Printer Friendly

Paz hit displese ofte: monastic obedience in patience.

Abstract: The Patience poet's choice of Jonah as his example of an impatient figure from Scripture has long puzzled scholars, given that Jonah is best known for his disobedience. Assuming that the poet was writing within a monastic context, however, the implicit link between patience, poverty, and obedience becomes clearer through the discussions of those virtues in the Rule of Benedict and the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux. Within that context, the poet retells the story of Jonah in a way that frames Jonah as a stereotypical fugitive monk whose disobedience is a direct result of his lack of patience.


The anonymous fourteenth-century Middle English poem Patience spends just fifty-six lines introducing its subject, summarizing and commenting on the basic Scriptures on the virtue of patience, and setting up the negative example of the highly impatient Jonah, a jump that has startled many a scholar. After all, Jonah is best known for refusing to go to Nineveh to prophesy its doom, spending three days in the belly of a whale receiving an attitude adjustment, and having a temper tantrum when Nineveh repented and God relented. Yet the opening lines of Patience provide a great deal more context than might be obvious without examining the roles of patience, poverty, and obedience in medieval monastic life, as seen in the Rule of Benedict and such interpretive works as Bernard of Clairvaux's De praecepto et dispensatione and De gradibus humilitate et superbiae. (1) Once this context is clear, viewing the Jonah section through a Bernardine lens against the backdrop of the Rule of Benedict shows why Jonah, prefiguring the instability of a fugitive monk, works as the negative exemplar in Patience and how the poet ties Jonah's disobedience to his lack of patience.

The Frame of Patience

The four poems from MS Cotton Nero A.x. (Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), commonly considered to be the work of one poet, reveal an individual steeped in Scripture and eager to remind his audience of their obligations to God. (2) An amazingly skilled wordsmith and a man of wide-ranging interests, the poet chooses to employ his talent in the service of its Source. His favorite passages seem to be Matt. 5:8 and Psalms 15 and 24, all of which relate the necessity of a pure heart, and he teaches primarily by negative example. Adam Brooke Davis observes that the poet's surviving poems display the poet's interest in teaching and learning as activities (268), but our understanding of the poems is impoverished if we do not consider precisely what they attempt to teach. Perhaps the best summary of this overarching concern is the one verse that appears in Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness and can also apply to Gawain: "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8; Pearl 675-84; Cleanness 27-8; Patience 23-4).

Patience, a poetic homily, expands the specific sense of patience listed in the eighth Beatitude ("Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake") to the more general notion of long-suffering, with which he begins by explaining why it is a virtue or "poynt": "When heuy herttes ben hurt wyth hepyng older dies, / Suffraunce may aswagen hem and pe swelme lepe, / For ho quelles vche a qued and quenches malyce" [When heavy hearts are hurt by hateful deed / Longsuffering may assuage them and soothe the smart, / For she mends all things marred, and mitigates malice] (2-4). His text, which he "herde on a halyday, at a hyze masse" (9), is a translation of the Beatitudes. (3) Providing all eight Beatitudes in lines 13-28 highlights the fact that the first and last blessings, of those "pat han in hert pouerte" and those "pat con her hert stere" (13, 27), promise the same reward: "hores is pe heuen-ryche" (14, 28). Since the narrator is poor by necessity, however, he declares his intent to have patience as well because poverty and patience make a good team, are two of a kind, and "arn nedes playferes" [playfellows] (35-45). The poet also discusses the pragmatic necessity of patience: anger at adversity does not help anything, so patient endurance in suffering is more practical as well as more praiseworthy, especially if that suffering is due to a "lege lorde" commanding a difficult task like travelling to Rome (4-8, 46-56). This cheerful resignation stands in contrast to the attitude of Jonah, whose tale the poet humorously retells in lines 57-523.

The conclusion of Patience, which closes the homiletic frame by returning to the theme of patient suffering and the idea that "pacience is a nobel point, paz hit displese oft" (531), is suspiciously tidy. Not only is the transition from God's voice to the narrator's unclear, as Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron note (206), but the last four lines do little more than restate the major points of the first fifty-six lines. As a homily, the poem does need some sort of conclusion, so the poet cannot simply leave the audience hanging as the book of Jonah does; but far more is clearly at work in the example of Jonah than appears in the conclusion of the poem. By refusing to restate any points he has not already made explicitly, the poet requires the audience to work out the implications. We cannot know whether Jonah has learned his lesson, but we do not need to--the purpose of the story, both in Scripture and in the poem, is to prompt the audience to apply its lessons to everyday life (cf. Davis 274; Benson 153-8).

