consistently, that is, with steady application, and not as a dilettante who flits from one book to another, indulging every passing fancy. A monk must read continuously, that is, daily and at regular times, without giving into the temptations that accompany acedia: temptations to put reading aside for a day. Reading is as much a part of the monastic day as the Opus Dei. A monk must read contemplatively, that is, not in a frenetic search for knowedge, nor to satisfy curiosity, nor to move onto the next book but, rather, that his heart “may be comforted, well ordered in love, enriched in every way with fuller understanding, so as to penetrate the secret revealed to us by God the Father, and by Jesus Christ, in whom the whole treasury of wisdom and knowledge is stored up ” (Colossians 2:2-3).

Père Jérôme had his own method of reading fruitfully. He read with pencil in hand, having at the ready a slip of paper on which he would note every phrase or passage that struck him. He would simply write on his paper the page on which the phrase or passage was found, the first word of the phrase or passage, and then, T for top, M for middle, or B for bottom, to indicate where on the page he would find the phrase or passage when he returned to copy it out. In this way, Père Jérôme succeeded in copying out a vast collection of texts that he used as kindling to ignite the fire of prayer. In teaching this way of reading and praying to his disciples, Père Jérôme insisted that the passages copied out be written in a clear hand.

It was known that whenever Blessed Placid Riccardi, the spiritual father of Blessed Ildephonse Schuster, was not occupied in praying or in hearing confessions, he could be found in his cell with his volumes of Patrology and with the Scriptural commentaries of Cornelius a Lapide (1567-1637), which he never tired of reading. The famous Abbot Bonifacio Oslaender (1846-1904) of Saint-Paul-Without-the-Walls acquired the commentaries of Cornelius a Lapide and gave them to the library of Farfa so that Blessed Placid Riccardi might have them close at hand for his personal use.

Blessed Ildephonse himself never wavered in his personal dedication to reading and study, even after his appointment to the See of Milan, the largest diocese in the world. He understood that reading is an essential component of Benedictine life, and that the monk who falls away from reading is, in effect, failing to live his profession according to the Holy Rule. Blessed Schuster makes a point of arguing that if Saint Benedict requires that the abbot be chosen “for the wisdom of his doctrine” (Chapter II), and that he be “learned in the Law of God, that he may know whence to bring forth new things and old” (Chapter LXIV), it stands to reason that every monk must be possessed of the same qualities, each one in the measure of his own capacity to read and to assimilate what he reads.

Blessed Ildephonse writes: “The experience of history teaches us that the downfall of various religious families has always followed upon, or been accompanied by, a falling away from studies. On the other hand, every efficacious reform has included among its foundational stones the diligent spiritual and intellectual formation of the younger generation”. This does not mean that monks are to immerse themselves in academics; it does mean that, to borrow the famous phrase of Dom Jean Leclercq, our Benedictine culture never separates the love of learning from the desire for God. For a monk, reading is ordered to union with God in Christ; reading is ordered to the knowledge that is the food of love; reading is the path by which a monk is led to the threshold of adoration, to contemplation, and to praise.

This second section of Chapter XLVIII ends with the words, “And let not one brother associate with another at unseasonable hours”. What are unseasonable hours? First of all, there are the hours of the Great Silence. Then, there are the hours set aside for lectio divina in our horarium; the intervals of time between the first bell and the beginning of the Divine Office; and insofar as possible the quarter of an hour reserved for the thanksgiving after Holy Mass.

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