Exegete, Poet and Pastor
BY The Editors
June 21-27, 2009 Issue | Posted 6/12/09 at 1:11 PM
During his general audience on June 3, Pope Benedict XVI continued his teachings on the great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages with Rabanus Maurus.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about a monk named Rabanus Maurus, a truly extraordinary figure of the Latin Church in the West.
During the era known as the High Middle Ages, he, along with Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable and Ambrose Autpert, of whom I have spoken in previous catecheses, was able to preserve contact with the great culture of the ancient scholars and the Christian fathers.
Often referred to as the praeceptor Germaniae (teacher of Germany), Rabanus Maurus was extraordinarily prolific. With his absolutely exceptional capacity for work, he contributed perhaps more than anybody else to keeping alive the theological, exegetical and spiritual culture from which subsequent centuries would draw.
Famous monastic figures like Peter Damian, Peter the Venerable and Bernard of Clairvaux make reference to him, as do a good number of the secular clergy who, in the 12th and 13th centuries, gave life to one of the most beautiful and fruitful flourishings of human thought.
Born in Mainz about the year 780, Rabanus entered the monastery at a very young age. He acquired the name of Maurus from a young man named Maurus whose noble Roman parents, according to the second book of St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, entrusted him to Abbot Benedict of Nurcia while he was still a little boy. His precocious entry into the world of Benedictine monasticism, and the fruit that he derived from it for his own human, cultural and spiritual development, provides a very interesting glimpse not only of the life of the monks and the Church, but also of society as a whole at that time, which is usually referred to as the “Carolingian” era.
Referring to these monks, or perhaps referring to himself, Rabanus Maurus wrote the following words: “There are some people who have had the good fortune of being introduced to knowledge of Scripture from a very early age (a cunabulis suis) and who have been nourished so well by the food that our holy Church offers them that they have been promoted, after an appropriate education, to the highest holy orders” (PL, 107, col 419BC).
Rabanus Maurus’ extraordinarily broad cultural background, for which he was noted, brought him to the attention of some great figures of his era. He became an adviser to princes. He was committed to working for unity within the empire and, on the wider cultural level, never refused a well-reasoned response to those who had questions for him, preferably drawn from the Bible or from the writings of the Fathers of the Church.
Despite being elected abbot, first of all, of the famous monastery of Fulda and later as archbishop of Mainz, the city of his birth, he continued his studies, demonstrating through the example of his own life that it is possible to be at the service of others without depriving oneself of adequate time for reflection, study and meditation.
Thus, Rabanus Maurus was an exegete, philosopher, poet, pastor and man of God. The Dioceses of Fulda, Mainz, Lemberg and Wroclaw venerate him as a saint or as blessed.
His works completely fill six volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina. In all probability, one of the most beautiful and well-known hymns of the Latin Church can be attributed to him: the “Veni Creator Spiritus” (Come Holy Spirit), an extraordinary summary of Christian teaching on the Holy Spirit.
Rabanus’ first theological work, in fact, was in the form of a poem, a work called “De Laudibus Sanctae Crucis,” the topic of which was the mystery of the holy cross. He conceived it in a manner that combined the conceptual content with the stimulus of a more exquisitely artistic nature, where he uses not only poetry, but also pictorial forms within the manuscript itself.
For example, he included an image of the crucified Christ — much like an icon — amid the lines of his manuscript and wrote the following: “This is the image of our Savior who, by the position of his limbs, made holy the life-giving and most sweet and most beloved form of the cross so that, believing in his name and obeying his commandments, we might obtain eternal life thanks to his passion. Therefore, every time we gaze on the cross, let us remember him who suffered for us in order to snatch us from the power of darkness, accepting death so that we might be heirs of eternal life” (Lib. 1, Fig. 1, PL 107 col 151C).
This method of combining art, intellect, heart and the senses, which comes from the East, was widely developed in the West and attained unequalled heights in illuminated manuscripts of the Bible and in other works of faith and art that flourished in Europe up to the invention of printing, and even afterwards.
In any case, this reveals in Rabanus Maurus an extraordinary awareness of the need to involve not only the mind and heart in the experience of faith, but also the senses — through other elements such as aesthetic taste and human sensitivity that help man to savor the truth with all his being: “spirit, soul and body.”