The frame makes sense enough when examined on its own, needing little in the way of secondary explication, and Charles Moorman recognizes the importance of the frame to the homiletic structure of the poem (91). However, Lorraine Kochanske Stock notes that most Patience scholarship focuses on the Jonah section not only because it forms the bulk of the poem but also because it is such a puzzling, unexpected choice (163). The poet definitely makes the exemplar work; C. David Benson, for example, argues that the comical tone not only contrasts Jonah's impatience with God's infinite patience but also forces the reader to confront his or her own impatience and need for repentance (147-61). But why did the poet choose Jonah in the first place? Scholars have noted a wide range of possible exegetical influences on the poet and sources for the poem, from Gregory the Great to the Victorines to Bernard (Aaron; Astell; Baleno; Kean; Walls), so theological and exegetical works involving Jonah would be a logical place to begin looking for an explanation. Yet the most obvious connection for Jonah still appears to be the vice of disobedience; Philip of Harveng, for example, uses Jonah as an example of disobedience in his treatise On Silence (Gehl 171-6). J. J. Anderson argues that the discussion of patience and poverty is needed to transition from the Beatitudes to Jonah in a way that an audience impoverished by the Black Death could understand and apply the lessons inherent in the Jonah section (287), but there is one potential audience for whom both poverty and obedience would have serious and immediate relevance: religious, especially monks. Examining both patience and obedience in that context may help to make sense of the jump from longsuffering and patient endurance of poverty to patient obedience toward superiors and Jonah's impatient disobedience that comes in lines 46-56.

Patience in the Rule of Benedict

Any examination of patience in medieval monastic life must begin with the foundation of almost every monastic order in Europe at the time, the Rule of Benedict. Benedict mentions the exercise of patience in adversity only six times in the Rule, but he always does so in a way that highlights its importance. A key statement for Patience is the last sentence of the Rule's preface:

   Processu vero conversationis et fidei, dilatato corde inenarrabili
   dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei, utab ipsius
   numquam magisterio discedentes, in eius doctrinam usque ad mortem
   in monasterio perseverantes, passionibus Christi per patientiam
   participemur, ut et regno eius mereamur esse consortes.

   [But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run
   the way of God's commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable
   sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and
   persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by
   patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to
   be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.]

Benedict lists the patient endurance of injury as one of the instruments of good works found in Scripture (4), and of his twelve steps of humility, the fourth is "if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay, even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up" (7). Patient persistence is one of the few qualifications for entry as a novice (58), and patience with the sick is a sign of virtuous zeal (36, 72).

Bernard of Clairvaux was one of Benedict's most important commentators from the twelfth century and into the late Middle Ages, and his Sententiae offer a number of reflections on the importance of patience. With humility and charity, patience is one of the virtues by which unity is preserved (1.32, 3.38), and with wisdom and charity, it is one of the weapons of the faithful (2.86). Allegorically, it is one of the gates of heaven and the rampart of Zion (2.41, 3.24). Christ's suffering is our chief example, and by emulating His patience and drinking from the cup of His suffering, we can achieve salvation, beatitude, and eternal life (Sent. 3.108, 119; Sermones xvii in Ps. 90 "Qui habitat" [QH] 17). (4) This patient endurance, he adds elsewhere, should be combined with contemplation, so that those who bear Christ in their body understand their honor (QH 7.4; cf. 1 Cor. 6:20).

Patience for Bernard, as evidently for Benedict, is not the highest of the virtues. For example, in De conversione ad clericos, Bernard distinguishes between the pacified man "who repays good for good ... and wishes harm to no one" the patient man who is "even able to bear with the man who hurts him" and the peacemaker (18.31). Patient endurance leads to salvation, but peacemaking is still preferable (Sent. 2.186). Bernard also subordinates patience to obedience in one discussion and both obedience and patience to wisdom in another (Sent. 3.126; Sermones de diversis [SD] 2.4). Still, he lists patience among the eight virtues that defend the soul and among the treasures of the brethren, and he argues that patience is the chief display of wisdom (Sent. 3.91, 110, 126). The combination of patience and peacemaking is all the more important for prelates who must rule the wicked as well as the innocent, as Bernard warns the newly elected archbishop of Rouen (Epistolae 27). He also frequently pairs patience with charity, greatest of the theological virtues, when listing virtues that support obedience (Sent. 3.53, 121).

However, Bernard notes that impatience is good, even praiseworthy, when its object is persistent sin in ourselves or injustice in others. "Who among us," he asks in De conversione, "is so strong and so patient that if he should happen to see his flesh suddenly becoming white as if sick with leprosy ... [he] could remain calm and give thanks to his Maker?" (3.4). As leprosy is to the skin, so is sin to the soul: the cure may be hard and slow, but there is no reason to put up with a curable disease (3.4-4.5, 5.7). He also writes to Pope Eugene III, then so swamped with judging frivolous appellate lawsuits that his other pontifical duties were hampered, "Sometimes it is more commendable to be impatient.... It is not the virtue of patience to permit yourself to be enslaved when you can be free" especially when slavery only serves the vices of others and does not win souls for Christ (De consideratione 1.3.4-1.4.5). Similarly, he writes to a monk following a fugitive abbot, "It is in the nature of true patience to suffer and act against self-will, but not in excess of what is lawful" (Epistolae 7.11). As the Patience poet emphasizes in God's conversations with Jonah, Bernard notes that God is patient with sinners and thus deserves our love (Sent. 2.161, 3.113; cf. Benson 153-8), and we ought to be merciful to ourselves and to others once we have begun the pursuit of righteousness (Sent. 3.3; De cony. 16.29); but we should not tolerate habitual sin in ourselves or allow others to make us complicit in their crimes.

