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On Early Medieval Monasticism for Understanding Western Patristics

Initial Disclaimer

These are some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for quite a while and have gelled as I prepare for my dissertation defense and consider my on-going course of study and research. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here; in fact, somebody in one of the fields that touches on mine may have already said this in a more lucid form (perhaps it’s lurking in de Lubac) and if so I’d love to be directed to it.

The Main Thought

Understanding early medieval monasticism, its goals and means of theological transmission, is crucial for understanding the spread, development, and impact of the study of the Church Fathers on the Western Church.  Without understanding the monks, you miss the ways that they shaped and directed how the West encountered the Fathers.

Unpacking That A Bit

The Church Fathers, those bishops and teachers who led the Church for the first five or so centuries, wrote widely and variously. That is, we have a wide variety of genres (the most common being homilies, letters, disputations [especially against heretics of various stripes], and treatises). Note the nature of the first three—these are fundamentally occasional genres; they address a particular situation in the life of a particular church although they may well have larger implications.

I debate whether to put “commentaries” on the list. Many of the commentaries that we know are not commentaries in a modern sense but, rather, are homilies grouped and arranged—sometimes within the author’s lifetime and by their hand, sometimes afterward and by another.

My central point here is that the majority of patristic writings are occasional as opposed to systematic; we lack syntheses from the early period. The closest would be some of the catechetical writings of Cyril, Ambrose, and Augustine.

The early medieval monks in their process of copying manuscripts began the important work of synthesis necessary to grasp and communicate the fullness of the occasionally oriented patristic wisdom. Key early figures who I would point to as central in this transition would be Cassiodorus, John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and Gregory the Great.

The synthetic task consists of two major components with a common source: selecting key works that lead to 1) amalgamating similar or common thoughts and emphases and 2) creating secondary works built from selections of primary works. The first may be found in the treatises and homilies of the early medieval monastics, the second in their homiliaries (taking that category broadly) that then flowed into glosses. At the root, though, is the initial selection of sources.

Picking up the second in particular, I remain convinced that most patristic wisdom in the West came through the early homiliaries, reaching fixed form in the works of Paul the Deacon’s homiliary and Smaragdus’s catena on the Gospels and Epistles. I believe that a study of existing manuscripts will bear this out. That is, few monasteries and cathedrals owned many volumes of patristic writings, rather, they may have owned a few—a treatise or two by Augustine, Gregory’s Gospel Homilies and Letters—but obtained most of their patristic learning from the homiliaries as transmitted in the Night Office and in holy reading.

Paul the Deacon’s homiliary, especially with the support of the Carolingian court, became the standard collection that formed the heart of the breviary tradition up to Vatican II. This point is argued and documented by Smetana. Thus the items included in Paul the Deacon, supplemented by Smaragdus, became the most widely distributed and most widely known and therefore the most widely cited patristic texts. Smetana argues this, IIRC, but does not marshal the data to demonstrate it.

I don’t have data to demonstrate it yet either, but knowing the ways in which Ælfric and Haymo used Paul the Deacon and Smaragdus in creating their own synthetic homilies, I do believe that it can be shown (especially given new collations of manuscript data and placement as in Godden’s recent work on Anglo-Saxon libraries).

Thus Paul the Deacon is single-handedly responsible for the selection of patristic texts that most educated members of the Western Church learned. Furthermore, Paul incorporated a number of monastic synthetics; Gregory and Bede are at the core of his homiliary. Their own selections and syntheses further concentrated the patristic streams and themes transmitted to later periods.

Both the Scholastic period and the Renaissance re-discovered certain patristic writings, working them back into the western church. Nevertheless, this rediscovery was always in relation to the Tradition’s core synthesized and transmitted by the monastics and the breviary.

The Final Pay-Off

Thus, the early medieval monastic movement is responsible for selecting and fore-grounding particular issues, themes, and authors that have come to represent the main lines of patristic thought to the modern Western Church.

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Genesis and Responsories, Cont.: A Pause for Quadragesima

Continuing yet again with our look at how the Genesis readings are contextualized and framed by the responsories with which they are paired in the early medieval monastic Night Office, we come to a not unexpected break in the interpretive flow. Liturgically, Lent does not begin on Ash Wednesday but with the First Vespers of Quadragesima so, sure enough, the first Matins of Lent hammers the Lenten themes and makes no reference whatsoever to Genesis. This too teaches us something: the responsories serve to interpret the Scriptures, yes, but their primary obligation is to the rhythms of the year. When the continuous reading of the Scripture is the most seasonally thematic part, the responsories work with them; when it’s not, it does something else.

