It’s hard to know what to say about St Benedict. Part of my difficulty is that I have been invited to write this for an on-line community founded on Benedictine principles. I suppose Benedict more than any other is patron saint of i-church. So it feels like rather a large task. There is so much to say, yet we know very little about Benedict as a person. The only writing we have is his rule. A very small book with a lot of information about the ordering of reciting the psalms in the daily offices. The discipline of the daily offices is one of the major Benedictine traditions. He is titled ‘Patron of Europe’ and his Rule and the influence of the communities founded upon it are credited with preserving and shaping western civilisation after the fall of the Roman Empire. He is considered the founder of western monasticism.
“The spiritual life is not a theory, we have to live it.” Anon. Well, Benedict didn’t write that, but I think he would have agreed with it. “What we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service” Prologue. At the end, Ch 73 he calls the Rule a ‘small rule which is only a beginning’. The Rule is steeped in scriptural quotes and allusions. It is completely rooted in scripture. Much of the book is about seemingly mundane things; how much to eat, when to sleep, what sort of clothes to wear. The rest is about managing community life, the appointment, duties and responsibilities of the Community leaders. Founded on and governed by the principle of servant leadership, and still a good model for any community, religious or not – in my opinion.
So I decided to concentrate on the things about the Rule that have influenced me, and not on the details of Benedict’s life. I haven’t put many links. Put the Rule of St Benedict into a search engine or follow the links here and you will find a lifetime’s Benedictine surfing.
Today there are still many Benedictine Communities and branches who follow the same Rule such as the Cistercians. Many people in lay life follow the Rule in their daily lives, adapting it as appropriate. Some become oblates with particular Benedictine Communities, having a special relationship with that community and undertaking some form of novitiate, while remaining in their ordinary lay lives. I first came across the Rule when I was a new Christian and at first I didn’t think it had much to say to me. An interesting historical document but that was all. Certainly some things have not survived cultural progress, such as physical punishment of children. When the pupil is ready the teacher appears. A particular translation of the Rule spoke to me on a quiet day with an Anglican Benedictine Community. St Benedict’s Rule by Patrick Barry, here and here, former Abbot of Ampleforth. It has a very useful introduction. All quotes from the Rule here are taken from this translation. Another good modern translation is by Abbot Stuart at Mucknell Abbey, this has the advantage of being much cheaper. I think one of the reasons I was so taken with the contemporary translation is precisely the contemporary, inclusive language. Benedict wrote in Latin, but not the ancient formal, literary classical Latin, he wrote the ordinary colloquial Latin of his day. The Rule combines firmness of principle and flexibility in application. Benedict is constantly saying that whatever he advises should be adapted as necessary to local circumstances. He starts by saying “we hope to impose nothing harsh or burdensome….it is a way which is bound to seem narrow to start with. But as we progress,….our hearts will warm to its vision..” Prologue. Benedictines read a portion of the Rule daily. Oblates are usually expected to do the same.
Gradually I found it taking hold. Increasingly I found that as I went about my daily life I received new insights as to how the Rule could be usefully applied to the situations I faced. I found it started making sense and far from stifling spontaneity gave an order and structure within which spontaneity could flourish more fruitfully. I had been confusing spontaneity with disorder and chaos. “The Latin word 'regula', normally translated 'rule' has its etymological origins in the word for 'trellis', a framework to enable ordered growth. These are not 'rules and regulations' but a framework upon which a willing soul can grow and flourish by God's good grace.” (I am not sure where I found this quote – all I know is it is not mine!)
