A common misconception is to equate the words “monastic” and “medieval,” and modern people tend to be surprised to learn that Catholic monks still exist and that they no longer live like the collection of circus freaks in The Name of the Rose. However, a few folks have read The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton and assume monks moon away their hours thinking deep thoughts and living like Merton did in the late 1940s. A lot happened in monastic history between the Middle Ages and Merton, and a new book reminds readers that monks were around during the Enlightenment and that at least one of them wrote something that can still be edifying.
Back around the time that William Penn was founding his new Commonwealth and Sir Isaac Newton was fiddling with calculus and alchemy and thereby inhaling too many mercury fumes, Armand-Jean de Rancé was an abbot in Normandy striving to restore what he saw as true monastic observance. Rancé (1626-1700) came from a well-connected family: he was named for his godfather, Armand-Jean du Plessis, better known to history as Cardinal Richelieu. Bereft at the loss of a loved one, in his early thirties Rancé left his comfortable life and entered a Cistercian monastery.
Before long, Rancé sought to reform the Cistercians, an Order that had begun in 1098 as a reform of the Benedictines. His abbey was called La Trappe, and his reformed Cistercians became known as Trappists. A recurring theme in Benedictine history is reform, trying to get back to the original form of monastic life as outlined in the early 500s by Saint Benedict in his Holy Rule. Needless to say, reformers often meet with resistance, the obvious criticism of their efforts being, “You knew what this place was like when you chose to come here.”
Rancé studied and wrote within a long Christian monastic tradition, drawing heavily upon sources from the early Church, especially the Desert Fathers and Saint Augustine. In so doing, Rancé followed in the path of one of his heroes, that same Saint Benedict whose Rule Rancé wanted to implement to the letter among his reformed Cistercians. Well-versed in Augustine’s extensive writings, Rancé held to a staunch Augustinian pessimism about fallen human nature and its ongoing need for God’s grace. However, Rancé saw avenues for that grace through prayer, the Eucharist, and monasticism.
And for Rancé, there was monasticism, and then there was its imitation. Throughout history, each monastery has prided itself on being the only one that really gets monasticism right, and in that spirit, Rancé indulged in acrimonious controversies with monks outside La Trappe. Most famous of these quarrels was with a bookish Benedictine, Jean Mabillon. Rancé was convinced that monks should be farmers, not scholars.
Here we overlook the irony and report that in 1683, Rancé published two thick volumes of his spiritual insights, De la sainteté et des devoirs de la vie monastique. Of course, two ponderous volumes on holiness in monastic life have a limited appeal. In 1703, Jacques Marsollier, archdeacon of Uzès, decided to make Rancé’s book more accessible to Christians outside a monastery and distilled it as Rancé’s Pensées et Réflexions.
David N. Bell, author of Understanding Rancé: The Spirituality of the Abbot of La Trappe in Context (2005), has done a great service by making Rancé’s Pensées et Réflexions available again. In a slim new book published by Cistercian Publications, he has translated Marsollier’s selections from Rancé’s work. Bell’s edition divides into nearly equal halves. The first half consists of a very personal preface describing how Bell first found this old text by Rancé in the catalogue of a Paris bookseller; then follow six short chapters giving historical and theological context for Rancé’s spiritual reflections. The second half contains the first-ever English translation of Rancé’s Pensées et Réflexions. Throughout, Bell keeps his annotations to a minimum, careful not to intrude his own thoughts and reflections. Rounding things out are a brief bibliography and an index.
As Bell notes, Rancé was no mystic, and many of Rancé’s 259 aphorisms that Marsollier extracted are spiritual commonplaces. For instance, in Number 21, we read, “There are times when, for holy reasons, we must abstain from things that are good in themselves,” and in Number 36, “Since there is nothing more precious than time, there is nothing more important than using it as wisely as possible.”
Thus, anyone familiar with patristic and monastic spirituality, or even with Benjamin Franklin’s proverbs, will find here reiteration of time-worn observations about practicing integrity and coping with life’s ups and downs. Some of Rancé’s thoughts could have come right from Marcus Aurelius (“Virtue is like a great tree that puts down the deepest roots and, when it is battered by the force of the winds, grows ever stronger,” Number 102), unsurprising, given patristic and medieval Christian affinity for Stoicism.
From the time of Rancé’s contemporaries in the days of the Enlightenment, a superficial acquaintance with Rancé’s spiritual inheritance regarding God’s will has seen an Achilles’ heel. For someone who believes human beings can decide their own morality and determine their own destiny, Christianity in general and Rancé in particular appear to be endorsing mere fatalism. According to that criticism, along with passivity before the divine will goes willful ignorance.
Time and again, though, Rancé taught that Christians must co-operate with God’s grace in order to do God’s will. Prayer and penance are the means to that end, and both are themselves graces from God. Considering Rancé’s classical education and his voluminous writings, he certainly was not averse to a Christian having an alert and active mind.
Where Rancé took issue with learned Benedictines such as Mabillon was believing that scholarly work inevitably produces pride that corrodes one’s inner life. “Erudition is the reef on which humility founders,” wrote Rancé (Number 207), “and vanity, which is the most common result of study, has often inflicted a thousand mortal wounds on the hearts of scholars who, despite all their enlightenment, were not even aware of what was going wrong.”
As with most writers seeking to hand on an ancient heritage, Rancé claimed no originality. Still, his Thoughts and Reflections, as condensed by Marsollier, deserved Bell’s adroit rescuing from literary oblivion. In so doing, Bell has provided a handy volume for introducing newcomers to monastic spirituality and a refresher for seasoned students of this genre.