Ecce nunc tempus acceptabile (CAO 6600)
R: Behold–now is the acceptable time; behold–now is the day of salvation. Let us commend ourselves in much patience, in much fasting, through the weapons of the righteousness of the power of God.
V: In all things let us exhibit ourselves as ministers of God that our ministry not be blamed. Through the weapons…
Sources: 2 Cor 6:2b, 4, 5, 7, 4, 3. This is a section of the appointed Epistle for the day.

Paradisi portas aperuit nobis (CAO 7348)
R: The time of fasting will open to us the gates of Paradise. Let us receive it, with prayer and supplication, that we may glory in the day of resurrection with the Lord.
V: Behold–now is the acceptable time; behold–now is the day of salvation giving no one any offense. That we may glory…
Sources: The first two sentences have no clear Scriptural parallels that I can think of; as for the rest… 2 Cor 6:2b, 4, 5, 7, 4, 3.

Emendemus in melius (CAO 6653)
R: Let us change ourselves for the better because we sinned in ignorance. Lest the day of our death overtake us suddenly, let us beseech a time of penitence and may we not be found [unready]. Harken, Lord, and have mercy for we have sinned against you.
V: We, with our fathers, have sinned, we have done injustice, we have committed iniquities. Harken, Lord…
Sources: Again, lots of Scriptural language but no compelling parallels that I can think of.

In jejunio et fletu orabant (CAO 6910)
R: In fasting and prostrations the priests prayed, saying, “Spare, Lord, spare your people, and do not give your inheritance over to destruction.”
V: Between the vestibule and the altar the priests implored. “Spare, Lord…”
Sources: Joel 2: 12a, 17b. In the Tridentine Breviary, Joel 2:17 is the Little Chapter for Vespers during Lent. According to the Office Chapter lectionary for Lent in Cod. Sang. 342 it was not the Vespers reading there—but the Little Chapter for the Night Office was Joel 2:12.

In omnibus exhibeamus nos (CAO 6920)
R: In all things let us exhibit ourselves as ministers of God with much patience that our ministry not be blamed.
V: Behold—now is the acceptable time; behold—now is the day of salvation. Let us commend ourselves in much patience. That our ministry…
Sources: 2 Cor 6:4a, 3b, 2b. This responsory contains most of the same elements as the first, merely reversing the order in the response and verse.

Abscondite eleemosynam (CAO 6012)
R: Hide your alms in the bosom of the poor and they [the alms] will pray for you to the Lord. For just as water quenches fire, so alms quench sin.
V: Honor the Lord out of your substance, and out of your first fruits give to the poor. For just as water…
Sources: I can’t locate a source for the first sentence but the second is Sir 3:33 and the verse is from Prov 3:9.

Tribularer si nescirem (CAO 7778)
R: If in tribulation I were ignorant of your mercy, Lord, you said, “I do not wish the death of the sinner, but repent and live”, the one who calls the Canaanite and tax collector to penitence.
V: But you received Peter weeping, merciful Lord. The one who calls…
Sources: Ezekiel 18:32 contains the quotation, the rest is built around gospel material, particularly the tears of Peter after the crowing of the cock in Matt 26:75|Mark 14:72|Luke 22:62.

Angelis suis mandavit de te (CAO 6087)
R: He commanded his angels concerning you, that they guard you in all of your ways; they will carry you in their hands lest you strike your foot against a stone.
V: Upon the asp and basilisk you will walk; you will tread on the lion and the dragon. They will carry you in their hands…
Sources: VgPs 90:11-13. The appearance of this psalm is fascinating as it pulls together a whole bunch of liturgical threads. While it is cited from the psalms, it actually makes its entrance through the Gospel of the Day, Matthew 4:1-11; this psalm is referred to in the debate between Jesus and the devil found there. If you then look at the data from Hesbert’s Antiphonarium Missarum Sextuplex where he pulls together the Propers from six early sources you’ll see that every single one of them from the Introit to the Tract to the Offertory to the Communion are based on this psalm.

Pater, peccavi in coelum (CAO 7362)
R: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired hands.”
V: “Do not the hired hands in my father’s house abound with bread, but here I perish from hunger? I will rise and I will go to my father and I will say to him. Make me as one of your hired hands.”
Sources: Luke 15:18b-19, 17b-18a. The repentance of the prodigal son.

Ductus est Jesus in desertum (CAO 6529)
R: Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit that he might be tested by the devil, and drawing near the Tempter said to him, “If you are the Son of God, speak that these stones may become bread.”
V: And when he had fasted for forty days and forty nights, afterward he hungered. And drawing near the Tempter said…
Sources: Matthew 4:1, 3, 2. A portion from the Gospel of the Day.

Looking over the choice of texts, we see a real confluence here between the appointed Mass texts and the Night Office; this is one of those points where the cross-over is not just notable but extensive. The Epistle, Gospel, and the Psalm featured in the Mass liturgy all feature quite heavily here. Once again we’re reminded that the different liturgies despite their different functions are interwoven—even more so at the main points of the Church Year.