This is very important because faith is not simply thought, but something that touches our entire being. Since God became man in flesh and bone and came down to enter this tangible world of ours, we, in all the dimensions of our being, need to seek God and encounter him. In this way, the reality of God, through faith, will penetrate our being and transform it.
For this reason, Rabanus Maurus concentrated his attention, above all, on the liturgy as the synthesis of all the dimensions of our perception of reality. His insights are extraordinarily relevant for our time.
His famous Carmina, which he intended to be used above all in liturgical celebrations, has been handed down to us. Indeed, since Rabanus was above all a monk, his interest in liturgical celebration was only to be expected.
However, he did not devote himself to poetry as an end in itself, but used art, as well as every other form of knowledge, to grow deeper in knowledge of God’s word. For this reason, he strove with extreme rigor and commitment to introduce his contemporaries — especially bishops, priests and deacons — to an understanding of the profoundly theological and spiritual significance of all elements of the celebration of the liturgy.
Thus, he tried to understand and explain to others the hidden theological significances of the liturgical rites, drawing from the Bible and the tradition of the Fathers of the Church.
He did not hesitate to cite — both out of honesty and to give greater weight to his explanations — the patristic sources to which he owed his own knowledge. He continued to avail himself of these sources freely yet with careful discernment in order to continue the development of patristic thought.
At the end of the his First Epistle addressed to a fellow bishop in the Diocese of Mainz, for example, after responding to requests for clarification on the rules to follow in the exercise of pastoral responsibility, he writes: “We have written you all this just as we have deduced it from sacred Scripture and the canons of the fathers. But you, most holy man, must make your decisions as you think best for you, case by case, seeking to temper your own opinion in a way that will guarantee discretion in all things because that is the mother of all virtues” (Epistulae, I, PL 112, col 1510 C).
Thus, we can see the continuity of Christian faith, which has its beginnings in the word of God. However, this word is always a living word. It develops and is expressed in new ways, yet it is always consistent with the entire structure, the entire edifice, of our faith.
Since the word of God is an integral part of liturgical celebration, throughout his life Rabanus Maurus dedicated his greatest efforts to the word of God.
He produced appropriate exegetical explanations for nearly all the books of the Old and New Testaments with a clearly pastoral aim, which he justified in the following words: “I wrote these things ... synthesizing explanations and proposals from many others in order to offer a service to the poor reader who does not have many books at his disposal, and also to make it easy for those who are unable to enter into a deeper understanding of the significant discoveries of the fathers” (Commentariorum in Matthaeum praefatio, PL 107, col. 727D).
In fact, when commenting on biblical texts, he drew fully from the early Fathers of the Church, particularly Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great.
Because of his remarkable pastoral sensitivity, he took a special interest in the problem of penance, one of the problems of particular interest to the faithful and the sacred ministers of his time.
He compiled his Penitentiaries, as he himself called them, in which, in keeping with the sensitivities of his time, he listed sins and their corresponding penances, using, insofar as possible, some motivating factors drawn from the Bible, from the decisions of the councils, and from papal decrees. Indeed, the Carolingians used these texts in their attempts to reform the Church and society.
Works like De Disciplina Ecclesiastica and De Institutione Clericorum have a similar pastoral aim. Drawing, above all, from Augustine, Rabanus explained to the ordinary people and to the priests of his diocese the fundamental elements of our Christian faith. His writings were like small catechisms.
I wish to conclude the presentation of this great “man of the Church” by citing some of his words, which are a good reflection of his basic conviction: “Whoever is negligent in contemplation (qui vacare Deo negligit) deprives himself of a vision of God’s light. Likewise, whoever allows himself to be overtaken in an indiscreet way by worries and concerns and allows himself to be overwhelmed in his thoughts by the tumult of worldly events condemns himself to the absolute impossibility of penetrating the secrets of the invisible God” (Lib. I, PL 112, col. 1263A).
I believe Rabanus Maurus also speaks to us today. Whether immersed in the frenetic rhythms of work or on vacation, we must set aside time for God. Only then can our lives become great; they truly become life.
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