A Vision for the Portsmouth Institute

This essay makes the case for the Portsmouth Institute as a Benedictine center for Catholic thought, liturgy, and culture rooted in the three pillars of Benedictine education: “monastic humanism,” lectio divina, and monastic liturgies. It was published as the introduction to A Benedictine Education (2020, co-published by Cluny Media and the Portsmouth Institute), which presents John Henry Newman’s so-called “Benedictine Essays,” with commentary from Portsmouth Institute Executive Director Chris Fisher, scholar Margarita Mooney, and Saint Louis Abbey’s Abbot Thomas Frerking, O.S.B. A version of this essay was adapted for the Catholic Herald as “Benedictine Poetry and the Restoration of Christian Culture.”


Josef Pieper begins his magnum opus, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, as St. Thomas Aquinas might have done: with an objection. Many will argue, he says, that now (that is, post-war Europe) is not the time to talk about leisure. After all, “our hands are full and there is work for all.”[i] On the contrary, he answers, it is precisely in this period of civilizational rebuilding that we must begin by restoring the meaning of leisure.

The same argument might be made of the Benedictine life in our own present day. Now, some might argue, is not the time to retreat from the world. Now is the time to go forth, to engage, to confront.

Like with Pieper’s leisure, the reality is more complex, even paradoxical: Just as the difficult work of rebuilding of Western civilization requires a recovery of leisure as its source of vitality, so a broader evangelical engagement with secular society demands the cloister.

How does a Benedictine center such as the Portsmouth Institute fit into this cloistral project? Is it our recommendation that the only constructive activity is to leave the world and join a monastery?

Of course, we certainly would not object to an increase in vocations to the monastic life! We agree with Robert Cardinal Sarah, who wrote, “I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries…because where prayer is, there is the future.” And indeed, part of our role as a Benedictine center is to offer an encounter with the monastic life which for some young men and women may end in a religious vocation.

Yet vocations are not the only gifts which the Benedictine tradition has to offer the Church. As St. John Henry Newman traces in the two essays, “The Mission of St. Benedict and “Benedictine Schools,” the Benedictine life is marked by a certain spiritual disposition which he calls “poetic.” While this poetic disposition has its source in the cloister and is, properly speaking, Benedictine, it is not limited to the monk. Rather, the poetic disposition of the monk has long animated the spiritual vision of lay and religious Christians, including through the long “Benedictine Age” of the West which took place from roughly the eighth to the twelfth centuries. Yet the modern, technological, scientific world has lost the poetic disposition of the Benedictine. This is not only a civilizational loss, but a loss for the Christian life.

What does Newman mean by poetry? Margarita Mooney offers a more complete exploration of this question. Suffice to say for now that for Newman, poetry expresses a way of seeing the world. Newman writes of poetic perception that it

demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet; that we should feel them to be above and beyond us, that we should look up to them, and that, instead of fancying that we can comprehend them, we should take for granted that we are surrounded and comprehended by them ourselves. It implies that we understand them to be vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious; so that at best we are only forming conjectures about them, not conclusions, for the phenomena which they present admit of many explanations, and we cannot know the true one. Poetry does not address the reason, but the imagination and affections; it leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love. The vague, the uncertain, the irregular, the sudden, are among its attributes or sources.[ii]

What Newman calls poetic we might take to be the wisdom of the heart: and indeed, St. Benedict in his (very short) Rule uses the word heart, or cor in Latin, thirty-seven times (fifty-seven when its derivations are included, such as concordia, misericordia, discordia, corpus, and corporalis).[iii] Poetic perception is the receptive attitude of mind, which, formed in silence, is capable of apprehending the whole of reality, Pieper calls the ability to “steep oneself in the whole of creation.”[iv] This attitude of contemplation which informs the poetic disposition is at the heart of the Christian life.

As we seek to evangelize a post-Christian culture, as we attempt with God’s grace to transform our own lives and conform them more deeply to the Gospel, and as we work to restore a vibrant Christian culture, it is necessary that we recover a sense of the poetic. This is the work of the Portsmouth Institute: to recover the idea of Benedictine poetry as a means by which we can inspire transformative encounters with Christ. In many ways, this work of recovery and transformation is our answer to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, our attempt to provide an experience of the cloister to the world. We believe that poetic perception will enliven the spiritual lives of those Christians who we receive as monastic guests at our seminars, colloquia, and retreats. And, like Pieper seeing that leisure is essential not only for the person, but for the civilization, so too do we recognize that a recovery of the fruits of the Benedictine charism will be a leaven to our personal spiritual lives and to Christian culture.

