The Rule of Saint Benedict

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Benedict of Nursia lived in Italy during the collapse of the Roman Empire and during his life, the empire was in constant battle with barbarian tribes.  Leaving his home in Nursia, in the region of Umbria during the reign of the barbarian king, Theodoric, Benedict arrived in Rome to attend school but, disgusted with the paganism and dissolution that he witnessed, he eschewed worldly cares, taking residence in a cave at Subiaco, thirty miles east of Rome.

Saint Benedict (circa 1437-1446)
Fra Angelico
source Wikipedia

During three years in his cave, Benedict became admired for his spiritual devotion, and when an abbot in a nearby monastery passed away, Benedict was convinced, against his inclination, to take his place.  But twice, monks envious of Benedict attempted to poison him, from which he was saved by miracles.  He eventually took some disciples and founded a monastery on the mountain above Cassino, located eighty miles south of Rome.  As his fame spread, even the great king of the Goths, Totila, sought out an audience with him.

Benedict called his Rule, “a little book for beginners,” and he covers such disciplines as obedience, humility, contemplation and living in community.  Yet he first introduces us to four types of monks, the cenobites (belonging to a monastery and serving under an abbot), the anchorites or hermits (having lived in a monastery for a long time and their zeal for the monastic life has cooled), the sarabites (detestable monks who have “a character as soft as lead”, and are captured by worldly delights, a law unto themselves), and gyrovagues (drifters who are captives to their own selfish desires).  His rule is to assist the first class of monks.

Some specific areas Benedict covers are church songs and readings, excommunication and re-entry, working hours and manual labour, personal gifts, community rank, etc.  The importance of humility was highly emphasized:

The Rules of Humility

  1. Keep the fear of God always before your eyes
  2. Love not your own will but the Lord’s
  3. Submit to your superior in obedience
  4. In obedience, submit to unjustice and difficulties with endurance
  5. Do not conceal (from the abbott) any sinful thought or wrongdoing
  6. Be content with low or menial treatment
  7. Admit with not only your tongue, but with your heart, of your inferiority
  8. Do only what is endorsed by common rule in the monatery
  9. Control your tongue and be silent unless asked a question
  10. Be not given to ready laughter
  11. Speak gently, seriously and with modesty
  12. Manifest humility in bearing, as well as in heart

There were a number of interesting revelations in the rule, which I found rather interesting.  Benedict states that the Lord usually reveals what is best to the younger monks, yet still the abbot has the final decision.  This is a fascinating merging of both older and younger wisdom in a hierarchical framework which is designed to work best for all parties.

Totila and St. Benedict (1400-10)
Spinello Aretino
source Wikipedia

While Benedict’s rule is, in many ways, strict, I was actually surprised at the flexibility within it.  There is grace for those who stumble and understanding of human weaknesses, as is evidenced by the description of abbots and their moral duties:

“……. He must hate faults but love the brothers.  When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.  He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed.  By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.”

Apparently prior to Benedict’s rule, the theological view was that each person was struggling towards God, and spiritual direction had a very personal aspect to it.  Benedict’s rule signified a turning point in perception, eventually making the process more regimented than personal.  The Rule has further reaching implications as well, being the forerunner to the rule of law and written constitutions, assisting in the shaping of medieval ideas.

Benedict’s abbey at Monte Cassino was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, having to be rebuilt afterwards.  A bit of trivia:  author Walter J. Miller was part of the bombing raids on Monte Cassino and was severely affected by them.  His dystopian book A Canticle for Leibowitz has echoes of both the monastery and his struggles to come to terms with his part in its destruction.  It’s a great book, if anyone is looking for a recommendation.

Rebuilt abbey of Monte Cassino
source Wikimedia Commons

The Story of the Ancient World – Check-In #1

Part One – The Edge of History

In this part we are introduced to the Sumerian king list and the start of their civilization, in essence, how and why kingship was formed.  The various floods stories are covered and how cities grew and formed after this event.  Kings slowly earned the right to rule because of blood ties instead of based on their power and ability.  We learn about the two kingdoms of Egypt and the unification of the two by Narmer (and possibly earlier by The Scorpion King).  In India, around the Indus valley, villages grew into towns.  The first king we know about is wise King Manu, however there are also warnings that the civilization would go into a strong decline.  Around the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in China, rice was planted, houses grew into villages, establishing four main cultures in the area.  A number of kings invented helpful implements.  There is also evidence that rule here was not dependent on bloodlines, as kingship could pass to peasants or by-pass direct lineage.

Egyptian Pharaoh
source Wikipedia

I am so enamoured of Susan Wise Bauer’s style of writing.  Her prose perhaps lacks an academic finish yet it is so readable and she always inserts grains of interest that set certain historical events in the reader’s memory. Her thoughtful reasoning and dry wit also shine through with comments such as:

” …… historians too often tried to position themselves as scientists:  searching for cold hard facts and dismissing any historical material which seemed to depart from the realities of Newton’s universe …….. But for the historian who concerns herself with the why and how of human behaviour, potsherds and the foundations of houses are of limited use.  They give us no window into the soul.  Epic tales, on the other hand, display the fears and hopes of the people who tell them —– and these are central to any explanation of their behaviour.  Myth …….. is the “smoke of history.”  You may have to fan at it a good deal before you get a glimpse of the flame beneath; but when you see smoke, it is wisest not to pretend that it isn’t there.”

“…… In any case, we should remember that all histories of ancient times involve a great deal of speculation.  Speculation anchored by physical evidence isn’t somehow, more reliable than speculation anchored by the stories that people choose to preserve and tell to their children.  Every historian sorts through evidence, discards what seems irrelevant, and arranges the rest into a pattern.  The evidence provided by ancient tales is no less important than the evidence left behind by merchants on a trade route.  Both need to be collected, sifted, evaluated, and put to use.  To concentrate on physical evidence to the exclusion of myth and story is to put all of our faith in the explanations for human behaviour in that which can be touched, smelled, seen, and weighed:  it shows a mechanical view of human nature, and a blind faith in the methods of science to explain the mysteries of human behaviour.”

” ……  I have chosen to use the traditional designations BC and AD for dates.  I understand why many historians choose to use BCE and CE in an attempt to avoid seeing history from a Judeo-Christian point of view, but using BCE while still reckoning from Christ’s birth seems, to me, fairly pointless.”

So far, an excellent approach and a good overall execution!  I am certainly taking notes!

Source Wikipedia