Bernard on Patience, Poverty, and Obedience

Poverty, says Bernard, is "the foundation of the other virtues" as the first Beatitude (3.126). The Patience poet does not distinguish between poverty of spirit and temporal poverty in lines 35-45, as Bernard often does (e.g. Sent. 2.87), but the narrator does speak of his condition as one of necessary poverty (Patience 35), which Bernard states should be patiently endured by the poor in spirit (Sent. 3.2). Bernard sees sudden poverty, especially after a period of prosperity, as a prime test of patience. He warns Eugene that "it is the sign of a most perverse heart if you find yourself impatient in your own troubles and without compassion for those of others" (De cons. 2.12.21). Murmuring against God in such trials is a sign of idolizing riches, but refraining from grumbling is a sign of a baptized tongue (Sent. 3.34, 87, 108). Voluntary poverty, however, is better still (3.2). In a letter that might have influenced the description of the crew's attempt to lighten the boat and save Jonah by throwing their luxuries overboard (Patience 157-60), Bernard heaps praises on Suger, the famous abbot of St.-Denis, for reforms above and beyond what anyone had suggested to him, including the rejection of temporal power and wealth (Epistolae 78). Likewise, in his treatises and sermons, Bernard frequently harangues those clerics who use the Church for personal gain, and he notes in another letter that "whether a secular person should hold property or not is a matter of indifference; but for a monk it is wholly evil, for he is not permitted to hold any property at all" (7.4).

The poet also notes that grumbling about poverty amends nothing (Patience 50). This statement echoes Benedict's chapter on obedience, which states that a monk who obeys grudgingly "acquireth no reward; rather he incurreth the penalty of murmurers" (RB 5). It also reflects Bernard's observations in his sermon "On Obedience, Patience, and Wisdom" about the inevitability of suffering and the difference between willing and unwilling obedience (SD 2.1-3). For Bernard, poverty and obedience work together to refine the soul. He states in the Sententiae that "when the word of God--or a commitment to life under a rule--is situated in the heart of an honestly poor, perfectly obedient person between the harshness of poverty and the strong discipline of obedience, it elicits keen perceptions of divine and spiritual understanding ... with which it refreshes the souls of the faithful" (3.119). Obedience and spiritual poverty, combined with penance, also make up the spiritual house of God, and obedience is upheld by humility, contempt for the world, and patience (3.53; cf. 3.126). So the poet's jump in lines 45-56 from patient poverty to patient obedience makes perfect sense:

   Thus pouerte and pacyence arn nedes playferes.
   Sypen I am sette with hem samen suffer me byhoues;

   zif me be dyzt a destine due to haue,
   What dowes me pe dedayn, oper dispit make?
   [Thus Poverty and Patience are playfellows, I find;
   Since I am beset by them both, it behooves me to suffer.

   If a destiny is dealt me and duly comes round,
   What avail my vexation and venting of spleen?] (45-6, 49-50)

Drawing on Benedict's definition of acceptable obedience as that which is quick, cheerful, and uncomplaining (RB 5), Bernard holds that true obedience cannot exist without patience (Sent. 3.87, 121). He notes in "On Obedience, Patience, and Wisdom" that "it is not the obedience of lepers that is commended to us, nor the patience of dogs"; we pray that God's will may be done on earth as it is in heaven because heavenly obedience is voluntary and thus more blessed (SD 2.3). Yet as wholesome and necessary as both patience and obedience are, they are "most unpalatable" unless seasoned with the wisdom that comes from justice, cheerfulness, and humility (2.4-5)--or, as the poet puts it, "Pacience is a poynt, paz hit displese oft" (Patience 1). Bernard states that obedience and patience undertaken pridefully, grudgingly, or for reasons other than the sake of righteousness are as displeasing to God as they are to us (SD 2.5). (5) Moreover, obedience requires both knowledge of the truth and love of the good to avoid mistaking good for evil and vice versa (De praecepto 14.35-41).

