Benedictine and (versus) Jesuit

A blessed feast of the Chair of St. Peter to you!

On this day of the patron of the Ordinariate in the U.S. and Canada, Father Hunwicke happened to post an anecdote that refers to an important characteristic, I believe, of English spirituality.

Here is the post:

“The Reverend Professor Canon Dr Eric Mascall recorded this anecdote about Dom Gregory Dix. … Dix was invited, by Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons, to lecture his clergy on Spirituality. In the ensuing discussion he was asked by an unidentified priest whether the Anglican clergy were taught Ignatian spirituality. Dix replied that it was the only kind that most of them were taught, and that this was most unfortunate, as it was a type that was very unsuitable to English people, so that most of them, having tried it without success, abandoned prayer altogether. There was a great burst of laughter and the questioner, somewhat disconcerted, sat down with the remark, ‘Father, that was a very Benedictine sentiment’. The Eminent chairman leaned across and whispered to Dom Gregory, ‘That was the Father Provincial of the Society of Jesus’.”

For a number of reasons, I’m not able to be quite as impish about “those Jesuits” as others are.  But that there are distinctions between the Benedictine and Jesuit charisms is worth thinking about, as is the fact (accepted by most people as fact) that English spirituality is much more Benedictine than Jesuit.

I offer two distinctions that might be helpful.  One is that Jesuit spirituality directs that the Divine Office be prayed in private, not in common.  I must admit that when I’ve had to endure poorly celebrated liturgies of the Divine Office, I’ve looked with wistful longing to the Jesuit ideal.  And in this age of fetishizing community, praying with the Church but doing so in private can perhaps be an occasional corrective.  But praying the Office in common is a reminder of the patristic/monastic emphasis on liturgy itself as an integral part of spirituality.  Religious orders other than the monastic orders tend to regard the Office as a means of support for their apostolates.  But monasticism regards prayer (both communal and private) as its apostolate tout court.  Somewhere in this distinction must lie the fact that, generally speaking, the Anglican patrimony has put more heart and head and soul into liturgy than other charisms and spiritualities in the west.

The other distinction is that Ignatian prayer is more about using the imagination.  I think of it as being a somewhat cinematic approach to reading Scripture.  This obviously appeals to many.  To me, though, it feels like work.  The Benedictine approach—via lectio divina—is to sit still and listen, meditate, on the words of Scripture and the liturgy, even allowing the words to distill themselves sometimes into only one word, quietly repeated again and again.  This emphasis on words rather than images must have something to do with the importance of poetry in English spirituality (and in English culture generally).  And as I’ve noted elsewhere, the Church Fathers tended to reflect this same love not only of truth but also of literary beauty in the expression of truth.  As Etienne Gilson said of the Cistercians, who contributed to the last great flowering of patristic/monastic spirituality in the west, they sacrificed everything except the art of writing well.  (It’s alright to love letters in Lent.)


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