If Newman is correct that the Benedictine disposition is essentially poetic and that Benedictine poetry is the foundation of the Christian life, Christian education, and Christian civilization, and if we believe that a poetic experience is limited not only to the monk, but available to and necessary for the lay person, then what can practically be done to inspire a recovery of poetic perception?

This statement sketches three activities or modes of being which draw on Newman’s understanding of Benedictine poetry and which provide a sort of programmatic blueprint for the activities of the Portsmouth Institute. These include monastic humanism, lectio divina, and the liturgy. While these practices are not exclusive to the Benedictines, they do find their source in monasticism. More importantly, these three activities reveal the heart of the Benedictine life and offer a means by which the Church can recover the Benedictine poetic vision. They are also easily transferable to the lay context. The recovery and promotion of monastic humanism, lectio divina, and a rich liturgical life is perhaps especially important today for Catholic schools, which will find in these activities a source of renewed vision and purpose.[v]

Monastic Humanism and Poetic Vision

In today’s STEM-centric educational environment, Catholic academic institutions often emphasize the Catholic tradition of scientific, analytical, and dialectical study. Newman sees this mode of learning exemplified by the Dominicans, whom he argues represent “Science,” a counter-part to Benedictine “Poetry.” The greatest representative of the Dominican scientific tradition is the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, a Catholic education void of the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas has no business calling itself Catholic. Further, what Newman calls the scientific tradition of the Dominicans, marked by analysis, definition, dialogue—which I will call the Dominican principle—is essential to Catholic education and the Catholic intellectual life more broadly. It is among the great pearls in the infinite treasure of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Abbot Thomas Frerking, O.S.B. provides a moving and learned reflection of the importance of the Dominican principle even in the Benedictine life. Indeed, Newman believes these two principles—Dominican science and Benedictine poetry—coexist in the life of the Church:

Instead of passing from one stage of life to another, she [the Church] has carried her youth and middle age along with her, on to her latest time. She has not changed possessions, but accumulated them, and has brought out of her treasure-house, according to the occasion, things new and old. She did not lose Benedict by finding Dominic; and she has still both Benedict and Dominic at home, though she has become the mother of Ignatius. Imagination, Science, Prudence, all are good, and she has them all. Things incompatible in nature, cöexist in her; her prose is poetical on the one hand, and philosophical on the other.

Abbot Thomas convincingly argues that these two modes of being, science and poetry, not only coexist in the life of the Church but indeed may coexist in the individual person. Abbot Thomas’s own life as Benedictine monk and Thomist philosopher is a beautiful witness to this reality.

Today it is equally important—perhaps even of prior importance—to recover what I will call the Benedictine principle in the life of the Church. The Portsmouth Institute is uniquely suited to lead that recovery. One means for recovering the poetic disposition is through what Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., calls monastic humanism.

André Gushurst-Moore, a philosopher of education and Second Head at Worth School, a Benedictine boarding school in England associated with Worth Abbey,[vi] considers that Newman’s understanding of Benedictine poetry

is very much grounded in its root sense of poiesis. The distinction Newman makes between poetry and science is essentially one between a sacramental and analytical dispositions, between the mysticism of St. Bernard (credo ut experiar) and the scholasticism of St. Anselm (credo ut intelligam). Poesis is making; man is in the image of God in being a maker of symbols through imitation of creation. The poetic instinct involves a sacramental view of reality, such that signs, symbols, and metaphors—ways of speaking of one thing in terms of another—are never only representations…. A poetic view of the world is a sacramental view; a sacramental view is a mystical view. Unless our education is founded in the sacramental sense of the created world, we shall not enable persons or the culture to see things as they really are. This, too, is humility [St. Benedict’s word for wisdom], and it will affect the way persons and communities, cities and countries interact with each other and with the natural and built environments. Nothing could be more relevant to education for today’s world.[vii]

Poetic perception enables the student to perceive things as they really are, to grasp the sacramental view of creation, and to thus become more humane, both as persons and as communities.

Such a poetic vision is the essence of monastic humanism. Monastic humanism is a “humanism wholly inspired by classical antiquity, a humanism whose touchstone is Christ crucified, risen from the dead, who by His example and His grace makes us renounce evil in order to lead us to the heavenly city.”[viii] This poetic or sacramental perception is nurtured through an encounter with literature, which is read not only as representation of reality but as revelation of truth. This is uniquely possible in a Catholic environment, where we that see Christ, through His Incarnation, “is all and is in all” (Col. 3:11). Thus, all creation, all poiesis, becomes sacramentalized, charged with God’s grace. Through this encounter with God’s grace in literature, and through an exploration into the truth, goodness, and beauty of the created order, we allow ourselves to be transformed—to experience the Benedictine vow of conversatio morum, or what the Gospels call metanoia.

