540 Benedict Writes His Monastic Rule
We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the institution of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous,” wrote Benedict in the prologue to his Rule. The Rule of St. Benedict is a short document, perhaps thirteen thousand words, yet it has influenced all forms of organized religious life, Protestant and Catholic, in the West.
Reading the Rule
Scholars speculate that Benedict (c. 480–549) wrote the Rule in the early sixth century (a) as a constitution for his own monastery of Monte Cassino between Rome and Naples; or (b) at the request of other local monastic communities; or © in response to a papal petition for a normative guide for the many groups of monks and nuns throughout Italy and the Christian West.
The Rule represents the accumulated spiritual wisdom of earlier centuries of monastic experience. It draws upon the teachings of the desert fathers of Egypt, the practice of monastic life in southern Europe, and (especially) the Rule of the Master, a long, highly detailed, and exhortatory document. By classical standards, Benedict was not well educated: his Rule contains not one reference to an ancient Greek or Latin author. But it displays a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, the writings of the church fathers, and the Egyptian monastic tradition as it came to the West in the Institutes and Conferences of John Cassian. Modern scholars stress the major influence of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (and Apocrypha)—the Books of Psalms, Sirach, and Wisdom.
Living the Rule
Benedict’s Rule contains both theoretical principles for the monastic life and practical, everyday directives. Benedict legislated for a community of laymen governed benevolently by an abbot—a community whose purpose was the glorification of God and the salvation of the individual monk. After a year’s novitiate or probation, a monk professed three vows: stability, the reformation of the monk’s life, and obedience. Benedictine life meant a routine done in a spirit of silence, dedicated to prayer and work, and characterized by moderation and flexibility in all things. This flexibility, and what St. Gregory the Great called the Rule’s “discretion,” both distinguish the Benedictine from earlier, more austere forms of monastic life, and help explain the Rule’s widespread adoption. For example, discussing food and drink, Benedict wrote (ch. 40): “Although we read that wine is not a proper drink for monks, yet, since in our own day they cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree not to drink to excess, but sparingly, ‘because wine makes even the wise fall away’ (Ecclesiasticus 19:2).”
Benedict intended that the monk’s day be centered around liturgy, the Opus Dei (Work of God) “to which nothing ought to be preferred” (ch. 46). The liturgical code consisted of the night office (vigils or matins) and the seven day offices (lauds, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers, and complin), as advised in Psalm 119:147, 164. At each office the monks recited psalms with refrains, and versicles, punctuated by silent prayer, a hymn, and readings from the Scriptures and from patristic commentaries on those Scriptures. In Benedict’s day the practice was to recite the entire 150 psalms within a week’s time.
St. Benedict planned the monastery as a self-sufficient socio-economic unit “so constructed that within it all the necessities, such as water, mill, and garden are contained and the various crafts are practiced. Then there will be no need for the monks to roam outside, because that is not at all good for their souls” (ch. 66). Having stated that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; therefore, the brethren should be occupied at stated times in manual labor, and at other fixed times in sacred writing” (ch. 48), the Rule prescribes that all monks in good health should spend part of the day in manual work. Here Benedict made a profound contribution to the concept of the dignity of labor. The ancient world considered manual labor demeaning and idealized the life of leisure. The free man, the gentleman, did not work with his hands. Benedict implied that manual labor, even apart from its economic import, was physically and psychologically healthful, that work was a worthy occupation.
Benedict called his monastery “a school of the Lord’s service,” and he used the word “school” in both a spiritual and an intellectual sense. In the monastery the monk learned to serve the Lord, slowly crushing his faults and sins and adoring the Almighty in worship. To praise the Lord in the Opus Dei, however, the monk had to learn to read. From Benedict’s entirely spiritual conception, there gradually evolved schools within monasteries whose practical purpose was the education of young monks and the children of the local nobility. Between about 600 and 1000, the period that John Henry Newman called “the Benedictine centuries,” monastic schools provided much of the training available in Western Europe. Books are a necessity for any school, and the preparation of books and manuscripts became a distinctly monastic craft. Contrary to the popular modern view, however, most medieval monks were not involved in copying manuscripts. Aside from the obvious fact that many kinds of work are required for the operation of a large (or small) establishment, few people in any age have the inclination or discipline for long periods of literary and intellectual work.
Understanding the Rule
Benedict considered his Rule a guide for ordinary men and women, not saints or mystics or intellectuals. The Rule implies that the newcomer to the monastery has had no previous ascetic experience nor even a particularly strong bent to the religious life. In his advice to the abbot—“Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery.… Let not one of noble birth be put before him who was formerly a slave” (ch. 2)—Benedict anticipated the entrance of persons of all social classes. His advice to the monks—“Let them bear with the greatest patience one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character” (ch. 72)—clearly anticipated very different (and perhaps difficult) personality types within the community. And, again, in his recommendation to the abbot—“Let him always exalt mercy above judgment … let him keep his own frailty before his eyes and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken” (ch. 64)—Benedict urged compassionate, not dictatorial, government.
What accounts for the Rule’s profound influence on Western culture? The Rule’s compassion for weakness and failure while it sets forth high ideals; its flexibility and adaptability; its monarchal government but respect for individual freedom; and its proverbial discretion.
The enduring legacy of the Rule of St. Benedict to the modern world is a tradition of ordered and disciplined living, a deep appreciation for the ancient liturgy, the wisdom of a rich literary culture, a respect for the dignity of labor, and a compassionate understanding of the human condition.
Dr. Bennett D. Hill is professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.