From the Archives: Whittaker Chambers on St. Benedict

A year after Witness was published and two years before his articles and reviews begain appearing in a new publication called the National Review (where he would write his famous take-down of Ayn Rand), Whittaker Chambers wrote an essay about St. Benedict that was published in Commonweal. By that point, the former Communist spy had become a kind of twentieth-century Henry Adams, seeking refuge in the Middle Ages from what he regarded as the moral and political decadence of his own time. Chambers begins his Commonweal essay by remarking on how little he—and other educated Americans of his generation—had been taught about the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance: "[U]nder the sunlit skies of my boyhood, the Dark Ages were seldom mentioned: if at all, chiefly by way of contrast to the light of our progress." 

The Dark Ages were inexcusable and rather disreputable—a bad time when the machine of civilization in its matchless climb to the twentieth century had sheared a whole rank of king-pins and landed mankind in a centuries-long ditch. At best, it was a time when monks sat in unsanitary cells with a human skull before them, and copied and recopied, for lack of more fruitful employment, the tattered records of a dead antiquity. That was the Dark Ages at best, which, as anybody could see, was not far from the worst.

If a bright boy, leafing through history, asked: “How did the Dark Ages come about?” he might be told that “Rome fell!”–as if a curtain simply dropped. Boys of ten or twelve, even if bright, are seldom bright enough to say to themselves: “Surely, Rome did not fall in a day.” If a boy had asked: “But were there no great figures in the Dark Ages, like Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward, and the Kaiser?” he might well have been suspected of something like an unhealthy interest in the habits and habitats of spiders. If he had persisted and asked: “But isn’t it clear that the Dark Ages are of a piece with our age of light, that our civilization is by origin Catholic, that, in fact, we cannot understand what we have become without understanding what we came from?” he would have been suspected of something much worse than priggery—a distressing turn to popery.[...]

I was in my twenties, a young intellectual savage in college with thousands of others, before the fact slowly dawned upon me that, for a youth always under the spell of history, the history I knew was practically no history at all. It consisted of two disjointed parts—the history of Greece and Rome, with side trips to Egypt and the Fertile Crescent: and a history of the last four hundred years of Europe and America. Of what lay in between, what joined the parts and gave them continuity, and the pulse of life and breath of spirit, my ignorance was darker than any Dark Age. Less by intelligence than by the kind of sixth sense which makes us aware of objects ahead in the dark, I divined that a main land mass of the history of Western civilization loomed hidden beyond my sight.

On one coast of this land mass stood a towering figure whose influence over Western history could hardly be exaggerated: St. Benedict. Why, Chambers asks, did the rule of St. Benedict become the template for monastic life in the West? 

There had been other monastic Rules before—St. Pachomius’ and St. Basil’s, for example. St. Benedict called his the Holy Rule, setting it down and setting it apart from all others, with a consciousness of its singular authority that has led some biographers to speculate whether he had not been prompted by the Holy See to write it. Perhaps it is permissible to hazard that his authority need have proceeded from nothing more than that unwavering confidence which commonly sustains genius.

What was there in this little book that changed the world? To us, at first glance, it seems prosaic enough, even fairly obvious. That, indeed, is the heart of its inspiration. In an age of pillar saints and furiously competing athletes of the spirit, when men plunged by thousands into the desert, in a lunge toward God, and in revulsion from man, St. Benedict’s Rule brought a saving and creative sanity. Its temper was that of moderation as against excesses of zeal, of fruitful labor as against austerities pushed to the point of fruitlessness, of discipline as against enthusiasm, of continence of spirit and conduct as against incontinence.

Read the whole essay here.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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