One aspect of obedience that the Patience poet mentions is the possibility of being sent by a superior to Rome (51-6). Advising Eugene about the sort of men who should make up the Curia in De consideratione, Bernard mentions that good men are obedient in such errands: "Whenever necessity arises and they are commanded to be ambassadors for Christ, they do not refuse; but they do not strive for such office when they are not commanded to do so. They do not obstinately reject what they modestly refuse" (4.4.12). He also notes to a wayward monk that "if under obedience I am absent in body from Citeaux, yet by a fellow devotion, by a life in all things the same, I am always there in spirit" (Epistolae 7.16). This kind of patient obedience also covers the possibility that circumstances could make such a journey difficult or impossible. Benedict recommends that anyone who cannot fulfill a command explain the situation to the abbot calmly and humbly, but should the abbot insist, the monk must do his best and assume that the abbot intends his good (RB 68). As the Patience poet notes, however, Benedict commands several times that "if anyone is found to be obstinate, let him be punished" (RB 71).

Fugitive Monks and De praecepto et dispensatione

Because of the number of wayward monks who roamed the countryside in Benedict's day, one of the vows he enjoins in his Rule is stability; monks were not to leave the monastery without the abbot's permission, and the abbot was not to admit monks who had fled from other monasteries if he was familiar with the monastery they had left (RB 1, 58, 60-61). This fact did not prevent monks from fleeing when they could not resolve disputes with their abbots, however. The collection of Bernard's surviving letters contains numerous examples of his attempts to persuade fugitive monks (and fugitive abbots!) to return to their monasteries and resolve their problems in accordance with Scripture and the Rule. Sometimes, as when Bernard's nephew Robert left Clairvaux for Cluny, the source of unrest was within the monk, making him unwilling or unable to adhere to the custom of an order that seemed too strict (Epistolae 1). In other cases, the problem was genuinely with the abbot, as when a monk of Flay fled to Clairvaux because Flay's abbot was exploiting his medical skills (67-8). An abbot's honest attempt at reform might provoke the wrath of the whole community, and a monk's genuine desire for a stricter life might lead him astray for a time; both happened at St. Nicholas-aux-Bois (87-8). Sometimes the truth was clear to none but God.

Benedict gives specific criteria for the character of an abbot in his Rule, as well as repeated admonitions to remember that the abbot has to account to God for his own actions as well as those of his monks (RB 2, 64). Unfortunately, many abbots remembered only the statement that monks should obey the abbot's commands as if they were God's and gave orders that, at least in the monks' opinion, did not align with the Rule. In one such case, two monks from Saint-Pere-en-Valee near Chartres, attempting to feel out the limits of their obedience to an abbot they did not like, pestered Bernard with letters until he finally responded through the proper channels with the treatise De praecepto et dispensatione. This explication of the nature of obedience and of precepts provides vital background for the portrayal of Jonah in Patience, since Jonah believes he is justified in refusing to obey patiently when God shows mercy to Nineveh.

In De praecepto, Bernard explains to the dissatisfied monks that while their vow of obedience is made according to the Rule, not at the pleasure of the abbot or terminable with his death, they need to distinguish carefully between precepts that are voluntary (not vowed) and those that are necessary (vowed), as well as discerning among necessities that are stable (to be changed only by superiors), firm (to be changed only by God), and fixed (completely unchangeable) (1.1-5.11, 18.55). Virtues have fixed necessity because they are always good and should never be rejected (3.7). The necessity of obedience and the seriousness of disobedience depends on whether the command is light (no talking) or serious (no murder), and some commands that may safely be omitted bring reward if obeyed, while others cannot be omitted but bring no reward if obeyed; perfect obedience both prioritizes properly and receives commands in the spirit in which they are given (6.12-8-17, 15.42). The abbot is not above the Rule and cannot simply follow his own will, but he should also be guided by the higher rule of charity and dispense with the Rule when charity requires it (4.9). God's precepts are always more important than those of any man, including the abbot, and when the two are in conflict, a monk should always follow God's laws first (9.19-22). However, questioning every order is a sign of imperfection, and despairing over the impossibility of keeping every precept shows that one does not understand God's mercy (9.22-13.32). One breaks the vow of obedience only by impenitence, so "it is senseless for us who have professed this Rule to complain of impossibility; to pretend we cannot help but sin; that the just commands of religious superiors come not from God, but only from men, and may therefore be set aside" (13.34). With regard to stability, these facts mean that while one cannot be obligated to stay in an ill-regulated house where his soul is in genuine danger, the vow "rules out henceforth any feeble relapse, angry departure, aimless or curious wandering, and every vagary of fickleness," and neither the unsuitability of the abbot for his position nor the gentleness of the customs of the house provides sufficient grounds for leaving (16.44, 18.55-6). Here Bernard notes Benedict's warning that anyone who violates his vows "will be condemned by God, whom he mocks" (18.55; cf. RB 63).

