"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

In Honour of Benedicta Ward, Mother of the Deserts of Today and Yesterday

You cannot have read in patristic literature in English today, especially monastic literature of the desert, without having come across the seemingly indefatigable translation work of Benedicta Ward. Author or editor of such collections as  The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection and
The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, she also authored the strikingly titled Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources, all of which treat prominent figures in the Christian East. Moreover, she has cooperated with such prominent Orthodox scholars as Kallistos Ware and John Chryssavgis on books such as In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers;
with the late Russian Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom on The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers; and with the brilliant translator of theological Greek, Norman Russell, on The Lives of the Desert Fathers: Historia Monachorum in Aegypto. She is, in sum, by any reckoning one of the leading scholars, editors, and translators of our time on this vast corpus of desert literature.

But Ward is a genuinely "catholic" scholar who also turned her attention to prominent medieval Western figures and periods, including a study of Bede and the Psalter as well as a monograph on The Synod of Whitby 664 AD, which synod I've seen tendentiously and anachronistically used and abused by both Anglican and Orthodox apologists in their fantastic myth-making about a supposedly (take your pick) pure "Anglican" or pure "Orthodox" practice of faith among the Angles and Celts before those big bad (take your pick) Franks/Romans/Latins came along and hijacked it after Whitby, leading to darkness and damnation that culminated, of course, in the grossly, almost violently misunderstood Anselm of Canterbury - His Life and Legacy, whom Orthodox apologists invariably, tediously, tiresomely caricature in the most lurid, fact-free ways. Ward has, doubtless, forgotten more about Anselm in this book and in her other study, Anslem of Canterbury Monastic Scholar, than any Orthodox blogger has ever bestirred him/herself to read, let alone understand (I read Anselm in the Latin original more than 20 years ago, and wouldn't dare claim to be an expert on him).

All this is just an introduction (which by no means exhausts her lengthy lists of publications) to a new Festschrift published for her. Such publications, alas, are often not best-sellers, and so publishers feel the need to recoup costs with large sticker prices, but that detracts nothing from the larger "worth" of this collection: Santha Bhattacharji and Dominic Mattos, eds., Prayer and Thought in Monastic Tradition: Essays in Honour of Benedicta Ward (Bloomsbury, 2014), 368pp.

About this book we are told:
Prayer and Thought in Monastic Tradition presents a chronological picture of the development of monastic thought and prayer from the early English Church (Bede, Adomnan) through to the 17th Century and William Law's religious community at King's Cliffe. Essays interactwith different facets of monastic life, assessing the development and contribution of figures such as Boniface, the Venerable Bede, Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux. The varying modes and outputs of the monastic life of prayer are considered, with focus on the use of different literary techniques in the creation of monastic documents, the interaction between monksand the laity, the creation of prayers and the purpose and structure of prayer in different contexts. The volume also discusses the nature of translation of classic monastic works, and the difficulties the translator faces. The highly distinguished contributors include; G.R. Evans, Sarah Foot, Henry Mayr-Harting, Brian McGuire, Henry Wansbrough and Rowan Williams.

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