Reflecting on the Rule of St. Benedict

This was written in response to the question: What was daily life like in a monastery following the Rule of St Benedict? What sorts of info does the Rule not provide about daily life?

The Rule of St. Benedict valued union with God most highly, and established that the surest path to this sort of union was obedience to and conformity with Christ. Carole Straw suggests in her contribution “The Avenging Abbott” in Glenn’s The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture that Gregory the Great’s account of Benedict is “much like the authoritarian abbott presented in The Rule of Saint Benedict, written some 60 years beforehand.” Straw goes on to use language like “strict,” “harsh,” and “painful” to describe the monastic life outlined in the Rule of St Benedict (confirmed by the austere character in Gregory’s writing). Of course, in the pursuit of conformity with a sinless, homeless, suffering, tortured and crucified Lord, it should come as no surprise that humans used to a bit more comfort and a bit less capable themselves of resisting things like sloth and envy will find such conformity demanding labor. Indeed, labor occurs as both a metaphor for the task of obedience, as well as a literal expectation of how the task will unfold.

Straw notes that the economy between the Father and Son of the Trinity became an important model for understanding the dynamic between Abbot and monk. This is clear in St. Benedict’s appraisal of the four kinds of monks, of which “the strongest kind is the Cenobites” since they are “those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an Abbot.” Benedict admired the Hermits, but had no stomach for the third “detestable kind” of monks, the Sarabaites, who “not having been tested by any rule…are soft as gold in the furnace.” Even worse than the Sarabaites were the Gyrovagues, who traveled from monastery to monastery “with no stability” (a cardinal virtue of Benedict’s Rule), “succumb to the allurements of gluttony,” and of whose “miserable conduct…it is better to be silent than to speak.”

Following St. Benedict’s Rule, daily life in a monastery came to include what we remember today as the staples of monastic spirituality. Whenever business needed conducted, the Abbot was to call together the whole community of the brethren and consider their advice, even the younger members since “the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.” Obedience, as the first degree of humility, is the virtue to be practiced by those “who hold nothing dearer than Christ.” As is observed from the Gospels, “speaking and teaching belong to the master; the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen.” An enforced silence, which sounds restrictive to modern socialites, might be better understood, given the Gospel story justification, as a rhythm of listening and teachability. Of course, self-denial is also part of the “spirit of silence” as words are so often intended for the glorification of the one speaking.

Patience was set out to be a defining characteristic because “those who are faithful endure all things.” The Divine Office, a daily schedule of prayers, and readings from psalms and other Scripture, was to be maintained. This was regulated alongside the liturgical Calendar. Prescriptions are also given for sleeping arrangements, what constitutes cause and how the process of excommunication is to unfold (importantly including the process of how one is reinstated), and rebuke and correction of the brethren. Echoing the early Church of Acts, the monks did not possess their own property and were “to have all things in common.” Chapter 35 comes as a reminder that monks are not completely unlike ordinary folk–they still ate, and so everyone took a turn on kitchen duty. Special instructions are given for the care of the sick, the elderly, and the very young. Since “idleness is the enemy of the soul” the brethren were to be occupied at certain hours with manual labor.

As the monastic community was to exist as an idyllic representation of the difference Christ makes, hospitality was a nonnegotiable, for we sinners were strangers and God made us his friends in dying for us. The words of Christ to his disciples on caring for the marginalized are formative in Benedict’s admonition that “in the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.” It is interesting that despite Benedict’s emphasis on peace in the community, he presumes the existence of conflict among the brethren, hence the procedures for rebuke, correction, and resolution. If a community is to be truly peaceable, the implication seems to be that it will need to regularly flesh out its conflicts in such a way that disagreements are not buried and allowed to fester into worse, or perhaps violent, conclusions. I think what makes peace so difficult for us today is a lack of imagination–Pacifism just sounds so boring. But life in Benedict’s community of peace seems anything but mundane. Although I have to admit a disposition to routine.

The rule provides a full plate of prayer and song, labor and rest. As far as what might be missing from the daily life of monks in the Rule of St. Benedict I am not sure. The paradox of an entirely selfless life lived for the sake of the community made up of members who are deeply introspective suggests something profound about the invitation of God for us to be at peace with one another. The rhythm of prayer, work, and hospitality forms the sort of stability that is incubated from going stale. That is, the sort of stability that produces renewal of hearts and minds. That is a highly compelling suggestion for contemporary Christians who live in a world of imbalance. And of course, the Order of St. Benedict remains a thriving part of the Church.

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