It’s been a hectic week for me, so I’ve decided to skip ahead in The Dialogue on Miracles and write about one of the shorter chapters. Usually, I try to be academic on this blog, however today we will be a bit more relaxed as this is one of the stranger parts of the text. (At least it is strange to my 21st century way of thinking!) I am focusing on Book One, Chapter Twenty-Two, “Of the conversion of Dom Adolphus, bishop of Osnaburg” (pg. 31).
In this story our main character is a young man named Dom Adolphus. He was from a noble family, but in his youth he was a canon of Cologne. One day he went to Kloster Camp. (AKA Kamp Abbey, Altenkamp Abbey, Alt(en)feld Abbey, or Camp Abbey. The place sure does have a lot of names!) While there, Dom Adolphus went to mass. However, that’s not the interesting part of this chapter. The interesting part is what Dom Adolphus saw while he was praying after the service.
Once mass was over, the monks in the monastery rushed to the different altars for confession. As part of their penance the monks had to remove their habits (at least the part covering their backs!) and be whipped. And Caesarius of Heisterbach’s narrator is careful to note that monks of all ages were doing this. So the young and the elderly were whipped while “humbly confessing his sins” (pg. 31). They must have had amazing self-control to be humble and calm while they were being beaten!
Now you would think that this sight would alarm Dom Adolphus. Or if it didn’t alarm him, you would think he would be glad that he wasn’t in the monks’ position. Well, if you thought that (which is a valid way of thinking, by the way) you are very wrong. Instead of being freaked out, the sight of a bunch of monks being beaten made Dom Adolphus want to become a monk himself! It’s definitely interesting that the prospect of physical punishment made this man decide to change careers. This may be blasphemous, but it makes me wonder if Dom Adolphus was thrilled about being whipped for reasons that were not entirely holy. If that’s the case, becoming a monk is not a great way of going about to achieve those desires.
As you can probably guess from the chapter title, Dom Adolphus didn’t stay a monk for long. Soon after becoming a monk he was made bishop of Osnaburg. (Or as the area is called now, Osnabrück.) Interestingly, the text explicitly states that Dom Adolphus was “recommended both by his noble birth and his sanctity” (pg. 3) for the bishopric. However, if I had to guess, I think his noble birth probably had more to do with his new position than his sanctity!
Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles starts out in a way I’ve found quite a few older texts documenting extreme events do. It begins with the author saying how they were forced to write this, they didn’t want to do it, how they aren’t fit to do so, and to please excuse any mistakes the reader finds throughout the work. By doing so, Caesarius pushes the blame on others in case he misremembered anything as well as remaining humble about the effort he put into the text. The man is a monk after all!
The prologue also begins by saying how he was requested to write this so the stories wouldn’t be lost to history. Which, in my opinion, is a valid reason to write anything down. (Even the littlest of fragments can help future historians piece together a bigger picture.) Caesarius goes on to explain the format of the text. In that, it is written as a dialogue and divided into twelve separate books. (For a list of the book topics, I wrote that here.)
Then he gives a brief summary of what the reader can expect to find in the text. The stories include events occurring within and outside of the Cistercian Order. His reason for doing so is relatively simple. Whether or not the stories are about monks, they still provide moral instruction for the reader. Plus the stories were told to him by religious men so there is a kind of validity in that. And if there isn’t, Caesarius is quick to point out that he made absolutely nothing up, everything he’s written down is how it was told to him, and if anything he wrote down was wrong it’s the person telling him the story’s fault, not him.
There is quite a bit of deflection in the prologue.
After this, Caesarius explains his reasons for writing each topic of the book. That paragraph gives us this gem:
“Temptation holds the fourth place, because there are four who tempt us : God, the devil, the world and the flesh. The fifth place is suitable for the devil, because five is the apostate number. The sixth for simplicity, for six is the number of perfection, and simplicity is that which makes ‘the whole body full of light’ (Matt. vi. 22).”
(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 2)
I find it particularly interesting that God is included in the list regarding humanity’s temptation. I also find it interesting that five is considered a good number for Satan instead of six. Nowadays, it’s six that has demonic connotations. (Or at least the number 666.) It makes me wonder what has changed and why Caesarius did not like the number five!
Finally, the prologue ends with a few biblical bread references.