The Example of Jonah

These connections between patience, poverty, obedience, and stability carry Patience naturally from the general discussion of patience into the rollicking retelling of the book of Jonah that follows. Stock has argued that the descriptions of Jonah's attitude and habits make him an example of sloth (acedia), the vice traditionally opposed to patience and condemned as the "noonday devil" of Psalm 91 (163-75). 6 Bernard, however, defines the noonday devil as the method by which Satan attempts to trap the virtuous: vice disguised as virtue (QH 6.6). He explains further in Sermones in Cantica Canticorum that the victim of such temptation, "unless the Sun from heaven shines into his heart with noontide brightness," will end up wasting his efforts in overzealous pursuit of the wrong goals and abandoning, or losing sufficient energy and health to pursue, the right goals (33.9-10). By choosing to flee to Tarshish to save his own life rather than immediately obeying God's command to warn Nineveh of His impending wrath, Jonah falls into precisely this kind of trap, and his subsequent actions only lead him deeper into sin.

Jonah as a Fugitive Monk

Jonah's problem is not simply sloth leading to neglect; his pride causes him to despise God's command, an attitude which Bernard states is always sinful (De praecepto 8.18). The extent of Jonah's pride becomes evident in comparing his behavior with De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae, in which Bernard compares Benedict's twelve stages of humility (RB 7) with the opposing twelve stages of pride:

Jonah openly rebels against his Superior, and his laziness on the boat speaks of freedom in sinning; he is thus well past the ninth stage of pride, hypocritical confession, which is opposed to patient endurance (cf. De gradibus 18-20). His flight to Tarshish is typical of a monk in the advanced stages of pride who can no longer remain in the monastery and who reenters the world (20); but the poet thus also aligns his portrayal of Jonah with Bernard's metaphor in which "the world is the belly of the whale. Anyone who loves the world and the things that are in it is comparable to ... the endangered Jonah" (Sent. 3.92).

Furthermore, Jonah makes a number of wrong assumptions and category mistakes that let him justify his behavior. His first mistake is treating God like an unjust abbot, complaining about His commands and assuming that fleeing to Tarshish, as Robert fled to Cluny, would remove him from both God's presence and His jurisdiction (74-88). The abbot may be God's representative in the monastery, but God is not an abbot bound by cloister walls (115-24). Jonah's second mistake comes in believing that his life is more important than God's command (75-96). Though Bernard allows for degrees of guilt depending on the motive for disobedience in De praecepto et dispensatione, he holds that contempt for God's precepts is always serious (8.13-18, 10.24-12.30); in De gratia et libero arbitrio, he also states emphatically that sinning to avoid death and persecution does not lessen the guilt of the sin (12.38-40), and he notes in the Sententiae that Peter, his example in De gratia, "denied Christ through impatience" (3.38). A third, repeated mistake Jonah makes regards kinds of precepts. As a prophet, Jonah is obligated to obey God's command to go to Nineveh, but he reacts as if it were a voluntary precept that he has not vowed to follow. Only his time in the whale corrects this misunderstanding. Once he finally delivers the prophecy, however, he seems to regard it as having fixed necessity, whereas from God's perspective, it has at best firm necessity and ought to be set aside for charity in light of the Ninevites' genuine repentance. Even Jonah's petulant "Hit is not lyttle" when God confronts him about his inappropriate attachment to the woodbine that briefly shaded him shows that he is confused to the point of calling good evil and evil good (493). Thus, both his flight and his muddled understanding mark Jonah as a stereotypical fugitive monk.

Penance in the Belly of the Whale

The poet sets up the encounter with the whale as more than simple punishment. He explicitly states that Jonah gets into this mess because he is not willing to suffer (113-4, 241)--but Jonah's earlier anachronistic statements of fear of crucifixion ("naked dispoyled, / On rode rwly torent") make it clear that he is especially unwilling to share Christ's sufferings (94-5; cf. Benson 151), which both Benedict and Bernard hold to be the monastic ideal. The three days in the whale thus become both a prefiguring of Christ's three days in the tomb--"An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet," Jesus says several times in the Gospels (Matt. 12:38, 16:4; Luke 1l:29)--and a supreme example of God's poetic justice. Even his slide down the whale's throat, "a rode pat hym pozt" (270), has echoes of the Passion. Rode, according to the Middle English Dictionary, 7 can mean "ride" "reckoning,' or "rood"; Jonah does have a wild ride into a place where he must give account of himself to God, but his trip is allegorically the Rood as well, leading as it does to the tomb. This passage also allows a moral reading for monks, whose life Bernard calls a second baptism partly because its goal is to "mortify the earthly side of our nature, so that we may be more and more clothed with Christ, being thus again 'buried in the likeness of his death'" (De praecepto 17.54). Passing not only through the waters but into a nearer likeness of Christ's death than anyone else has yet undergone, Jonah should remind monks of the implications of their own profession.