For Leclercq, as for Newman, the monk sees the study of literature as primarily transformational, as it combines the monk’s desire for heaven with the humanist’s desire to “study the classics for the reader’s personal good, [and] to enable him to enrich his personality.”[ix] This means that monastic humanism is both an Incarnational and eschatological education: it contains within it the firm belief that God has revealed Himself fully to each of us in the person of Jesus Christ, that we can know the truth because it has been revealed in its fulness, and that the activity of our life and our studies has an ultimate purpose, which is union with Christ. Monastic humanism is reading literature with the purpose of revealing God’s providential grace within it, making us more aware of our humanity as well as the divine source of our humanity, thereby drawing our hearts closer to God and our salvation. The “Benedictine life shows that grammar [or literature] can—in no insignificant sense—lead to God.”[x] In this way, monastic learning is sapiential instead of sciential—it is concerned with the wisdom of the heart, as opposed to analytical knowledge of the mind. Monastic humanism is fundamentally an education in communion, in Incarnation, and in love.

The Portsmouth Institute offers such encounters with monastic humanism to students, teachers, and lifelong learners in a spirit of intellectual and contemplative retreat.

In the Portsmouth Institute’s PIETAS Summer Seminar, Catholic teachers from across the country gather for an encounter with literature, theology, and philosophy. By studying literature from Augustine to Dante to Flannery O’Connor, teachers encounter a form of Incarnational study that seeks Christ in all things, including the word in forms both sacred and profane. They experience for themselves the transformational power of literature, and by doing so, and able to offer such an experience to their own students. It is essential that Catholic educators encounter monastic humanism in order to experience firsthand the transformation power of literature. By doing so, we encourage schools to claim their Benedictine heritage as their own, offering students intellectual growth not only in critical thinking and analysis, but in poetry and wonder.

In the Portsmouth Institute’s Oxford Summer Programme, high school students from Portsmouth Abbey School and Saint Louis Priory School encounter the poetic life in the “city of dreaming spires.” By studying Shakespeare, Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis; participating in monastic liturgies and lectio divina; and wandering through the medieval streets and country landscapes, students immerse themselves in wonder, imagination and devotion. The Oxford Summer Programme complements formal curricular programs such as Portsmouth Abbey School’s Humanities Program, which is in many ways inspired by Newman’s and Leclercq’s vision of monastic education.

In our colloquia and conferences for lifelong learners, guests are similarly invited into an intellectual, spiritual and moral encounter with truth, beauty, and goodness. Through the spoken word, prayer and contemplation, private reading of literature, and hospitality among fellow attendees, guests participate in the activity of monastic humanism.

Lectio Divina and the Poetic Life

The monastic practice of lectio divina, or divine reading, is a prayerful reading of Scripture, wherein the reader listens to the Logos, the Divine Word, speaking directly to him or her. As opposed to reading to analyze, lectio divina is fundamentally poetic in that it is “the cultivation of grammar, the art of reading, which is the active process of interacting with the world, so as to read things as they are, and to see our place in the story. In the widest as well as the nearest sense, Benedictine lectio is the beginning of the encounter with the Gospel, the completed story at the heart of the universe, written in the language of the Logos, and which can be read in the sacred Name of God, YHWH, ‘I am that I am.’”[xi] Little wonder, then, that Pope Benedict XVI said that “if [lectio divina] is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church—I am convinced of it—a new spiritual springtime.”[xii]

At the heart of lectio is the desire for friendship with Christ and friendship in Christ. Those joined together in the communal act of reading Scripture draw closer to Christ and to one another. Lectio forms the heart of the reader, allowing her to open herself up to God speaking to her in her own life. Obedience—the second monastic vow—comes from the Latin obedire,to listen. In lectio, the reader listens to God speaking to him or her through Scripture, and responds by obeying His voice. Lectio forms the reader into a person who is receptive to hearing divine wisdom. Such a person is thus able to be transformed (conversatio morum)and to transform his or her community.

The Portsmouth Institute thus reserves a special place in its activities for lectio divina. It also supports the practice of lectio as it occurs in the context of Portsmouth Abbey and Saint Louis Priory schools. In these schools and at others in the English Benedictine Congregation, groups of friends bound by Scripture—groups of students, faculty, monks, and parents—practice lectio divina together. The practice of lectio divina in these schools and in the Portsmouth Institute is a fruit of a friendship with the Manquehue Apostolic Movement, a lay Benedictine movement in Santiago, Chile, which is devoted to sharing the practice of lectio divina.