Benedictines are very different from other orders. The vows are not, as is often thought, poverty, celibacy or chastity. They vow: Obedience. Which is not the same thing as it is for, say, a member of the armed forces. It should not be about efficiency, or control. Preferring to do what someone else wants rather than what we want to do ourselves, is a sure sign of love. Jesus was completely obedient to his Father, because he loved him perfectly. This vow is about the self-abandonment of love. The freedom of obedience. “Obedience is of such value that it should be shown not only to the superior but all members of the community should be obedient to each other” Ch 71. The fact that it can be and has been abused is more to do with human frailty, not the original intention of St Benedict. Stability, at a purely practical level, is interpreted as a promise by the monk not to pack up and start again in another monastery when things get difficult. Benedictines do not join a centralized Order; they join a particular community under an Abbot and the Rule. Stability is a decision, before the event, to face up to difficulties with the help of God and our brothers. ‘Conversatio Morum’ Which is difficult to translate, but it would mean something like ‘Changing the way you live’. A literal translation might be ‘living the monastic life with fidelity’. Conversatio The above and some of the following is based on material found here. The Rule was written for laypeople. It is meant for everyone. The Rule is a means of organising the domestic life of people who wish to live as fully as possible the type of life presented in the Gospel. Its primary purpose is to enable the good conduct of relationships for people trying to devote themselves to Christian life in community. “My words are addressed to you especially, whoever you may be, whatever your circumstances, who turn from the pursuit of your own self-will and ask to enlist under Christ, who is Lord of all...” Prologue to Rule
As far as I know Benedict was never ordained a priest and would only allow priests into the monastery on the clear understanding that their ordained status did not grant them any special status or privilege. He devotes several paragraphs in the Rule to this question which he clearly feels has caused problems. Nowadays most male Benedictines are also priests, but this was not the case at first. Chapter 57 also deals with the management of those with special creative gifts. They must exercise these with humility, for the good of the community, not self-aggrandisement. “If any of them conceive an exaggerated idea of their competence … imagining that the value of their work puts the monastery in their debt, they should be forbidden further exercise of their skills and not allowed to return to their workshops unless they respond with humility to this rebuke and the superior permits them to resume their work.” Although private ownership is strictly forbidden by the Rule, Benedict did not intend that his monks as a community should live upon the alms of the charitable. In fact, he considered it essential that the monks should earn their own living, preferably by the work of their hands. “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore all the community must be occupied at definite times in mutual labour and at other times in lectio divina.” Ch 48. The purpose of communal ownership was to restrict the requirements of the individual to what was necessary and simple, and to ensure that the use and administration of the corporate possessions should be in strict accord with the teaching of the Gospel. Also in Ch 57 Benedict says that there must be no dishonest practice in selling monastic goods. “In fixing the prices for these products care should be taken to avoid any taint of avarice. What is asked by the monastery should be somewhat lower than the price demanded by secular workshops so that God may be glorified in everything.” While the individual monk was poor, the monastery was to be able to give alms, not to be compelled to seek them. They should be able to “relieve the poor, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to help the afflicted, to entertain all strangers.” The Benedictine ideal of poverty is therefore quite different from the Franciscan.
The organisation of the Benedictines is also unusual. There is no central source of power. The order is a confederation of autonomous communities. Benedictines make their vows within and to a particular Community. The Rule and its later applications make provision for Communities to be accountable, and for errors of Community leadership and conduct to be rectified, but it is a ‘bottom up’ hierarchy, not top down. Abbots and Abbesses are elected and there is provision for their removal if their conduct warrants it. St Benedict makes provision for everyone to have a say when important decisions are made. “it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the youngest.” Ch 3. I think part of the enduring power of the Rule is that is so firmly grounded in human experience. Benedict did not start with a theory of community which he then tried to apply. He applied the lessons he learned leading communities. His first experience of leading a community did not go well. When their Abbot died they invited him to be their Abbot based on his growing reputation for holiness living as a hermit. “Benedict was acquainted with the life and discipline of the monastery, and knew that "their manners were diverse from his and therefore that they would never agree together: yet, at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent". The experiment failed; the monks tried to poison him, and he returned to his cave.” here He found himself having to deal with the communities that grew up around him and the Rule is based on his own experience. We find lots of practical advice; such as latecomers to Chapel Prayers still have to come inside, although they have to stand at the back and cannot take part. If they are left outside they will start gossiping and wandering off. They might even go back to bed! However, St Benedict also stresses that the rule should not be strictly applied to the very young, the old and the sick. “They should not be strictly bound to the provisions of the Rule….They should receive loving consideration” Ch 37.
Charisms particularly associated with the Benedictine way of life are: Daily prayer or offices, silence, lectio divina (holy reading), centering or contemplative prayer, hospitality. Balance and moderation in all things. There is a Roman Catholic on-line Benedictine Community World Community for Christian Meditation, founded by John Main OSB. Its current Director Lawrence Freeman OSB writes a regular column for ‘The Tablet’.
Note: I have lost track of the origin of some of the quotes and other text here. If anyone recognises them please let us know and we will provide proper attribution.
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