The poet also tweaks the Scriptural narrative slightly by having Jonah pray twice, at the beginning and at the end of his imprisonment (282-8, 305-36). As previously noted, Jonah has reached and surpassed the ninth stage of pride, which is marked by hypocritical confession; Bernard notes that the abbot should correct such an attitude with severe penance, which will reveal whether or not the repentance is sincere (De gradibus 18). The sincerity of Jonah's first prayer is difficult to gauge, given his tendency to downplay his own guilt and emphasize God's mercy, and he shows no sign of wanting to make amends for the misdeeds he confesses:

"Now, Prynce, of py prophete pite pou haue. paz I be fol and fykel and falce of my hert, Dewoyde now py vengaunce, purz vertu of rauthe; Thaz I be gulty of gyle, as gaule of prophetes, pou art God, and alle gowdez ar graypely pyn owen. Haf now mercy of py man and his mysdedes, And preue pe 1yztly a Lorde in londe and in water." ["Now, Prince, have pity on your prophet here; Though I am foolish and fickle, and false of heart, Let the power of compassion put vengeance aside. I am guilty of guile, I am gall and wormwood, But you are God, and all good in your governance lies. Have mercy now on your man and his misdeeds, And show yourself true sovereign over land and sea."] (Patience 281-88)

Benson notes that this prayer sounds like the textbook definition of chutzpah (151)! Even if the prayer is heartfelt, however, immediate mercy would not teach Jonah the lessons he needs to learn. Three days in the belly of a whale, "ay penkande on Dryztyn, / His myzt and His merci, His mesure penne" and listening to the sea outside while trying to stay out of the worst of the filth (289-302), is harsh penance indeed, and it appears to do the trick.

Jonah's second prayer, translated from Jonah 2, also meets Benedict's requirement that a brother seeking reinstatement should "first promise full amendment of the fault for which he left" (RB 29). He has clearly thought long and hard about his plight and has recognized both God's might and His mercy, and his pledge "Soberly to do pe sacrafyse when I schal saue worse / ... And halde goud pat pou me hetes" indicates a genuine desire to make satisfaction for his misdeeds (334, 336). God sees Jonah's heart more clearly than an abbot could know the heart of a returned fugitive, but He sets an example for abbots by delivering Jonah from the whale, thus ending his penance, and by reinstating him as a prophet with a renewed command to go to Nineveh. Though he needs a final nudge, Jonah does follow through on his promise--at least for a time (345-70).

Playing by the Rules

Malcolm Andrew observes that Jonah is at his most Christ-like when he finally delivers God's message to Nineveh, prompting the people's repentance (231-32). One would be hard pressed to argue that Jonah could have prefigured Christ's ministry without first sharing and prefiguring His suffering. But as Bernard points out in De conversione ad clericos, old mental habits and self-will die hard (6.8-8.14, 11.22-12.24), and Jonah quickly falls back into his previous thought patterns about God and His dispensations.

As noted above, Jonah thinks the necessity of God's promises to him, whether it be the fulfillment of a prophecy or the provision of shelter in the Assyrian desert, outweighs the fixed necessity of charity toward anyone who does penance. Though Jonah's harangue in lines 413-28 comes directly from Jonah 4:1-3, the context makes him sound like an unstable monk using a good abbot's charitable dispensation from the Rule as an excuse for his instability, much like the recipients of De praecepto et dispensatione seemed to Bernard to be looking for a pretext to break with their unpopular abbot (18.56). Jonah's complaint about the woodbine, too, portrays God as an abusive and unjust Superior; "neuer pou me sparez," he whines (483-8). But he has not tried to reason humbly with God, nor has he displayed the slightest ability to endure injuries, actual or perceived, without complaint. He may have accepted the penance of staying in the whale for three days for what it was, but there his perceptiveness ends, and his lack of wisdom and charity makes him unable to appreciate patient obedience when it is required of him. God's final rebuke tells Jonah that the fault lies entirely in him, not in God: "Wer I as hastif as pou heere, were harme lumpen; / Coupe I not pole bot as pou, pere pryued ful fewe" [Were I as hasty as you here, much harm had been done; / Should I forbear no better than you, few souls would be safe] (521-2).


Whether or not the poet intended Patience for an audience that contained novices, fugitives, or mutinous monks, understanding Jonah as a foolish, rebellious fugitive monk underscores the points that both the poem and Bernard make about patience, poverty, and obedience as necessary and interrelated virtues, especially in a monastic context. As Jay Schleusener notes, Jonah has no way of understanding the implications of his refusal to suffer or of his actions (960), yet neither the Biblical book nor the poem was written for Jonah's edification, but for the audience's. The reader is left to conclude whether Jonah's silence at the end of the narrative indicates sullen impenitence or shame-filled consideration, but only the latter is the response the poet desires from his audience.

Llano, Texas


Aaron, Martha Susan. "Comic Strategy and Meaning in Pearl: Allegory, Ingenium, Compunction, and the Two Steps of Humility." Diss. U of Chicago, 1990. DAI 52 (1992): 2918A.