Liturgy and Poetry

The intellectual, moral, and spiritual activities of a Benedictine education—its humanistic studies and its lectio divina—combine in the liturgy. The poetic disposition which Newman attributes to the Benedictine finds its most meaningful expression in the monastic liturgies: the Divine Office—the opus Dei of the monk—and Holy Mass. Thus, the liturgy is at the heart of all Portsmouth Institute activities, a reality befitting a Benedictine center for the intellectual and contemplative life. For, as Pope Benedict XVI observes,

The saying from the Rule of St. Benedict “Nothing is to be preferred to the liturgy” (43, 3) applies specifically to monasticism, but as a way of ordering priorities it is true also for the life of the Church and of every individual, for each in his own way. It may be useful here to recall that in the word “orthodoxy,” the second half, “-doxa,” does not mean idea but, rather, “glory”: it is not a matter of the right “idea” about God; rather, it is a matter of the right way of glorifying him, of responding to him. For that if the fundamental question of the man who begins to understand himself correctly: how must I encounter God? Thus, learning the right way of worshipping—orthodoxy—is the gift par excellence that is given to us by the faith.[xiii]

In the sacred liturgies, including the Divine Office and Holy Mass, the community—students, teachers, lay men and women, clergy, and religious—do what human beings are created to do: they worship God in community. In the Mass, the Divine Office, and liturgies of the Church, the community declares its purpose.

As Leclercq notes in his chapter on the “Poem of the Liturgy,” the literary pursuits of the monks were always and everywhere illuminated by “the light of the liturgy”:

It is, to begin with, the general atmosphere this literature breathed, the atmosphere of Christian optimism, of faith in the redemption, which makes Christ’s victory a constant and personal cause for hope. If each author, each reader, in a word each monk, believes he can attain to a certain experience of God, it is because he knows that this union between himself and the Lord is realized primarily in the mystery of the liturgy…. Ecclesiology and eschatology unite, consequently, as the two dominating themes of a literature born in the atmosphere of the liturgy.[xiv]

Joined together in a communion of love, the community rejoices in the love of Christ. All learning, all communal bonds, all moral development, and all spiritual purpose achieve their perfection and completion in the liturgy. From the liturgy flows meaning, informing the work of the Portsmouth Institute—its intellectual activities, its hospitality, its celebrations and its rituals—with their ultimate purpose: the love of God and neighbor. All Portsmouth Institute experiences offer these moments for liturgical prayer. The monastic horarium dictates the flow of the day, allowing space and time for celebration of the Divine Office and Holy Mass. In addition to encounters with the monastic liturgy, the Portsmouth institute promotes the study of liturgy and its central place in the Christian life. The poetic disposition is thus formed in liturgy.

* * *

In his Rule, St. Benedict describes the monastery as a schola servitii dominici, a school of the Lord’s service. Since schola is the Latin term not simply for school but for leisure, we may say that a Benedictine monastery is a place of leisure in service to Christ.

The Portsmouth Institute, as an extension of two monastic communities at Portsmouth Abbey and Saint Louis Abbey, is thus a place of leisure for students, teachers, and lifelong learners. Like the cloister itself, the Portsmouth Institute builds communities of charity, bonding participants together in a shared “love of learning and desire for God.” And it is place where one might grow in contemplation and poetic perception, where through the practices of monastic humanism, liturgy, and lectio divina, one can learn to see the presence of God’s grace in our world and in our lives. For as the dying priest says at the conclusion of George Bernanos’s A Diary of the Country Priest: “grace is everywhere.”[xv] We just need the eyes to see it.


[i] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 19.

[ii] NEWMAN UPDATE CITE

[iii] André Gushurst-Moore, Glory in All Things: Saint Benedict & Catholic Education Today (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020), p. 74.

[iv] Pieper, Leisure,p. 47.

[v] For a fuller treatment of the role of Benedictine principles in Catholic education, see Gushurst-Moore, Glory in All Things.

[vi] Worth Abbey is a member of the English Benedictine Congregation, as are Portsmouth Abbey and Saint Louis Abbey. The English Benedictine Congregation is the oldest continuously operating Benedictine congregation in the world, erected by the Holy See in 1216, and includes monastic houses for men and women in the UK, the US, Peru, and Zimbabwe.

[vii] Gushurst-More, Glory in All Things, p. 34.

[viii] Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), p. 40.

[ix] Leclercq, Love of Learning and the Desire for God, p. 133.

[x] Gushurst-More, Glory in All Things, p. 16.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Pope Benedict XVI, Address, “To Participants in the International Congress for the 40th Anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum,” September 16, 2005, https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2005/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20050916_40-dei-verbum.html.

[xiii] Pope Benedict XVI, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, ed. Michael J. Miller, trans. John Saward and Kenneth Baker (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014), p. xv.

[xiv] Leclercq, Love of Learning and the Desire for God, p. 247.

[xv] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, trans. Pamela Morris (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1987), p. 298.