order of saint benedict

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Sister Joan D. Chittister, O.S.B.

In Japan… the mountain is par excellence the space that stands in contrast to terrains in the plain. Symmetrical volcanic cones, thickly forested mountains, and rugged crags can everywhere be seen from the valleys and hollows, imposing their background of verticality upon the flat fields and dykes. But the distinction between yama, the mountain, and sato, the inhabited place, signals not so much a reciprocal exclusion, but rather, a season alternation and a spiritual complementarity. The gods shift regularly from one zone to another. In the spring, they descend from the mountains and become deities of the rice paddies. Then, in the autumn, they make the return journey to their “interior shrine” (okumiya), usually some topographical feature, their true home, where they are believed to have originated. A local deity (kami) thus proceeds from the mountain and, within the sacred arc, each year undertakes a journey by which it alternates between the sanctuary of the fields and the sanctuary of the mountains, at the center of a kind of itinerant domestic cult that blurs the boundary between what is within the village domain and what lies beyond it. As early as the twelfth century, the sacred dimension of the mountain solitudes had made them the preferred sites for Buddhist monastic communities, to such a degree that the character signifying “mountain” also served to designate monasteries. And although it may be true that in about the same period in the West, the brothers of the order of Saint Benedict had long since fled the world in order to establish themselves in isolated places, it was as much in order to clear the forest and exorcize its wildness by dint of human labor as the better to rise toward God through prayer. This was altogether different from the situation in Japan, where monastic life was lived in the mountains not so as to transform them but, by walking there and contemplating their sites, to experience a fusion with the sensible dimension of the landscape that constituted one of the guarantees of salvation.

A Japanese mountain is neither a space to conquer nor the seat of a disturbing otherness, so it is not really perceived as “wild,” although it may, paradoxically, become so when its vegetation is totally domesticated. In many regions of the archipelago the forests growing on primeval slopes were replaced, following World War II, by industrial plantations of native conifers, mainly Japanese cypresses and sugi cedars. For the inhabitants of the mountain villages, the old forest with its deciduous or glossy-leaved species had been a place where harmony and beauty were enhanced by the presence of deities (as well as by a store of resources that were of use to the domestic economy). However, the plantations of resinous trees that replaced it evoke nothing but disorder, sadness, and disorganization. Badly cared for, taking over fields and clearings, and having lost much of their economic value, these “black trees” growing in monotonous serried ranks are now beyond the social and technical control of those who planted them. The mountain is yama; the forest is yama; uninhabited places are yama. The same term is used in all three cases. But although it is wholly domesticated, this artificial mountain forest has become a moral and economic desert; in short, it is much more “wild” than the natural forest that it replaced.

Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture

Gaspar de Crayer (1584-1669) — Saint Benedict Receiving Totila, King of the Ostrogoths (detail), 1633.

This painting once decorated the dining hall of the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Affligem in Flanders (now Belgium), a monastery dedicated to the order of Saint Benedict (480-547). The painting shows Benedict’s influence and cleverness. Totila, the leader of the Eastern Germanic tribe of Ostrogoths, visits Benedict at his monastery in Monte Cassino in Italy. After trying to trick Benedict by sending him an officer disguised as himself, Totila begs for Benedict’s forgiveness. 

3

Pange Lingua

Written by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, this hymn is considered the most beautiful of Aquinas’ hymns and one of the great seven hymns of the Church. The rhythm of the Pange Lingua is said to have come down from a marching song of Caesar’s Legions: “Ecce, Caesar nunc triumphat qui subegit Gallias.” Besides the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, this hymn is also used on Holy Thursday. The last two stanzas make up the Tantum Ergo (Down in Adoration Falling) that is used at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.