Anderson, J. J. "The Prologue of Patience" Modern Philology 63 (1966): 283-7.

Andrew, Malcolm. "Jonah and Christ in Patience." Modern Philology 70 (1973): 230-3.

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron, eds. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Astell, Ann W. The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990.

Baleno, Eileen T. Spiritual Deformity and Aberrant Reason: A Gregorian Trace in Patience and Cleanness of Cotton Nero A. x. Diss. Catholic U of America, 2003.

Benedict of Nursia. The Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. Boniface Verheyen. 1949. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web. 1 Apr. 2009.

--. Sancti Benedicti Regula. IntraText Digital Library. 16 Aug. 2007. Web. 1 Apr. 2009.

Benson, C. David. "The Impatient Reader of Patience." Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet. Ed. Robert J. Blanch, Miriam Youngerman Miller, and Julian N. Wasserman. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1991. 147-61.

Bernard of Clairvaux. Five Books on Consideration: Advice to a Pope. Trans. John D. Anderson and Elizabeth T. Kennan. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1976.

--. The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Trans. Bruno Scott James. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1998.

--. On the Song of Songs. Trans. Kilian Walsh. 4 vols. Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1971-80.

--. The Parables and the Sentences. Ed. Maureen M. O'Brien. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981.

--. Sancti Bernardi Opera. Ed. Jean Leclercq. 8 vols. in 9. Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1957-77.

--. Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year. Trans. A Priest of Mount Melleray [Ailbe J. Luddy]. Vol. 3. Westminster, MD: Carroll, 1950.

--. Sermons on Conversion. Trans. Marie-Bernard Said. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981.

--. Treatises. Trans. Ambrose Conway. 3 vols. Washington: Cistercian Publications, 1970-7.

Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: Verse Translations. New York: Norton, 2001.

Breviarium Secundum Usum Sarum (Sarum Breviary). Paris, 1494. Early English Books Online. Web. 1 May 2008.

Cairns, Francis. "Latin Sources and Analogues of the M.E. Patience." Studia Neophilologica 59 (1987): 7-18.

"Cott. Nero, A. x." British Library Manuscripts Catalogue. British Library. Web. 9 Mar. 2009.

Davis, Adam Brooke. "What the Poet of Patience Really Did to the Book of Jonah." Viator 22 (1991): 267-78.

Gehl, Paul F. "Philip of Harveng on Silence." Essays in Medieval Studies 2 (1985): 168-81.

Hill, Ordelle G. "The Audience of 'Patience.'" Modern Philology 66 (1968): 103-9.

Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version. Rev. ed. 1749. New Advent. Ed. Kevin Knight. 2005. Web. 21 April 2008.

Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed. and trans. English Spirituality in the Age of Wyclif. Vancouver: Regent, 2000.

Kean, P[atricia] M. The Pearl: An Interpretation. London: Routledge, 1967.

Lectionary for Mass: English Translation Approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Confirmed by the Apostolic See. New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1970. The Roman Catholic Lectionary. Ed. Felix Just. 2 Jan. 2009. Web. 8 Apr. 2009.

Middle English Dictionary. 2001. The Middle English Compendium. Ed. Frances McSparran. University of Michigan. 2006. Web. 2 Apr. 2009.

Migne, Jacques-Paul, ed. Sancti Bernardi Abbatis Clarae-Vallensis Operum Tomus Quintus, Complectens Opera Supposititia et Aliena. Vol. 184 of Patrologia Latina. 1854. Patrologia Latina Database. 1996. Web. 29 Mar. 2009.

Moorman, Charles. "The Role of the Narrator in Patience." Modern Philology 61 (1963): 90-5.

Munson, Miriam Grove. "Humility, Charity, and the Beatitudes in Patience and The Scale of Perfection." Fourteenth-Century English Mystics Newsletter 4.3 (1978): 17-24.

Schleusener, Jay. "History and Action in Patience." PMLA 86 (1971): 959-65.

Spearing, A. C. "The Subtext of Patience: God as Mother and the Whale's Belly." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29 (1999): 293-323.

Stock, Lorraine Kochanske. "The 'Poynt' of Patience." Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet. Ed. Robert J. Blanch, Miriam Youngerman Miller, and Julian N. Wasserman. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1991. 163-75.

Vasta, Edward. "Denial in the Middle English Patience." Chaucer Review 33 (1998): 1-30.

Walls, Kathryn. "Saint Gregory's Moralia as a Possible Source for the Middle English Patience." Notes and Queries 39 (1992): 436-438.

Ward, Benedicta, ed. The Influence of St. Bernard: Anglican Essays. Oxford: SLG, 1976.


