It is hard for even the most learned of historians to shake off the myths we have inherited from the early church: valiant martyrs laughing with joy as diabolical Roman magistrates inflict on their bodies the most hideous torments; heroic bishops and theologians, hammering out the basic doctrines of Christianity, suffering mightily as they defend the true faith; and early monks, enduring the most extreme of ascetic practices, bending the will of God and emperor by their prayers. After such stories, the deeds of the churches of the early middle ages, and especially those of the Merovingian and Carolingian period, might seem at best pedestrian. In place of joyous martyrs, we have Lambert of Liège, murdered in a blood feud; instead of Athanasius of Alexandria, exiled from his see five times because of his strident opposition to Arianism, we have Theodulf of Orléans, working out the nuances of the proper uses of images in Christian worship; and rather than heroic ascetics mediating between God and humanity, we have child oblates, nobles all, spending the great bulk of their day engaged in liturgical intercessions for their equally aristocratic families and patrons.
These baldest of caricatures lurk in the back of one's mind, even though all of them have been refuted time and again over the last half century: refuted but not, alas, completely replaced. Entering the lists now, to both refute and replace the last one of these on Carolingian monasticism, is Renie Choy, and her splendid new book. Choy first burst upon the scene in 2013, when she published "The Deposit of Monastic Faith: The Carolingians on the Essence of Monasticism" (in Peter D. Clarke and Charlotte Methuen, The Church on its Past: Papers Read at the 2011 Summer Meeting and the 2012 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History 49 [New York: Boydell Press, 2013], 74-86), wherein she established herself, along with Lynda Coon, Albrecht Diem, and Janneke Raaijmakers, as among the finest and most sensitive students of early medieval monasticism. Intercessory Prayer and the Monastic Ideal in the Time of the Carolingian Reforms shows just how much in theological and spiritual continuity Carolingian monks stood with their earlier, and more heroically portrayed, predecessors. In an introduction, six well-crafted chapters, and a conclusion, Choy argues that the communal intercessional prayers to which Merovingian and especially Carolingian monks dedicated much of their life do not represent a dramatic break in the history of monasticism as pure ascetic discipline and spiritual combat, much less a burden imposed on them from above; nor was this activity understood as the second part of a do-ut-des relationship between monks and their elite patrons. Rather, she shows how prayer, and especially communal prayer, was in the Carolingian period the essential task of a monk, just as it was in late antiquity.
Choy's book focuses on ritualized intercessory prayer in the eighth and ninth centuries: what Carolingian monks and nuns did, how they did it, what they thought it meant, and what they thought they accomplished. Her argument, very much simplified, goes something like this: Carolingian monasticism sought to promote the moral conversion and integrity of the individual monk, while at the same time emphasizing his existence within larger groups: his own monastery, his kingdom, and the church. These various groups to which the monk belonged were important not just in themselves, but because they supported monks and nuns in their ascetic struggle. And indeed the Carolingians--like their late antique predecessors--saw the monastic life as a struggle, a struggle that was made most clear when monks prayed, combatting distraction and temptation. Hence, to aid the monk in his battle against evil, to allow him to pray and to manifest in his life the love that binds humans to God, kings and other leaders sought to provide the monk with various aids: proper texts, for instance, wealth, and an education that would allow him to understand texts such as the Bible and the Fathers as fully as possible. All of these, however, were supplementary, because the ultimate goal of the monk was the renunciation of sin and temptation, and the best way to accomplish this was in communal prayer. Thus, intercessory prayer was not independent of the fundamental aims of the monastic life, but rather was both its expression and the most efficacious means of moral progress. This is seen most clearly in the way monks used the Psalms. While most historians and liturgists know that the number of psalms used each day increased dramatically in the Carolingian period, the result, says Choy, was not "liturgical exhaustion." Rather, building on patristic teaching that the psalms represent both the voice of Christ and the voice of the church, when a Carolingian monk or nun prayed the Office, he or she represented all those who were in the church, rich and poor, powerful and weak. Thus, when monks or nuns chanted, they prayed in the voice of Christ, of the church, and of course of themselves as well.
The Carolingians clearly saw the spiritual life as a struggle against demonic forces, but there was help at hand in the form of prayers, and especially the prayers of one's own brethren. Such prayers supported not only a monk who was struggling--this we can see in the rules of Benedict and Columbanus--but equally aided and benefitted those who were doing the actual praying for their careworn brother. Monastic prayer was a manifestation not only of love of God, but also of neighbor, because by their prayers, monks assisted each other in spiritual progress, leading all to an "enlargement of the heart," an enormous expansion of love. Monks and nuns of course prayed for king and kingdom as well. Here, Choy closely examines monastic historical writing, noting that while Merovingian and Carolingian kings might have thought that monks should pray for all royal desires to be realized, monastic authors rarely describe their prayers as an agent in a political cause. Rather, monks drew on Augustine's understanding of the two cities: kings, according to the monastic understanding of De civitate Dei, were necessary and perhaps even good, because they could control a people prone to sin and ensure their spiritual progress, and were able to offer help to the pilgrim church as it progresses along its way. Frankish kings in general, and especially the Carolingians, sought to make it clear that they were not like the kings of Babylon, under whom the Israelites labored; rather, they were successors to the righteous kings of Israel, who played a central role in the salvation of their people. Hence, kings were to be prayed for, not for victory in battle and the defeat of their enemies, but that they might govern justly, morally, and wisely.
The final chapter, "Intercession for Society," opens by asking what role Carolingian monks expected their prayers to play in their larger society. The rather disappointing answer is, as it turns out, not much (disappointing, at least, to those influenced by Vatican II). Choy notes that the monastic reforms associated with Charlemagne and Louis the Pious were part of a larger effort to produce social legislation to protect and perhaps even benefit the poor and the powerless. In this world, monasteries offered an alternative social vision, one where family, wealth, and power (factors dominating so much of Carolingian society) were renounced and denounced. In fact, Carolingian monasteries sought to make clear that they were not microcosms of secular Frankish society. Nevertheless, Frankish monks by and large did not seem generally concerned with the lower classes of their society. While they produced prayers for the use of the laity (and Choy has some very interesting material here about the use of litanies as prayers among layfolk), monastic writers did not define prayer in terms of its social contribution. Rather, ideally, prayer brought personal holiness and with it wisdom, and it was this accumulation of wisdom that was a monk's contribution to his society. However, in the Conclusion, she is able to expand more on the monastic influence in the larger world. She argues that for Carolingian monks, their own conversio--their turning from sin and the world, and embracing God and the love he represents--modeled, and in fact was incorporated into, the wider process of conversio, correctio, and reformatio of the world around them. This consciousness of the potential for the conversion and transformation of the world, along with that of the individual monk, is what lay behind the intercessory activities she examines in the book.
Benedict of Aniane (ca. 750-821) usually plays a central role in any discussion of Carolingian monasticism, and so he does in Choy's book as well. But rather than the standard portrayal of Benedict as the Carolingian Reichsabt, using his close relationship with Louis the Pious to impose the Rule of Benedict of Nursia on hundreds of unwilling monasteries across the empire, Choy's Benedict is a spiritual master, deeply concerned about aiding and guiding monks everywhere to attain to the moral conversion and triumph in the ascetic struggle their profession required. This is perhaps best seen in the second chapter of the book, "Liturgical Intercession and Monastic Theology." According to Choy, Benedict of Aniane embraced the Rule of Benedict simply because he believed it to be the best means for the moral conversion that would lead the monk to some version of the beatific vision. Choy reads all Benedict's writings--his two major monastic texts, the Concordia and the Codex regularum; the decrees of the various Aachen councils; his major theological work, the Munimenta fidei; and his liturgical compilations, the so-called Supplement to the Hadrianum sacramentary and the hymns that she ascribes to Benedict in the New Frankish Hymnal--holistically, and she finds that his work centers around the idea of love. For Benedict, love is necessary both for proper belief and for prayer: liturgical prayer kindles love in one's heart, and enlarges one's capacity to love; and in the Mass, it is love that unites humans and God, and binds them together. Here indeed is a very different understanding of Benedict. Rather than enforcing conformity and demanding obedience, Choy's Benedict persuades, urges, and implores monks across the empire to enjoy the divine love that Christianity promises. Her Benedict of Aniane merits the epithet doctor amoris.
Traditionally, this would be the place where the reviewer would offer critiques and criticism of the book at hand, and indeed, I had an occasional cavil to her interpretation of this or that text, or a quibble regarding how a particular argument was supported. Perhaps the worst thing I could say would be that she was unable to take advantage of Peter Brown's The Ransom of the Soul, which was published when her book was in press. Any other criticism would seem, in the face of this exemplary book, most ungenerous. Choy's is a book that would benefit any historian of the early middle ages, of monasticism, of church history, or of liturgy. Like the prayers of the nuns and monks which the book so perceptively examines, Intercessory Prayer and the Monastic Ideal in the Time of the Carolingian Reforms is a generous gift to our community.