For this blog post, I’ve jumped a bit ahead in The Rule of Saint Benedict. In my last post, I covered chapter seven. I’ve decided to skip chapters eight through nineteen as they mostly detail how Divine Offices were said. While there are a lot of good insights into the praying aspect of monastic life, I’m not super interested in dissecting the offices. I may come back to those chapters in the future, but for now, I want to talk about what was and was not considered the proper way to pray.
Chapter Twenty is titled ‘Of Reverence at Prayer.’ As you might be able to tell from the title, this chapter is about praying respectfully. Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader that praying to God should be similar to making “any request to men in power” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). Meaning that you should only “do so…with humility and reverence” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God isn’t your friend so you must pray to Him “with all lowliness and purity of devotion” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God also doesn’t have all day to listen to you so your “prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,” except of course you are lucky enough to have it “prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). That being said, when praying as a community prayer should be kept short and the “all [should] rise together” at “the signal given by the Superior” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41).
If Saint Benedict was telling his monks to pray respectfully and to keep it short, was long, disrespectful prayer a problem? Admittedly I haven’t done much research into prayer during Saint Benedict’s life (he lived between the years 480 AD and 547 AD) but I have done some research into monasticism during the later medieval period. And the answer is yes. Yes, disrespectful (for lack of a better term) prayer was an issue at some monasteries. Three of my four examples weren’t exactly bothersome to God but to the people around the worshipper.
(I’ll note that the people I’ve listed as examples were Cistercians and not Benedictines. However, the monastic Order of Cistercians also follow The Rule of Saint Benedict. Ironically, it can be argued that the Cistercians are more strict about The Rule than the Benedictines!)
Caesarius of Heisterbach documents an incident where “one nun genuflected overenthusiastically…and injured her knee” (Kerr, pg. 98). As a result of this injury, the nun had to go to the infirmary. While recovering, the Virgin Mary visited her. The Virgin Mary wasn’t exactly pleased with the nun showing off and she was “reprimanded” (Kerr, pg. 98). The nun was also “warned that in the future she should be modest and discreet in her prayers” (Kerr, pg. 98).
A minor knee injury isn’t the only documented example of overenthusiastic worship. A twelfth-century nun called Ida the Gentle had a tendency to “fall into ecstatic trances after receiving the Eucharist” where she would lose “all physical control” (Kerr, pg. 153). These trances would involve Ida crying out during services, falling down, “unable to speak or move,” her face would change color, “and her eyes flashed” (Kerr, pg. 153). Despite Ida’s spiritual journey, her worshipping style was considered to be a bit too much by the nuns and priests she lived with:
“The community acknowledged that Ida’s turns were a mark of her spirituality and considered her privy to Divine Knowledge, but her behavior was nonetheless regarded as disruptive and irreverent and Ida was consequently barred from attending the Eucharist.” (Kerr, pg. 153)
Of course, not only nuns had issues with reverence at prayer. In Villers in Belgium, there was a lay brother named Arnulf who “was periodically overcome with jubilant laughter” as a result of “an inward flow of Heavenly Grace” (Kerr, pg. 153). Whenever this happened Arnulf would leave wherever he was and “run into the church to be alone” (Kerr, pg. 153). There he would ‘”dance until the wine of his drunkenness was gradually digested”‘ (Kerr, pg. 153-154). Like Ida the Gentle’s trances, Arnulf’s laughing and dancing did get him into a bit of trouble. Sometimes he found this laughing to be embarrassing, especially when people didn’t understand that it was very much “involuntary” (Kerr, pg. 154). To make matters worse for Arnulf, “some considered it evil” (Kerr, pg. 154).
Bernard of Clairvaux also had some problems when it came to reverence at prayer. However, his problems weren’t necessarily because of the way he worshipped. Instead, his problems were a consequence of “years of austerity” and by “his later years” (Kerr, pg. 154) he had completely destroyed his digestive system. But I wouldn’t necessarily consider that disrespectful worship, at least not in regards to God. What was an issue was how Bernard of Clairvaux tried to get around his tendency to vomit up his latest meal.
Instead of accepting that he was too sick to “participate fully in the liturgical day” (Kerr, pg. 154) Bernard decided the best solution was to install a basin in the choir for him to throw up into. Julie Kerr wonderfully describes the monks’ reaction to the vomiting during services as such:
“This was not, however, a satisfactory arrangement.” (Kerr, pg. 154)
Needless to say, the monks found his constant throwing up extremely gross. In the end, Bernard of Clairvaux was “compelled to withdraw from communal activities” (Kerr, pg. 154).
The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.
(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)
Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.
(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)
Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 15, 2020.)
Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.