The Hugh of St. Victor option

I have never read Rod Dreher and have no particular insight on how American conservative Christianity should respond to secularism. If Mormons look to medieval clergy for a model of forming intentional communities, however, I think a better option than Benedictine monasticism is that of the Canons Regular.

The geography, history, daily life, and mission of Canons were quite different from that of monks. Benedict of Nursia, author of the Benedictine rule, lived in the sixth century, a genuinely bad period in European history after the fall of the Roman Empire to which I won’t object applying the term “Dark Ages.” The rule of St. Benedict foresees a life of cloistered isolation and individual contemplation for its followers, and this was primarily realized in rural monasteries.

The Canons Regular usually followed the older rule of St. Augustine, however, written by a citizen of a functioning empire whose career took him to the urban centers of northern Africa and southern Europe. When canonical foundations began to flourish in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they were typically in urban centers. Canons lived in a community bound by the rule and by vows of chastity, common property, and obedience among others, but their ministry and liturgical performances were on behalf of the public, and they played a key role in transmitting education and professional skills to European towns and cities.

Ivan Ilich’s In the Vineyard of the Text is a study of the Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141), a manual for the training of new Canons. As Ilich states: “The Canon Regular edifies by his lectio.” The Latin term lectio might be simply translated as “reading,” but the use of the Latin term emphasizes that the reading of Canons Regular in the twelfth century involved different cognitive practices and occupied a different social and religious space than it does today. In contrast to monastic reading practices, the textual performance of the Canon Regular took place both before God and man, and was meant to be exemplary in a way that monastic life wasn’t. “In his studium the novice is responsible not only for the state of his soul; by the example he gives through the manner in which he studies, it is his special task to ‘edify’ the town community.” In Hugh’s view, the duty to learn was universal, not only for clergy, but the Canon had a corresponding duty to teach “by his way of life and his wisdom, by his words and his example.”

This is, I think, a model of intentional community that better fits the Mormon experience, where withdrawal from the world has always been a simultaneous part of engaging with the world: the pioneers march out of America at the same time that the Mormon Battalion is helping to expand its borders. The Word of Wisdom might be a special rule for our community, but we also expect ourselves to be exemplars of industry and sobriety. We put on our Sunday best and go to church for all to see because public performance is part of our worship and our message is urgent and the rest of the world can do what it wants but our neighbors need to see that somebody, somewhere, still cares about observing the Sabbath (or whatever it is they see us doing).

Hugh’s model of canonical life might also have particular relevance for Mormon scholars with respect to the broader church. I would like to see less reading – of texts, of documents, of scripture – in splendid isolation, governed only by academic discipline, leaving narratives problematized and meaning indefinitely postponed while the yokels in the pews are left to fend for themselves. I would instead like to see more acknowledgment of responsibility towards the community as a whole, more exemplary modeling of scholarly habits, and more pastoral edification through academic lectio.

4 comments for “The Hugh of St. Victor option

  1. I like this. I’m not comfortable with the Benedictine model (from Dreher or otherwise) and offering a positive and proven alternative is better than the simple carping that I might do.

  2. I like this Jonathan. When you say edify the town, what in practice did that mean? In particular when you say professional skills were transmitted, what did that mean and how as a model does that work for us today?

  3. Clark, first I should admit that high medieval religious orders are a bit outside my professional beat. With Canons Regular, though, you have people who are not just literate like monks, and thus with access to classic and more recent works on medicine and agriculture and other professional fields, but they’re also located in town, interacting with the lay public, and running cathedral schools. If you’re looking for translations of Greek treatises on medicine or Arabic astronomers, I’d guess you’re much more likely to get it from a canonical foundation in the center of town than from a cloister out in the countryside somewhere.

    How might that model work today? This is pure speculation, but it might suggest that a canonical model should involve both “clerical” and “professional” aspects. And again I think this is something quite familiar from LDS life, where local leadership (in both the formal and informal senses) includes both an overt religious component and an unspoken expectation of exemplary professional life. That can be problematic, but there might be some real potential there as well.

  4. I know this will sound stupid, but for some reason I’m thinking of the Father Cadfael series even though he was technically a monk. Yet he spent most of his time working with the townspeople.

    I’ll confess that while I’ve read a reasonable amount of medieval philosophy I don’t know how the day to day lives of people went.

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