As C. S. Lewis observed in The Discarded Image and elsewhere, medieval people respected authority, and not least the authority of an author. Medieval people respected books, even if they rarely read them; human nature never changing, modern people fit the same pattern. Among medieval people, medieval monks seem to be synonymous with copying manuscripts, but monks and nuns copying old books did so not to rescue and preserve Western civilization, but for their own edification. On this Saint Benedict’s Day, something worth considering is why Benedictine monks in the eleventh century at Monte Cassino spent time copying something by a Stoic who was contemporary with Saint Paul, Seneca’s essay On Providence.

In “Seneca on Personal Libraries,” a talk he gave in 2006, James V. Schall quoted from Seneca’s essay Tranquility of Mind, “Let just as many books be acquired as are enough, but none for mere show,” and “It is much better to surrender yourself to a few authors than to wander through many.” Worthy sentiments for compiling a monastic library, medieval or modern, but, as with money, determining how much is enough becomes a matter for debate.

In any case, Seneca’s essays have titles that appeal to monastic sensibilities. For example, along with writing Tranquility of Mind, he wrote A Blessed Life. However monastically appealing these titles and essays may be, Seneca’s musings about Providence, ostensibly exploring the role of God, an impersonal, even fatalistic god, seem problematic for Christians. Nevertheless, Seneca has less to say about blind fate than about suffering that builds character.

Here we consider six sentences from Seneca’s essay On Providence. While they have clear resonance for monastic minds, they can also give food for thought to people living outside a monastery. In 1962, John XXIII issued Veterum sapientia, an Apostolic Constitution declaring that theological instruction must be conducted in Latin, so here even some brief philosophical ruminations can do with a dash of Seneca’s original words. In that spirit, first we give the Latin text, known so well to a medieval monastic reader, then my own rendering into modern English.

Non quid sed quemadmodum feras interest, “Not what but in what way you bear up matters.” Seneca’s maxim leads him to contrast how fathers put their sons to work, while mothers coddle them. For Seneca, the challenges put by a father give an analogy for how God operates. Seneca sees God providentially acting like a father as head of his family, and so Benedictines could connect Seneca’s image with that of an abbot. Obedience to one’s abbot, Benedict says in Chapter 72 of his Rule, ought to be based in love. This loving obedience affects how a monk or nun bears up under the asceticism of the mundane. There is an old monastic proverb that says one can tell a lot about a monk’s or nun’s vocation by the way he or she sweeps the cloister.

Calamitas virtutis occasio est, “Calamity is an occasion for virtue.” Chapter 4 of the Benedictine Rule, drawing upon Psalm 137, urges the monk to take evil thoughts and cast them at once onto the rock that is Christ. He is then to share the problem with his spiritual director. Thus, times of temptation or crisis can become occasions for growth and maturity.

Hos itaque deus quos probat, quos amat, indurat, recognoscit, exercet, “And thus God tries those, those whom He loves; He hardens, He inspects, He trains.” In the New Testament, such testing is a sign of God’s love: “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten, so be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:19, RSV). In the Prologue of his Rule, Benedict presents the monastic life in terms of military training, and in Chapter 72, on the good zeal of monks, he says that monks are to exercise, that is train or discipline, the most fervent love.

Love that must be disciplined defies emotional self-indulgence. Benedict understood that in the demands of everyday life in community, doing what is most loving means not the misplaced charity of enabling, or even perpetually smiling and being nice. While love needs reining in, so do other impulses. Benedict indicates the severe strains monastic life puts on love of neighbor, and those daily trials explain why in Chapter 70 Benedict tells his monks not to hit one another.

Numquam virtutis molle documentum est, “Never is proof of virtue soft.” Here Seneca refers to the Germanic tribes then living along the Danube, and he commends their austere way of life. Benedict’s monastery at Monte Cassino had brothers who were ethnic Goths; the Teutonic element has a long tradition in the Benedictine heritage. In the Prologue of his Rule, Benedict exhorts a monk not to be deterred by the constricted beginning to the monastic life, since such constraints are part of conversion. Likewise, in Chapter 58, on admitting novices, Benedict stipulates that a candidate for vows be tested to see whether he is eager for prayer, obedience, and menial chores.

Non est arbor solida nec fortis nisi in quam frequens ventus incursat, “A tree is not firm nor strong unless a frequent wind strike it.” From the Gospel (Mt 7:24-25), quoted in the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule, monks learn that winds cannot sway a house built upon rock, an apt image for Monte Cassino. Elsewhere in the Gospel (Mt 12:33; Lk 6:44), not quoted in the Rule, monks learn that a tree is known by its fruit.

Within the context of the Vestal Virgins offering sacrifices during the night while the sinful sleep, Seneca says, Labor optimos citat, “Work calls up the best.” Medieval writers tended to think of the Vestal Virgins as analogous to religious sisters, so this passage would have been evocative of nuns praying Vigils. Moreover, this scene recalls the Benedictine motto of ora et labora, “pray and work.”

Christians seeking how to be in the world but not of it ought to accept any help offered in good will. Medieval Christians were grateful to find truth and virtue even in classical authors. For medieval Benedictines, Seneca had the prestige of an ancient author. From his Stoic essay on Providence, they discovered corroboration of their Rule’s assurance that the first length of the path of the spiritual life will be narrow and difficult, but the grace of persevering can offer wider vistas and a mellowing serenity that encourages pressing on towards everlasting life.