(1) For the Rule of Benedict, I have used the translation by Boniface Verheyen. Quotes from Bernard will be cited according to the section and paragraph numbering in the Leclercq edition; I have used the English translations published by Cistercian Publications whenever possible, with the Priest of Mount Melleray translation of the sermons as a backup. Middle English translations will be excerpted from Borroff's translation of Patience. All Scripture quotations are from the Douay-Rheims Version.

(2) It is interesting to note that the compiler of Cotton Nero A.x. chose to place these four poems with a series of theological writings that includes several anonymous tractates and the pseudonymous Meditationes quaedam piam S. Bernardi; no other poems are included in the volume ("Cott. Nero").

(3) Line 9 indicates that the poem was not written for the Feast of All Saints, the one medieval liturgical use of Matt. 5:1-12, but for some other occasion--perhaps Lent, given the possible connections to Bernard's Lenten sermons on Psalm 90/91 (see below). Andrew and Waldron suggest a connection to the Feast of St. Boniface (185), which uses the Common of One Martyr; but unlike the 1970 US Roman Missal, the Sarum Breviary does not use Matt. 5:10 in that Common, and it would hardly be a "hyze masse" like All Saints.'

(4) The English patience, of course, comes from the Latin patientia, derived from the verb patior "to suffer," so the ideas of patience and suffering were inextricably linked for authors who knew Latin well. (Thanks to D. Thomas Hanks, Jr., for reminding me of this fact.)

(5) If the poet drew ideas for Patience from this sermon, this last point may have suggested the Beatitudes as his base text.

(6) Among the texts she examines is the Tractatus de ordine vitae, which the late Middle Ages erroneously attributed to Bernard (Migne 374).

(7) Andrew and Waldron define rode in this context as "road" (342), but that sense does not fit the concepts in play here nearly as well as do the homonyms offered by the MED.

Table 1. Benedict's Ascending Steps of Humility and Bernard's
Descending Steps of Pride

Duodecim Gradus Humilitatis          Superbiae Gradus in Descendendo

12. Corde et corpore semper          1. Curiositas, cum oculis
humilitatem ostendere, defixis in    ceterisque sensibus vagatur in ea
terram aspectibus.                   quae ad se non attinent.

11. Ut monachus pauca et             2. Levitas mentis, quae per verba
rationabilia verba loquatur, non     indiscrete laeta vel tristia
in clamosa voce.                     notatur.

10. Si non sit facilis aut           3. Inepta laetitia, quae per
promptus in risu.                    facilitatem risus denotatur.

9. Taciturnitas usque ad             4. Iactantia, quae in multiloquio
interrogationem.                     diffunditur.

8. Tenere quod communis habet        5. Singularitas: privata
monasterii regula.                   affectare cum gloria.

7. Credere et pronuntiare se         6. Arrogantia: credere se omnibus
omnibus viliorem.                    sanctiorem.

6. Ad omnia indignum et inutilem     7. Praesumptio: ad omnia se
se confitere et credere.             ingerere.

5. Confessio peccatorum.             8. Defensio peccatorum.

4. Pro oboedientia in duris et       9. Simulata confession, quae per
asperis patientiam amplecti.         dura et aspera iniuncta probatur.

3. Omni oboedientia subdi            10. Rebellio in magistrum et
maioribus.                           fratres.

2. Propriam non amare voluntatem.    11. Libertas peccandi.

1. Timore Dei custodire se omni      12. Consuetudo peccandi.
hora ab omni peccato.

The Twelve Steps of Humility         The Descending Steps of Pride

12. Always to show the humility      1. Curiosity; when the eyes and
in one's heart, in one's bearing,    the other senses attend to what
keeping the eyes lowered.            is not one's concern.

11. That a monk should speak few     2. Levity of mind, known by words
and reasonable words and with a      that bespeak unreasonable joy and
moderate voice.                      sadness.

10. Not to be over-ready to          3. Silly mirth, with over-much
laugh.                               laughing.

9. To keep silent till one is        4. Boasting and too much talking.

8. To keep to the common rule of     5. Singularity, proud esteem of
the monastery.                       one's own ways.

7. To believe and admit that one     6. Self-assertion; believing one
is less than others.                 is holier than others.

6. To confess and to believe that    7. Presumption: meddling with
one is unworthy and useless for      everything.

5. To confess one's sins.            8. Defending one's sins.

4. To hold fast to patience          9. Hypocritical confession, which
amidst hard and rough things for     can be tested by harsh reproof.
the sake of obedience.

3. To submit to superiors in all     10. Rebellion against superiors
obedience.                           and brethren.

2. Not to love one's own will.       11. Freedom in sinning.

1. In the fear of God to be          12. The habit of sin.
constantly on the watch against

Source: De gradibus, Sancti Bernardi Opera III: 13-14; trans.
Treatises II: 26-7.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Sage Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wolfe, Elisabeth G.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2013
Previous Article:At last.
Next Article:The law made flesh: St. Paul's Corinth and Shakespeare's Vienna.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters